When I was supreme allied commander at the North Atlantic Treaty Organization, we had a small training mission in Iraq. President Barack Obama’s administration was in the process of drawing down the massive US troop presence there, which peaked at around 170,000.
I visited Baghdad, and spoke at length with the general running the mission, Bob Caslen. He emphasized that we could reduce our presence by 90% — which we did — but that it would be prudent to keep a minimum of 15,000 troops “in country” to maintain stability and counter Iranian influence. Unfortunately, the Obama administration continued the withdrawals, and over time the lack of US presence contributed to the rise of ISIS and ever-increasing Iranian influence in the Iraqi government and military.
The US ended up with around 6,000 troops in Iraq and Syria by the time President Donald Trump arrived in office, and they — along with NATO and Arab allies — had their hands full tamping down a full-blown threat to Iraqi statehood from ISIS’ potent military. It is hard to remember, but ISIS tank convoys came within a few hundred kilometers of Iraq just a few years ago. While a much-diminished force, ISIS is still conducting a rural terrorism campaign, while raising money through internet scams and other forms of cybercrime.
Now the Trump administration seems fixed on simply pulling out all US forces. The White House has announced that it will cut troop levels by the end of the month to 3,000, down from around 5,200. The administration continually presses the Pentagon for options that would bring the presence in Iraq, Syria and Afghanistan to zero — regardless of conditions on the ground. While there is certainly justifiable “Middle East fatigue” in the US today, now is not to time to withdraw.
This latest troop-cut announcement has a distinctly political feel to it. It seems calculated to provide talking points in the run-up to the presidential election; to allow Trump to claim he has ended what he calls America’s “endless” foreign wars.
Think about winners and losers in this withdrawal.
It will first embolden ISIS. The American presence has been the glue holding together the coalition against ISIS, largely through noncombat functions such as logistics, medical care and intelligence-gathering.
Second, a US departure will be celebrated in Tehran. The Iranians will rightly see this as America walking away from the region it did so much to destabilize. This will undercut the good work the Trump administration has done, for example, in encouraging the United Arab Emirates and perhaps other Arab states to stand with Israel against Iran.
Will the US save a great deal of blood or treasure with this withdrawal? Unlikely. At peak, the US had those 170,000 troops in Iraq and around 100,000 in Afghanistan. Bringing those forces down by more than 90% is what has saved all the lives and money — and that happened before the Trump presidency.
Now we are being penny wise and pound foolish, in the sense that the small footprint remaining in Iraq and Syria provides Washington with tremendous military leverage. These few thousand ground troops are what enable a far greater investment by allies, partners and friends, and create stability. This makes a great deal of sense not just in helping Iraq become a legitimate, democratic state, but also in strengthening US relations with Israel, Saudi Arabia, the UAE, Jordan and other Arab states.
Winners: ISIS, Iran, Russia and Syria. Losers: America’s allies. And, of course, the people of Iraq, who will slip further under Iranian control. All with no significant savings in money or lives. Not a very good bargain, especially for an administration that prides itself on the art of those international deals.