Here we are again, being asked to disappear from view before a May 12th election in Iraq.
The move to shut down ground operations command in Iraq ahead of an election is more than symbolic. It means something to the Iraqis, more to the Iranians, and a great deal to the U.S. because it will result in a loss of situational awareness. Our eyes and ears on the ground will now be behind high walls and could lead to security backslide in areas cleared of ISIS.
Why this is important to Baghdad and Tehran
Shia Iraqis want to be credited with the defeat of ISIS and minimize the role the U.S. played. Many Iraqis, particularly among the 60 percent-majority Shia population, already credit Iran with victory over ISIS. The rest of the country faults the U.S. for effectively functioning as the air force for Iranian proxies.
Iran, a Shia country that weighs outsize influence on Shia communities in other parts of the Muslim world, does not want Baghdad to use the U.S. presence as a counterweight to Tehran’s influence. Iran’s influence with Iraq’s Shia religious parties is pushing them towards calling for an immediate exit of U.S. forces. Iran is pushing even Iraqi militias aligned with Tehran to threaten to exit the U.S. with violence. Soft power and hard power Tehran style — both equal a U.S. exit.
We’ve been here before
This move to minimize the U.S. visual presence in Iraq is similar to the June 2009 “out of the cities” campaign when U.S. Forces Iraq (USF-I) withdrew from Iraq’s cities and moved back behind the high walls of Texas Barriers that surrounded our big bases. We were not to be seen unless invited out by the Iraqis to participate.
The 2009 move impacted our intelligence capabilities and hurt our relationships with Sunni Arabs and Kurds, not to mention the capabilities of budding Iraqi Security Forces (ISF) we were partnered with during “the surge” which decimated Al-Qaeda and put IRGC-QF militia leaders behind bars.
And, like 2009, ahead of a 2010 election that failed to secure a continued U.S. presence in Iraq, a decreased U.S. role gave rise and rebirth to a defeated enemy that began to slowly creep back as ISIS.
This simplified definition of “defeated” — ISIS has only lost territory and is not defeated — coupled with a decreased U.S. role, leaves “liberated” cities ripe for security backslide. Does that sound too negative? Well, it happened with 130,000 Americans behind walls until we left in 2011. I don’t see how it turns out better with less than 5,000 Americans in the country and now behind walls and waiting.
This 2018 move is ahead of Iraq’s May 12 parliamentary elections, an election where moderate political parties are asking for a less visible U.S. presence, and one where pro-Iran parties are threatening the U.S. with violence. Iranian Revolutionary Guards al-Quds (IRGC-QF) Force commander Maj. Gen. Qassem Soleimani, for example, has influence on both Iraq and Kurdistan.
If Iraqi Prime Minister Haider al-Abadi remains prime minister, he will need the U.S. to take a less visible role while still providing training and equipment and funds to the Iraqi Security Forces (ISF) that are now infiltrated by IRGC-QF militias. Wait, infiltrated may be too harsh, let’s say this instead: Integrated into the ISF with access to U.S. funds and equipment. “Integrated” suggests we know what’s happening and are ignoring it, to our peril.
Soleimani’s lieutenants lead his IRGC-QF militias in Iraq. These IRGC-QF militias now makeup a political party — the Fatah party — and if they win the prime minister position, we will be told to leave. Even if Fatah comes up short and ends up with key security and infrastructure ministries, then we simply have to end funding to Baghdad, end the U.S. Train and Equip program in Iraq, and seriously consider leaving Baghdad for Erbil.
If we are asked to leave nicely or under the threat of violence, because again, we’ve been here before — we must stay. The the last time we left, it resulted in the birth of an existential threat to the world. In 2011, the Sunni Arabs and Kurds asked us, ineffectually, to remain. Today, they are again asking us to stay regardless of what Baghdad and Tehran want. If we leave again, 10-year-old Americans will be fighting as 20-year-old men and women in Iraq.
Sectarian forces in Baghdad, Tehran, and Damascus have no interest or appetite in keeping Sunni threats from emerging in the Northern Middle East. They need the threat of possible Sunni extremism ever present in order to stay armed and in control.