On Sunday, the spokesman for the U.S.-led coalition fighting the Islamic State said that the U.S. would maintain a military presence in Iraq as long as necessary to provide stabilization and training following the three-year war to defeat the Islamic State.
President TrumpDonald TrumpSix big off-year elections you might be missing Twitter suspends GOP Rep. Banks for misgendering trans health official Meghan McCain to Trump: 'Thanks for the publicity' MORE and Secretary of Defense Jim Mattis have made a sound decision. Premising the withdrawal of troops on conditions in Iraq rather than political convenience in the U.S. acknowledges past mistakes and is the best way to achieve the long-term interests of Iraq and the U.S.
Twice since 2003, the U.S. reduced its military presence in Iraq only to reverse course when terrorists and factionalism filled the void.
Following the end of formal combat and the overthrow of Saddam Hussein, the Bush administration disbanded the Iraqi army, removed all Ba’athists from government and reduced the size of the U.S. military presence in Iraq.
Lacking a sufficient brake against violence, disgruntled Ba’athists, al Qaeda and Shia militias engaged in a civil war that continued until 2007 when President Bush ordered the “surge” of U.S. troops.
Running on a promise to end the U.S. presence in Iraq, President Obama oversaw the withdrawal of the last U.S. troops in 2011. As night follows day, the power vacuum in Iraq was filled again by terrorists, this time the barbaric Islamic State, which gained control of vast swaths of territory in Syria and Iraq and threatened the Iraqi government.
In 2014, President Obama sent U.S. military forces back to Iraq to help defeat this menace. President Trump maintained the force presence, and the Iraqi government was able to declare victory over the Islamic State in December 2017.
One of the lessons of Iraq is that significant military interventions, especially those resulting in regime change, require an extended military presence to achieve U.S. policy goals. This same lesson can be drawn from the American interventions in Libya, Afghanistan, Korea, Germany and Japan.
In Libya, the U.S. “led from behind” in an effort that resulted in the downfall of President Muammar Gaddafi in 2011, but Libya went from tyranny to anarchy because the U.S. and her allies were not willing to commit the military resources necessary to achieve a basic level of security.
The U.S. military presence in Afghanistan since 2001, like in Iraq, has repeatedly shrunken ahead of conditions on the ground only to later surge to restore prior gains unnecessarily lost.
Ultimately, the U.S. military has largely kept the Taliban at bay and reduced Afghanistan’s ability to shelter al Qaeda — serving both Afghanistan and U.S. interests — and it is likely to be there for many years to come.
Conversely, in Korea, Germany and Japan, the U.S. maintained a stable and robust military presence that has contributed to strong democracies and U.S. alliances.
While the U.S. military spokesman in Iraq was careful to say that post-Islamic State stabilization was one of the reasons for a continued military presence, there are at least two additional reasons to remain.
First, Iraq is vulnerable to Iran, whose interests and influence there are almost entirely adverse to ours. Sharing a 900-mile border, Iran is a Shia Muslim theocracy with a history of supporting various factions among Iraq’s 70-percent Shia population. It would like a weak and loyal Iraq to its west.
Since the fall of Saddam Hussein, Iran has advanced its interests in Iraq by funding sympathetic Iraqi politicians, undermining a united Iraq and sending militias to fight the Islamic State.
Without U.S. troops, Iran would also seek unfettered geographic access to U.S. allies such as Saudi Arabia and Jordan, as well as to Syria, it’s essential link to Hezbollah and Hamas and where it has supported the Assad regime’s slaughter of the Syrian people.
Second, the strength of Iraq’s democracy has risen and fallen with the presence of the U.S. military. After the 2011 withdrawal of U.S. troops, former Iraqi Prime Minister Nouri al-Maliki tilted toward Iran.
He set up a Shia spoils system within the government and the military that gutted the legitimacy of both and opened the door to the Islamic State. Following the return of U.S. troops, al-Abadi became prime minister and took a more balanced approach between the U.S. and Iran.
During the recent election, Iraqi politicians emphasized the need to move beyond pure sectarian alignments. Given the ethnic divisions within Iraq, the best answer for long-term stability and an end to U.S. military interventions is a federated democracy.
The U.S. can play a constructive role in achieving this outcome, but today, this requires more than a fully staffed embassy.
An Iraq that stands independent of Iran and that has a stable, participatory form of government are goals that benefit both Iraq and the U.S. Achieving these shared goals requires a continued military presence in Iraq, and the Trump administration should stay the course.
Walking away too soon ignores the lessons of our own history and comes with bloody and bitter costs.
Matthew R. A. Heiman is a visiting fellow at the National Security Institute at George Mason University’s Antonin Scalia School of Law. Previously, he was a lawyer with the Department of Justice’s National Security Division and the Coalition Provisional Authority in Baghdad, Iraq.