Abadi’s real problem with Trump: Looking beyond Mosul
London - Iraqi Prime Minister Haider al-Abadi is about to join a select number of world leaders to be welcomed at the Trump White House.
The visit to Washington might not have been possible just a few weeks ago, before Iraq was dropped from the new US administration’s list of predominantly Muslim countries from which travel to the United States was to be banned.
With the ban on Iraq now lifted, US President Donald Trump has an opportunity to extol his role in combating the Islamic State (ISIS) with the Iraqi prime minister alongside him to share the credit.
Whatever Iraqi leaders privately thought about the original ban, announced by executive order in January, official reaction was muted. A Baghdad government heavily dependent on US support for its offensive against ISIS said it understood the Trump administration’s security concerns.
It was a reminder that governments do not always get to choose their allies. Baghdad was obliged to swallow its pride in the face of an immigration ban that was widely condemned both within the United States and by the other targeted countries.
The Abadi government expressed its “deep relief” that Trump did not include the country in his second executive order, which is also being challenged in the courts. The Iraqi leader described the decision as an important step in the right direction to consolidate the strategic alliance between Baghdad and Washington in the war on terrorism.
US officials acknowledged that the concession to Iraq was in part a reward for its role in fighting ISIS but also for its pledge to share information about Iraqis travelling to the United States.
During an abrasive US election campaign, the Abadi government abided by the diplomatic niceties of not expressing a preference for either candidate. In Iraq and elsewhere in the region, there ended up being less consternation about Trump’s victory than there was among the United States’ traditional close allies.
After an Obama presidency during which America’s commitment to the region often appeared uncertain, Trump’s campaign promises to “bomb the hell out of ISIS” struck a chord in the Middle East.
The goodwill of Iraqis has nevertheless been sorely tested. Although Iraq is not on the new travel ban, the efforts potentially leave a legacy of suspicion and ill-feeling.
In addition, there were Trump’s complaints that the United States should have seized Iraq’s oil to pay for its war there and his warning soon after the inauguration that “maybe we’ll have another chance”.
However, more important to Baghdad than such unhelpful rhetorical asides is what Trump actually intends to do to boost the war against ISIS.
As he was issuing his first contested ban on travel, Trump also ordered his top officials to come up with a comprehensive plan within a month to obliterate the movement. A draft plan was delivered to the White House by US Defense Secretary James Mattis at the end of February.
Mattis had previously spoken of accelerating the war on ISIS both in Iraq and Syria but little has been revealed about how this would happen. Logically it could include an increase in US military deployments on both battlefronts.
In a possible signal of things to come, several hundred US Marines have been dispatched to Syria to provide artillery support in the advance on Raqqa, ISIS’s self-proclaimed capital.
Other relatively small forces are being positioned in the region, ready for speedy deployment. That reflects the demands of the Pentagon and its generals for greater flexibility in responding to changes on the ground.
The United States is already heavily engaged in the conquest of Mosul in northern Iraq, having set up bases near the city to support the advance of Iraqi forces.
The prospect of a more speedy and fluid response from the US military is a potential benefit for Baghdad, which previously had to deal with a cautious Obama White House.
The question, as ever, is not how quickly the war proceeds but what happens after ISIS is expelled from its strongholds.
US Marine General Joseph Dunford, chairman of the US Joint Chiefs of Staff, said in February that military action must be twinned with political efforts.
“All of us who have participated in these conflicts over the last 15 years realise that anything we do on the ground has to be in the context of political objectives or it’s not going to be successful,” he said.
Abadi will be hoping that Trump, who has displayed limited patience and a short attention span, will play a more proactive and engaged regional role than his predecessor and commit to the long haul.
For the time being, Trump has elevated radical Islam to the top spot among the United States’ enemies but there are plenty of potential rivals for that title that are capable of distracting the president’s attention.
In a remark that may have been directed as much at Trump as at the Iraqi government, Dunford noted that Abadi acknowledged the need for the international community continuing to support Iraq’s defence capacity building. The Iraqi prime minister has said that the US-led coalition’s contribution to training Iraqi troops should be open-ended.
The military commander of the coalition, US Army General Stephen Townsend, reinforced Dunford’s message when he said US-Iraqi military cooperation would continue even after ISIS is expelled from Mosul.
Abadi will be looking for confirmation that Trump is in tune with his generals.