President Joe Biden hosts Iraqi Prime Minister Mustafa Al-Kadhimi for a bilateral meeting in the Oval Office at the White House on July 26, 2021.

President Joe Biden hosts Iraqi Prime Minister Mustafa Al-Kadhimi for a bilateral meeting in the Oval Office at the White House on July 26, 2021. Tom Brenner-Pool / Getty Images

Move the US-Iraq Relationship Out of Crisis Mode

Think fewer troops, more institution-building.

There were two parts to the Iraqi prime minister’s request to President Biden on July 26 in their meeting at the White House: end Washington’s combat mission in Iraq but maintain U.S. military assistance there. The first part was aimed mostly at Mustafa al-Kadhimi’s domestic audience; the roughly 2,500 U.S. troops in Iraq are there primarily to advise and assist the Iraqi army. But the second part deserves a bit of thought.  

Mr. Kadhimi has said repeatedly that the Iraqi army is now capable of defending the country without the help of U.S. troops. If that’s the case, then we need to shift our assistance, and more generally our relationship, from the counter-ISIS operational phase to a more “normal” state. 

It’s only logical, and fair to the U.S. taxpayer, that our foreign aid to Baghdad should reflect facts on the ground. While ISIS still poses a threat—as shown by attacks on Iraqi troops in the past few months, the attack on a crowded Baghdad market that killed more than 35—it can no longer control territory or terrorize large segments of the Iraqi population.

The emergency conditions and authorities under which we have operated in Iraq since 2014, through which we have given the Iraqis billions of dollars in cash and equipment and fought with them side-by-side to stop ISIS’s reign of terror, are no longer relevant. 

This doesn’t mean we should end our military assistance to the Iraqis. But we should do less, and differently. 

The Iraqis don’t necessarily need more arms; they do need to learn how to better employ, integrate, and sustain the F-16s, armored vehicles, and other weapons they have. This requires something all of our Arab partners either struggle with a great deal or simply don’t have at all: proper defense governance.

Our posture in Iraq must focus a lot more on helping the Iraqis build defense institutional capacity so they can take full advantage of all the hardware we’ve given them and protect the security gains they’ve made.

The main hindrances to the Iraqi army’s tactical and operational effectiveness are serious weaknesses on the strategic level, where policies, strategies, plans, and material and human resource management systems typically are formulated. 

Since 2011, senior American military advisors based in the U.S. Embassy’s Office of Security Cooperation-Iraq have been entrusted with the responsibility of helping the Iraqis with some aspects of institutional capacity building. Those advisors, assigned to various elements in the Iraqi Ministry of Defense and in the Prime Minister’s Office, are well-intentioned and highly knowledgeable about tactical and operational affairs. But they have no background or proper training in defense management. For years, the U.S. effort on Iraqi capacity building was underperforming because, aside from Iraqi politics, corruption, and disorganization, it was not effectively structured to achieve its goals. 

Things began to improve in 2016 and 2017 when the Institute for Security Governance, which is now part of the Defense Security Cooperation Agency, was tasked by the Office of the Secretary of Defense with providing advice to the Iraqis on building defense institutions. 

Using DSCA’s Ministry of Defense Advisors program (which until the recent U.S. military withdrawal had a large presence in Afghanistan), ISG’s small cadre of civilian experts have done more effective work than their military colleagues. They’ve helped the Iraqis formulate a more coherent Iraqi national security strategy and refine the requirements of professional military education.

However, limited access to Iraqi leaders and stakeholders has obstructed further progress. So has the modest size of the ISG team. The U.S. civilian experts have been in Baghdad mostly as part of the NATO Mission in Iraq, rather than the U.S. Embassy. This means that they have largely relied on NATO for Iraqi access, which is good but not great. 

This has constrained our efforts to build up the Iraqi Counterterrorism Service. Because NATO has no mandate to work with the CTS, those U.S. civilian advisors have little to no access to this organization. That’s a problem because the CTS is our most important military investment in Iraq and it desperately needs strategic-level help.

While the CTS is the most competent unit in the Iraqi army, it doesn’t have enough capable strategic planners and resource managers. It has legal autonomy due to its ministerial-level status, but it doesn’t have the administrative capacity to run its various processes more effectively. It’s also not well-integrated with other Iraqi ministries with security responsibilities.

To be sure, there’s nothing wrong with the United States contributing to the institutional capacity-building mission in Iraq through NATO’s various programs. But it’s beneficial for us to have our own framework operating from the U.S. Embassy, one that effectively coordinates with NATO. Such an arrangement would help us better assess, monitor, and evaluate our own activities in ways that would be consistent with the wishes of appropriators in the U.S. Congress. 

But for this to happen, some major modifications have to be made. Most needed is greater policy clarity and strategic guidance on Iraq from the National Security Council. In short, this means answering the basic question of what we want to do in Iraq. On a more tactical level, the State Department should increase expert civilian advisory manpower in the U.S. Embassy and along with the Defense Department allocate sufficient financial resources to the overall defense institution building initiative. 

Based on input I’ve received from DSCA, we’re on track to invest roughly $5 million on defense institution building in Iraq next year. That’s nowhere near enough, considering the billions of dollars we spend on training and equipment. What’s even worse is that some of this money will be resourced through the Pentagon’s Overseas Contingency Operations fund, whose future availability is unclear. 

Also critical to our effectiveness in Iraq is the integration of the work of the State Department and the Defense Department. That’s an old problem that exists in all U.S. diplomatic missions around the world, but it doesn’t change the fact that absent a more cohesive Pol-Mil team in the U.S. Embassy, our efforts will remain scattered and stove-piped. 

For many years, we couldn’t really emphasize and sufficiently invest in building Iraq’s defense institutions because we had to fight ISIS. Now we can reorient our position in Baghdad to better help the Iraqis become more capable and self-reliant.

Unlike in Afghanistan, we have much to work with in Iraq (although the corruption problem is probably as big in Baghdad as it is in Kabul): a less unstable political foundation, more capable units within the Iraqi army, a more literate Iraqi society, a more permissible security environment, and a reform-oriented prime minister (assuming he stays in power and wins in the next elections).

Let’s use these conditions to move our relationship with Iraq from crisis mode to proactive planning.

Bilal Y. Saab, a former Pentagon senior advisor on security cooperation in the Middle East, is a senior fellow at the Middle East Institute.