IntelBrief: The Delicate Issue of U.S. Troops in Iraq
Bottom Line Up Front:
- On May 1, the U.S. disbanded the military command structure it had set up to help Iraq fight the Islamic State.
- For almost four years, the Combined Joint Forces Land Component Command led the U.S. effort to ‘train, equip, and advise’ Iraqi security forces trying to retake cities and towns.
- Now the U.S. will shift to a lower-profile but essentially permanent presence in Iraq.
- The U.S. will continue to advise and train but seek to avoid becoming a political or social problem for the al-Abadi government.
The military defeat of the so-called Islamic State is a significant achievement for the Iraqi government and security services—and for the United States, which provided extensive direct and indirect support to Iraqi services.The presence of U.S. troops in Iraq has always been a sensitive issue, with the U.S. wanting to provide help without having its military participation create political problems. The U.S. has avoided a major backlash to its presence by maintaining a low public profile; according to the Pentagon, there are approximately 5,000 U.S. personnel in Iraq.
As part of that deliberately small footprint, on May 1, the U.S. Defense Department announced it was disbanding the command structure it had set up almost four years ago to assist the Iraqi military and security services in their fight against the Islamic State. It is important to remember how large a threat, both actual and perceived, the Islamic State was to central government. The group had taken Mosul, the second largest city in the country, as well as Tikrit, Ramadi, and many other towns and villages. There was a real threat that Iraq could degenerate further; indeed, the Maliki government collapsed. To prevent a true failure of the Iraqi state, the U.S. sent troops back into a country it had left in high-profile fashion in December 2011. The political risks to the new al-Abadi government were considerable.
However, the situation on the ground was dire enough that, while there were and remain strong objections to the presence of U.S. troops by Shia’ militia, there was no sweeping public outrage. Keeping the U.S. troops in remote bases and off the streets of Baghdad helped keep the issue off the front pages. This bought the Iraqi government the time it needed to stop the routing of its forces, stabilize and improve its capabilities, and then slowly, and at enormous cost in terms of injuries and deaths, retake the areas it had lost. The combination of U.S. air support and embedded advisors, as well as the provision of military equipment and extensive logistic support, helped the Iraqi services in their fight against the Islamic State while minimizing the political and social risks of once again having U.S. troops on the ground in Iraq. This is not an insignificant achievement.
The disbanding of the Combined Joint Forces Land Component Command, which led the U.S. and coalition efforts to support Iraqi forces, doesn’t mean the U.S. is completely pulling its uniformed personnel from Iraq. Neither the Iraqi nor the U.S. government will state just how many U.S. service personnel will remain in Iraq and in exactly what role, but both say the U.S. will continue to support Baghdad to ensure the Islamic State does not return. Brig. Gen. Yahya Rasoul, a spokesman for the Iraqi military, was quoted in a May 1 article in the New York Times as saying the Iraqi government looks ‘forward to taking the partnership forward with the Combined Joint Task Force, and a friendship that will endure for years to come.’
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