What does a US troop withdrawal mean for Iraq?

What does a US troop withdrawal mean for Iraq?

Earlier this year, in response to diplomatic confusion over reports of an abrupt US withdrawal from Iraq, Mark Esper, the US Secretary of Defense, said decisively: "We have no plans to leave Iraq."

Now, eight months later, the Trump administration says it will reduce the number of US forces in the country to 3,000 in the coming weeks — a reduction from the 5,200 currently there. What does the US troop drawdown — and potential eventual full withdrawal — mean for Iraq, the region, and the US?


For Iraq...

Shiite dominance: Some analysts fear that amid ongoing regional tumult, Iraq's fragile democracy might collapse without a sustained US presence there.

The US has played a key (albeit very flawed) role in propping up Iraq's democracy — broadly viewed as a kleptocracy — and some observers warn that a US troop drawdown will pave the way for hardline Shiite groups to take center stage within an already deeply divided and corrupt political system. Inevitably, this would also exacerbate sectarian tensions by sidelining minority Sunnis and Kurds.

Indeed, this was the case in 2011 when the US withdrew troops deployed for the 2003 invasion. Shiite domination and subsequent clashes over power-sharing arrangements poisoned Iraq's already troubled politics and helped set the stage for the Sunni-supported rise of the Islamic State in 2014.

An economy in need of rescue: Even before the coronavirus pandemic, Iraq's economy was in freefall. Now, plunging oil prices and cratering demand for the commodity — Iraq's main export — have pushed the country's economy to the brink. Hunger and poverty have deeply penetrated the middle class, and the Iraqi government has no social support system to help unemployed Iraqis weather the COVID storm.

Now, an even more fragile Iraq could leave the country's economy vulnerable to deeper exploitation by international and regional powers. There is precedent for this too. For years, Iran has tried to gain leverage within Iraqi politics, and bolster its trade relations with Baghdad in order to evade crippling US sanctions. Last year, Iran's President Hassan Rouhani said his goal was to increase bilateral trade between the two countries to $20 billion annually, up from $12 billion.

Similarly, Turkey has sought to take advantage of Iraq's vulnerability to strengthen bilateral trade, and it's widely believed that Ankara could try and fill the void left by US military contractors in the future.

It's important to note that when oil prices plummeted in 2014, the IMF doled out $4.5 billion in aid to help Iraq weather the storm. But amid the current pandemic, Iraq is just one of many crisis-stricken developing countries pleading with the IMF for urgent assistance — and Baghdad will need help from wherever it can get it.

The region...

An ISIS resurgence: The US military's role in training thousands of Iraqi security forces in recent years has helped quash the Islamic State, which now holds little of the territory it once occupied. (At its peak, ISIS held 34,000 square miles of land across Iraq and Syria.)

However, ISIS has exploited COVID-19 lockdowns in recent months to launch fresh attacks in urban areas like Baghdad and Kirkuk, killing scores of Iraqi soldiers.

The violent surge coincided with the Iraqi government's struggle in filling the security void left by the US decision earlier this year to withdraw its own troops because of concerns about the pandemic, and as part of a planned phased withdrawal of troops. Indeed, without US military support and training programs, Iraqi forces might struggle to fend off an offensive by newly emboldened ISIS fighters, analysts say.

The US...

For President Trump, following through on his longstanding promise to reduce the number of American troops stationed in far-flung war zones has renewed urgency now that polls show him trailing his Democratic opponent Joe Biden in his bid for re-election.

That also could be part of the reason for the Pentagon's seemingly ad-hoc announcement on Wednesday that it will cut the number of American troops in Afghanistan by early November too, despite the current delicate phase of intra-Afghan peace talks. (With apologies to Carl von Clausewitz, sometimes war really is just the "continuation of politics by other means.")

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Political division, disinformation and, frankly, stupidity are costing lives. It is not authoritarian to mandate vaccines in America. In fact, there is historical precedent. Making vaccine uptake a requirement will save tens of thousands of lives and maybe many more than that. There really aren't two sides to this argument, there is just the science.

Ian Bremmer's Quick Take:

Hi, everybody. Ian Bremmer here. Hope you're having a good week. I wanted to kick it off by talking about vaccines. We all know the recent spike in cases and even hospitalizations that we have experienced in this country over the past couple of weeks. It looks like that's going to continue. It is overwhelmingly because of Delta variant. The hospitalizations and deaths are overwhelmingly because too many people are un-vaccinated.

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Iraqi PM's face-to-face with Biden: Mustafa al-Kadhimi, Iraq's prime minister, met with President Biden at the White House Monday to discuss the future of US troops in Iraq. The US still has about 2,500 troops stationed in Iraq to engage in "counterterrorism" operations and train Iraqi forces. In an interview published this week, al-Kadhimi called for the withdrawal of all US combat troops, because, he said, Iraqi forces have proven capable of fighting ISIS militants on their own. (Just last week, some 30 Iraqis were killed when ISIS militants attacked a busy Baghdad market.) Al-Kadhimi still wants non-combat US troops to stay on in a training capacity. He became PM in 2020 as a consensus candidate after nationwide protests over corruption and joblessness forced the resignation of the unpopular previous government. At least 500 protesters were killed during a crackdown by Iraqi security forces, fueling demands for fresh elections, which are set to take place this October. The green PM has a tough job: he has to juggle relations with the Biden administration, which just pledged $155 million in aid to Iraq, and ties with Tehran, an influential player in Iraqi politics. (Iraq relies on Iran for energy imports, and Iran-backed militias inside Iraq are a force to be reckoned with.) Local sentiment has soured on the US presence as Iraqis resent being caught in the middle of US-Iran fights inside Iraqi territory.

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Watch the episode: Predictable disaster and the surprising history of shocks

COVID-19 was a global catastrophe that blindsided the world's wealthiest nations, and it's far from over. But as disasters go, it was hardly unprecedented. Humanity has a long history of failing to prepare for the worst, from volcanic eruptions to earthquakes to famines to shipwrecks to airplane crashes to financial depressions. But how do we get better at preventing such calamities from happening, and how many seemingly unavoidable "natural" disasters are actually caused by humans? On GZERO World, Ian Bremmer talks about all that and more with Stanford historian Niall Ferguson, who is just out with the perfect book for the topic, "Doom: The Politics of Catastrophe." Plus, a look at how one young Ugandan activist was literally cropped out of the global climate fight.

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