Pentagon reaffirms US commitment to fighting ISIS in Iraq, Syria

US Pentagon Press Secretary John Kirby (Photo: Archive)
US Pentagon Press Secretary John Kirby (Photo: Archive)

WASHINGTON, DC (Kurdistan24) – Speaking to journalists on Monday, Pentagon Press Secretary John Kirby repeatedly affirmed the US commitment to continuing the fight against ISIS in Iraq and Syria.

Kirby’s statement follows a trip to the region by CENTCOM commander, Gen. Frank McKenzie, in which he visited Iraq, Syria, Jordan, and Saudi Arabia in the period between May 20 and 23.

“We remain committed to Coalition efforts against ISIS in Iraq and Syria,” Kirby affirmed in reply to a question from Kurdistan 24. 

“We still have troops in both places that are dedicated to that mission,” he continued. “We still have partners in the Coalition that are dedicated to that mission, and nothing has changed about it as of today.”

Continued Misreporting about US Commitment to fighting ISIS in Iraq, Syria

For the past two months, there has been widespread misreporting about the US commitment to continuing the fight against ISIS in Iraq and Syria. The misreporting has implied that the US is about to abandon the fight against ISIS. But that is not so.

Read More: US affirms commitment to fight against ISIS—and reaffirms it after erroneous reports

Thus, on Monday, one reporter, citing a wire service story that suggested an impending US withdrawal, challenged Kirby, “The press reporting, at least from our colleagues in the AP, leaves us under the impression that a vacuum” is emerging in the area. “Is the United States committed to the security” of “its allies and partners in the area?"

“Of course we are. We’ve said this time and time again,” Kirby responded, as he corrected the impression created by the Associated Press report, entitled, “As US scales back in Mideast, China may step in.”

Kirby explained that the article, which claimed to report the view of CENTCOM commander, Gen. Frank McKenzie, was inaccurate. McKenzie was not referring to Iraq and Syria (where China has not been militarily engaged), but to Afghanistan, which has a small (50 mile) border with China. 

“Just because we are removing our troops and ending our military mission in Afghanistan doesn't mean that we're walking away from the region. Nothing could be further from the truth,” Kirby affirmed to the skeptical reporter. “There's still going to be a robust United States presence in the Middle East, in the Central Command Area of Responsibility.” 

“There's absolutely going to be no diminution of our commitment to our allies and partners in the region whatsoever,” Kirby stated unequivocally.

Another reporter asked about US troop levels in Iraq, following Monday’s militia assault on Al-Asad Air Base in Anbar province.

Read More: US-led coalition investigates latest rocket attack on western Iraqi military base

Implicit in the question was whether McKenzie’s meeting on Friday with Iraqi Prime Minister Mustafa al-Kadhimi might have contributed to a change in US plans.

Again, the answer was negative. “No, there's been no change to their presence or their purpose there, quite frankly,” Kirby stated.

Why the Confusion?

Part of the problem is that some journalists are not paying enough attention to the distinction that the Biden administration is drawing among different theaters, and different enemies, in the “war on terror”—launched by President George W. Bush, following the Sept. 11, 2001, attacks on New York and Washington.

It is as if countries, some 1,500 miles apart—like Afghanistan and Iraq—represent essentially the same conflict.

Bush may not have drawn much of a distinction, but the Biden administration does, as Kirby affirmed. The Biden administration also differentiates between al-Qaida and ISIS. For the new administration, al Qaida is a spent force. After all, when is the last time that al Qaida carried out a major attack? However, Washington sees ISIS as an ongoing threat, defeated territorially in Iraq and Syria, but capable of reemerging, if pressure on the terrorist organization is relaxed.

In addition, the Iraqi government is contributing to this confusion. It is under considerable pressure from pro-Iranian militias, and in October, the country will hold elections. They, and the political parties with which they are associated, may well try to make the Coalition presence an issue in the election campaign.

Indeed, Human Rights Watch has warned that the activities of such militias—above all, the targeted assassinations of journalists and activists—has created a “palpable climate of fear,” and unless the Iraqi government takes “urgent steps” to stop them, they will likely have a chilling effect on the Iraqi elections, distorting their results.

Read More: Failure to hold armed groups accountable for killings will mar Iraq elections, HRW warns 

Senior Iraqi figures repeatedly say that they are discussing with the US the withdrawal of Coalition combat forces. Indeed, such a statement was posted on the Facebook page of the Information Office of Iraq’s Prime Minister, following his meeting with McKenzie.

The two sides “agreed that the first meeting of the specialized technical committee would be held to develop the mechanisms for applying the output of the third round of the strategic dialogue between Iraq and the United States and to proceed with the withdrawal of the international coalition combatant forces from Iraq,” the statement read.

It referred to the diplomacy—a Strategic Dialogue—begun under the Trump administration, which aims at establishing normal relations between the US and Iraq—like the US has with other Middle East allies, such as Jordan and Egypt.

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

But the statement from Kadhimi’s media office continued, “Other frameworks for the security relationship between the two countries were also discussed in the areas of training, logistical support and information exchange in a way that supports the Iraqi military's capabilities, enabling it to reach self-reliance against current and future challenges.”

That is the crux of the matter: Iraqi officials are saying that Coalition forces will transition from a combat force to an advisory and support force. But that transition has already occurred! There are no longer Coalition combat forces in Iraq. Over the course of 2020, their role shifted, and the Coalition forces now in Iraq operate in a train, advise, and assist capacity.

That is one basic reason why Washington and Baghdad seem to be saying two different things. But nothing has really changed, as Kirby repeatedly affirmed on Monday: US troop levels remain the same, as does the US commitment to continuing the fight against ISIS.