by : THE HILL , Daniel R. DePetris
U.S. Secretary of State Antony Blinken met last week with Iraqi Foreign Minister Fuad Hussein via videoconference in the first U.S.-Iraq Strategic Dialogue since the Biden administration was inaugurated.
The conversation covered a range of topics, from deepening the trade relationship between the two countries to helping Baghdad diversify its dependence on Iranian energy sources. While no agreements were struck, the U.S. and Iraqi delegations did manage to come to a common understanding on the U.S. combat troop presence — a presence Washington and Baghdad are both purportedly intent on reducing.
“Based on the increasing capacity of the ISF,” the U.S.-Iraq joint statement read, “the parties confirmed that the mission of U.S. and Coalition forces has now transitioned to one focused on training and advisory tasks, thereby allowing for the redeployment of any remaining combat forces from Iraq, with the timing to be established in upcoming technical talks.”
But if the Biden administration is searching for a time to withdraw the remaining 2,500 U.S. troops from Iraq, it doesn’t need to look very far. The time is right now. The longer President Biden waits to order a redeployment, the harder it will be to do so and the more likely the U.S. mission there will expand to areas well beyond counterterrorism.
When the Obama administration began its airstrike campaign against ISIS in the fall of 2014, the purpose of the intervention was clear: prevent the group from gobbling up additional territory, save Iraqi civilians trapped on Mt. Sinjar from an almost certain death, and provide the Iraqi security forces with enough time to recover from the embarrassing series of defeats it sustained in the north and west of the country. “As Commander-in-Chief, I will not allow the United States to be dragged into fighting another war in Iraq,” President Obama said in a speech to the nation on the opening night of the air campaign.
More than six years later — and over three years since the Iraqi government declared the war against ISIS over — the U.S. national security objective outlined on that day has been achieved with flying colors. Through a highly effective combination of U.S. airpower, tactical coordination with Iraqi and Kurdish Peshmerga ground forces and U.S. special operations, ISIS’s remnants are now at a point where they can be managed by the Iraqi army. While approximately 10,000 ISIS fighters continue to hunker down, the terrorist group itself is in a desperate position relative to the pinnacle of its power. Today, ISIS is less a territorial caliphate than another Iraqi faction doing what it can to battle the central government. The only difference between ISIS and the rest of Iraq’s militia groups is that the former are fighting on multiple fronts against multiple enemies — all of whom have an interest in eradicating it.
ISIS, of course, can still conduct attacks against the Iraqi army and the civilian population. The organization will continue to launch these attacks on targets of opportunity, whether it be Iraqi military convoys traveling in remote areas or a packed marketplace in the Iraq capital.
But just because ISIS still operates in Iraq doesn’t mean U.S. troops need to be there. Indeed, as the U.S.-led international coalition and the lead Defense Department Inspector General for the counter-ISIS mission have stated, the Iraqi security forces are demonstrating greater efficiency and skill in finding, rooting out and destroying ISIS encampments, checkpoints and ammunition depots. The Iraqi army of 2021 is not the same pathetic, corrupt and demoralized force that fled Mosul and towns across northern Iraq in 2014. By the U.S. military’s own judgment, the Iraqis have “incorporated” their own intelligence, surveillance and reconnaissance assets into anti-ISIS raids and, in many cases, conduct operations independent of coalition assistance. The Iraqi Counterterrorism Service, the tip of the sphere, is one of the most highly dedicated and capable bands of special operators in the Middle East today. The job Washington sought to accomplish — the elimination of ISIS’s territorial caliphate — is over.
This isn’t to say Iraq will see peace and prosperity anytime soon. The country remains highly fragmented across sectarian and regional lines. The same Iraqi Shia militias Baghdad relied on early in the war to backstop its counter-ISIS campaign are now richer and more powerful than the Iraqi government would like. Some of those very same militiamen marched in the Iraqi capital recently, threatening to cut off Iraqi Prime Minister Mustafa al-Kadhimi’s ear. The Iraqi economy is struggling with deficits and repeatedly defaults on its electricity bills. And the Iraqi economy plunged by 10 percent last year.
None of these internal problems, though, can be solved by the U.S. military — nor should the Iraqis expect the U.S. military to solve them.
Iraq is still home to thousands of ISIS fighters who remain in the field. But asymmetric hit-and-run attacks and the occasional ambush of Iraqi patrols in the desert are not direct national security threats to the United States.
The Biden administration can withdraw the remaining U.S. troops in Iraq with its head held high. The job Washington sought to accomplish — the elimination of ISIS’s territorial caliphate — is over. Pegging a U.S. troop withdrawal to an undefined date will only drag the U.S. military deeper into Iraq’s messy internal affairs — an all cost, no benefit proposition.