American forces must remain in Iraq otherwise the country will “unravel” with ISIS terrorists turning it into another Afghanistan, a leading general has told The National.
If US and Nato troops withdraw it could lead to a far greater, costlier and more difficult reintervention later, said Major General Sirwan Barzani of the Peshmerga military.
The extremists, whose force in Iraq totals an estimated 7,000 fighters, are biding their time waiting for the western force to dwindle in size, the officer said.
Despite the pressure of the war in Ukraine, current US force levels have remained at 2,000 troops stationed in Al Asad Airbase, western Iraq, Camp Victory in Baghdad and near Erbil in the north.
There is also a sizeable number of 4,000 Nato troops training the Iraqi military but there could be a requirement for their use elsewhere, particularly if ISIS continues its resurgence in Africa or in Europe to face the Russia threat.
Without continued US and Nato support “all we have achieved is in danger of unravelling”, warned Gen Barzani.
“They might have lost their territory and ability to attack the West, but they haven’t lost their murderous desires. ISIS are patient. They think the West is distracted and the United States is disengaging from the Middle East.”
The general is regarded as one of the foremost Peshmerga leaders having fought for a decade against Saddam Hussein’s forces, earning the nickname of “Black Tiger”.
He retired from the army in 2000 but returned in 2014 during the major ISIS offensive and personally led 150 men to defend Erbil, driving the terrorists back, assisted by US-led air strikes
But he now fears that ISIS could return in force. Speaking from northern Iraq, the Peshmerga leader for Erbil, said the extremists were “using their time out of the spotlight to rebuild and regroup”, including replenishing their armoury.
There are concerns in Iraq that America could withdraw its troops as it did in Afghanistan in 2021 with an extremist terror grouping taking control.
The general believed that US withdrawal had emboldened ISIS, making them “even more confident that they can regroup” in Iraq and Syria.
“If the US vacates the field of battle in Iraq, ISIS will seize the opportunity, which risks Iraq becoming another Afghanistan,” the general said.
“Another safe haven for them to grow and threaten not just us Kurds, but the world.”
During previous ISIS offensives, US combat aircraft and special forces have helped defeat the extremists and still remained “critical to the security of Iraq”.
In an interview with the Wall Street Journal last week, Iraq’s new Prime Minister Mohammed Al Sudani said western military should remain indefinitely as “we need foreign troops” because the “elimination of ISIS needs some more time”.
Gen Barzani agreed to what the Prime Minister said and stated that western support was “critical to the security” of Iraq.
“ISIS are fanatics who will never give up until every fighter is defeated and they will seize any opportunity to re-establish a foothold from which they can continue their campaign of terror,” he added.
While the western world is focused on the war in Ukraine, and to a lesser extent the belligerence of China, focus on ISIS has diminished.
But the international terror group appears to be reinforcing in large parts of western, central and southern Africa, including Mozambique, building its strength.
“ISIS are using their hideouts and bases to plan and launch terror attacks against the US’ allies,” said Gen Barzani.
While the terrorists remain a “lower threat now” it was far better to deal with them today rather than “the need for a bigger intervention in the future".
“We need the US and Western forces to stay engaged. The job isn’t over,” he added.
This meant a “viable US fighting force” on the ground in Iraq to continue operations to find and destroy ISIS fighters.
The Peshmerga also needed supplies of armoured vehicles and weapons, he said.
He called on the West to address the long-running sore of foreign nationals who are among the 10,000 ISIS held in prisons guarded by the Peshmerga.
“Western nations have a responsibility to deal with them,” he said.
“Putting into their prison systems instead of dumping them here, where they only strengthen the resolve of the ISIS insurgency.”
Gen Barzani, 52, insisted that despite conflicts elsewhere, western powers had to remain focused on the Middle East terror threat.
“ISIS ideology still infects the minds of many and remains a violent and a dangerous threat to people across the Western world,” he said.
“As long as there are ISIS fighters still operational and at large, they will continue to pose a threat, and they will continue to inspire more dangerous followers in the West.”