- The Washington Times - Tuesday, May 29, 2018

The Pentagon is working behind-the-scenes on a plan to get NATO allies to play a far more significant, boots-on-the-ground role in maintaining security in Iraq as the U.S. military revamps its anti-Islamic State mission into a longer-term stabilization campaign.

Pentagon sources have told The Washington Times that Defense Secretary James N. Mattis intends to present the plan at a NATO meeting in Brussels next month, calling for a larger number of troops from the alliance to support the new mission.

U.S. officials say the overhaul, which has not yet been made public, would reshape the Iraq mission into a longer-term, more advisory and more multinational campaign akin to current American-led operations in Afghanistan, with a central focus on further bolstering Iraq’s own security forces.

While details, including the potentially increased NATO role, are still being hammered out by senior strategists around Mr. Mattis, several officials told The Times that the goal will be to ensure Iraqi troops have the heft and training needed to battle back remaining elements of the terror group known as the Islamic State, as well as other extremists seeking to gain a future foothold in Iraq.

Pentagon officials and their State Department counterparts heading up the counter-Islamic State coalition led by Washington are coordinating ahead of Mr. Mattis’ impending visit to the NATO headquarters, according to one Trump administration official who spoke on condition of anonymity.

Inside the Defense Department, sources say the proposed changes to the Iraq mission are neither a response to a worsening situation on the ground, nor an indication that Islamic State elements there or in neighboring Syria are poised for a resurgence.

Rather, officials told The Times that the changes represent the next step in the evolving U.S. mission in Iraq and, if adopted by Washington’s NATO allies, could extend the overall American mission there for the foreseeable future.

The officials, who also spoke on condition of anonymity, said Mr. Mattis’ proposal likely will not call for an increase of U.S. troops numbers in Iraq. Alternatively, said one of the officials, the more multinational military advisory operation would be based on a the deployment of a larger contingency of troops from other NATO member nations.

If the defense secretary is able bring such a development to the fore, it would be reflective of President Trump’s wider effort to lessen the U.S. military footprint in Iraq and Syria, while simultaneously prodding NATO members to increase their military contributions to ongoing operations in Iraq, Afghanistan and elsewhere across the globe.

It is not yet clear how many alliance member troops the Trump administration will request from NATO, nor from which specific countries the troops may drawn.

Modeled after Afghan mission

There are presently 38 countries from around the world contributing roughly 6,500 troops to the current NATO-run advisory mission in Afghanistan dubbed Operation Resolute Support.

The forces back up some 8,000 U.S. service members who’ve been on the ground in Afghanistan since the end of full-fledged combat operations there in 2014.

The dynamics are different in Iraq, where the current U.S.-led global coalition to defeat the Islamic State involves contributions of one kind or another from some 75 nations, including from NATO members such as France, Germany, Italy and Turkey, as well as from non-NATO nations such as Bahrain, Jordan, Lebanon, Taiwan and South Korea.

Roughly 23 nations, including the U.S., have deployed a total of 9,000 troops to support combat operations against the Islamic State in both Iraq and Syria — known as Operation Inherent Resolve — according to a State Department fact sheet.

However, the majority of the troops are American, with only limited deployments from the other coalition partners, including those who are NATO members.

The Pentagon has said some 5,000 U.S. service members are currently deployed to battle the Islamic State in Iraq and Syria, with the majority stationed in Iraq. The United Kingdom has contributed just over 600 troops.

The effort to push other NATO members to deploy more fits with Mr. Trump’s call for the alliance to share more of the burden of military coalition efforts worldwide.

On the campaign trail in 2016, Mr. Trump famously bandied the notion that the U.S. could pull out of the Cold War-era alliance if partner nations did not meet the 2 percent investment goal of their country’s gross domestic product into alliance coffers.

In February, NATO Secretary General Jens Stoltenberg said only half of the 29-nation NATO alliance is on track to meet the two-percent investment goal, with just 15 alliance members expected to reach it by 2024.

Baghdad blowback?

While debate over NATO financial commitments hangs in the backdrop, the whole Pentagon plan for a revamped and multinational force in Iraq could be scuttled if the new ruling government coalition in Baghdad attempts to push U.S. and allied forces out of the country in the near term.

Iraqi Prime Minister Haider al-Abadi’s government has thus far supported American-led efforts to maintain a continued military presence, to bolster the country’s security forces.

Regional observers argue the full American withdrawal from the country in 2011 was premature and left the Iraqi forces unprepared for what became an onslaught by the Islamic State, which cut a swath of territory from western Syria through northern Iraq in 2014.

But the surprise parliamentary election victory in Iraq this month of a political bloc led by Shiite cleric Muqtada al-Sadr has raised doubts around the Abadi government’s ability to secure the necessary agreements to allow U.S. and NATO forces to remain in the country this time around.

Mr. Sadr, who built his reputation inside Iraq by leading the Shiite Mahdi Army in a years-long conflict with American forces in the mid-2000s, has repeatedly called for the full withdrawal of western forces now that the campaign to defeat the Islamic State is all but complete.

During his recent campaign, Mr. Sadr reportedly said American and allied troops could become targets of Shiite paramilitary groups if they remain in the country.

The Trump administration is believed to have opened a communications back-channel to Mr. Sadr and his top aides to probe the cleric’s position toward the prospect of a long-term U.S. military presence.

• Carlo Muñoz can be reached at cmunoz@washingtontimes.com.

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