Iraqi Prime Minister Mustafa al-Kadhimi's visit to the White House on Monday produced what the Biden administration is marketing as a major announcement about the U.S. troop presence in Iraq: There won't be any U.S. combat troops in Iraq by the end of the year. The U.S. presence in the country will now focus on training, advising and enabling Iraqi security forces to conduct operations independently against the Islamic State militant group.
What the White House is trumpeting as a withdrawal is more like a reclassification, in which combat troops become trainers and advisers in behalf of the Iraqi army.
The Biden administration has framed this shift as a "significant evolution" in the U.S. mission in Iraq, with support personnel and logisticians favored over Apache helicopters and special forces. There's only one problem with this line of thought: The latest announcement won't do much to change U.S. military operations in Iraq, let alone end them.
What the White House is trumpeting as a withdrawal is more like a reclassification, in which combat troops become trainers and advisers in behalf of the Iraqi army. The current U.S. force posture in Iraq, about 2,500 troops, will remain almost the same. The mission U.S. troops are tasked with today is the same mission they were tasked with a week ago, with little sign of letting up: a seemingly endless endeavor to build a perfect Iraqi military.
U.S. national security officials continue to justify the U.S. military presence in Iraq on the basis of counterterrorism. As one senior U.S. official said during a White House background briefing Monday, "The goal is the defeat of ISIS." Given the utter depravity of the Islamic State, it's a worthwhile objective. Yet going by Washington's own statements, the objective has already been accomplished.
ISIS no longer governs territory in Iraq and Syria. The territorial caliphate, which was once as large as Great Britain, is now in the dustbin of history. The group lost its last sliver of territory in the small town of Baghouz, Syria, more than two years ago, when hundreds of ISIS fighters surrendered to the U.S.-backed forces who surrounded the area.
In Iraq, ISIS hasn't controlled a sizable piece of territory since the winter of 2017 — and during that time, the capacity and tactical professionalism of Iraq's security forces grew significantly. The Iraqi army of 2021 isn't the Iraqi army of 2014, when thousands of regular Iraqi troops chose to shed their uniforms rather than fight.
In short, ISIS' territorial caliphate has been destroyed, with the group relegated to a low-grade insurgency against a far more superior Iraqi army. ISIS fighters are holed up in the Hamreen mountain range, where they are squeezed by Iraqi counterterrorism forces that continue to pursue them. To the extent that ISIS conducts operations, the objective is to pressure villages for supplies and make the Iraqi government look feckless. And its online recruiting won't be disrupted by U.S. boots on the ground in Iraq. Given how far ISIS has fallen, one wonders why maintaining 2,500 U.S. troops in Iraq is still in America's national security interest.
Some scholars argue that a U.S. troop presence in Iraq helps Washington contain the Iranian-backed Shia militias that have acquired an extensive amount of power in the country's political system. But as much as the U.S. opposes Iranian foreign policy in the region, containing those militias isn't the U.S. military's job — nor is it an objective U.S. troops should undertake given the permanence of these militias and the power they wield in the Iraqi state.
Instead, the prevalence of Shia militias' influence in Iraq makes them an Iraqi problem that can be tackled only incrementally over the long term (if it can be tackled at all). Washington would be making a mistake if it believed it could fix an issue Iraqi policymakers have been unwilling to. And confronting them head on is more likely to result in increased Shia militia attacks on U.S. forces, the most recent of which took place Friday against U.S. personnel in Irbil.
Others claim that because Iraq sits at the crossroads of the Middle East and North Africa, the U.S. retains a stake in its success. But how important is the Middle East to the U.S., anyway? At a little over $3 trillion, the region's entire gross domestic product is about the size of California's. Israel is a friend of the U.S. but also the most formidable military power in the region. And while the Middle East accounts for nearly half of the world's proven oil reserves, oil price shocks tend to be sporadic, short-term and unaffected by how many U.S. troops are deployed to the region in any given time.
Still others, including al-Kadhimi, mention that U.S. military and logistical support is crucial for the Iraqi army as it continues operations against ISIS. The U.S. military, however, shouldn't be in the business of permanent training, advising and policing missions on behalf of foreign armies — particularly if those missions occur in places like Iraq, which can hardly be considered a unified and peaceful state. U.S. advisers have been training Iraqi troops for nearly two decades; if a full U.S. troop withdrawal hinges on the death of every ISIS fighter on Iraqi soil or the formation of an entirely competent, professional and self-sufficient Iraqi army, then U.S. forces will never leave.
The blunt fact is that the U.S. military has accomplished all it can in Iraq, a country that will remain riven by systemic corruption and inefficiencies until Iraqi politicians find it in their interest to fix the state's structural deficiencies. If the Biden administration is looking to make real change to the U.S. posture in Iraq, it should go beyond reclassifications and actually end the U.S. presence there.