A member of the Iraqi forces walks past a mural bearing the logo of the Islamic State on March 1, 2017.

A member of the Iraqi forces walks past a mural bearing the logo of the Islamic State on March 1, 2017. AHMAD AL-RUBAYE/AFP via Getty Images

Clarity on Afghanistan, Confusion on Iraq

Biden gave us clarity on Afghanistan and it’s time he does the same in Iraq.

Last week’s Afghanistan speech by President Joe Biden left little to the imagination. His points were clear, perhaps blunt. America had killed Osama bin Laden long ago and no longer would fight the Taliban, equip the Afghan army, nor continue its 20-year nation-building efforts. Afghanistan was no longer at the top of American strategic interests and, Biden said, “It’s the right and the responsibility of the Afghan people alone to decide their future and how they want to run their country.” 

But what about Iraq? 

In Afghanistan, Biden had been critical of the U.S. effort for over a decade. He delivered a rebuke to the U.S. military and its eternal optimism: “’Just one more year’ of fighting in Afghanistan is not a solution, but a recipe for being there indefinitely.” While there is room to agree or disagree with the president’s decision, there is little room to parse his language or find ambiguity in his words. He laid out the U.S. strategic interests in Afghanistan, found them wanting, and was ending the war. 

In Iraq, by contrast, confusion reigns in both language and objectives. It is hard to find a clear set of strategic interests, goals, and coherent objectives. Aside from routine diplomatic and economic efforts found in every country where the United States maintains an embassy, there seems to be one sole objective: defeat ISIS. If there are more, the narrative is wanting.

In 2014, the United States returned to Iraq to assist its security forces and after bloody battles largely fought by Iraqi forces, ISIS no longer has a caliphate, no longer has a caliph, and no longer has the ability to mount large-scale tactical operations. Its remaining and newer members do retain a capability to conduct terrorist attacks and shows some sign of expanding in certain areas, but it is unlikely that the world will again see ISIS forces seizing and holding terrain or their black banners waving over major cities like Mosul. The United States has spent billions of dollars since 2014 to reconstitute, train, advise and equip the Iraqi security forces and while there is always need for U.S. intelligence, air, and logistic support, which can be provided over-the horizon, one is hard-pressed to justify the U.S. military’s continued presence in a country with its own robust security establishments — one that also contains extra-governmental militias forsworn to defeat ISIS, but also to eject the United States. 

There also is little reason to maintain such a U.S. force presence simply to protect diplomatic efforts. While there are many examples of good work the U.S. embassy performs, ranging from election support, humanitarian assistance and governmental reform efforts, these are tasks performed by embassies around the world. 

Americans, Iraqis, and others also seem confused about the U.S. role in Iraq, and this confusion lends itself to conspiratorial narratives, contradictory statements, and misguided efforts. Among the various theories as to the real agenda for a U.S. presence in Iraq include: a launchpad for operations against Iran; a proxy battlefield between Iran and the United States; a location to cut Iranian landlines to the Mediterranean; to prop up a Western-backed, corrupt and ineffectual government subservient to the United States; to steal and control Iraqi oil; to destroy the militias who saved Iraq from ISIS; to support the “Zionist Entity.”

These theories are only amplified by the parliament’s January 2020 resolution to expel U.S. forces from Iraq and the U.S. unwillingness (for good reasons) to abide by that decision. 

The persistent cloud of conspiracies that exist in place of a clearer American purpose only fuels the opponents to a U.S. presence. Every militia and parliamentary group routinely issue criticism, condemnation, and outright threats. In the past week alone, the Iraqi political party Asaib al-Haq demanded the prime minister “issue a decision for foreign forces to leave Iraq.” Kata’ib Sayyid al-Shuhada, an offshoot of Hezbollah that works with Iran, reminded “the Sadrists insist…to expel the occupier,” The Zulfiqar resistance group issued a statement saying, “The fighting will continue until the destruction of the foreign occupiers and their mercenaries.” 

By contrast, the language the United States uses is far more diplomatic. This week, the State Department noted that “relations with Iraq will always be important,” and that “we want a unified, prosperous and democratic Iraq and we are talking with the government about its moral duty to protect peaceful demonstrators.” The State Department’s December 2020 fact sheet, “U.S. Relations with Iraq,” talks of an “enduring partnership,” stabilizing liberated areas, developing a professional Iraqi military and discussions of two-way trade. So, while opponents to the U.S. presence articulate goals and objectives, the United States articulates aspirations and programs. Nowhere in the U.S. fact sheet does it articulate goals and objectives, except for “defeat ISIS.” Nor does it set out clear objectives like those found in regional strategy documents, such as “Maintain freedom of navigation in the Persian Gulf”; “Maintain access to strategic materials”; “Defend our allies”; “Prevent the proliferation of WMD,” and so on. And even “defeat ISIS” is difficult to measure and is perceived as a stalking horse for staying in Iraq and Syria indefinitely.

The challenge for the national security establishment is to articulate direct and straightforward objectives for the continued presence of U.S. forces in Iraq — and Syria — that support narrow goals and a larger regional framework. Whichever policy directions are chosen, the Biden administration must deliver a clearer articulation of those objectives and the U.S. interests they support. Our opponents in Iraq use clear language, but our words remain muddled, confusing, and subject to manipulation by groups opposed to our presence. Our actions, too, send conflicting and often contradictory messages which add to the confusion. A few desultory air strikes in the open desert hardly speak of resolve compared to the visuals of Baghdad embassy counter-rocket systems defending against repeated missile and drone attacks. 

There is an imperative to come straight with the American people and take back the narrative from those who oppose a U.S. presence. Updating the National Security Strategic Guidance is a good start, but these views need granularity and precision in the follow-on National Defense Strategy, State Department planning efforts, U.S. Central Command’s theater campaign plan, and corresponding Embassy Baghdad documents. Biden gave us clarity on Afghanistan and it’s time he does the same in Iraq. 

Brig. Gen. (ret.) Mark Kimmitt is a former assistant secretary of state for political-military affairs and former deputy assistant secretary of defense for Middle East policy. He consults for firms operating in the Middle East and Afghanistan.