After 17 years of fighting Saddam, AQ, and ISIS, officials say support for Baghdad and its security forces remains key to fending off Iran.
The goal was simple: Prepare Iraqi security forces to take the lead in defeating terrorists, so that the United States wouldn’t have to.
President George W. Bush laid it out in a 2004 speech on American strategy. Iraq's military and other security forces “must be the primary defenders of Iraqi security as American and coalition forces are withdrawn,” he said.
Almost two decades later, the mission remains just as simple — and elusive.
“Our goal is to keep ISIS at a level where ultimately they'll be able to be handled by local security elements with minimal assistance from any other entity — to include external entities like the coalition, NATO, or us,” Gen. Frank McKenzie, the head of U.S. Central Command, which runs American military operations across the Middle East, told a small group of reporters in September. “We're a little ways away from that now, but we're certainly a lot closer than we were two or three years ago to realizing that goal.”
It’s the same buoyant progress report that dozens of American generals have delivered for 16 years. Now, there is constant and ongoing pressure from President Donald Trump — and the American public — to “end the forever wars” by bringing troops home from places like Afghanistan and Iraq. As Trump is directing the United States drawdown its military presence in Iraq — and reportedly weighing closing its sprawling embassy in Baghdad if Iraq doesn’t do more to stop security threats from Iran — it’s not clear what standard Iraqi security forces would need to meet to satisfy the terms laid out by Bush, McKenzie, and a host of presidents and other officials in between.
How good do Iraqi security forces need to be, and according to what metrics? Current and former officials say it depends on both operational factors — things like the quality of Iraqi air-ground integration or the sophistication of their logistics — and political ones. Iraq’s domestic politics remain in an uproar, even under a new prime minister widely seen in the West as capable and reform-minded. Its economy is teetering on the edge of a crisis, and the parliament has not passed a new borrowing law to keep state employee salaries flowing. Prime Minister Mustafa al-Kadhimi, like many of his predecessors, has struggled to bring Iran-aligned militias to heel — rogue groups that carry out attacks on U.S.-aligned targets as well as those that are aligned with political parties in Iraq and are nominally integrated into the Iraqi security forces. And there is still a gaping division between the central government’s professional military and Kurdish forces in the north.
“The reality is that developing a country’s security forces is not just providing them with training and equipment,” said Doug Silliman, America’s ambassador to Iraq from 2016 to 2019. “It involves a lot more intervention with the political system. It requires economic development and reform to ensure the reasons you have violence are addressed. It involves potentially social reform — finding ways to reconcile different regions, different tribes, different ethnicities.”
At the strictly military level, former and current defense officials have said the rebuilt Iraqi military has greatly improved since ISIS first swept across Syria and deep into Iraq in 2014. But during the first few years of the counter-ISIS campaign, Iraqi security forces required a lot of hands-on operational assistance from U.S. advisors.
“The worst example is probably Mosul, where ISIS was able to break their lines and they dropped their weapons and melted away as an army and didn’t even really have any capability as soon as the pressure was applied,” said one defense official.
The ISF’s ground combat capabilities have improved since that campaign in 2016 and 2017, but huge gaps still remained. Even as recently as last year, Iraqi forces were “okay with ground maneuver,” the defense official said, but they weren’t as skilled at integrating their fixed-wing air power with their ground capabilities. A damning 2019 Defense Department inspector general report found that the ISF’s “ability to ‘find and fix’ a target” was a “major shortfall” and said that its exploitation capability is “virtually non-existent” without help from the U.S.-led coalition. The coalition told the inspector general that “most commands within the ISF will not conduct operations to clear ISIS insurgents in mountainous and desert terrain without Coalition air cover, intelligence, surveillance, and reconnaissance (ISR), and coordination.”
That too, former and current defense officials say, has improved. The current official said that the ISF has made “huge strides” and that “their fighter aircraft and their ISR are beginning to do quite a bit on their own.”
The Iraqis have also done a better job integrating their conventional ground units with their special operations forces, officials said. Iraq’s elite Counter-Terrorism Service, or CTS, forces were long seen as more professional and capable than their regular military. Officials have differing explanations as to why, but one is that the special operations forces were able to maintain a training relationship with the U.S. embassy even in the years when the U.S. military had pulled out of Iraq. In recent months, the defense official said, the Iraqi military has been able to use counterterrorism forces to keep pressure on a terror network while the Army is maneuvering elsewhere.
The coalition has reclaimed virtually all of the ground territory ISIS once ruled, but the group still maintains what officials describe as a “low-level insurgency,” operating out of mountains and deserts and other ungoverned spaces in Iraq to carry out small arms and IED attacks. There are estimated to be between 14,000 and 18,000 fighters operating between Iraq and Syria.
Because the ISF are “actually fighting fairly effectively on the ground” these days, McKenzie said in September, the kind of support and assistance they require from the Americans is far more sophisticated. As the old saying goes: Amateurs talk strategy, professionals talk logistics.
“In order to be able to stay completely alone, you want to be able to go through the whole chain,” McKenzie said. “You want to be able to produce units from your fourth generation capacity. You want to be able to feed them intelligence on the ground to direct them to where the target is you want to hit. You want to be able to supply them in combat. You want to be able to treat them medically.”
“That's where we still have more work to do, not so much at the tactical level anymore because that work has been done,” he said.
This is why the United States is able to consider a smaller force, McKenzie and other officials said. Training and assisting the Iraqis in logistics naturally happens at a higher level than tactical assistance, and will require fewer, if more specialized, officers to do it. In July, the Pentagon switched from what was known as “Task Force Iraq” to a smaller, more specialized and more senior group of advisors working out of a single location in Baghdad, known as the “Military Advisor Group.” In September, the Pentagon announced that the military presence in Iraq would be reduced from roughly 5,200 to around 3,000 by the end of the month.
Iraqis are slowly improving their logistics and sustainment capabilities, the defense official said, undertaking increasingly sophisticated and longer-term operations.
“A year ago, we’d see the Iraqi Army go out and clear a system or something. They’d go out just during the day, they’d come back, they wouldn’t even spend the night out there,” that person said. “Over time I’ve seen them stay out for longer and longer periods as they improve their ability to sustain themselves.
“Still not as long as you’d want them too, they’re still leaving an area after a period of time, but certainly holding it even just a few days longer denies ISIS the ability to move through that terrain.”
Pentagon officials point to that progress as the primary driver behind the hand-off of multiple U.S. bases located across the country to the Iraqis this year — and the recent drawdown.
“It reflects the increased capabilities of the Iraqis and their ability to carry out small level tactical operations where we can increasingly pull back,” McKenzie said. “I think it's a good news story.”
The CENTCOM commander also acknowledged that the move protects U.S. forces against what has become the bigger concern in Iraq, at least for the president — Iran — by “reduc[ing] our attack surfaces to rogue militia elements that are in Iraq.”
Critics say that while the ISF’s progress might reasonably account for the drawdown, it doesn’t necessarily justify shuttering the U.S. embassy, as Secretary of State Mike Pompeo has reportedly threatened if Kadhimi’s government doesn’t do more to stop the Iran-aligned militias behind a series of rocket attacks on U.S. and U.S.-aligned targets this year. While the embassy provides civil reform and political engagement efforts that advocates argue are key to developing a nation of laws that can sustain a professional military without American help, it also provides more direct security assistance. Under what is known as Title 22 funding, the embassy offers long-term sustainment, equipping, and training services to the Iraqi military.
Perhaps most importantly from the U.S. perspective, advocates say, it provides a political bulwark against Iranian influence in Iraqi politics — the very thing that the Trump administration has cast as its priority in the region.
“If the goal is to prevent any American casualties” — based on domestic political considerations in the United States — ”then closing the embassy makes perfect sense,” said Silliman, the former ambassador. “But you give up the support for an Iraqi government that we mostly like, and cede the political and military field.”
Pompeo’s threat to close the embassy appears to have caught military officials by surprise. In interviews that took place shortly before it was publicly reported, McKenzie and the defense official praised the Kadhimi government for trying to tamp down on the attacks.
“They've actually been very good at going after a lot of the people who want to attack us over the last few months, so we're very pleased with that,” McKenzie said.
In August, Trump said that the United States would be “leaving [Iraq] shortly.” But despite the president’s repeated proclamations that his administration is ending the so-called “forever wars,” current and former officials continue to express faith that some form of a long-term U.S. presence in Iraq will remain.
“I don’t think the plan was ever to leave in total,” said one former senior defense official. “I think the plan was always to have a large security cooperation presence there, because we see Iraq as a key cornerstone of our strategic stability strategy for the region, and we can’t afford to have it collapse again.”