Fox News reports that US President Donald Trump and the Pentagon intend to cut the number of American troops in Iraq from 5,200 to about 3,500. A US official confirmed that the Iraqi government supports Washington’s troop reduction.
Trump informed reporters that he “looks forward to the day when we don’t have to be there.” The remarks came during an Oval Office meeting with Iraqi Prime Minister Mustafa al-Kadhimi.
Trump is Withdrawing the Troops for Electoral Reasons
The announcement comes at a critical time for the Trump administration and it could have a significant domestic impact. There is a presidential election fast approaching and the US President’s latest decision regarding troop reductions in Iraq has come alongside many other significant foreign policy successes. These include the UAE-Israeli agreement and the recent pact between Kosovo and Serbia.
Yet the upcoming US presidential election means that the timing of these decisions is no coincidence, as they help reinforce the image that Trump is a ‘peaceful president.’ Also, if Trump does lose the election as so many opinion polls predict, he has a limited amount of time to achieve many of his aims.
The US President is not withdrawing American troops from Iraq altogether, and he would be wise to do so for now. Obama made the mistake of completely withdrawing US troops from Iraq in 2011, only to return years later to tackle the threat that the Islamic State (IS) posed to the country’s stability. The New York Times discovered that ISIS has mobilized as many as 18,000 fighters in Iraq and Syria. These sleeper cells have carried out sniper attacks, ambushes, kidnappings and assassinations against community leaders and security forces.
ISIS Remains a Threat to Iraq
ISIS has a substantial war chest of as much as $400 million and the terrorist group uses extortion to finance clandestine operations. Farmers in northern Iraq who refuse to pay have their crops burned. Therefore, Trump has managed to balance the need to reduce troop numbers for electoral purposes whilst preserving Iraq’s security.
There are other threats to Iraqi sovereignty beyond ISIS. The US wants to preserve its hegemony in Iraq to counter the threat that Iran and Turkey pose to the Middle East in general. In September 2019, a drone and missile attack targeted an Aramco oil facility in Saudi Arabia. Houthi rebels, known to be supported by Iran, claimed responsibility for the attack.
Michael Rubin, scholar at the Middle East Institute and author of Dancing with the Devil, told Al-Ahram Weekly that attacks by Iranian-sponsored militias will ensure the US remains in the Middle East.
The Iraq War is Adding Trillions to US Debt
A recent online presidential meeting between Iranian President Hassan Rouhani and Turkish President Recep Tayyip Erdogan reaffirmed both leaders’ commitment to preserving Iraq’s sovereignty. It will be harder for them to interfere in Iraq’s affairs if the US remains there.
Regardless, the US cannot remain in Iraq forever due to the impact the Iraq War has had on America’s finances. The Balance found as of August 2020 that the conflict added $1 trillion to the US’s debt, which included increases to the base budgets of the Department of Defense (DOD) and the Veterans Administration (VA). The DOD base budget grew by $193 billion and the VA budget expanded by $47.7 billion.
Successive US presidents will find it difficult to justify spending billions of dollars on overseas operations if the results do not match the funding required for them. At what stage does the US say enough is enough?
Until the threat that ISIS, Iran and Turkey pose to Iraq has been tackled, the presence of US troops in Iraq will continue to have a positive impact. Trump is right to suggest that America cannot fight endless wars, but Iraq must be able to defend itself in the future. It is clear that the day when US soldiers can leave Iraq forever has not yet arrived.