Just as has happened with Afghanistan, US President Joe Biden is taking a big gamble with his decision to end American combat operations in Iraq by the end of 2021. After 20 years of involvement that has often been mired in controversy, it is understandable that the new administration should want to scale down its involvement in America’s "forever wars".
There does, however, appear to be a significant difference between the Biden administration’s plans for Iraq as opposed to those for Afghanistan, where Washington intends to withdraw all its forces before the end of the year. Mr Biden plans to maintain a scaled down US presence in Iraq to provide assistance and training to the Iraqi security forces to ensure they can contain the threat posed by both Iranian-backed militias and ISIS.
The announcement, which followed Mr Biden's meeting with Iraqi Prime Minister Mustafa Al Kadhimi in the White House on Monday, is a confirmation of his administration’s policy of disengaging the US from the two major military interventions that came after the September 11, 2001 attacks.
There will be a shift in emphasis, instead, as the remaining American contingent concentrates its efforts on fulfilling an advisory role. One of its primary aims will be to ensure that ISIS militants do not renew their attempts to challenge the Iraqi government, as happened the last time Washington withdrew its military forces from the country. "I think things are going well,” Mr Biden said of the ongoing joint US-Iraqi campaign against ISIS. “Our role in Iraq will be to be available to continue to train, to assist, to help, and to deal with ISIS – as it arrives. But we're not going to be, by the end of the year, in a combat mission. We support strengthening Iraq's democracy.”
One major difference between Mr Biden’s approach to Iraq as compared to Afghanistan is that, whereas the Afghan government was keen for Washington to maintain its military presence, the Iraqi government wanted to see the US scale down its military operations – a hot political topic in Baghdad. Opposition groups regularly demand the removal of foreign troops from Iraqi soil, especially after recent clashes between Iranian-backed militias and US forces. The Biden administration is hoping the announcement will bring some political stability to Baghdad ahead of October’s parliamentary election.
Even so, having spent much of the past two decades immersed in Iraqi affairs, Mr Biden is well acquainted with the difficulties of striking the right balance between security and stability in Iraq.
Back in 2002, just months before the US-led invasion of Iraq, Mr Biden – then chairman of the Senate Foreign Affairs Committee – voted in favour of authorising force against dictator Saddam Hussein. He later appeared alongside then president George W Bush in the White House East Room when he signed the resolution. Mr Biden subsequently became a vocal critic of the Bush administration’s handling of the conflict, and when the succeeding Obama administration opted to end Washington’s military involvement in Iraq, Mr Biden, in his capacity as vice president, was tasked with withdrawing the 150,000 American troops in the country.
The unseemly haste of the withdrawal, with insufficient attention being given to Iraq’s fragile political institutions, arguably led to the emergence of ISIS in the summer of 2014, when militants seized control of large swathes of northern Iraq and, at one critical juncture, even threatened to overrun Baghdad. In what became a major embarrassment for the Obama administration, Washington was once again obliged to deploy combat forces to Iraq, ultimately resulting in the highly successful mission to destroy ISIS’s so-called caliphate in Iraq and Syria.
Mr Biden is well versed in the complicated twists and turns that have defined US policy in Iraq during the past two decades, and is therefore mindful that, even if the US is to end combat operations, its presence in the country needs to be maintained to help the Iraqi government withstand the combined pressures of ISIS and Iran.
At present there are an estimated 2,500 US troops in Iraq and, while US officials have declined to say how that number will change following the president’s announcement, the expectation is the strength will be about the same. Moreover, Mr Biden is keen to expand the US-Iraqi relationship away from its previous emphasis on security and counterterrorism operations to include other bilateral issues, such as dealing with the Covid-19 pandemic. In this context, Washington has committed to provide the country 500,000 doses of Pfizer's vaccine.
Nevertheless, even with Washington maintaining a residual presence in Iraq, Mr Biden’s initiative is not without risk, not least because of the threat posed by ISIS. The organisation’s ability to regroup after the devastating defeats it suffered years ago is reflected in the announcement earlier this week that Russia was reinforcing its combat strength in Tajikistan and training local soldiers over concerns that ISIS militants were moving into neighbouring Afghanistan. The group is also believed to entertain ambitions of rebuilding in Iraq.
Mr Biden's decision also raises questions about Iran’s future involvement in Iraq, with concerns that Tehran will seek to expand its influence there. The US president will be well aware of the risks he is taking. But by seeking to maintain presence in the country, he is taking precautions to ensure that history does not repeat itself.