The decision by Washington and NATO to suspend work with Iraqi forces against the Islamic State is raising difficult questions about whether the U.S.-Iranian clash is undercutting the fight against the terror group.
With the Pentagon’s focus shifting toward protecting U.S. and allied forces in Iraq from attacks by Iran — and with many in Baghdad calling for U.S. forces to leave Iraq altogether — some regional experts are warning the counter-ISIS fight could suffer.
Bill Roggio, a counterterrorism analyst with the Foundation for Defense of Democracies (FDD) and editor of the foundation’s Long War Journal, said it is too early to tell how the counter-ISIS campaign will be affected, but said it is likely the “campaign will probably be weakened” if U.S. forces leave — or are forced to leave — Iraq.
“I think if U.S. troops do withdraw, it could negatively impact the situation, or it’s possible that the Iranians and the Shia militias in Iraq, who are aligned with Iran, may step up their own fight against ISIS remnants — and it becomes an Iraq and Iranian problem and no longer an American problem.”
Two days after the U.S. drone strike that killed Gen. Qassem Soleimani in Baghdad on Jan. 3, the U.S.-led military coalition in Iraq announced a pause in its years-long partnership with Iraqi forces. NATO followed on Tuesday by announcing that it too has suspended its mission training operations for Iraqi military forces, although NATO Secretary-General Jens Stoltenberg said member-countries remain committed to the alliance’s anti-Islamic State mission.
At least in the short term, U.S. allies in the anti-Islamic State fight were pulling their troops out of Iraq, saying the situation was too unstable. Prime Minister Metter Frederiksen said Wednesday 141 Danish troops in Baghdad and at the Ain al-Asad air base bombed by Iran Tuesday night were temporarily relocating to Kuwait.
“We are deeply worried about the situation,” Ms. Frederiksen said.
Ain al-Asad and a separate base in the Kurdish city of Irbil that was also bombed are at the center of the U.S. military mission inside Iraq tasked with preventing a resurgence of the deadly ISIS terror group, which once ruled a broad swath of Iraq and neighboring Syria.
Brian Katulis, a senior fellow at the Center for American Progress, said Wednesday that “the uncertainty on this key question is not a good development for the overall efforts to keep ISIS on its back foot and stabilize the Middle East.”
“Parts of the Pentagon and intelligence agencies have been warning about a possible resurgence of ISIS elements in light of Trump’s moves in Syria,” Mr. Katulis said, referring to Mr. Trump’s decision in October to pull back a contingent of U.S. forces inside Syria leading an anti-ISIS mission.
The anti-ISIS mission “is truly at risk, not just in the short term,” Ketti Davison, a retired Army intelligence officer in Iraq and an analyst at the Institute for the Study of War, told the Associated Press this week. “It’s hard to see how we can stay on the offensive with our Iraqi partners to defeat ISIS in this kind of circumstance.”
The U.S. still has 650-750 troops in eastern Syria working with a local group known as the Syrian Democratic Forces to continue the fight against the Islamic State. Defense Secretary Mark Esper told reporters Tuesday that he has received no indication from U.S. commanders of a “material impact” in Syria.
Mr. Esper acknowledged this week that “the suspension of activities in Iraq” against ISIS was foreseen as a possible outcome of the decision authorizing the killing of Soleimani.
Gen. Mark Milley, chairman of the Joint Chiefs of Staff, added that U.S. officials “knew there would be consequences” to the Soleimani strike. “We knew there’d be risk,” he said, although he added that the threat of attack on U.S. interests by Iran and its proxies in Iraq was too great to not to act against Soleimani.
The U.S. has about 5,200 troops in Iraq, primarily to train and advise Iraqi security forces in their campaign against ISIS fighters who are attempting to reconstitute.
But the future of those troops inside Iraq is uncertain, with many in the government in Baghdad now demanding the U.S. pull out and the Pentagon muddying the waters Monday when a senior U.S. officer seemed to announce that U.S. forces were indeed withdrawing, prompting Gen. Milley and Mr. Esper to address reporters at the Pentagon to deny there was any such plan.
Mr. Trump, in his White House address Wednesday morning, made a point of noting the progress he said his administration had made fighting ISIS and killing its founder Abu Bakr al-Baghdadi in October — in a raid planned and carried out by commandos at the Irbil base. He suggested the U.S. and Iran could in time be partners in eradicating the radical Sunni Muslim jihadist movement.
“ISIS is a natural enemy of Iran,” Mr. Trump said. “The destruction of ISIS is good for Iran, and we should work together on this and other shared priorities.”
Some analysts say the impact of the U.S.-Iranian tensions of recent days on the Islamic State mission is hard to calculate right now.
Michael Pregent, a former U.S. intelligence officer now with the Hudson Institute in Washington, said that the new dynamic unfolding in Iraq could mean U.S. forces have more operating space to act without constraints placed on them by an Iraqi government worried about provoking its powerful neighbor Iran.
“Because of the security environment where we are now being targeted in Iraq by militias tied to Iran, it allows us the space to defend ourselves reposition forces and continue the ISIS campaign without the permission of Baghdad,” Mr. Pregent said in an interview. “Baghdad has been constraining U.S. operations both air and ground, keeping U.S. forces off the battlefield and not allow us to use their airspace,” he said.
Mr. Trump has said flatly that U.S. forces will not be leaving Iraq, and threatened harsh sanctions and reparations demands on the Baghdad government if they try to force American troops out of their bases.
Mr. Pregent noted Mr. Trump has military authority from Congress to fight ISIS virtually anywhere — even in countries that have not invited the American forces in. As a result, U.S. forces could stay in Iraq, Mr. Pregent said, adding that “we can target ISIS now without having to worry about the Iraqi government trying to hold us back.”
Not everyone agrees with the sentiment.
“If U.S. forces stay in Iraq after they’ve been asked to leave, then they really risk becoming the occupier and everything that ISIS and other, including Iran-backed militias in Iraq, have accused U.S. forces of being,” said FDD’s Mr. Roggio.
In the near term, Mr. Roggio added, ISIS remnants in Iraq may be poised to surge.
Islamic State has “historically been able to benefit from such situations,” he said. “After the U.S. withdrawal from Iraq in 2011, ISIS took over areas in western and northern Iraq, culminating in the takeover of the large city of Mosul.”
“So I think it has shown it has the ability to do that, but whether it will do that in the current circumstances is difficult to tell,” Mr. Roggio added. “It will be easier for ISIS if U.S. forces leave Iraq, but that doesn’t mean it will happen.”
The question is whether a major Trump foreign policy achievement — a military campaign that has pushed the terror group to near total defeat — is at risk of collapse.
The Islamic State evolved in Syria, which neighbors Iraq, after U.S. troops withdrew from Iraq in 2011. The terror group’s fighters swept back across the border in 2014, captured wide swaths of western and northern Iraq and imposed brutal rule over a self-declared “caliphate.”
A subsequent U.S.-led military coalition finally ousted the group from the last of its territory in Syria in March 2019, but thousands of fighters remain scattered throughout the region and continue to pose a threat.
• This article is based in part on wire service reports.