Crisis Response Council spoke to a group of experts to discuss the importance of Prime Minister's Kadhimi visit to the U.S. and the future of U.S.-Iraq relations.
U.S. interest in the stabilization of Iraq is surprisingly high
Michael Knights, Jill and Jay Bernstein Fellow, Washington Institute
The Biden administration has two lodestones in its Middle East policy: maintain the negotiating channel with Iran, and de-escalate conflicts in the region. These guiding concerns will be at the forefront when Iraq’s Prime Minister Mustafa Kadhimi visits the White House, at the sidelines of the latest US-Iraq Strategic Dialogue session.
The Biden team want Iraq to stay off their radar, and that means exploring every avenue for de-escalation with militias, which can have the ancillary benefit of removing a further source of friction in US-Iraq strategic negotiations. The theory runs that if Washington and Iraq can proclaim the removal of US combat forces loudly and regularly enough, then militias will slink away and limit their actions to cosmetic harassment of bases without the intention of causing US fatalities.
This was exactly the idea at the last Strategic Dialogue session in Washington DC in August 2020, but that was under Trump. Whether Iran and her Iraqi militias will accept similar assurances under Biden is uncertain, but odds are that they will not be satisfied with a reclassification of all US forces in Iraq as “non-combat” troops. When Kadhimi returns to Iraq, he will be greeted by a burst of spiteful rocket and drone attacks on US bases.
Everyone involved in the dialogue understands that this will probably be the outcome, but the visit is nonetheless a necessary and desirable demonstration of closeness between Iraq’s beleaguered government and the United States. For Kadhimi, the visit underlines the key recommendation for his re-appointment for a full term after the October 2021 elections – that he is deeply trusted by the Americans and other Western and Arab powers who can help Iraq out if its dire economic and governance crisis.
Kadhimi has had two Oval Office meetings in two years, and he was the second Middle eastern leader after Israel’s prime minister to receive a call from President Biden. These facts, and the ongoing dialogue, underline that even though US troop numbers may slim down or be reclassified as non-combat, US interest in the stabilization of Iraq is surprisingly high, even in a White House that is pivoting anywhere but the Middle East.
Retaining a U.S. presence in Iraq creates an opportunity
Jennifer Cafarella, National Security Fellow, Institute for the Study of War
President Biden faces a new version of an old problem: whether to withdraw U.S. forces and trust that the Iraqi government can prevent renewed terrorist threats from emerging. After the U.S. withdrawal in 2011, ISIS seized most of Sunni Iraq in less than three years. Nearly ten years later, conditions in Iraq and the region threaten to provide ISIS another opportunity to resurge. Syria remains a war zone from which ISIS supports operations in Iraq. The Iraqi government is faltering under endemic corruption, economic shocks, and the predation of Iran’s proxies, which seek to capture organs of the Iraqi state while supporting Iran’s regional campaign. Ongoing Shi’a protests against the Iraqi government could worsen if elections scheduled for October are delayed or won by Iranian proxies responsible for significant violence against protesters. ISIS’s forces regrouped quickly from their territorial losses and are carving out new strongholds in rural and poorly governed while conducting periodic high-casualty attacks. There is no reason to expect Iraq can prevent an ISIS comeback alone.
A middle road in which some U.S. forces remain in Iraq looks more likely – but carries its own risks of strategic failure. Early reports indicate the Biden Administration intends to retain some forces in Iraq in an advisory capacity, providing the kind of enduring presence that might have prevented ISIS’s rise after 2011. Beating back the current ISIS insurgency will be even more difficult for a weaker Iraqi state, however. U.S. advisors is not enough of a commitment to defeat the insurgency.
However, it could buy valuable time for Iraqi Prime Minister Mustafa al Kadhimi to strengthen the Iraqi state by advancing reforms and constraining Iran’s proxies. That time will only matter if the United States provides him the support, including resources, he needs in order to dampen the risks of state failure and civil war and thereby reorient Iraq’s trajectory towards a better future. Retaining a U.S. presence in Iraq creates an opportunity. U.S. leaders must work to ensure that it is an opportunity that leads to progress, not further stagnation.
Analysis on the future of U.S. forces needs to take account of the concerns of Iraq's diverse communities & political actors
Kamaran Palani, Associate Fellow, Al Sharq Strategic Research
Current analysis on the future of U.S. forces in Iraq has generally ignored how Iraq’s diverse communities and political actors perceive the issue and wider U.S.-Iraq relations. Demand for American troops to leave Iraq started with the symbolic vote that unfolded in the Iraqi parliament (which failed to reach a quorum) in the aftermath of the U.S. assassination of Qassem Soleimani and Abu Mahdi al-Muhandis. In attendance was only Shiite Islamist parties and alliances, such as Fatah, Sairoun, Hikma, Sadiqoun, and State of Law. Kurdish and Sunni parliamentarians largely boycotted the session.
Kurdish political actors from across the political spectrum in the Kurdistan Region are against the US withdrawal. Kurdish opposition to the vote stems from the country’s continued dependency on U.S. support in the fight against terrorism, but also concerns over Kurdistan's future in Iraq. Many challenges still face the Kurdistan Region, which requires U.S. military and political support; hence, Kurdish concerns should be addressed in the event Baghdad and Washington establish any settlement concerning the future of U.S. forces.
Firstly, the U.S.-Iran military escalation on Iraqi territory has expanded into Kurdistan. Since January 2020, Kurdistan has suffered multiple rocket and drone attacks attributable to Iran-backed groups, which exert significant control over territories disputed between the Kurdistan Region and the Federal Government of Iraq, including oil-rich Kirkuk, Sinjar, and the Nineveh Plains. Secondly, Erbil-Baghdad relations are not defined by constitutional frameworks, but by a balance of power which favours Baghdad. The US military presence in Iraq is seen as an essential guarantee of Kurdish autonomy and a form of deterrence against aggression from hostile parties or anti-Kurdish sentiments in Baghdad that can have severe implications for the security of Kurdistan, while also shaping political dynamics in Baghdad.
Thirdly, ongoing military confrontations between Turkey and the Kurdistan Workers Party (PKK) inside the Kurdistan Region further highlights the requirement of US and international support to insulate Kurdistan from regional conflicts. Fourthly, the U.S. is an important military and political pillar in the unification and institutionalization of Kurdistan's Peshmerga forces. Washington currently pays the Ministry of Peshmerga $20 million a month to cover the salaries of unified Peshmerga units. The U.S. should harness and transform the vulnerabilities and objectives of the Kurdistan region, many of which overlap with U.S. interests in Iraq and the wider region. It should do so as part of a broader effort aimed at strengthening Kurdistan’s institutions and, ultimately, strengthening even further one of the longest-standing partnerships the U.S. has in the region.