Pulling out of Iraq would create a vacuum for ISIS, Iran, and Russia, according to the official who led the anti-ISIS fight
- In the aftermath of the US killing of a top Iranian military commander on Iraqi soil, Baghdad has asked the US to start planning to pull its forces out.
- The US appears to have declined that request, but the US's position in Iraq is already diminished, which could create opportunities for rivals in the region, Brett McGurk, the former US envoy to the anti-ISIS mission, said this week.
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Even as tensions between the US and Iran appear to be easing, officials in Iraq - angry at being caught between Washington and Tehran - are pushing the US to withdraw.
Following the January 3 assassination of Iranian Gen. Qassem Soleimani in Baghdad by the US, Iraqi lawmakers on January 5 passed a nonbinding resolution calling for a US exit from the country.
The measure, which Sunni and Kurdish legislators opposed, put the onus on the Iraqi government to formally request a withdrawal, and on January 9, Iraqi Prime Minister Adel Abdul-Mahdi requested the US begin working on a plan to leave, telling Secretary of State Mike Pompeo to "send delegates to Iraq to prepare a mechanism to carry out the parliament's resolution regarding the withdrawal."
But the US appears disinclined to get out.
"America is a force for good in the Middle East. Our military presence in Iraq is to continue the fight against ISIS," State Department spokesperson Morgan Outagus said Friday. "At this time, any delegation sent to Iraq would be dedicated to discussing how to best recommit to our strategic partnership - not to discuss troop withdrawal, but our right, appropriate force posture in the Middle East."
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The US had some 5,000 personnel in Iraq in 2019 as part of Operation Inherent Resolve, the US-led multinational effort against ISIS. Over the second half of last year, the US also deployed 14,000 additional troops to the Middle East.
As tensions between the US and Iran rose in the final days of 2019 and first days of 2020, more than 5,000 more troops were sent to the region, including about 3,500 paratroopers from the 82nd Airborne Division deployed to Kuwait and about 2,200 Marines with the 26th Marine Expeditionary Unit who are en route.
Members the 75th Ranger Regiment are also expected to deploy. About 200 soldiers from the 173rd Airborne Brigade are on notice to do so as well.
Those units, the 82nd Airborne in particular, were deployed on short notice, with some troops alerted just hours before New Year's Eve, and it's not clear when they might return.
"They deployed on a contingency basis, so the secretary of defense will work out the duration of the deployment," Army Secretary Ryan McCarthy said on Thursday at an event at the Brookings Institution think tank. "We have conversations about this daily, but that's what being the immediate ready force is all about."
Operation Inherent Resolve said on January 5 that it paused anti-ISIS operations in Iraq due to repeated rocket attacks on bases there, which killed Iraqi Security Forces members and a US civilian contractor. Local partner forces continued operations against ISIS in the area, according to a release put out by Operation Inherent Resolve on Friday.
But pulling the US out entirely would be trouble for the mission against ISIS and for the US's broader strategic position, according to Brett McGurk, who was special presidential envoy for the anti-ISIS coalition during the Trump and Obama administrations.
"If we leave entirely, ISIS will reconstitute, and it'll reconstitute quite significantly," McGurk said on a January 8 episode of Pod Save the World. "It wasn't very long ago when ISIS was launching 50 car bombs and suicide bombs a month in Baghdad, which is what just tears the society apart."
A total withdrawal would also create a vacuum for Iran to fill "in a major way," McGurk said.
"Our presence in Iraq, we're there for ISIS. That's our legal basis. ... But the fact of our being there also helps balance the tremendous influence, and pernicious influence, coming from Iran."
"And then watch the Russians, because I know the Russians well enough. They have been dying to get into Iraq and ... are offering to sell S-400 missile systems to the Iraqis," McGurk added, referring to reports that Moscow again offered Iraq the S-400 air defense system.
Iraqi lawmakers told The Wall Street Journal that they decided to move forward on talks for the S-400 out of concern the US could pull its support, though they said no contracts have been signed.
Pulling out of Iraq would also further erode the US presence in neighboring Syria, where US special operations forces have been advising local fighters who are still conducting anti-ISIS operations.
"Although at this point, Syria - given that Trump overnight, a few months ago, gave up basically all of our positions in Syria - it's hard to see us remaining there for the foreseeable future anyway," McGurk added.
The US position in Iraq and Syria, while not perfect, was "pretty strong," McGurk said, but it has been under increasing strain since Trump reduced the US presence there at the end of 2018, which prompted both McGurk and then-Defense Secretary Jim Mattis to resign.
In addition to the international legitimacy provided by the broad anti-ISIS coalition, that position gave the US diplomatic leverage.
"If you shift your focus entirely to Iran, and you do it in a clumsy way, you end up losing all that, and so then you have nothing, and I fear that that's where we're heading now," McGurk added.
McGurk said there was no "automatic severance clause" in the 2014 agreement that allowed the US to operate in Iraq under the auspices of the anti-ISIS coalition, meaning there is still time to mend relations.
"If, out of this crisis, we are forced out or we decide to leave, it would be an irretrievable strategic moment in the Middle East that we'd be living with for a generation," McGurk said. "It'd be a real disaster on multiple levels, so I hope that they can get beyond this period of heightened passions and intensity ... because I think most Iraqis don't want us to depart."