When I was supreme allied commander at the North Atlantic Treaty Organization, we had a small training mission in Iraq. President Barack Obama’s administration was in the process of drawing down the massive U.S. troop presence there, which peaked at around 170,000.
I visited Baghdad, and spoke at length with the general running the mission, Bob Caslen. He emphasized that we could reduce our presence by 90% — which we did — but that it would be prudent to keep a minimum of 15,000 troops “in country” to maintain stability and counter Iranian influence. Unfortunately, the Obama administration continued the withdrawals, and over time the lack of U.S. presence contributed to the rise of the so-called Islamic State and ever-increasing Iranian influence in the Iraqi government and military.
The U.S. ended up with around 6,000 troops in Iraq and Syria by the time President Donald Trump arrived in office, and they — along with NATO and Arab allies — had their hands full tamping down a full-blown threat to Iraqi statehood from the Islamic State’s potent military. It is hard to remember, but ISIS tank convoys came within a few hundred kilometers of Iraq just a few years ago. While a much-diminished force, ISIS is still conducting a rural terrorism campaign, while raising money through internet scams and other forms of cybercrime.
Now the Trump administration seems fixed on simply pulling out all U.S. forces. The White House announced on Wednesday that it will cut troop levels by the end of the month to 3,000, down from around 5,200. The administration continually presses the Pentagon for options that would bring the presence in Iraq, Syria and Afghanistan to zero — regardless of conditions on the ground. While there is certainly justifiable “Middle East fatigue” in the U.S. today, now is not to time to withdraw.
This latest troop-cut announcement has a distinctly political feel to it. It seems calculated to provide talking points in the run-up to the presidential election; to allow Trump to claim he has ended what he calls America’s “endless” foreign wars.
Think about winners and losers in this withdrawal.
It will first and foremost embolden the Islamic State. The American presence has been the glue holding together the coalition against ISIS, largely through noncombat functions such as logistics, medical care and intelligence-gathering. While a full-blown ISIS resurgence seems unlikely right now — at least in part because the Syrian regime of Bashar al-Assad has boosted its military presence on its side of the border with Iraq — we still must be mindful that the remaining embers could reignite.
Second, a U.S. departure will be celebrated in Tehran. The Iranians will rightly see this as America walking away from the region it did so much to destabilize. This will undercut the good work the Trump administration has done, for example, in encouraging the United Arab Emirates and perhaps other Arab states to stand with Israel against Iran. And it will give Iranian leaders a strong talking point about how they are (finally) pushing the Americans out of the region. And what helps Iran also helps its allies, Russia and Syria — America’s other implacable foes in the region.
Will the U.S. save a great deal of blood or treasure with this withdrawal? Unlikely. Again, let’s do the numbers. At peak, the U.S. had those 170,000 troops in Iraq and around 100,000 in Afghanistan. Bringing those forces down by more than 90% is what has saved all the lives and money — and that happened before the Trump presidency.
Now we are being penny wise and pound foolish, in the sense that the small footprint remaining in Iraq and Syria provides Washington with tremendous military leverage. These few thousand ground troops (especially special forces and trainers) are what enables a far greater investment by allies, partners and friends, and creates stability. This makes a great deal of sense not just in helping Iraq become a legitimate, democratic state, but also in strengthening U.S. relations with Israel, Saudi Arabia, the UAE, Jordan and other Arab states.
Winners: Islamic State, Iran, Russia and Syria. Losers: America’s allies. And, of course, the people of Iraq, who will slip further under Iranian control. All with no significant savings in money or lives. Not a very good bargain, especially for an administration that prides itself on the art of those international deals.
James Stavridis is a Bloomberg Opinion columnist. He is a retired U.S. Navy admiral and former supreme allied commander of NATO, and dean emeritus of the Fletcher School of Law and Diplomacy at Tufts University. He is also an operating executive consultant at the Carlyle Group and chairs the board of counselors at McLarty Associates.