Big Ideas for NATO’s New Mission in Iraq

Sharing the burden of keeping down the Islamic State makes sense. But U.S. and NATO leaders should be coldly realistic about what European allies can do—and avoid their mistakes in Afghanistan.

A French soldier, part of the international coalition against the Islamic State, stands guard near Al-Qaim in western Iraq on Feb. 9, 2019.
A French soldier, part of the international coalition against the Islamic State, stands guard near Al-Qaim in western Iraq on Feb. 9, 2019. Daphne Benoit/AFP/Getty Images

Following U.S. President Donald Trump’s calls for America’s allies to “get more involved in the Middle East,” NATO defense ministers last month agreed to “enhance” the Atlantic alliance’s training mission in Iraq. Although the parameters of NATO’s new role are still to be defined, Secretary-General Jens Stoltenberg has indicated it may include taking on some of the tasks currently being performed by U.S. forces in support of Iraqi military units focused on preventing a resurgence of the Islamic State.

In principle, having America’s NATO allies—as well as other coalition partners from around the world—assume greater responsibility for preventing the resurgence of Islamist extremist groups in Iraq makes sense. Why, after all, should the United States shoulder the lion’s share of the burden for keeping terrorism at bay when the rest of the trans-Atlantic community is equally, if not more, threatened by it?

Moreover, as U.S. Defense Secretary Mark Esper has argued, deploying more European forces and military hardware to the Middle East could enable Washington to reduce the U.S. presence there. That in turn might allow the Pentagon to refocus precious resources and attention toward what the 2018 National Defense Strategy identifies as its new top priority: great-power competition, in particular with China in the Indo-Pacific.As the Islamic State shows signs of regenerating, any attempt to outsource too much, too quickly risks becoming a path to failure.

For Iraqi leaders in Baghdad, having foreign forces operate under NATO’s banner might also prove more politically palatable, especially as they face pressure from Iran to expel the U.S. military, or limit its operations, following the U.S. drone strike on Jan. 3 that killed the longtime Quds Force leader Qassem Suleimani.

All these arguments are indeed compelling. Yet history also suggests that U.S. and NATO policymakers need to be cautious—and coldly realistic—about how much European partners, and NATO as an organization, can truly do on their own. Particularly as the Islamic State shows signs of regenerating in Iraq and Syria, any attempt to outsource too much, too quickly to the Atlantic alliance risks becoming a path to failure.

In fact, the United States has made this error before. In the mid-2000s, the George W. Bush administration handed considerable responsibility for Afghanistan’s security to NATO. Much as now in Iraq, it was considered safe to do so because the enemy—in that case the Taliban—was seen as having been largely defeated. And, also like today, it was hoped that getting European governments to dispatch soldiers to Afghanistan would free up American troops, who were stretched thin by competing demands from the war in Iraq.

What happened instead is a cautionary tale for the present moment. While many of America’s NATO allies stepped up in response to the Bush administration’s call for help, and though their forces served with courage and honor on the ground in Afghanistan, all too often these troops lacked essential enabling capabilities necessary for the battles into which they had been thrust. In other cases, so-called national caveats undermined the effectiveness of coalition members by barring them from performing basic tasks, including, in the case of one country, conducting offensive operations. Inevitably, it fell to the United States to compensate for its allies’ material shortfalls and limitations stemming from national caveats.

In addition, NATO’s multinational command structure in Afghanistan proved cumbersome, stymying the development of a unified campaign plan against the Taliban at the exact moment that their insurgency was gaining momentum. By the time leaders grasped what was happening, the security situation had severely deteriorated—prompting the United States to surge forces into Afghanistan and re-Americanize much of the war effort, at considerable cost.

The Trump administration would be wise to keep this experience in mind as it pushes for a more robust NATO presence in Iraq. To be sure, Washington can and should rally trans-Atlantic allies to increase their contributions to the mission there, including in roles as advisors to Iraqi units. But ensuring these efforts actually strengthen the overall endeavor instead of merely complicating it will require careful judgment and discipline.

To start, it is important to recognize that Iraqi military commanders—who have been at war now for many years—no longer need much advice on how to carry out most tactical operations with their forces. They also understand the human and physical terrain in their country far better than foreign advisors ever will. Rather, where Iraqis require assistance is in learning how to enable their military operations with high-end, high-tech capabilities, such as airborne intelligence, surveillance, and reconnaissance assets (both manned and unmanned); cyber operations; precision strike air and ground assets; and intelligence fusion.

Advisors without essential “enablers” will be of little to no value to their Iraqi counterparts or to the effort to keep down the Islamic State.

The problem is that the U.S. military possesses these capabilities in vastly greater numbers than all its possible partners put together. In addition, American forces—in particular, special operations forces and specially configured Army units—have amassed considerable experience and skill since 9/11 in employing them. This experience, by contrast, is much less prevalent among the NATO allies, with some notable exceptions. But even those, such as France or the United Kingdom, that have developed autonomous capacities in these areas find them in very high demand, and will therefore need to balance any commitment to Iraq with other priority theaters where they are already engaged, such as Mali or elsewhere in the Middle East beyond Iraq.U.S. and NATO leadership should resist the temptation to accept forces that would not bring the necessary skills and experience for the mission in Iraq.

Consequently, while encouraging a greater contribution by NATO allies, U.S. and NATO leadership should resist the temptation to accept forces that would not bring the necessary skills, experience, and materiel needed for the advisor mission in Iraq. In addition, U.S. and NATO leaders should insist on several further principles for any advisor elements under consideration for deployment to Iraq:

  • Advisors must be willing to live with the Iraqi units they advise 24 hours a day, seven days a week. Advisors cannot “commute to the fight”; they need to be embedded with their partners persistently.
  • Advisors should be required to serve at least 12-month tours on the ground. Spending three or six months in Iraq is insufficient to develop the deep knowledge and close relationships necessary to be effective advisors.
  • Only advisors who have proved themselves in the tasks on which they will provide advice in Iraq should be accepted for the advisor mission. For instance, NATO senior advisors to Iraqi battalions or brigades should, ideally, have commanded one of their own country’s battalions or brigades in peacetime, if not in combat. They should also have employed (at least in training) the enabling capabilities that will be the most important contributions to the Iraqi units with which the advisors serve.
  • Advisors, together with their team members, should undergo a minimum of three months of uninterrupted preparation for deployment, with no other responsibilities during this period. This preparation should include a predeployment visit to the area where they will be operating, completion of a formal certification process (without which they should not be allowed to deploy), demonstration of proficiency in a predeployment mission rehearsal exercise, and a phased assumption of duties. The phased transition should include a lengthy “passenger seat” ride with the U.S. advisor element they are replacing before moving into the “driver’s seat” to provide advice as well as access to NATO capabilities.

These are admittedly high barriers. It may mean that relatively few advisor candidates are initially qualified to deploy to Iraq under the NATO training mission. If that’s the case, so be it. It is far better for the alliance to underpromise and overdeliver than vice-versa. Starting modestly and then gradually building up a NATO presence as concepts and missions become validated is much better than falling short.

The alternative—in which NATO agrees to a more expansive mandate, only to stumble—would serve neither the alliance, nor the Iraqis, nor the U.S. national interest in preventing the return of the Islamic state.It is far better for the alliance to underpromise and overdeliver than vice-versa.

This may be unwelcome advice for those eager to see a U.S. extrication from Iraq or the greater Middle East, by way of replacing U.S. forces with those from NATO or other partner countries. But if there is one lesson that the Trump administration should draw from the experiences of its predecessors, it is that there have never been any shortcuts to success in the Land of Two Rivers. To pretend otherwise is the road to tragedy.

David Petraeus, a retired four-star general and former director of the CIA, is chairman of KKR Global Institute.

Vance Serchuk is executive director of the KKR Global Institute and adjunct senior fellow at the Center for a New American Security. He is also a U.S. Navy Reserve intelligence officer who has served with a Special Operations Task Force in the Middle East.