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Is the US-led counter ISIS campaign 'mission accomplished'?

Is the US-led counter ISIS campaign 'mission accomplished'?

Some in Iraq urge American troop withdrawal, citing a low likelihood of the terror group reforming to its previous strength

Analysis | Middle East

Against the backdrop of the ongoing Gaza war and an enraged Arab street, the future of 2,500 U.S. troops stationed in Iraq is once again in question.

Despite a full withdrawal in 2011, the government of Iraq “invited” U.S. forces to return in 2014 to combat Daesh, or ISIS. But seven years after the “Caliphate” was pronounced defeated, the multinational Combined Joint Task Force-Operation Inherent Resolve maintains a large military presence in Iraq, ostensibly to “work by, with and through regional partners to militarily defeat the Islamic State of Iraq and Syria, or ISIS, in order to enable whole-of-coalition governmental actions to increase regional stability.”

Despite those laudable intentions, attacks against U.S. military personnel have intensified and so has political pressure to conclude the mission, far beyond similar calls for expulsion following the targeting of Qassim Soleimani in 2020. The presence of foreign forces in general and the U.S. troops in particular is vexing to Iraq with its long history of occupation (although calling 2,500 non-combat forces an occupation is a bit of a stretch), but is also an opportunity, particularly among Iranian-backed political parties and militias, to create a strawman responsible for all of the country’s ills.

For many Iraqis the counter-ISIS coalition is like the guest who has overstayed his welcome.

“The presence of U.S. military forces on Iraqi soil has been increasingly causing problems to Iraq and its neighbors; it also gives a pretext to terrorists to resume their attacks on Iraqis,” said Dhia Al-Asadi, former minister of state who headed the Al-Ahrar (Sadrist) Bloc in parliament. “These forces should withdraw immediately so that a legitimate, nationalist Iraqi government can take the lead and build its military and security capacity without unsolicited U.S. interference.”

Yet, not all Iraqis concur with those views.

“Despite the considerable strength of militia forces in Iraq, surpassing that of the Iraqi national army, their calls for the withdrawal of Americans and allies are primarily rhetorical,” said Nahro Zagros, editor in chief of Kurdistan Chronicle and former vice president of Soran University in Erbil. “If the decision rested with the Iraqi populace, the majority would prefer the continued presence of Americans. However, Iraqi affairs are not under Iraqi control but influenced by neighboring powers.”

According to Falah Mustafa, a close adviser to the president of the Kurdistan Region on Foreign Policy Affairs, “any decision [on the future of the coalition forces] must be based on national consensus.”

“For the Kurdistan Region, certainly we are part of Iraq and we will abide by any decision that Iraq makes, but one single group of Iraqi society cannot determine this alone, because Iraq is a diverse country. Shias, Sunnis, Kurds, Turkmen, Chaldeans, Assyrians, and Christians, we all need to agree on this issue because it is about the stability, security of this country,” he said.

While the U.S. has sought to maintain a military presence in Iraq, arguments to keep them there do not stand up to scrutiny. There is an unspoken proposition that Iraq could be used as a launch platform for attacks against Iran or elsewhere, but this is specifically prohibited by the 2008 Strategic Framework Agreement, which remain the foundational document for the Iraq-U.S. relationship. It says, “The United States shall not use Iraqi land, sea, and air as a launching or transit point for attacks against other countries; nor seek or request permanent bases or a permanent military presence in Iraq.”

Besides, Iraq is not needed for this purpose. The U.S. currently has a major logistical base in Kuwait with over 13,000 army troops, a naval base in Bahrain housing the U.S. Fifth Fleet and Al Udeid Air Base in Doha is the largest military installation in the region with over 8,000 troops. The Persian Gulf can fit a Carrier Battle Group with ease. These, in addition to other bases in Saudi Arabia, the United Arab Emirates, Oman, Jordan and Turkey, maintain more than sufficient ground, air and naval assets to challenge any military force in the region.

A second argument is the often-stated rhetorical trope that leaving Iraq would be a victory for the Iranians. While it may be a rhetorical victory for Iran, rhetoric should not be the basis for foreign policy. A military withdrawal from Iraq would be seen in Tehran as stabilizing Iran’s western borders, but it must be acknowledged that the U.S. seeks the same outcome on its borders.

The Monroe Doctrine has been the cornerstone of U.S. hemispheric policy for 200 years, just as Persian influence has driven similar aspirations towards Iraq for over a millennium. Former Iranian Foreign Minister Mohammad Javad Zarif famously said, “Look at the map. The U.S. military has travelled 10,000 kilometers to dot all our borders with its bases. There is a joke that it is Iran that put itself in the middle of U.S. bases.”

The U.S. argument conflates influence with interference. The economies and cultures of the two societies are vastly intermingled, shown most clearly with the hundreds of thousands of pilgrims which peacefully cross the borders annually to visit Qom and Najaf. Yet, the fundamental U.S. concern should not be one of Iranian influence but of Iranian interference, of which its insinuation into the political and economic structures will continue, regardless of the U.S. troop presence.

Last, some would argue for a continued U.S. troop presence, asserting that the counter-ISIS mission is not finished, and ISIS remains a significant threat to both Iraq and the international community. While there may be some validity to this argument, it begs the question whether the Iraqis need continued foreign assistance or can accomplish this mission unilaterally.

A U.S.-Iraq Higher Military Commission has recently been meeting to analyze these and other concerns to determine the rationale for a continued military mission. Mustafa, who previously served as head of KRG’s Department of Foreign Relations, said it is important to remember that “this should not be emotional; it should not be affected by other factors.”

“Iraqis, the U.S. — the relevant people — need to sit down together, discuss and assess the situation on the ground, review the extent of engagement, assess the threats, Iraqi capabilities and determine together the nature and shape of future arrangements and future relations between Iraq and the U.S., and the rest of coalition countries,” he said.

According to Al-Asadi, “Daesh, like al-Qaida before it, will not cease to exist as a threat not only to Iraq but to the region and the entire world. Names, strategies and means may change, but the masterminds and beneficiaries of such groups will always keep them ready to strike, and sometimes they serve as a hired gun.”

However, he added: “Iraqi forces are qualified and capable of dealing with this threat. They may need some up-to-date technology, training and honest cooperation with regional and world countries who ought to share the same amount of concern about the growing danger of these terrorist groups.”

While the need for “up-to-date technology, training and honest cooperation” is important, it could be provided by other nations’ forces, contractors or remotely, rather than by the physical presence of U.S. forces.

A final argument suggests the continued presence of U.S. forces is an insurance against internal Iraqi threats. According to Zagros, “the most significant danger originates from within Iraq itself, where militia forces persist in attacking fellow Iraqis and opposing factions.”

“I firmly believe that without the presence of Americans and their allies, Iraq and the broader region face the risk of fragmentation and collapse,” he said.

Yet, those same militia forces are using the presence of U.S. forces as a casus belli to wage a deadly campaign against the forces of occupation, aligning themselves with the Iranian “Axis of Resistance” to receive equipment, training and funding from the Quds Force. Counterintuitively, the very presence of U.S. troops strengthens the hands of the militias and creates instability, especially when the United States unilaterally targets militia leaders and infringes on Iraqi territorial sovereignty to do so.

These four factors, alone, imply that the U.S. troop presence comes at high costs and marginal benefits. The U.S. continues to be painted as an occupier, an aggressor, a foreign agitator and the cause of Iraqi society’s near-collapse since the 2003 invasion.

As Al-Asadi notes, “Why does the U.S. want to negotiate its withdrawal from Iraq? If they really want to stabilize Iraq and the region, they should withdraw their military troops first, then they can diplomatically negotiate their future relations with Iraq. Given the fragility of the situation and institutional dysfunctionality, we cannot hope for a better situation. The major denominator is the existence of foreign military troops in Iraq.”

Since October 7, U.S. support for Israel has aggravated the anger, and has brought the question of continued U.S. presence to the fore. While some arguments for remaining may exist, and Iraq is certainly more important than Otto von Bismarck’s famous quote that the Balkans are not “worth the bones of a Pomeranian grenadier,” the U.S. should reflect, clear-eyed, on the risk to American lives, the provocation to Iran, the almost paternalistic view that the Iraqi security establishment can’t succeed against ISIS on its own, or can’t find other alternatives, and the significant animosity against U.S. policy throughout the region.

The Counter-ISIS Coalition performed brilliantly, but it is time to say, “Mission Accomplished.”

U.S. Army Soldiers, assigned to 37th Infantry Brigade Combat Team, 125th Infantry Regiment, 1st Battalion, Combined Joint Task Force – Operation Inherent Resolve, board a CH-47 Chinook helicopter after a live-fire exercise at Al Asad Air Base, Iraq, July 7, 2023. Members of the Coalition maintain readiness to better advise, assist and enable partner forces in the ongoing effort to defeat ISIS. (U.S. Army photo by Spc. Timothy VanDusen)

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