US likely to keep thousands of troops in Iraq post-ISIS

Sunday 04/06/2017
Lightning rod. US soldiers moving through Qayara West Coalition base in Qayara, 50km south of Mosul. (AP)

Washington- During the 2016 US presi­dential campaign, can­didate Donald Trump espoused two seemingly contradictory policies vis-à-vis the Middle East — avoiding military entanglements and defeat­ing the Islamic State (ISIS).
The first position was related to his denunciation of the Iraq war of 2003, which he called a “dumb” war that should have never been fought. The second position was related to his pledge to protect the US homeland from ISIS and ISIS-inspired terrorists.
Today, after a relentless assault by Iraqi government troops, Shia militias and Kurdish peshmerga — aided by US advisers and air strikes — ISIS is on the verge of losing Mo­sul, its last stronghold in Iraq. One would think Trump, as US presi­dent, would be eager to bring US troops home once Mosul falls and ISIS is defeated in Syria.
There are reports, however, that suggest that the Trump administra­tion will likely keep several thou­sand US troops in Iraq post-ISIS. That decision is probably due to the assessment of US Defence Sec­retary James Mattis, who has been given significant leeway by Trump to chart US security policy in the region.

As a former combat commander in Iraq, Mattis understands the sec­tarian and ethnic dynamics in the country and may believe that the withdrawal of US troops from Iraq under the Obama administration was a mistake because it created a power vacuum that ISIS took ad­vantage of.
An Associated Press report, citing an unidentified US Defence Depart­ment official, said Mattis has been in discussions with Iraqi officials on “what the long-term US presence would look like.” The official said US forces would be stationed in ex­isting Iraqi military bases in the Mo­sul area and along the border with Syria.
The number of US troops, the source said, would be the same lev­el as currently exists — about 7,000 — and “maybe a little more.”
There seems to be bipartisan sup­port in the US Congress for a con­tinued US military presence to help stabilise Iraq post-ISIS. In March, prominent US senators, including the chairman and ranking mem­ber of the Senate Foreign Relations Committee and the ranking mem­ber of the Armed Services Commit­tee, sent a letter to Trump urging him to help rebuild Iraq. Although the letter did not specifically men­tion US troops, it called on Trump to “continue supporting Iraq’s se­curity forces so that they can part­ner with US forces on counterter­rorism.”
In addition, some US think-tanks have backed a continued US troop presence in Iraq. A report by the Centre for Strategic and Budgetary Assessments called for the pres­ence of 5,000-20,000 US troops in Iraq post-ISIS to ensure that an­other ISIS-like insurgency does not emerge.
Iraqi Prime Minister Haider al- Abadi is said to be in favour of a continued US military presence but is likely to opt for an executive agreement with the United States as opposed to submitting a formal Sta­tus of Forces Agreement (SOFA) to the Iraqi Parliament where it would probably fail because of nationalis­tic opposition.
Haider probably has the sup­port of some of his Shia allies, Iraqi Kurds and moderate Sunnis for such an agreement. However, Iraqi Shia groups allied with Iran have voiced opposition to US troops remaining in the country.

Although US troops would be of­ficially designated as “advisers” under such an agreement, the pres­ence of foreign forces in Iraq has historically been a lightning rod. The British military presence in Iraq after 1932 (the year Iraq achieved nominal independence) was a sore point with Iraqi nationalists, as was the ill-fated Treaty of Portsmouth in 1948 that tried to formalise a con­tinual British military presence in the country.
Thus, it is not certain that Abadi can count on those Iraqis who are now supposedly in favour of US troops to stick with him.
If a renewed insurgency in Iraq were to emerge post-ISIS and lead to the death of US military advisers, the bipartisan consensus in Con­gress would likely dissipate.
Trump thus faces real risks: With­drawing US troops before Iraqi gov­ernment troops are ready to secure the country and prevent another in­surgent group from forming would put him in the same position as former US President Barack Obama in 2014 when ISIS was ascendant. However, keeping troops in Iraq has the potential to spur opposition and put those troops in harm’s way.
For the time being, Trump and Mattis seem to be betting that a US military presence in post-ISIS Iraq would help stabilise the country and not become a lightning rod for opposition.