As the Iraqi and U.S. governments sent contradictory messages Tuesday about whether and when U.S. troops would be pulling out of Iraq, and the Pentagon reported the launch of “more than a dozen ballistic missiles” from Iran targeting U.S. forces, retired military officers familiar with the region said the only winners from an American withdrawal would be Iran and the Islamic State.
The Iraqi Parliament voted in a nonbinding resolution Sunday to expel U.S. forces from the country. On Monday, a draft letter from the commander of U.S. forces in Iraq to the Iraqi government implying that the U.S. military was preparing to withdraw circulated widely online, forcing Defense Secretary Mark Esper and Chairman of the Joint Chiefs of Staff Gen. Mark Milley to disavow it as a “mistake.” Esper told CNN Tuesday that the United States was “not withdrawing from Iraq,” but Iraqi Prime Minister Adil Abdul-Mahdi said he had taken the letter seriously and that a U.S. withdrawal was now the only option to deescalate the situation.
A few hours later, at around 5:30 p.m. EST, the barrage of missiles began landing at two coalition military bases. There was no immediate assessment of casualties or damage.
President Trump on Tuesday said the United States had no immediate intention to leave Iraq. Earlier he had said that if the military does leave he would demand compensation from Iraq for an air base it has built there.
The irony that Iran might be the principal beneficiary of the U.S. airstrike that killed Maj. Gen. Qassem Soleimani, Iran’s most high-profile military figure, wasn’t lost on Americans familiar with the region.
“It does leave a void for Iran to fill,” said a retired senior military officer with extensive experience in the Middle East. “I don’t know that there’s anybody else that would necessarily step into that.”
The attacks Tuesday night seem likely to spur calls by Baghdad for the U.S. to withdraw, lest Iraq be caught in the middle of a hot war between the U.S. and Iran.
Under a worst-case scenario, the Iraqi state, precariously balanced among Sunni, Shiite and Kurdish political parties, could descend into civil war.
A former military commander in Iraq agreed that Iran would “certainly” step into the gap left by a U.S. withdrawal.
The departure of U.S. forces would rob the United States of “an invaluable tool” in its competition with Iran “below the level of conflict” for influence in Iraq and the wider Middle East, according to the retired senior military officer with extensive Middle East experience. “Our objective over the last couple of years has been to really be great partners with Iraq … and not become a burden to them,” he said. “This in turn allowed us to maintain a very good relationship with the Iraqi armed forces and with the Iraqi government and be seen as value added. So if we step away, we lose that.”
The retired senior military officer noted that Iraqi President Barham Salih had been quoted describing the United States as an “ally” and Iran as a “neighbor” in a recent New Yorker article. “I think that’s a really important distinction,” he said.
The other main beneficiary of a U.S. withdrawal from Iraq could be the Islamic State. American troops fought alongside Iraqis, including Kurdish forces and (ironically) Iranian-supported militias, for five years to oust ISIS from their self-proclaimed caliphate in Syria and western Iraq, finally succeeding just last year.
“The Islamic State is the big winner in that scenario,” said retired Col. Isaiah “Ike” Wilson, who left active duty in 2017 after serving as head of the Commander’s Initiatives Group at U.S. Central Command, which runs all U.S. military operations in the Middle East. “By leaving Iraq, you create an open ground for the Islamic State to reconstitute and build up in sanctuary.”
The former military commander in Iraq compared such a scenario to what happened when the United States removed its combat forces from Iraq in late 2011, which allowed al-Qaida in Iraq to reemerge, later evolving into the Islamic State. An ISIS safe haven in Iraq would jeopardize U.S. forces and operations in Syria, according to Wilson, who now directs the Army War College’s Strategic Studies Institute in Carlisle, Pa. Even if the U.S. military could continue to conduct operations against the Islamic State in Syria, by leaving a vacuum for the militant organization to fill in Iraq, “we’ve essentially created the equivalent of what Cambodia was when we were in Vietnam,” he said.
But the former senior officers interviewed by Yahoo News doubted that the estimated 800 U.S. troops in Syria would be able to continue operations without the larger force in Iraq to provide logistical support, intelligence, surveillance and reconnaissance aircraft and combat support. Withdrawal from Iraq “would make it very difficult and it may in fact make it impossible to sustain that operation,” said the retired senior military officer with extensive Middle East experience.
If U.S. forces departed Iraq, “I suspect additional forces would have to be based in Syria,” said the former military commander in Iraq.
A withdrawal from Iraq “really hobbles not only the campaign plan itself but the strategy undergirding it,” said Wilson, who was deeply involved in the development of Central Command’s plan. “That’s why our strategy when we designed it back in 2014 was always about Iraq first.”
A precipitous withdrawal followed by the resurgence of the Islamic State “could be the thing that triggers … another civil war in Iraq,” Wilson said. The danger is that a reborn Islamic State would be attacked by Iran and its Shiite militia proxy forces. That in turn could draw in intervention by some of the Sunni states in the Middle East, particularly those in the Gulf Cooperation Council, who might create their own surrogate militias in Iraq, Wilson added.
In that scenario, Iraq’s security forces “could and probably would … fracture from within,” he said, possibly leading to a breakup of the nation itself into Shiite, Sunni and Kurdish statelets in a loose confederation. At least two of those, the Sunni and Kurdish entities, might welcome U.S. forces, according to Wilson. The Shiites, presumably allied with Iran, probably would not.
The retired senior military officer with extensive Middle East experience was less sure that, in the absence of U.S. forces, Iraq would disintegrate into a three-way civil war. But, he acknowledged, “it would certainly exacerbate the already existing underlying tensions between each of these groups.”
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