Withdrawal from Iraq would dangerously undermine American national security

Withdrawal from Iraq would dangerously undermine American national security
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Washington continues to be consumed by speculation and debate over whether the United States should retaliate against any Iranian reprisals to avenge the death of Iranian Gen. Qassem Soleimani. At the same time, it faces equally serious consequences arising from the killing of Abu Mahdi al-Muhandis (real name: Jamal Ja'far Muhammad Ali Al Ibrahim), leader of the Kataib Hezbollah (KH) militia and deputy commander of the Hasht al-Shaabi, or Iraqi Popular Mobilization Forces (PMF).

Al-Muhandis’ death, together with that of Soleimani and Mohammed al-Jabari, al-Muhandis’ son-in-law and the head of the Hasht’s protocol office, prompted the Iraqi parliament’s non-binding vote to expel all foreign forces — meaning the United States — from Iraq. While there has yet to be a final vote, and Kurdish and Sunni legislators absented themselves from the initial vote, there can be little doubt that the prospects for U.S. troops remaining in Iraq are looking increasingly dim.

There currently is no formal agreement governing the status of American troops in Iraq. According to a draft bill before the Iraqi parliament, any American troop withdrawal would have to be completed one year after an order to depart the country. Some new arrangements for the retention of U.S. units could be negotiated during that period. 

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Moreover, there certainly is considerable Iraqi popular resentment against Iran, which has manifested itself in mass demonstrations and the burning of the Iranian consulate in the holy city of Najaf. Iranian-supported militias, including al-Muhandis’ KH, fired upon those demonstrators, killing hundreds — and more likely thousands — and wounding tens of thousands more, often with Soleimani on the scene. That has only further intensified popular hostility toward Iran, which could result in a renewed Iraqi desire to balance Iranian influence with an American presence.

On the other hand, many Iraqis, and not only Iranian stooges, resent American infringement of their sovereignty, whether in the U.S. attacks on five KH facilities in Iraq and Syria or the assassination of their countrymen al-Muhandis and al-Jabari. Even Iraqi leaders who are reasonably well-disposed to the West in general, and to America in particular, must reckon with the reality that Iran not only is Iraq’s next-door neighbor but is firmly entrenched in their country. 

The latest round of Iranian attacks, this time launched from Iran itself, against the al-Asad air base northwest of Ramadi and two targets near Erbil, Kurdistan’s capital, underscore the degree to which Iraq finds itself caught in the middle of increasing hostilities. Banners in Tehran explicitly underscore the government’s readiness to mount further attacks inside Iraq if Baghdad does not expel American and coalition forces. Washington’s military rejoinders, with more perhaps to come in response to the latest attacks, are an implicit mirror image of the same message.

Faced with the choice of alienating Iran or America, Iraqi leaders might well choose to preserve their ties with Tehran, especially since President TrumpDonald John TrumpTrump administration eyes proposal to block jet engine sales to China: report Trump takes track to open Daytona 500 Brazile 'extremely dismayed' by Bloomberg record MORE has recklessly threatened sanctions against Iraq if it were to expel U.S. troops.

Should America be forced out of Iraq, there would be much blame to go around. 

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It was President George W. Bush who, in 2008, signed a status of forces agreement (SOFA) that provided for the withdrawal of U.S. forces from the country by the end of 2011. President Barack ObamaBarack Hussein ObamaThe 'Palmetto Promise': South Carolina will decide the race Obama remembers Kobe Bryant in speech to NBA All-Stars: 'Nothing is more heartbreaking' Warren highlights work with Obama, Harry Reid in new Nevada ad MORE was determined to carry out that agreement, although he might have pressured then-Iraqi Prime Minister Nouri al-Maliki to extend a U.S. presence in the country. 

Soleimani facilitated Maliki’s election to the prime ministership in 2005. It was, therefore, hardly a surprise that Iranian influence continued to grow while Maliki was Iraq’s head of government. Once U.S. troops departed at the end of 2011, Maliki behaved as a virtual dictator, repressing Iraq’s Sunni population and laying the groundwork for the emergence of ISIS. Moreover, it was Maliki who supported the creation of the Popular Militias that dominate Iraq and have attacked U.S. forces, which returned to Iraq beginning in 2014 in order to fight ISIS. 

Trump’s belligerent threats of sanctions round out the complete mishandling of America’s relations with the country that it invaded 17 years ago. 

In many respects, Iraq promises to be an even greater American failure than Afghanistan. An American withdrawal from Afghanistan could well lead to ethnic strife and civil war in a country that has been no stranger to both for centuries. U.S. long-range strikes could, nevertheless, contain — if not vanquish — any Taliban effort to export terrorism in a reprise of 9/11. 

A forced U.S. withdrawal from Iraq, on the other hand, will guarantee that country’s subordination to Iran for the foreseeable future. Coupled with Tehran’s announced rejection of its 2015 nuclear agreement with the West, America’s departure from Iraq would create the very real likelihood of Iranian hegemony in the Middle East — with the most dire consequences not only for the region but for U.S. national security for years to come.

Dov S. Zakheim is a senior adviser at the Center for Strategic and International Studies and vice chairman of the board for the Foreign Policy Research Institute. He was under secretary of Defense (comptroller) and chief financial officer for the Department of Defense from 2001 to 2004 and a deputy under secretary of Defense from 1985 to 1987.