Though hardly known for political stability, for the past few months Iraq has witnessed renewed chaos. Ongoing protests have seen the Iranian consulate in the Shiite city of Karbala attacked and led to the prime minister resigning. The country has been marred by instability that has troubled not only the neighbors, but also global powers.
US Reducing Diplomatic Presence In Iraq
The anxiety produced by the unrest has manifested itself in policy, especially in the case of the United States which recently announced a scaledown of its staff from Iraq. On December 17, Foreign Policy reported that the US will reduce its consular and embassy staff in the country by 137 people.
As per a Department of State document published by FP, “Mission Iraq went on an Ordered Departure (OD) due to credible threats from armed groups not under the control of Iraqi government.”
Based on a staffing review between late June and early July, the mission “identified the minimal staff needed to advance the President’s strategic objectives while minimizing the number of personnel at risk in a volatile high-threat, high-risk environment.”
“These objectives include: a) ensuring the enduring defeat of ISIS; b) countering Iran’s malign influence; c) safeguarding the free flow of commerce and oil; d) helping religious and ethnic minorities recover from genocide, and; e) exercising appropriate oversight of $21 billion in USG funds.”
As a result of this move, the personnel at Baghdad Embassy Compound (BEC) will decrease by 114 people (or 31%), Erbil consulate by 8 (12%) and Baghdad Diplomatic Support Center by 15 (29%). Agency-wise, 96 staff members of the Department of State will be reduced, 31 from Department of Defence while USAID will have only 8 of its 19 Iraq staff left behind.
This downsizing will help save the Department an expected $7.7 million of annual recurring expenses but cost a one-time severance payments of around $3 million to third country nationals employed at Mission Iraq.
It is the Wrong Time For This Diplomatic Scaledown
Leaving aside all the savings for now (which aren’t huge to begin with especially in the context of the total USG spending on the war in Iraq and related expenditures), the question is whether this move and its timing is right? To put things into perspective, hardly a month ago Iraqi prime minister Adil Abdul-Mehdi stepped down from his position amid violent protests which have seen hundreds of people die.
Abdul-Mehdi’s resignation wasn’t enough to pacify the angry population which has been demanding a regime overhaul and rejecting members of the post-Saddam administration. Precisely when Iraqis—Shiite and Sunnis alike—have registered such a strong reaction against Tehran’s influence in their country’s affairs, the US is further reducing its role.
Iran, for its part, has been trying to install Iraq’s former education minister Qusay al-Suhail as Iraq’s leader, according to AFP. For years, the US has tried to counter (rather unsuccessfully) Tehran’s attempts at controlling Baghdad and now that’s happening organically, without Washington’s support.
As America Steps Back From Iraq What’s Next?
Further reducing American presence in the country could mean either of the two things: Iran does damage control and is able to get its candidate installed, thus continuing to pull the strings in Baghdad. Alternatively, Iraqi resistance against Tehran bears fruit and some degree of independence is achieved, but in the absence of any power, a vacuum is created, giving room to extremist factions. None of these scenarios, therefore, serve US foreign policy interests.
Add to that the growing complexity of the Kurdish question, which wasn’t helped in the least bit by the US acquiescence to the Turkish offensive in northeastern Syria and the accompanying alienation of allies in the international community and you have a very negative situation. The US scaling down its already small presence from Erbil, the Kurdistani capital, would not give the best signal to the region and might be seen as another act of betrayal.