As Afghans grapple with fear and uncertainty in the wake of the US military pullout from their country, Iraqis are beginning to wonder if it will be their turn next.
The Biden administration, doubling and tripling down on the president’s defense of his Afghanistan withdrawal, has been deploying Washington‘s current catchphrase, “forever wars,” as well as invoking old shibboleths about the “national interest.” Pursuing the latter, so the theory goes, requires ending the former.
Iraq, where the US military presence is now in its 18th year, may seem like another “forever war,” but prolonging that presence is a necessary condition for a number of interlocking American objectives, including preserving the country’s fragile peace, protecting Middle Eastern allies, preventing the resurgence of the Islamic State and interdicting the malign influence of Iran.
These are all manifestly in the American national interest.
Does Biden see this? Let‘s hope so. The president has a history of woolly and reckless ideas about the Middle East - as a senator, he endorsed a proposal to “soft-partition” Iraq along ethnic and sectarian lines, giving little thought to whether Iraqis wanted to be subdivided in that way. Thankfully, he has refrained from airing such views since entering the White House.
Unlike in the case of Afghanistan, where the president overruled the Pentagon’s argument for maintaining a military footprint, he has apparently been persuaded that Iraq is a different matter. Instead of withdrawing all US troops, he has decided their mission will morph from combatting enemies to helping the Iraqis to do the job.
This is a deft bit of legerdemain, allowing both Biden and Iraqi Prime Minster Mustafa al-Kadhimi to appease domestic constituencies that are clamoring for a full American exit. The US president can pretend that, even if he hasn‘t brought the troops “back home,” he has taken them out of the frontline; and Kadhimi, in the run up to a general election, can placate Iran-backed militias and political parties that want the Americans gone.
The continued US military presence will not only improve the skills of the Iraqi security services; it will also bolster the morale of soldiers who, much like their Afghan counterparts, have for years carried much of the burden -- and paid much of the human cost -- of fighting terrorist groups in their country. Not even Biden could accuse the Iraqis, as he shamefully did the Afghans, of being unwilling “to fight for themselves.”
Nor could he argue that US forces in Iraq are in imminent danger: There is no Taliban-like force on the verge of taking over Baghdad. That, too, is in large part a testament to the qualities of the Iraqi fighting forces. They were the ones, with US assistance, who recovered territory lost to the Islamic State, and they’re the ones keeping the terrorists, still at large, from making a comeback.
But the American involvement is crucial to defending the Iraqi military from other threats. Having US units embedded with Iraqi national forces, especially the elite forces, keeps them from being infiltrated and taken over by Tehran‘s proxy militias. The Americans also prevent sectarian and ethnic rivalries within the armed services -- between Kurds and Arabs, say -- from getting out of hand.
The US military presence in Iraq is crucial for the pursuit of American interests in the wider neighborhood, too. The Syrian Kurds, who have been allies in the fight against the Islamic State, are supplied through northern Iraq. Kurds on both sides of the border, having cast their lot with the US, have been shaken by the pullout in Afghanistan.
Others in the neighborhood have cause to celebrate the events in Kabul, and hope they will soon be repeated in Erbil and Sulaymaniyah, the major Iraqi-Kurdish cities, and Baghdad. Hezbollah, for instance, would welcome the removal of US forces. Its supplies of arms from Iran -- which enable the terrorist group to dominate Lebanon, fight for the Syrian dictator Bashar al-Assad and and menace Israel - could then be greatly be increased.
As my Bloomberg Opinion colleague Zev Chafets has pointed out, Biden’s Afghanistan withdrawal already has Israel looking nervously over its shoulder. A withdrawal from Iraq would leave America‘s most important ally in the Middle East exposed to even greater danger from the implacable hatred of the Islamic Republic.
Other allies in the region, such as Saudi Arabia and the United Arab Emirates, have recently taken to hedging their bets by parleying with Iran, and Iraq has emerged as their main intermediary. Kadhimi’s qualifications as an honest broker rest on his being equidistant from Iran and the Arab states. But take the US out of the picture, and there‘s every likelihood that the prime minister becomes a puppet of Tehran. Rather than being a place where the Iranians and Gulf Arabs can confer, Iraq would quickly turn into an area of contestation, with destabilizing effects across the region.
Even a White House keen to “pivot” away from the Middle East must see that this would go directly against the American national interest. Here’s hoping Biden doesn‘t succumb to his reckless tendencies - and stays the course in Iraq.
Bobby Ghosh is a Bloomberg Opinion columnist. -- Ed.