What are we still doing in Iraq?
Brett McGurk, the Biden administration’s senior Middle East policy official on the National Security Council, traveled to Baghdad last week to speak with Iraqi prime minister Mustafa al-Kadhimi about that very question — specifically, the future of U.S. troops there. The Iraqi prime minister’s office reflected on the meeting shortly thereafter, writing that the session “emphasized implementing the outcome of the strategic dialogue between Iraq and the US, especially with regard to the withdrawal of combat troops from Iraq.” A month earlier, Washington and Baghdad restarted their bilateral dialogue, a key agenda item of which is the removal of U.S. combat forces from the country pending further negotiations. While the exact time frame for a full U.S. troop withdrawal is still open to debate, the Biden administration seems to be inching in the right direction: Getting its forces out of an area where they long ago accomplished their goals.
As of today, there are roughly 2,500 U.S. troops deployed to Iraq — down from nearly 6,000 in 2016. Those forces are responsible for implementing a training-and-advising program that aims to ensure the Iraqi security forces can execute operations against the Islamic State on their own.
In reality, however, the U.S. military is spending about as much time ducking rocket fire from an alphabet soup of Shia militias. The attacks on Iraqi military bases and airports that house U.S. personnel or contractors have gotten so frequent that a week free of rocket fire is almost considered an abnormality.
According to a count by the AFP news agency, around 30 rocket, mortar, or bomb attacks on U.S.-linked facilities and coalition troop convoys have occurred since President Joe Biden’s inauguration on January 20. This includes an attack last weekend, in which a drone carrying explosives targeted the Ayn Al Asad air base in western Anbar province, which caused damage to the facility. On March 3, a barrage of about ten rockets was aimed at the same base, causing an American contractor to have a fatal heart attack. Just a week earlier, the Biden administration dropped seven GPS-guided bombs on Shia militia facilities close to the Iraqi–Syrian border in retaliation for another rocket strike in Irbil that killed one civilian contractor and wounded a U.S. service member.
In mid-April, a drone bearing explosives attacked the military section of the airport in Irbil where U.S. troops were located (fortunately, no casualties were reported). A week later, more rockets slammed into an airport complex near Baghdad. A total of six rockets were launched in the direction of Iraq’s Balad airbase on May 4, another facility where U.S. contractors are performing advisory work in partnership with the Iraqis.
Fortunately, most of these strikes don’t result in the loss of life. Nonetheless, one can’t help but wonder why U.S. forces have to be on pins and needles in a country whose lawmakers have demanded Iraq be left to its own devices. If a residual U.S. troop presence in Iraq were crucial to defending Americans or U.S. national-security interests in the Middle East, the U.S. military could bear the risks of rocket fire. But the mission in Iraq has turned into one of those ever-evolving, continuous deployments that have sucked in successive U.S. presidents.
By the time President Barack Obama authorized a U.S. air campaign in Iraq in August 2014, the Islamic State controlled roughly a third of the country. An entire Iraqi army division had collapsed two months earlier in Mosul, Iraq’s largest city in the north, which was quickly overtaken by a band of marauding ISIS fighters. Iraqi troops, petrified of being captured by the jihadists, threw off their uniforms as they retreated south. Tikrit, Sinjar, Zumar, and parts of the Iraqi–Syrian border were next. The fall of Baghdad, a city of over 6 million people, seemed a very real possibility at the time.
ISIS, of course, is no longer the terrifying juggernaut it once was in 2014. U.S. air power, the reformed regular Iraqi army (coordinating with some of the very Shia militias now taking pot-shots against U.S. troops), Iraqi counterterrorism operatives, and Kurdish peshmerga units have been a potent combination. ISIS doesn’t control any major urban areas and hasn’t for quite some time. Mosul, the group’s last urban stronghold, was recaptured in July 2017, close to four years ago. Five months later, the Iraqi government announced ISIS was a spent force. The thousands of ISIS fighters who remain in Iraq are bottled up in remote, rural areas, their capacity to inflict large-scale terrorist attacks severely diminished in part to the increasing lethality and professionalism of the Iraqi army.
The latest report from the Pentagon’s lead inspector general for the U.S. military mission in Iraq and Syria reveals that ISIS is, at best, a group of mobile, harassing nitwits who for the most part rely on standard hit-and-run tactics against Iraqi army convoys. The Iraqi Sunni community in the north and west, which ISIS relied on for support, now avoids the group. The Iraqi security forces, the Pentagon IG writes, “conducted more nighttime operations, relied on its own fire support assets and reconnaissance capabilities, and demonstrated a steady ability to conduct regular search and clearance operations.” Whereas Baghdad once was dependent on the U.S. Air Force for support, it’s now using its own air assets.
That U.S. and Iraqi negotiators are now discussing the full withdrawal of all U.S. combat forces from Iraq illustrates just how confident Washington is with the regular Iraqi army and counterterrorism service. While problems with intelligence, surveillance, and logistics remain a nagging concern for Baghdad, their security forces have matured from the bad old days of 2014. There is no such thing as a perfect military — even the U.S. armed forces, the most dedicated and technologically superior on the planet, has issues with maintenance, readiness, and recruitment.
If Washington continues to wait for the perfect time to terminate its mission in Iraq, it will never leave. Like in next-door Syria, the U.S. military objective of eliminating ISIS’s territorial caliphate has been accomplished. Failing to take success for an answer does nothing but increase the probability that one of those rocket attacks kills or maims American personnel.
Every argument President Biden used to explain his decision to pull U.S. troops from Afghanistan — the U.S. military doesn’t have the ability to solve other nations’ political problems, dragging out U.S. involvement heightens the risk to U.S. forces, Washington must address the national-security issues of the future, not of the past — is also applicable to Iraq. It remains to be seen whether the White House is bold enough to acknowledge it.