After ISIS, the U.S. Military Could Help Keep Iraq Stable
A limited troop presence would support a strategy aimed at containing Iranian aggression.
By James Jeffrey
April 16, 2017 2:09 p.m. ET
Iraqi Prime Minister Haider al-Abadi has called on the U.S. to deepen cooperation with Baghdad under the 2008 U.S.-Iraqi Strategic Framework Agreement. That makes sense. America has expended incalculable resources in Iraq, intervening militarily four times since 1990. Iraq is worth the effort—the center of the Middle East, with almost two-thirds of the oil and gas reserves of Saudi Arabia, abundant water, an educated population and a functioning democracy. But if the U.S. doesn’t want to intervene again, assistance must be linked to maintaining a small military contingent there.
An American-Iraqi decision on keeping U.S. troops in the country must be taken soon, as the rationale for their current presence—to defeat Islamic State—will fade as it is destroyed. The justification for a longer-term presence would be to train and equip Iraqi forces and assist against ISIS remnants. Strategically, it could also help keep Iraq independent of Iran.
The impending destruction of ISIS as a “caliphate” will rank with the 2003 Iraq war, the Arab Spring, the Iran nuclear agreement and Russian intervention in Syria as a regional game-changer. The first four advanced the Iranian and Russian quest to upset the U.S.-led regional security order. But the defeat of ISIS could help the U.S. reverse this trend.
To do so Washington must view the region differently. Since the Cold War the U.S. has treated Middle East challenges—Iran, Saddam Hussein, Syria, Yemen, terrorism, and more—as discrete problems, not part of a larger endeavor. The U.S. assumed that the region’s core, an American-led regional order, would endure.
Threats to that order from Iran, Russia and Sunni Islamists challenge this assumption. In this environment, Cold War principles—alliance solidarity and U.S. credibility—must be reinvigorated. Anything the U.S. does must support the strategy to contain Iran and combat Sunni extremists. The two are linked: Under Iranian influence, Damascus and Baghdad so oppressed their Sunni Arab populations that they turned to ISIS.
Keeping a troop contingent in Iraq would support such a strategy. The Trump administration appears interested, but success is uncertain given that Iraq did not allow the U.S. to extend forces in Iraq in 2011. Prime Minister Abadi appears supportive, but other political leaders, the public and Iran are more or less opposed. To keep a troop presence, the U.S. will have to proceed on three avenues: “sell” the presence, link it to other assistance, and keep it noncontroversial.
Iraqis must be convinced that an American presence would support the fight against terrorism and ensure the Iraqi army does not implode as it did in Mosul in 2014. They must also be convinced that it would support Iraqi unity, by signaling to skeptical Sunni Arab and Kurdish minorities that the largely Shiite Baghdad government seeks ties to the West. Also important is the perception that the U.S. supports Iraqi sovereignty, by signaling to Iran that Iraq will not become anyone’s vassal state.
The U.S. will have to link economic assistance and diplomatic cooperation—in short, “tough love”—to clarify that in exchange for such help, Iraqi politicians have to be flexible on troops. U.S. support for Iraq beyond security has been remarkable: an IMF-led $15 billion loan, mediation of disputes between Baghdad and Kurdistan, and the facilitation of oil production. The U.S. has a vital interest in preventing Iraq from descending into violence, enabling Iranian regional aggression, or spawning another terrorist movement, and that requires not just political and economic support but continued military ties.
But Iraq must also be reassured that a U.S military presence would be acceptable to Iraqis. Based on the troop-extension talks with Iraq in 2011, the following would be politically acceptable.
First, the troop contingent should be limited and not permanent. The 5,000 troops contemplated in 2011 are likely the maximum politically sustainable. U.S. troops should also be part of an international contingent and stationed on Iraqi bases. The U.S. should not again ask for Parliament-approved legal immunities for U.S. personnel, but rather extend the administrative status under which they now operate.
Second, the formal troop mission should focus on training and equipping Iraqi forces, and specific intelligence, counterterrorism and perhaps air-support functions. Everyone in the region would understand that such a presence would also help contain Iran and promote stability, but diplomacy requires that this not be explicit.
Third, the U.S. should be careful not to suggest that troops in Iraq are a combat force to project power into Syria or Iran against Baghdad’s interests.
None of this guarantees that Iraq will allow such a military presence but it will make the choice easier. Stability in the entire region hangs on Iraq making the right one.
Mr. Jeffrey served as U.S. ambassador to Turkey (2008-10) and Iraq (2010-12).