“President Joe Biden says US forces will end their combat mission in Iraq by the end of this year, but will continue to train and advise the Iraqi military.” The announcement came after Mr Biden held talks with Iraqi Prime Minister Mustafa al-Kadhimi at the White House. There are currently 2,500 US troops in Iraq helping local forces counter what remains of the Islamic State group. Numbers of US troops are likely to stay the same but the move is being seen as an attempt to help the Iraqi PM. The US presence in Iraq has become a major issue since top Iranian general Qasem Soleimani and the leader of an Iran-backed Shia Muslim militia were killed in a US drone strike in the capital Baghdad last year. Political parties aligned to Iran have demanded the withdrawal of all forces from the US-led global coalition against IS, despite the continuing threat posed by the Sunni jihadist group.” BBC. 27th July 2021.
The US is suffering from global depreciation of its credibility due to its disastrous Afghanistan departure. The result is a growing belief/concern that the US is trying to get away from troubles it sees as beyond its capacity to manage. Life was easier in the Bush era when “shock and awe” tactics bombing was unleashed on its enemies and sent a message of superiority to the world. The defeat of Saddam Hussain and the conquest of Iraq was seen as symbolic of that with the “Us “ and “Them” rhetoric its defining language.
But it was also a watershed of sorts as the world saw increased vulnerability of the US caused by its actions. There was not so strong but sustained resistance and the Islamist movement –which was interpreted ideologically but caused by reaction to IS occupation- became a major worry and remains so till now. Kabul has sealed the stamp of perception that the US can start wars but not end them and deserts its allies behind when the heat is high.
So Biden’s decision on Iraq after Afghanistan’s fall is causing nervous tremors there.
Washington’s Afghan collapse has been so bewildering that plan Bs are hard to come by.
“Nobody expected this kind of pull out,” Bayar Mustafa (University of Kurdistan-Hewler in Erbil) “They even left all their personal weapons behind. What kind of withdrawal is that? It’s a big failure for the US.”
Baghdad administration has many similarities with the recently dead one in Kabul. After 18 years of US state building, Iraq remains highly fragile. It seems US occupation doesn’t improve the health of the occupied. Like Kabul, Iraq’s central government lacks credibility and is dogged by corruption, sectarianism and incompetence. All the massive aid since 2003 doesn’t seem to have made the state stronger and its army though hugely funded is not considered able.
The number of US troops in Iraq is similar to the number of troops the US had before they left Afg. People are now openly asking, “can we rely on the US to stay – and what will happen if they go?”
IS, Iran, Kurds and Turkey factor
The US had already tried to leave once in 2011 but returned due to the IS near takeover in 2014. The Iraqi troops failed badly to stop the IS. About 66,000 Iraqi troops were trounced by no more than 500 ISIS fighters, said local observers.
“A US-led coalition, alongside Kurdish forces and an umbrella group of pro-Iranian Iraqi Shiite militias, known as the Popular Mobilisation Forces (PMF), organized the eventual fight back.” Regular troops have no morale in Iraq either. ISIS was defeated but is still active in both Iraq and neighboring Syria.
But it isn’t just the IS that bothers the US, Iran does too. “If there was no US toehold here, Iran would have a free hand across Iraq and Syria, all the way to Lebanon.” Pro-Iranian groups in Iraq have also called for the US to end its presence in the country altogether.
Some PMF groups are accused of attacking US bases recently with drones and rockets.
But Iran is already a force in Iraq. They have pro-Iran parliament members and are influential in domestic politics. It’s this group's pressure that has greatly pushed Biden to declare a departure date.
Turkey of course is very unhappy with the JS support to Kurdish forces, Turkey’s major military insurgency problem. It says these Kurdish groups are also linked to the separatist PKK. Turkey has already run operations against the PKK and is hoping that the US will leave soon and go for large scale operations.
Withdrawal “is clearly not on the mind of President Biden”, US Ambassador to Iraq Matthew Tueller told Kurdish journalists in Erbil on August 11, while promising the US was in Iraq “for the long haul.” The US holds this position officially till now but what Afghanistan has done is destroy the morale of the already weak army of Iraq. And it has emboldened its enemies which are many. A long standing conflict with Iran and its allies on one side taking on the IS could be one scenario. Turkey may not side with Iran for several reasons but as the war expands, the other powers closer who were critical in the fall of Afghanistan may become active too. There looks to be only one “Us” but the “thems” are many and beyond the capacity of only one to control.