American and Iraqi officials are meeting to discuss the future of American military presence in Iraq. While some analysts are reporting that the talks may include a complete U.S. withdrawal from Iraq, it is instead expected that the U.S. will shift to an advisory-only role.
Iraqi Prime Minister Mustafa al-Kadhimi is slated to meet with President Joe Biden at the White House on Monday, which is when the announcement is expected to be made.
As part of the U.S.-Iraq Strategic Dialogue, a number of other high-level technical talks between American and Iraqi officials took place on Thursday.
Pentagon spokesman John Kirby released a statement saying, “During the meeting, both parties reaffirmed the importance of the U.S.-Iraq bilateral security relationship, their shared commitment to the Defeat-ISIS mission, and the need for U.S. and Coalition to be able to safely support the Iraqi Security Forces. They also discussed the long-term U.S.-Iraq security cooperation partnership and areas for cooperation beyond counterterrorism.”
An End to Combat Missions May Not Mean a Reduced US Presence
“I think it’s important to remember that we are [in Iraq] at the invitation of the Iraqi government,” Kirby added. “This mission, which was focused on the Islamic State, was never intended to be permanent. And everybody has always understood that there would be a time when there would no longer be a need for U.S. combat forces inside Iraq.”
Under the scenario that is expected to be announced, the U.S. will once again end its combat mission in Iraq and shift to a strictly advisory role. Following the U.S. invasion of Iraq to topple Saddam Hussein in 2003, the U.S. withdrew its troops in 2011 when then-President Barack Obama concluded that the need for American combat troops was over. That led to the rise of ISIS, which took over vast swaths of Iraq and Syria and prompted the re-introduction of American troops in the country.
There are currently about 2,500 U.S. troops in Iraq. Should the role of the U.S. in Iraq be modified, that number may not change much as combat troops will redeploy back to the United States and be replaced by advisory and logistical personnel.
Between a Rock and a Hard Place
Prime Minister Kadhimi is walking a tightrope between the need for a long-term U.S. presence in his country and the growing influence of Iran in both the government and militia forces. Many members of the Iraqi parliament have passed a non-binding resolution calling for the U.S. troops to withdraw.
The militias are another matter. Funded, advised, and led by the Iranian Quds Force, many of these militias have made it clear that despite their status under the umbrella of the Iraqi military, they take their orders from Tehran. They openly threatened Kadhimi when he tried to rein in them a year ago. Yet, lately, the militias appear to be marching to their own beat.
The Iranian proxy militias have attacked U.S.-led coalition troops multiple times in Iraq and Syria. For a period recently, their attacks became daily. Nevertheless, when the U.S. responded to the attacks, some Iraqi parliamentarians hollowly decried a violation of Iraqi sovereignty.
What of Iraq?
Regardless of whatever agreement Biden and Kadhimi decide upon in Washington, the safety and security of American troops will be a question mark. And the main danger won’t come from the Islamic State fighters but from the Iraqis.
In an interview to the Washington Post, Kadhimi said that the “Iraqis are now ready to stand up on their feet and protect themselves. We are no longer in need of U.S. combat troops. At the same time, we will continue to need intelligence support, training, capacity building, and advice.”
Kadhimi has to reach an agreement with Washington that he can use as a political win before Iraq’s parliamentary elections in October. So, his statements are always carefully worded to not upset the applecart.
Many Republican lawmakers are concerned about how Iraq’s future without U.S. combat troops will look as ISIS and Iranian militias could threaten Kadhimi’s government.
“As we watch Afghanistan descend into chaos and ISIS continue to lash out in Iraq and Syria, now is not the time for either the U.S. or Iraq to pretend that our shared mission is over,” Senate Minority Leader Mitch McConnell said.