Strategic Dialogue changes little about US military presence in Iraq—despite erroneous reports

US Secretary of State Antony Blinken participates in the virtual third round of the US-Iraq Strategic Dialogue from Washington, April 7, 2021. (Photo: US State Department)
US Secretary of State Antony Blinken participates in the virtual third round of the US-Iraq Strategic Dialogue from Washington, April 7, 2021. (Photo: US State Department)

WASHINGTON DC (Kurdistan 24) – On Wednesday, Washington and Baghdad held the third round of the US-Iraq Strategic Dialogue, which was initiated in June 2020.

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The Delegations: US, Iraqi, and KRG

The US delegation in Wednesday’s discussions, held by videoconference, was led by Secretary of State, Antony Blinken, who was a senior national security figure in the Obama administration, first in Vice-President Joe Biden’s office, before moving to the National Security Council, and then to the State Department.

The Iraqi delegation was led by its Foreign Minister, Dr. Fuad Hussein, who served as Chief of Staff to the former President of the Kurdistan Region, Masoud Barzani, before becoming head of Iraq’s Foreign Ministry.

The Kurdistan Regional Government (KRG) participated in the talks as well. The delegates included Fawzi Hariri, head of the office of the President of the Kurdistan Region, Nechirvan Barzani; Gen. Hazhar Zangana from the Ministry of Peshmerga Affairs; and Dr. Amanj Raheem from the KRG Council of Ministers.

In addition, Bayan Sami Abdul Rahman, the KRG Representative to Washington, was part of the Iraqi embassy team which joined the discussions.

No Change in US Military Posture in Iraq—Despite Iraqi Claim

The meeting changed little about the US military presence in Iraq—despite the claim made by Iraq’s National Security Advisor, Qasim al-Araji, who told a Baghdad news conference after the meeting that the discussions had produced “important progress” in preparing for the departure of US combat troops from Iraq.

Yet US combat troops left Iraq some time ago! There are few, if any, such forces remaining. Now, the primary mission of US forces is training and advising Iraqi forces, as Nicholas Heras, a Senior Analyst at Washington’s Newlines Institute for Strategy and Policy, told Kurdistan 24 three weeks ago, when the issue of holding another round of the Strategic Dialogue first arose.

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Baghdad is under pressure from Iran and its Iraqi proxies to expel US troops, and apparently, it believes that promulgating this account of the talks with the US will help relieve that pressure.

In addition, there are Iraqi elections in October. Perhaps, it is also intended to boost the popularity of some figures in the current government in the run-up to that vote.

Whatever the reason, it raises concern among Iraq’s Kurds and Sunni Arabs. They worry that the departure of US forces would increase yet further Tehran’s influence in Iraq, and, with it, Shia sectarianism.

ISIS is not yet defeated in Iraq. As Masrour Barzani, KRG Prime Minister, tweeted in advance of the talks, “We believe that Iraq still faces serious terror threats, including from ISIS, and that the country still needs coalition support.”

Nor is ISIS defeated in Syria. US supplies to troops there—its own, as well as the Kurdish-led Syrian Democratic Forces (SDF), America’s main ally in the fight against ISIS in Syria—come from the Kurdistan Region.

The Turkish border is blocked, because Ankara strongly opposes the Syrian Kurds and considers them terrorists, merely a branch of the outlawed Kurdistan Workers’ Party (PKK). Thus, Baghdad’s aspiration to end the US military presence in Iraq, if really achieved, would also seriously compromise the fight against ISIS next door—and pave the way for the revival of the terrorist group, which, at its peak, occupied one-third of the country!

US-Iraqi Communique: Many Issues Discussed

The US-Iraq Strategic Dialogue involves the entire range of interactions between Washington and Baghdad—not just military. As conceived by the US, the dialogue is intended to normalize relations with Iraq, so they resemble Washington’s relations with other allies, like Jordan and Egypt.

Following the conclusion of Wednesday’s meeting, the US and Iraq issued a joint communique, in which they “reaffirmed their strong bilateral relationship.”

“The discussions covered security and counterterrorism, economics and energy and the environment, political issues, and cultural issues,” it said.

The 11-paragraph communique did, indeed, deal with a wide range of issues, including an affirmation of US support for the “progress between the Iraqi Federal Government and the Kurdistan Regional Government in reaching agreements on budgetary, energy, and other strategic issues.”

Read More: US congratulates Iraq, Kurdistan Region for reaching deal to pass 2021 budget

The communique also dealt with COVID, including US support for Iraq’s efforts to combat the virus, along with economic reform to “create a more vibrant private sector” and “the introduction of a visas-on-arrival system to promote international trade and foreign investment.” Numerous other such issues were cited as well.

The section dealing with security and counterterrorism, however, has been widely misreported, portrayed as an agreement that the US is about to withdraw its forces from Iraq, when that is not so.

“The United States and Iraq reaffirmed their mutual intention to continue bilateral security coordination and cooperation,” it stated. “US forces are in Iraq at the invitation of the Iraqi Government to support the Iraqi Security Forces (ISF) in their fight against ISIS.”

It added that the two parties “intend to continue talks through the Joint Military Committee to ensure Global Coalition activities are aligned with and appropriately support the needs of the ISF”—adding, significantly, “including the Peshmerga.”

That statement marks the first time Baghdad has publicly and formally acknowledged the necessity of properly equipping the Peshmerga.

The communique cited a crucial Iraqi responsibility, as it “reaffirmed” Baghdad’s “commitment to protect the Global Coalition’s personnel, convoys, and diplomatic facilities.”

However, attention has focused—almost exclusively—on one sentence: “based on the increasing capacity of the ISF, the parties confirmed that the mission of the US and Coalition forces has now transitioned to one focused on training and advisory tasks, thereby allowing for the redeployment of any remaining combat forces from Iraq, with the timing to be established in upcoming technical talks.”

Journalists Focus on that One Point

Pentagon Press Secretary John Kirby briefed reporters on Wednesday. They hammered away at that single point, even as Kirby noted that there are “a lot of interesting developments” in the communique “beyond the security component.”

The reporters repeatedly pressed him to explain what was new, and his first response was to describe the meeting, and the communique—quite accurately—as a “reaffirmation” of the existing situation.

“What you saw in that statement was a reaffirmation of the partnership that we have enjoyed with Iraq and the significance of the mission that still exists against ISIS,” Kirby said.

“Then, eventually, we will want to talk about when is the appropriate time to talk about the proper redeployment in the scoping of that footprint,” he continued.

No US official has thought of maintaining a permanent US combat presence—or even major troop presence—indefinitely in Iraq. The public is tired of the “forever wars” that have followed—for twenty years—the 9/11 attacks. And the Defense Department wants to shift resources away from counterterrorism to focus on major powers—above all, China and Russia.

But the Pentagon press corps would not accept Kirby’s statement that the meeting was a “reaffirmation” of the existing situation, even as he also would not say outright that there was little new regarding the US military presence. Perhaps, that would have undermined Baghdad’s claim that it had secured a major achievement with the Strategic Dialogue. Perhaps, he had some other reason.

In any case, reporters kept pressing as to what was new, and, finally, responding to the repeated questions, Kirby cited, as something new, the “upcoming technical talks” to determine “the redeployment of any remaining combat forces.”

After Kirby gave the reporters what they wanted, they pressed for more. They wanted details of the talks: “who would be a part of them and what sort of timeline” are you thinking of?” they asked.

Kirby could provide no details, of course. But he did promise to let reporters know, “when we get to the next talk, whenever that is.”

When that time arrives, one hopes, reporters will better understand that this is much less about US troop levels than it is about relieving pressure from Iran and its proxies, while, perhaps, advancing the prospects of at least some members of the Baghdad government in the upcoming elections.

Editing by John J. Catherine