Halving the number of US troops in Iraq is a terrible idea. Just ask the head of US Central Command, Gen. Frank McKenzie, who in recent days warned of sharp increases in Iran-backed attacks against US bases in Iraq.
McKenzie said Iranian attempts to provoke American forces were “very dangerous, because I don’t think they have an appreciation for where our red line would be. They might believe they can continue to attack us with rockets and missiles in Iraq and we won’t respond, and that would be a very dangerous thing for them to believe.” Although many of these attacks were low level, McKenzie warned that these militias were signaling their readiness to massively escalate operations when the time was right.
US President Donald Trump’s reduction in his Iraq force size, from 5,200 to about 3,000 by November, comes at a time when ISIS has been regrouping and regaining strength; it has an estimated 20,000 fighters, carries out about 60 attacks a month in Iraq alone, and has financial reserves of up to $300 million. Trump’s repeated assertions that ISIS has been defeated is therefore a dangerous delusion.
Drastic cuts in US force numbers in Syria (from about 2,500 to 500 since 2018) were justified by the claim that US interests in Syria could be protected through its presence in Iraq. This is obviously no longer the case; the withdrawal gives ISIS and Iran a free hand, while leaving allies such as Kurdish SDF fighters even further exposed. Over the past year, Iran sought to recruit locals into its own militia structures in eastern Syria, enticing fighters away from the US-backed SDF. This is in parallel with Turkish and Russian efforts to undermine the SDF and expand their own spheres of influence.
The US has already closed several of its principal Iraq bases during 2020, cutting its presence to a small number of concentrated locations. This is perfectly logical from the perspective of being able to protect a sharply reduced number of troops, but it leaves huge areas of the country where the US can’t adequately monitor activities by ISIS and Shiite militants. Last year Trump was ridiculed for claiming that he could use Al-Asad base in western Iraq for watching what was going on in Iran.
This drawdown occurs in the context of Prime Minister Mustafa Kadhimi’s confrontation with the Tehran-backed paramilitaries (IMIS). In response to his efforts to curb their activities, the IMIS stages almost daily attacks against Western and Iraqi assets, while assassinating activists and enemies, and launching missiles against the heavily fortified Green Zone.
The IMIS have about 140,000 fighters, and have resisted all attempts at demobilization or incorporation into the regular armed forces. Over the course of 2020 names of new IMIS factions began to appear, such as Usbat Al-Tha’ireen and Ashab Al-Kahf, apparently with the aim of establishing additional layers of deniability for terrorist attacks, although the principal elements are closely associated with Kata’ib Hezbollah.
So far, all Kadhimi has succeeded in doing is goading Kata’ib Hezbollah into even more provocative behavior. Let’s not forget that these militias are on the Iraqi state payroll, with a budget of over $2 billion. Militias have deeply infiltrated the police and armed forces, and in particular the interior ministry. There is therefore a grave risk that attempts to confront the IMIS could lead to a fracturing of the military, without extensive international support. This is a disastrous moment for the US to cut and run.
Nobody is in any doubt that these troop withdrawals, along with parallel cuts in Afghanistan, are being conducted for purely domestic US political purposes, and Trump’s increasingly desperate attempts to seek re-election. Trump’s sharp downward pressure on troop numbers has consistently been against the advice of his generals.
Trump’s relationship with his military has become even more fraught after his leaked comments calling US soldiers who died overseas “losers” and “suckers,” while publicly accusing Pentagon chiefs of waging wars “so that all of those wonderful companies that make the bombs and make the planes and make everything else stay happy.” Overseas troop deployments are rarely popular, but they should be based on objective assessments of strategic requirements — not a cheap way of winning votes.
The British 2009 troop withdrawal from Iraq, followed by Obama’s 2011 pull-out, were conducted in a context of intense attacks by Iran-backed paramilitaries almost identical to those engaged in provocations today. Kataeb Hezbollah used to broadcast its attacks against Coalition forces on its Ettijah TV channel.
This allowed these factions to perpetuate a narrative about their supposed ability to defeat foreign “invaders.” Gen. McKenzie himself commented that the aim of these Iran-sponsored attacks was to force America out. Trump is therefore fatally playing into Tehran’s hands by being seen to accede to its demands to leave the region, humiliatingly chased out by its Iraqi and Syrian proxies.
Given that Iranian proxies, including the Houthis in Yemen, have staged hundreds of attacks against GCC civilian and economic targets, this withdrawal will send a shiver throughout the GCC; notably in states such Kuwait, on the frontline against these threats, and Bahrain, hundreds of whose terrorists received training and weapons from Kata’ib Hezbollah and Quds Force.
Trump is repeating the mistakes of his predecessor by drawing down his forces at the wrong time in the wrong context, creating a huge strategic vacuum to be filled by Iran and terrorist groups.
Obama’s 2011 Iraq pullout effectively allowed the birth and extraordinary expansion of ISIS. What kind of monsters will Trump’s untimely and unjustified pull-outs produce?