Recent exchanges between Washington and Baghdad have thrown the future of the U.S. military presence in Iraq into confusion and uncertainty. Following through on an Iraqi parliament vote, acting Prime Minister Prime Minister Adel Abdul-Mahdi last week asked the Trump administration to begin talks on a withdrawal of the roughly 5,000 U.S. troops in the country. The administration bluntly refused, saying U.S. troops must stay to fend off a potential resurgence of the Islamic State.
The Trump administration is making a dire mistake in maintaining U.S. forces in Iraq against the government’s will and should reverse its stance, working with the Iraqi government on an orderly end to the U.S. military presence. Open government opposition to a U.S. military mission plus explicit threats by Iran to drive U.S. troops from Iraq make the situation too difficult and dangerous for U.S. forces to operate effectively. The fighting ability and political leverage the U.S. military had in Iraq is all but gone in the wake of the U.S. assassination of Iranian Quds Force General Qassem Soleimani, and the only way to regain a semblance of U.S. influence in the country is to pull U.S. forces out.
Even before Soleimani’s death, calls for a U.S. withdrawal had been mounting within Iraq for some time. With the Islamic State at bay, a fighting alliance that put Shiite militia groups backed by Iran on the same side as the United States foundered, and leading Shiite political figures renewed longstanding calls for a U.S. departure. Pressure built, and other political leaders followed. Meanwhile, a major shift in Iraqi political attitudes unrelated to the fight against the Islamic State took shape the reinforced political pressure on the United States to go. Iraqis came away from the national elections in 2018 distrustful of the process, perceiving it to be heavily manipulated by Iran and the United States. U.S. efforts at influencing Iraqi politics had long been fairly obvious in the minds of Iraqis. But Iran’s activities came into view for Iraqis in a more vivid way during this election, largely due to increasing numbers of Iraqis engaging with social media. In 2014, less than 40 percent of Iraqis had internet access, according to data by Iraqi pollster Munqith Dagher. The figure is now almost 80 percent, and around 90 percent of young Iraqis use some type of social media.
The net result of the increased public scrutiny on the most recent elections was a sharply negative shift in attitudes among Iraqis toward the Iraqi government and Iran. This groundswell of sentiment among Iraqis gave rise to a series of anti-government protests, which turned deadly. Iraqi security forces have been cracking down on demonstrators forcefully, with many Iraqis blaming Iran for that too. This was not a trivial political mood swing. The moment represented the first real possibility for Iraq to check Iranian influence in the country since 2003 and perhaps establish a more independent footing.
This was and remains a key U.S. policy aim in Iraq, but prospects for reduced Iranian influence in Iraq vanished in the aftermath of the drone strike that killed Soleimani and Iraqi militia commander Abu Mahdi al-Muhandis. In a stroke, the White House realigned Iraq and Iran, cutting short a possible loosening of ties. And as long as U.S. forces stay in Iraq, Baghdad and Tehran have a reason to stay close. Iran will seek to deepen its influence out of understandable security fears, and Iraq will turn to Iran for resources and political leverage against the United States as it seeks an end to the American military presence. Threats of sanctions like President Trump recently leveled just tightens the link between Baghdad and Tehran, and actual sanctions would put Iraq in Iran’s care economically and politically even more so.
The formal request by Iraq to begin a U.S. withdrawal marks a high point in Iraqi resistance to the American military presence, but this is hardly a new desire on the part of the Iraqi government and the Iraqi Shiite establishment more broadly. Official opposition to the U.S. presence was on open display in 2006, when the United States deployed some 30,000 additional U.S. troops to quell sectarian violence and again in the negotiations over the eventual 2011 withdrawal. The situation is far more perilous now, however. In the past, the Iraqi government had been more subtle in voicing its opposition to the U.S. presence and had a less formalized relationship with Shiite militias, who attacked U.S. troops so frequently and ferociously that they became for a time a bigger threat than al-Qaida in Iraq. These same Shiite militias now form the backbone of Iraqi security forces, with Iran having established considerable control over a number of Iraqi institutions. That means U.S. forces are now not simply a target for attack. They are likely in for their worst attacks yet.
This is an unworkable situation for U.S. forces hoping to confront remnants of the Islamic State in Iraq. American troops cannot operate by themselves in Iraq, nor should they. And now they cannot work alongside government security forces or Shiite militias, whose efforts remain critical in the fight against the Islamic State. The likelihood of U.S. forces being betrayed or attacked by the very Iraqi forces they seek to aid is extremely high, opening the way for a familiar dilemma from the occupation days. At times, the very Iraqi government U.S. troops worked to support in turn conspired with Iran to kill them. Moreover, if U.S. forces stay and endure this risk, the utility is fairly low in terms of making an impact on the Islamic State. Local actors are the most effective instrument against extremists. This was true when bands of Sunni tribesmen joined the U.S. cause against al-Qaida in Iraq during the occupation, and it proved true again with Iraqi militias turning out to be an effective ground force against the Islamic State. Put plainly, the risk is not worth the gain, especially considering all the risks U.S. servicemen and women have already endured in Iraq.
None of this means Iraq has a hopeful future if U.S. forces depart. Even a thoughtfully planned U.S. withdrawal, which would likely take up to a year, is likely to open the door to an increase in violence. Iraq seems certain to remain a weak state for the foreseeable future, struggling to deal with internal security, a crisis of political legitimacy for its government and encroachment by Iran. But the U.S. military cannot solve these problems for Iraq. The presence of U.S. troops in fact only worsens those problems and undermines overarching U.S. policy aims. And as long as U.S. forces remain, prospects for a direct conflict between the United States and Iran only increase, leaving the United States drifting into yet another Middle East war. Perhaps, in time, the United States can be an honest international partner to Iraq and provide a counterbalance to Iranian influence by providing various forms of support from afar. But that cannot happen so long as U.S. forces stay on the ground in a country where their presence is so openly opposed.