Are American troops going to stay in Iraq?

Brian M Downing 

In 2008, late in the Bush administration, the Iraqi government ordered the US to withdraw its troops by the end of 2011. The Obama administration was not eager to argue. Nor could it have succeeded had it tried as US troops were fiercely disliked then. Facing a resurgent al Qaeda not long thereafter, Baghdad asked for the help of American counterterrorism units and they were immediately sent in.

In 2014 the resurgent al Qaeda franchise, then called ISIL, swept through northern Iraq, seizing military equipment and several towns, including Mosul. More and more US troops were sent back in – advisors, trainers, air support, logistical specialists, and artillery units. Today, there are at least 7,000 GIs in-country, though the precise number is not made public. Their efforts have been critical to rolling back ISIL.

Secretary of Defense Mattis recently met with Iraqi Prime Minister Abadi over the future role of US troops after Mosul is retaken in coming weeks or months. Abadi has averred there will be no continued presence but this is unlikely. There are too many pressures, in both Iraq and the United States, to retain a presence.

The view from Baghdad 

Abadi, or any leader in the near future, will want American troops to continue training the military. It showed little fighting spirit against ISIL’s 2014 advance, and the slow counteroffensive has been led by special forces units. The bulk of the army remains corrupt, undermanned, and inept. At the very least American advisors will have to rebuild the special forces units which are being badly mauled in Mosul.

Baghdad will also want continued help with counterterrorism. ISIL will lose the cities it took three years ago but retain underground networks in Sunni towns and neighborhoods, including the capital. ISIL will continue to have a measure of cooperation from Sunni tribes, the old officer corps, and Ba’ath apparatchiks. Sustained bombing attacks will continue.

Many Shia want to steer a neutral course between the US and Iran. After all, that’s why Baghdad years ago gave oil leases to US firms, bought US military equipment, and chose US trainers. Without a continued presence, that neutral course will be difficult to navigate.

The view from Washington

Military and security bureaus are infused with a post-WW2 outlook which holds that the US can and should address various problems across the world. The outlook is periodically opposed by the public, but opposition is normally quite weak. It certainly is now.

Policymakers in Washington today will want to prevent further Iranian influence. Without a continued presence, the IRGC could extend its presence in Iraq’s military and sundry militias. Saudi Arabia shares this concern and will press for a continued American presence, as will Israel. The two states have considerable sway in Washington, though of course very little in Baghdad.

Washington will share Baghdad’s concern with remaining terrorist cells, lest they grow stronger and spread into adjoining countries, especially Saudi Arabia and Jordan. It will want to keep electronic surveillance teams and cadres to assist quick raids. US special forces may even take part in them.

Foreseeable consequences

American forces will be stationed amid a brewing Sunni-Shia conflict, which will greatly worsen when ISIL is expelled from major positions. The armed forces of the regular army, Shia militias, and Sunni tribes will all fight for territory and power. None of them is especially well-disposed toward the United States, despite its critical support since 2014.

There is another brewing conflict – the one between the Kurds and the Baghdad government. The Kurds blunted the ISIL offensive of three years ago, ground down its fighters, and now hold important blocking positions north of Mosul. In their estimation, they deserve concessions from Baghdad. The Kurds have seized large tracts of oil-rich land that had been under Baghdad’s control before 2014. They are unlikely to relinquish them easily, though Baghdad’s recognition of Kurdish independence and an oil-revenue sharing agreement may be in the offing.

GIs will be prime targets of remaining terrorist cells. Indeed, their presence will be a recruitment boon for them. One propaganda line will argue that the US has returned to seize the region’s resources and further humiliate the faithful. Another will be that ISIL came close to toppling unpopular, corrupt governments throughout the region and only American intervention halted its ascendance this time.

The former propaganda line is groundless but will find resonance among young Muslims. The latter one is unarguable.

Copyright 2017 Brian M Downing

Brian M Downing is a national security analyst who has written for outlets across the political spectrum. He studied at Georgetown University and the University of Chicago, and did post-graduate work at Harvard’s Center for International Affairs.