US troop withdrawal: A thorny challenge facing Kadhimi

Farhad Alaaldin

Supreme Leader of the Islamic Republic of Iran Ali Khamenei stated on March 11, 2021, that "America must get out of Iraq." That statement was followed by marathon meetings among paramilitary armed groups in Baghdad, Tehran, and Beirut and resulted in a declaration of a cessation of "targeting U.S. forces and interests in Iraq in exchange for the official demand for the exit of U.S. forces from Iraq."
A source close to the government revealed that the al-Fateh Alliance, headed by Hadi al-Amiri, is pressing Prime Minister Mustafa al-Kadhimi to push for a schedule for the withdrawal of international Coalition forces. On March 18, five Shiite political leaders and Kadhimi held a meeting. Amiri asked to discuss the withdrawal of U.S. forces from Iraq and fix a timetable for their departure. However, that demand is not shared by the other Shiite parties. They believe they should authorize the government to decide, based on public interest and evaluating the extent of Iraq's need for Coalition forces in the war against the Islamic State group (ISIS).
Sunni and Kurdish forces agree on the necessity of the Coalition forces' presence, given that the war against ISIS is ongoing, as evidenced by the fact that remnants of the organization are active in many regions of Diyala, Kirkuk, Salahaddin, and the Ramadi desert. They also fear the domination of armed paramilitary factions in the Iraqi security and political arenas.
As a result of pressure from Shiite forces loyal to Iran, and to revitalize the relationship between Baghdad and Washington, Iraqi Foreign Minister Fuad Hussein recently sent a letter to his American counterpart requesting the continuation of their strategic dialogue.
It is worth noting that the U.S. does not believe Iraq can fill the security vacuum in the event American forces withdraw. David Schenker, the former Assistant Secretary of State for Middle Eastern Affairs, recently wrote an article titled “Our presence in Iraq remains a vital U.S. national security interest." As the title suggests, Schenker believes it is not in the interest of Iraq or the U.S. for American troops to leave Iraq at this stage. Such a withdrawal "would diminish Iraqi military capabilities, undermine confidence in the state, and exacerbate an already severe economic crisis."
The White House confirmed the new round of strategic dialogue. Press Secretary Jen Psaki said in a press conference on March 23, 2021 that the meeting "will clarify that the Coalition forces are in Iraq solely for training and advising Iraqi forces to ensure that ISIS cannot be reconstituted."
A source close to the administration in Washington confirmed that "U.S. forces are in Iraq at the request of the Iraqi government and lead an international coalition of states willing to support Iraqi security forces in ensuring the enduring defeat of ISIS. Discussions will focus on the status of the campaign to ensure the complete defeat of ISIS and how the remaining U.S. forces can advise, assist, and enable Iraqi forces in conducting military operations that will ensure that ISIS will never again threaten the Iraqi people."
According to Michael Knights, an Iraq expert and researcher at the Washington Institute for Near East Studies, the most contentious American forces have already left the country. “They're seeking a withdrawal timetable for units that have already left. There are no U.S. artillery units in Iraq or infantry brigades. All other forces (like missile defenses) are defensive, akin to the embassy guards, which have to stay as long as U.S. persons are in Iraq. U.S. non-combat advisors will stay as long as Iraq’s government needs them, to advise Iraq through the U.S. Embassy, U.S. Consulate Erbil, through the Coalition, and through NATO."
Despite the American side's belief in the importance of the presence of its forces in Iraq, the new U.S. administration, which began its work on January 20, 2021, does not give Iraq priority and has focused most of its attention on internal problems, especially the economic crisis and repercussions of the coronavirus pandemic. The Middle East in general and Iraq in particular are at the bottom of their list of political priorities. This administration's interest was limited to a phone call between U.S. President Joe Biden and Kadhimi, and another call between the U.S. Secretary of State and his Iraqi counterpart. No high-ranking official in the new administration has visited Iraq yet.
Observers believe that U.S. policy in Iraq is shrouded in ambiguity at the very least, and some of them have concluded that the Biden administration does not have a special and studied vision of Iraq, but may continue old policies and deal with Iraq through the Iranian prism.
Michael Knights, however, believes Iraq is essential to Washington: "The Biden administration has a wealth of experience on Iraq, largely because it is built around the team that supported him when he ran the Iraq portfolio in 2008-2016. They give Iraq more attention than most U.S. officials would, and they quickly appreciate the significance of events there."
The upcoming round of the strategic dialogue is of particular importance. It is the first official meeting between the two sides since Biden's inauguration and it is where the Iraqis will discover the extent of this administration's readiness to offer assistance. The question here is how the Iraqi government will use this opportunity to present its vision about the presence of coalition forces and how to benefit from them to fight ISIS, as well as cooperation with NATO forces to train Iraqi soldiers and work to combat corruption within military institutions. The Minister of Defense and some military leaders recently confirmed to government leaders that the Iraqi army's readiness is worse than it was in 2014, pre-ISIS attacks.
It should be noted that the American side refuses to withdraw additional forces from the Iraqi arena because they believe the current number of 2,500 is the minimum for successful performance of their tasks. Any request to further reduce forces will be met with a frank choice: either total withdrawal or the situation remains as is. For this reason, the source from the American government believes Washington will reject "any discussion of artificial timetables that do not serve the interest of either country."
Observers believe the government team can rely on Kadhimi’s good standing with the Americans to negotiate more aid and support. “The Biden team strongly supports the administration of Al-Kadhimi, who they view as the best prime minister Iraq is likely to get under today's circumstances," said Michael Knights.
In his article, David Schenker wrote, "To my mind, Al-Kadhemi is perhaps the best Iraqi prime minister since the 1958 coup that eventually brought the Baathists to power. Courageous and nationalist, Al-Kadhemi has demonstrated a willingness to make difficult decisions in the interest of Iraq."
We have to wait for the results of this round of strategic dialogue, possibly taking place in April, and how parties calling for the American forces' exit will deal with the outcome.
Iraq needs a period of calm before it is ravaged by election fever and the blazing summer. And it helps to have a respite from the conflict between America and Iran. Iranian presidential elections and behind-the-scenes negotiations to re-ignite the nuclear deal will contribute to bringing some calm to Iraq. Iraqis can use this period to deal with the pandemic, the economic crisis, fighting ISIS remnants, and holding early elections if the political forces abide by deadlines and if armed factions abide by their announced truce.
Farhad Alaaldin is the Chairman of the Iraqi Advisory Council. He was the political adviser to former Iraqi President Fuad Masum, the former chief of staff to the KRG prime minister from 2009 to 2011, and former senior adviser to the KRG prime minister from 2011 to 2012.