July 10, 2020

What does withdrawal of US troops from Iraq mean? - American military expert explains

US Central Command Gen. Frank McKenzie paid an official visit to Baghdad for meeting with Prime Minister Mustafa al-Kadhimi on Tuesday. In the meeting, Gen. McKenzie announced a possible reduction of US troops in Iraq. Apart from this US withdrawal of Germany was announced previous months this year. Withdrawal or shifting military troops caused a great interest among experts and media. 

In order to find the answers about the US moves, Eurasia Diary took the opinions of military expert Rick Francona.

Rick Francona is an author, commentator and media military analyst. He is a retired United States Air Force intelligence officer with experience in the Middle East, including tours of duty with the National Security Agency, the Defense Intelligence Agency and the Central Intelligence Agency. 

Q. Why does the US withdraw troops from Iraq and Germany? Does it mean Iran and Russia are not threats to the US like they were before? 

A. Let me address Germany—and Europe—first. The press release from the Department of Defense said the removal of troops from Germany will “enhance Russian deterrence, strengthen NATO, reassure Allies, improve strategic U.S. flexibility....” 

 The repositioning—not necessarily withdrawal—of American forces is long overdue. Since the collapse of the Soviet Union and the Warsaw Pact, there has been no real need to maintain that much force presence in Germany. However, I am not advocating we return them to the United States. With the growing threat from Russia and the expansion of NATO to the east, I would hope that the United States is going to move the forces forward to either Poland or Romania or both. 

 Move the troops closer to where they will be needed, send a message to the Russians that we’re there to support/strengthen NATO while bringing the families and the accompanying unnecessary support infrastructure home. If we are going to have forces deployed opposite the Russians, keep them lean and mean—more tooth, less tail. 

As for Iraq, American troops returned to Iraq for one reason, to assist the Iraqis in their fight against the Islamic State in Iraq and Syria (ISIS). Remember, after what I believe was the premature withdrawal of US forces from Iraq by President Obama in 2011, the Iraqi Army was basically hollowed out by corruption, mismanagement, and a lack of leadership epitomized by the disastrous government of Nuri al-Maliki. That army collapsed as ISIS took the city of Mosul in 2014.

As ISIS continued to move south towards Baghdad and expand its territorial holdings in the country, it was clear that Iraqi security forces were incapable of stopping the group without external assistance. That assistance came in the form of a small US ground presence supported by massive amounts of coalition airpower. 

Unfortunately, al-Maliki also requested, and received, support from Iran, in the form of a series of Public Mobilization Units (hashed)—Iraqi Shi’a militias trained and armed (and I maintain, led) by the Iranian Islamic Revolutionary Guard Corps (IRGC). The hand of IRGC-Qods Force commander Qassem Solimani was readily apparent. 

With the increase in the capabilities of the US-revitalized Iraqi security forces (police, counterterrorism units, and military), a continued presence of American forces in the presence of an Iranian-dominated Iraqi government, has become no longer viable. Most Arab Iraqis don’t want a continued US presence, and there is little stomach in the United States for keeping troops there. Yes, Iran remains a regional threat to American interests in the region, but it will have to be addressed in other ways. The US does not need forces in Iraq to maintain freedom of navigation in the Persian Gulf. 

Q. We observe that the Middle East has become a Russian-Turkish battlefield. Does the US think it is better to withdraw and let two powers weaken each other? 

A. We now have Russia and Turkey involved in two proxy wars in the region: Syria and Libya. While we have serious issues with Turkish “adventurism” on the part of President Erdoğan in both theaters, the bottom line remains: Russia presents a threat to the United States across a variety of fronts; Turkey is a key NATO ally. 

That said, Turkey has been singularly unhelpful in the US-led coalition fight against ISIS since the beginning of the effort in 2014. Erdoğan’s efforts were more focused on anti-Kurdish operations in Syria than on defeating ISIS – it was as if that the Turkish leader was supporting ISIS at the expense of the Kurds. Virtually all of Turkey’s incursions into north and northwest Syria did nothing to promote the defeat of ISIS, only to create what appears to be a semi-permanent Turkish and Turkish-backed Islamist presence in the country. 

Are we looking at the reintroduction of the Ottomans? Hardly, just a quagmire/standoff between Erdoğan and Putin, at the expense of the Syrian population caught in the crossfire. 

Libya is no better. While Turkish intervention has turned the tide of the fighting in favor of the GNA over the LNA, nothing seems to have been resolved. You have the Turkish-supported GNA on one side against the Russian-backed, Haftar-led LNA, which is now also supported by US allies Egypt and the UAE. Add what now appears to be Syrian government support to the LNA, while Turkey deploys Syrian mercenaries to fight for the GNA. 

This is a recipe for escalation. Elsewhere in the region, Erdoğan has acquired a military base in Qatar. This is more unnecessary and unhelpful Ottoman adventurism from “Sultan Recep.” He should focus on cleaning up his current debacles before creating a third. 

Q. The FBI director says China is a threat to US security. Can we expect the US will shift troops from these areas to Asia-Pacific? 

A. China is emerging as the key long-term future threat to US security, likely to surpass the Russians in the not-too-distant future. Although President Trump has slowed down the Obama “pivot to Asia,” the United States will eventually have to increase either its own force structure in the region, or alternately enter into a broad multinational alliance with countries like Japan, South Korea, the Philippines, Vietnam, even India, and Australia to confront growing Chinese power and its seemingly willingness to use it. 

Chinese handling of the coronavirus has cost them some goodwill. The US and its allies should capitalize on Chinese malign behavior directed at the rest of the world and attempt to isolate Beijing to make them pay a price for unleashing—wittingly or unwittingly (although many believe it was the former)—the virus on the rest of the world. 

Interviewer: Ulvi Ahmedli