By Matthew C. Mai
The United States has come one step closer to finally leaving Iraq to the Iraqis. The Wall Street Journal reported late last month that the Trump administration is reducing the number of American troops in Iraq from 5,200 to 3,500. Coming on the heels of Iraqi prime minister Mustafa al-Kadhimi’s visit to the White House and efforts by his administration to upgrade the country’s electric grid with the aid of the Gulf Cooperation Council, the American military commitment appears to be coming to an end. While some Iran hawks may balk at retrenchment, pulling our troops out bodes well for long term U.S. policy towards Iraq.
First, it is doubtful that a force of 5,200 could accomplish what tens of thousands could not, namely, the rebuilding of Iraq into a free, sovereign, and independent state. American troops have neither the resources nor the mission scope to perform this task and no one in Washington is about to give them either. While the Western intervention to defeat the ISIS caliphate surely played a significant role, Iranian-backed Shiite militias also played a part in helping Iraqi security forces defeat the group even if they were cynically acting in their self-interest. Iraq, one of only four majority-Shiite countries in the region, was able to work with these militias out of a shared antipathy towards the marauding Sunni terror group. Since the territorial caliphate’s collapse last spring, the focus of the Iraqi government has been to bring these groups into the fold of the national security apparatus rather than force them to lay down their arms. However, where the last prime minister could not muster up the political support to follow through on this objective, Mustafa al-Kadhimi has backed up his words with actions. In late June, commandos arrested 14 members of the group that had launched rockets at the American embassy in Baghdad a few months prior. Even while they were released on bail a month later after being questioned by security forces, it signaled a determination by the new prime minister to hold foreign actors responsible for rogue activities on Iraqi soil. This will become less difficult as Iraq begins to revitalize its oil industry and upgrade its energy infrastructure so that it no longer has to rely on Iran as a primary source for electricity.
Second, suggestions that America’s commitment should outlast Tehran’s to keep its ambitions in check do not take into account the nationalist currents currently running through Iraqi society that view the presence of U.S. forces and Iranian proxies as part of the larger problem of corruption and impotence in Baghdad. Last year, protests calling for political reform and an end to foreign meddling saw hundreds killed and thousands more wounded. In January, after the killing of Iranian general Quassem Solemiani at Baghdad International Airport, the Iraqi parliament voted to expel U.S. troops from the country.
The longer American troops stay to carry out their “training and advisory” role in the post-ISIS landscape the more they will have to avoid confrontation with Iranian proxies. At that point, U.S. troops would be a liability to any prime minister trying to appease domestic discontent and get along with Tehran.
More important is what American policymakers should come to regard the place of Iraq in the regional order. That is, to act as a neutral buffer state between the Arab and Persian spheres of influence that is neither expressly Sunni nor Shiite. This would be the most desirable and achievable outcome in Iraq as any country on Iran’s border that is an explicit ally of the West would be seen as a threat and in a permanent state of tension with Tehran. As Russia’s annexation of Crimea and ongoing support for the separatist movement in eastern Ukraine shows, a constant state of tension between neighbors with power asymmetries eventually gives way to armed conflict. Baghdad and Tehran, with the brutal eight-year war during the 1980s that left over 500,000 dead still fresh in their memories, would much rather find a way to coexist than resort to armed confrontation.
The temptation for some proponents of the “maximum pressure” campaign is to support the use of residual forces in places like Syria and Iraq to balance against proxies loyal to the Iranian regime. But the truth is that American soft power capabilities, sanctions, energy independence, and financial hegemony, are the most effective means of carrying out a containment strategy where the goal is to induce behavior change and not regime change. Nuclear deal or not, it is a foregone conclusion that Iran will eventually acquire a nuclear weapon. Even if the maximum pressure campaign doesn’t change Iran’s behavior it will have bought the other states in the region time to develop their own nuclear programs. Saudi Arabia and the United Arab Emirates are already moving in that direction.
If this were to become the new reality in the Middle East then Iraq’s place in the regional order would be even more valuable in helping to maintain a stable balance of power. Its neutral existence between the Arab and Persian spheres would not give it a reason to develop a nuclear program of its own and it could act as a broker between either side should tensions rise. However, this will only be possible if the United States continues its withdrawal and does not get drawn into confrontations with Iranian-backed militias. Iran, with its economy in a deep recession and oil exports at an all-time low, would likewise find it imprudent to try and install a puppet government in Baghdad as Iraqi nationalism has become the vein from which successful leaders will derive their legitimacy from. After decades of repression and war, it would be in the interests of the United States to allow the Iraqis to determine their collective destiny. As President Trump said when he announced the normalization of relations between Israel and the UAE, “[W]e don’t have to be there anymore. We don’t need oil. We don’t need anything there except friendship”.
Matthew C. Mai is a junior at Rutgers University majoring in public policy. He writes independently on American foreign policy and international politics.