CENTCOM: US has 'no plans' to draw down forces in Iraq; Baghdad wants us to stay

US CENTCOM Commander Gen. Frank McKenzie speaks to reporters in Washington. (Photo: AFP)
US CENTCOM Commander Gen. Frank McKenzie speaks to reporters in Washington. (Photo: AFP)

WASHINGTON DC (Kurdistan 24) – Speaking to journalists on Thursday, the Commander of CENTCOM, Gen. Frank McKenzie, drew a sharp distinction between plans for US forces in Afghanistan and US forces in Iraq.

President Joe Biden has ordered the withdrawal of US troops from Afghanistan by Sept. 11—twenty years after the stunning assaults on New York and Washington that killed 3,000 Americans in just 90 minutes.

However, there are no such plans for US forces in Iraq—and, by extension, Syria.

Asked about a potential drawdown of US troops in Iraq, McKenzie replied, “There are no plans to draw down—as we are [doing] in Afghanistan”—in Iraq “right now.”

“I can’t speak for the future, but I do know this,” he continued. “Any future force level in Iraq will come about as a result of negotiations and conferencing between the Government of Iraq and the United States.”

McKenzie also made a second crucial point. “It’s very important to realize the Government of Iraq wants us to stay.”

“They had opportunities over 2020 to ask us to leave, and they did not do that,” he continued. “They want us to stay. They need us to continue the fight against ISIS.”

This point was earlier misreported, repeatedly, by US media, raising questions about their understanding of the situation in Iraq and the dynamics of relations between Washington and Baghdad.

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

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McKenzie described the recent round of the Strategic Dialogue with Iraq, in which the issue was discussed, as “very good.”

Read More: Kurdistan Region welcomes outcome of third round of US-Iraq strategic dialogue

Baghdad is under pressure from Iran and its Iraqi proxies to end the US military presence. “Iran still pursues a policy of attempting to eject the United States, and, indeed our partners and allies” from the region, McKenzie said.

“That’s principally fought out in the battleground” and “that is Iraq for them,” he continued. “Over most of 2020, I believe, they thought they had a political solution to force the United States out of Iraq,” but “that is no longer the case.”

In addition, NATO has a presence in Iraq: NMI, the NATO Mission-Iraq. It is “going to expand and at some point, there will probably be more NATO forces there than there are US forces, which will be a good thing,” McKenzie said.

Implications for Northeast Syria: Continued US Presence

Iraq and northeast Syria are essentially one theater, in which US forces are dedicated to the mission of defeating ISIS. That is how Washington views the situation, as do most of the other parties to the conflict.

US troops in Syria, as well as their principle partner, the Kurdish-led Syrian Democratic Forces (SDF), are supplied from Iraq, above all from the Kurdistan Region. Maintaining a US military presence in Iraq allows for a continued US presence in northeast Syria. Conversely, eliminating the US presence in Iraq would make it difficult to maintain that presence in Syria.

McKenzie praised the SDF as “very effective” in countering the remaining ISIS threat, which he described as “insurgent level.” The terrorist organization no longer controls territory, but moves around in “small bands,” and “we will continue those operations” against it, he said.

He acknowledged that forces of the Syrian regime had recently attacked the SDF, but he did not appear especially concerned. He suggested that Syrian troops “might want to push, particularly against the oil fields that our SDF partners operate,” which provides some income for them.

“We’ll have to see how that plays out,” McKenzie continued. “We’ve been able to hold the line on that” until now, “and I don’t see any sign of an imminent attempt” although it is “certainly something we’ll watch for in the future.”

McKenzie’s relatively relaxed attitude toward such a threat from Syrian forces  may be due to the likelihood that any attempt at a major assault would leave them exposed to Coalition airpower.

Threat Posed by Iran

McKenzie repeatedly described Iran as the “most concerning threat” in the region, and the greatest such challenge, from his perspective, was Iran’s missiles.

“Over the last five to seven years,” he said, “the Iranians have made remarkable qualitative improvements in their ballistic missile force,” which has also grown quantitively.

“Their accuracy has become much better,” he explained, citing Tehran’s attack on Al Assad Air base in January 2020, following the US assassination of Qasim Soleimani, head of the Qods Force of the Islamic Revolutionary Guard Corps.

“Iranian missiles generally hit within tens of meters” of their targets, he explained, and “they have begun to invest heavily” in “land attack cruise missiles,” as well as their drone program.”

McKenzie briefly discussed the drone attack on Erbil International Airport last week. He described the explosive-carrying drone as a small device—a quadcopter—which is “less than the arm’s length of a human being” and which is of great concern to him.

Read More: Erbil International Airport targeted in drone attack

Such drones are readily available. They can be bought on-line for less than $100, although setting one up, so it is capable of an attack probably requires at least some expert knowledge. Although the drone launched at Erbil airport exploded, it caused no casualties and only limited material damage.

The challenge, as McKenzie explained, is that US air defense systems, like the Patriot, which has been installed in Erbil, “are very good at seeing the larger objects,” like ballistic missiles, cruise missiles, and larger drones.

However, “The smaller drone is a problem, and the smaller drone is the future of warfare,” he continued. “We need to get ahead of that right now.”

The US is still trying to determine who fired the drone and from where. “We recovered part of it,” McKenzie said. “We have good people looking at it” and we “will eventually know where it came from,” but at present, we have not reached a conclusion.

Editing by John J. Catherine