Iraqi Prime Minister Mustafa al-Kadhimi met with President Joe Biden in the White House on Monday to finalize an agreement that will end the U.S. combat mission in Iraq by the end of this year.
Biden told reporters after the meeting that some American personnel will remain in Iraq to “be available, to continue to train, to assist, to help and to deal with ISIS as it arises,” but said U.S. troops will no longer be “in a combat mission” by the end of 2021.
The precise implications of the deal are somewhat vague, since the U.S. military presence in Iraq has already dwindled to about 2,500 troops, and most of them are already focused on either training the Iraqi military or chasing down the remnants of the Islamic State (ISIS or ISIL).
Tuesday brought neither public statements nor behind-the-scenes comments from the Biden administration about how many troops might be withdrawn from Iraq before the year-end deadline.
A “senior administration official” told Reuters a major policy goal was to avoid a “mission accomplished” moment of embarrassment, a reference to the banner hanging behind former President George W. Bush when he announced the nominal conclusion of the Iraq operation in 2003.
Reuters’ source said the Biden administration is worried about prematurely declaring “mission accomplished” with respect to fighting ISIS, but wants to ramp down U.S. operations against the terrorist organization, presumably allowing the Iraqi military to take over.
“If you look to where we were, where we had Apache helicopters in combat, when we had U.S. special forces doing regular operations, it’s a significant evolution. So by the end of the year we think we’ll be in a good place to really formally move into an advisory and capacity-building role,” the official said.
Stars & Stripes quoted an administration official who said U.S. efforts against the Islamic State in Syria would continue without adjustment, which suggests the size of the American deployment in Iraq might not change very much, since “the Pentagon has long ferried troops and supplies between Iraq and Syria.”
On the other hand, Stars & Stripes noted the Pentagon “signaled last week it would seek to downgrade the rank of the top commander overseeing American and coalition forces in Iraq from a three-star general to a two-star general.” The coalition has been overseen by a three-star general ever since the “surge” of 2014.
The Islamic State remains a significant threat in Iraq, having “evolved into an entrenched insurgency, exploiting weaknesses in local security to find safe havens and targeting forces engaged in counter-ISIL operations,” according to an intelligence report from the United Nations released on Monday.
“Attacks in Baghdad in January and April 2021 underscore the group’s resilience despite heavy counter-terrorism pressure from Iraqi authorities,” the report said, warning ISIS is “likely to continue attacking civilians and other soft targets” to attract media attention and “embarrass the Government of Iraq.”
Based on intelligence from member states, the U.N. found significant pockets of ISIS strength in several Iraqi provinces plus the capital of Baghdad, thanks to “security gaps and inefficient security coordination” between regional authorities.
The Islamic State was portrayed as significantly weakened in the report and less focused under the lower-profile “caliph” who took over after U.S. forces eliminated ISIS leader Abu Bakr al-Baghdadi during the Trump administration. The terrorist group now commands only a fraction of the immense resources it held when its “caliphate” flourished in Iraq and Syria.
Analysts responding to the U.N. report worried that ISIS could be hanging on in the hope of exploiting political instability in Iraq, and might see opportunities presented by a U.S. drawdown. American special forces activity has been scaled back over the past year, but the continuing threat of raids like the one that killed Baghdadi could still be a potent deterrent.
CNN noted a similar U.N. threat assessment last month reached the dismaying conclusion that for all of the training and support they might receive from Western powers, local security forces in the world’s terrorism hotspots have proven much less effective at restraining ambitious organizations like ISIS, al-Qaeda, and Somalia’s al-Shabaab than actual NATO combat troops.
The July report also suggested some of the terrorism slowdown commonly attributed to local security forces stepping up might have actually been the result of coronavirus lockdowns and travel restrictions, which both made it harder for terrorists to move and harder for their victims to congregate in ways that would make for headline-grabbing mass-casualty attacks.
The Biden administration on Tuesday talked mostly about the ISIS threat while saying little about the elephant in the room, Iran-backed Shiite militia units that were supposedly deputized into “Popular Mobilization Forces” by Baghdad to fight the Sunni Islamic State.
Prime Minister Kadhimi, on the other hand, did mention attacks by Shiite militia on U.S. forces. His government previously condemned retaliatory American airstrikes on militia forces as violations of Iraqi sovereignty.
“We speak to Iranians and others in an attempt to put a limit to these attacks, which are undermining Iraq and its role,” Kadhimi said, acknowledging that Iranian proxy forces in his country remain a problem.
“What we want from the U.S. presence in Iraq is to support our forces in training and developing their efficiency and capabilities, and in security cooperation,” he said. “Iraq has a set of American weapons that need maintenance and training. We will ask the American side to continue to support our forces and develop our capabilities.”
“There is no need for any foreign combat forces on Iraqi soil,” Kadhimi said before meeting with Biden, adding that he still intends to seek assistance from the U.S. for training and intelligence gathering.
Kadhimi said that due to the ongoing effort against ISIS, a “special timetable” based on “negotiations that we will conduct in Washington” would be needed for U.S. troop withdrawal.
Dan Caldwell of Concerned Veterans for America told the Associated Press that a withdrawal schedule should be drawn up, because U.S. troops stationed in Iraq remain at risk, even if their combat mission is formally declared over.
“Regardless of whether their deployment is called a combat mission, U.S. troops will remain under regular attack as long as they remain in Iraq. An American military presence in Iraq is not necessary for our safety and only risks the loss of more American life,” said Caldwell.
Biden told reporters the U.S. is “looking forward to seeing an election in October” in Iraq, having pledged $5.2 million to finance a U.N. election-monitoring mission. This led observers such as Foreign Policy to speculate Monday’s announcement of a deal to end the U.S. combat mission was largely intended as a “paper withdrawal” to give Kadhimi some “breathing room” ahead of the election.