Twenty Years Later, the U.S. Military Is Still Lost in Iraq

By Jonathan Lord
Monday, March 20, 2023, 8:16 AM

March 20 marks the 20-year anniversary of the U.S. invasion of Iraq. Over the coming days and weeks, much ink will likely be spilled to reflect on the implications of the invasion. Some writers will reflect on their personal accounts of the war, how it shaped their lives or cost the lives of those they loved. Others will undoubtedly reflect on the policy decision to invade Iraq, likely considerations about the faulty, politicized intelligence that prompted the invasion, the opportunities lost, and the fortunes made. This article, however, is none of those. This is a flashing red warning: 20 years after the invasion, the United States is strategically adrift in Iraq.

In a speech last month at the Atlantic Council, National Security Council Middle East Coordinator Brett McGurk unveiled the “Biden doctrine” of the Middle East. The speech—an articulation of the president’s policy vision for the Middle East—made no meaningful mention of Iraq. McGurk had nothing to say about the approximately 2,500 U.S. troops still deployed in the country, nor did he have any words elucidating a vision for the future of the U.S.-Iraq relationship. McGurk also neglected to mention Syria except to say that the United States was supporting the victims of the earthquake with humanitarian aid. The Islamic State? Not referenced once.

McGurk’s omission of Iraq was not an anomaly but, rather, an accurate reflection of the absence of any strategic thinking about the future of the U.S.-Iraq relationship by the current administration. More than two years into President Biden’s term, there remains no coordinated, interagency strategy on Iraq. Of course, by making no strategic choices on Iraq, the administration has simply maintained the status quo that existed the day Biden took office. U.S troops remain in the country under the same authorities, doing the same tasks, which are increasingly a vestige of an Islamic State threat that has been shrunk from an existential to a low-simmering insurgent threat. The U.S. Embassy in Baghdad is practically a ghost town since rocket attacks by Iran-backed militias triggered an “ordered departure’ in 2019, and it remains a dusty shell of its formerly bustling self. Perhaps unsurprisingly, Biden administration officials would be quick to challenge this characterization. In 2021, they trumpeted the decision to formally end the U.S. combat role in Iraq by the end of the year. However, to those of us who have closely followed U.S. military activity in Iraq, that announcement only formalized a reality that had already existed on the ground for 12 months. That “decision” only brought U.S. policy into alignment with a reality that the U.S. military mission had long since transitioned from combat to an advisory role for U.S. forces.

The administration might also point to the memorandum of understanding (MOU) it renewed in fall 2022 with the autonomous Kurdistan Regional Government’s Ministry of Peshmerga Affairs, the organization that nominally oversees Iraqi Kurdistan’s military force. The MOU, though a classified document not available to the public, likely reaffirmed that the Department of Defense would continue to pay “stipends” to the Peshmerga Regional Guard Brigades, a nominally nonpartisan subsegment of the Peshmerga, which is divided through its allegiance to Iraqi Kurdistan’s two major political parties. These stipends, which began in 2016, were conceived largely as an incentive for Kurdish leaders to cooperate with federal Iraqi forces to capture the city of Mosul, back when the Islamic State still held territory in Iraq. These stipends, totalling roughly $20 million per month, represent the largest expenditure the Defense Department spends in Iraq, consuming roughly 60 percent of the Counter-ISIS Train and Equip Fund that Congress has authorized annually since 2015. While useful for ensuring that forces show up to work, stipends have likely built a “dependency bomb” that will detonate once the money runs dry. When the Pentagon stops paying these Iraqi Kurdish troops, will they still show up? Would that money not be better spent creating a sustainable and well-trained force, of a size that the Kurdish Regional Government can afford to pay on its own?

In Iraq, even “train and equip” has become somewhat of a misnomer or vestige of an earlier moment in the U.S.-led, coalition-based mission to defeat the Islamic State in Iraq and Syria. Frankly, U.S. forces no longer train or equip their Iraqi partners, which reached their capacity to absorb U.S. weapons and vehicles long ago. Despite this, the United States has made no planning efforts to evolve its mission to one that focuses on building lasting and sustainable military capabilities of the Iraqi security forces. Instead, the Pentagon continues to ask for and receive the same authority to support Iraq that it did when the Islamic State loomed large and posed an immediate existential threat to Iraq’s sovereignty.

In the past two years, by authorizing support for Iraq under more standardized Section 333 authorities, Congress has attempted to press the Biden administration to pursue an Iraq strategy that transitions away from emergency authorities in exchange for more standard ones. In essence, it has prodded the administration to examine potentially transitioning away from the emergency support that made sense in 2015 and, instead, to craft a plan that normalizes its assistance to Iraq, similar to the support focused on building sustainable capabilities that the Pentagon offers to military partners around the globe. Reluctantly, the Pentagon has begun to use Section 333 authorities to iteratively and sustainably improve elements of the Iraqi security forces, while still making annual funding requests for the “Defeat-ISIS” mission, Operation Inherent Resolve, which has been languishing in its final phase since July 2020.

Getting this transition right is critical. Virtually all the military support sent to Iraq over the past eight years has focused on defeating the Islamic State, and not at all on creating capabilities that the Iraqi security forces can sustain on their own. If this administration is serious about focusing the U.S. military toolkit on deterring Chinese expansionism in the Indo-Pacific and blunting Russian military aggression in Europe, it needs to shift its resources in Iraq from supporting yesterday’s fight to begin preparing for tomorrow’s—in which the Iraqi security forces most likely will need to stand on their own. Should the Islamic State resurge, the United States will not have the capability to come back in force to fight it. Washington cannot invest in new capabilities to compete with China, rebuild its stocks to support the war effort in Ukraine, and expect to return to Iraq with unmanned aerial vehicles, and F-35 fighter jets, and thousands of munitions to blunt a new wave of Islamic State fighters should U.S. partners falter, as they did in 2014.

Ironically, the last U.S. commander from the previous effort to train and equip Iraq’s forces returned to Baghdad this month. Lloyd Austin, then general, now secretary of defense, should understand better than most the challenge of building lasting and sustainable partner forces in Iraq, considering it was the Iraqi force he left behind in 2011 that collapsed epically in the face of the Islamic State’s sweeping advance in 2014. During his recent visit, Austin stated that “U.S. forces are ready to remain in Iraq at the invitation of the government of Iraq.” Another pledge to the status quo. 

The United States is prepared to provide more of the same, until it isn’t. When political winds in Washington and Baghdad once again align to make the presence of U.S. troops in Iraq untenable, as they did when Austin last served in Iraq, what kind of force will they leave behind? Having done little to enable the Iraqi security forces to sustain their own capabilities, the Biden administration is setting the conditions for another strategic failure in Iraq. Instead, the administration should lay forth a strategy that leaves the Iraqi forces capable of fighting for themselves without dependence on U.S. forces. After 20 years, it’s time the U.S. learned its lesson.