No Plans to Withdraw U.S. Troops Even After ISIS Defeat
A 'tactical campaign masquerading as strategy' needs to find one now.
Islamic State militants have lost almost their entire so-called caliphate in Iraq and Syria, but that doesn’t mean the United States will be withdrawing thousands of troops sent to fight the terrorists.
Despite conquering the Islamic State’s de facto capital of Raqqa and kicking it out of nearly all of Iraq, commanders are scarred by what happened after the 2011 withdrawal of U.S. troops from Iraq, which ultimately led the newly-trained Iraqi army to melt away in front of a few hundred militant fighters just three years later.
That is pushing the Pentagon to keep troops in Iraq to train and support Iraqi forces to counter what U.S. commanders still see as a serious, if residual threat. That continued deployment — like the recent decision to send several thousand more U.S. troops to Afghanistan — runs counter to President Donald Trump’s sharp criticism of American “nation building” and the open-ended deployment of combat troops overseas.
The fight against Islamic State from the summer of 2014 provided the rationale for shipping U.S. troops to the area, including 5,000 on the ground in Iraq and about 500 special operations forces in Syria. But now that the terrorist threat has largely receded, the administration has yet to work out a diplomatic and strategic roadmap to guide continued U.S. military involvement in Iraq and Syria.
“This has been a tactical campaign masquerading as a strategy from the beginning,” said Ben Connable, a retired Marine Corps intelligence officer.
In Syria, the fall of Raqqa and the looming demise of Islamic State raises questions about the future of U.S. involvement, including whether to take on Iranian proxy groups rushing to fill the vacuum there.
“There’s absolutely a debate about it,” one former military officer told FP. “There really is no diplomatic way ahead yet. The military doesn’t want to take on that role without a diplomatic plan.”
Pentagon officials say that despite steady advances from the counterterror coalition, a hardcore remnant of about 6,500 Islamic State fighters remain in eastern Syria and the border area with Iraq. U.S. commanders want to help local partners in Iraq and Syria hold the line against any Islamic State resurgence by continuing to offer advice, firepower and logistical support.
Officials said the focus has already shifted to chasing Islamic State fighters to the east of Raqqa near the Iraqi border, where key leaders are believed to be hiding.
“We’re planning for the next phase in the Middle Euphrates Valley, but there’s no timeline for when that ends,” one military officer, who was not authorized to speak on the record, told Foreign Policy.
But deeper involvement there carries its own risks, said Connable, given the presence of Iranian and Russian troops, along with Syrian regime forces and their Hezbollah backers. As a result, the area between Raqqa and the Iraqi border is prone to become “a no man’s land” with various groups – including the Assad regime – fighting it out for influence, said Connable, now a political scientist at the RAND Corp. think tank.
Some do see a role for U.S. troops in other parts of Syria, though, since rebuilding in areas recaptured by the U.S.-backed Syrian Defense Force has been slow, with a lack of funding from both the U.S. and international community. Many donors “want guarantees that the U.S. will stay on the ground in Syria, and that they won’t have to work through Damascus” to provide humanitarian aid, said Nicholas Heras, a fellow at the Center for a New American Security.
In Iraq, commanders want to keep the U.S. training mission alive. Maj. Gen. Robert White, commander of U.S. ground forces in Iraq and Syria, told Pentagon reporters earlier this month the United States planned to “offer to the government of Iraq our services to continue to train and advise their security forces, to continue to build their capability and capacity” in areas where it’s still lacking.
In the meantime, U.S. forces could help provide enough security to allow stabilization in war-torn parts of Iraq. Military officers say they are working with the State Department and other government agencies on a reconstruction and stabilization effort to be implemented after further advances against Islamic State militants. As in Syria, reliable on-the-ground security is a prerequisite for aid groups to operate effectively.
After this week’s showdown between the Iraqi central government and Iraqi Kurds in the disputed city of Kirkuk, there’s another justification for continued U.S. military involvement, current and former officials said. It could help offer a counterweight to growing Iranian influence and help mediate rising tensions between Baghdad and Erbil.
Iran’s backing of militia forces that helped Baghdad recapture the disputed city of Kirkuk from Kurdish peshmerga this week was seen as a victory for Tehran’s efforts to play a bigger role in Iraq.
Ultimately, despite plenty of battlefield successes against Islamic State in both Iraq and Syria, military officials don’t see any spike-the-ball moments on the horizon.
“It’s not a traditional battle so it’s not like we’re done at any precise point,” said one military officer. “There is no clear line.”
Paul McLeary is Foreign Policy’s senior reporter covering the U.S. Defense Department and national security issues. @paulmcleary