Will Trump Scuttle the Success of Retaking Mosul?
By Daniel Benaim & Jeff Prescott
It has been clear for months that Mosul will be liberated. And sure enough, Iraqi forces backed by U.S. assistance and firepower are now moving to clear the remaining western neighborhoods of Iraq’s second-biggest city. Islamic State leaders have reportedly fled the city and military operations will soon be complete. Success in Mosul is a testament to the determination of the Iraqi forces that have led this intense urban campaign. But the fall of Mosul will also validate a careful military strategy, many months in the making and painstakingly executed, to help Iraqi forces reclaim all of Iraq’s territory from the Islamic State.
As President Donald Trump welcomes Iraqi Prime Minister Haidar al-Abadi to the White House on Monday, both leaders will certainly take a moment to savor the momentum on the battlefield. But considering the challenges ahead, the Trump administration may look back on this phase as the easy part. The struggle over what comes next has already begun: a thicket of interlocking political, humanitarian, stabilization, and security challenges that loom beyond today’s battlefield. Meanwhile, Iraq’s political season will heat up as provincial and parliamentary elections approach. Hanging over it all will be the question of the future of America’s military presence in Iraq. And we won’t be the only ones with a vote — regional players including Iran, Turkey, and even Russia are already jockeying for position.
In short, Iraq policy has reached a post-Mosul inflection point. The question is whether the Trump administration can shift from implementing a military plan to fight the Islamic State inherited from Obama to develop its own strategy to sustain — and make sustainable — the day after. One lesson of the counter-Islamic State campaign is that, with the right presence and judicious exercise of our leverage, the United States is uniquely positioned to broker stability and focus among Iraqi factions. Will Washington use its post-Mosul engagement to help Iraqis prevent a relapse into terrorism, sectarianism, militia-ism, or failed governance? Or will the Trump team fall prey to ideological traps?
We see three major pitfalls to avoid in consolidating Iraq’s success against the Islamic State: first, failing to invest in the non-military tools needed to cement battlefield gains; second, picking the wrong fight by sacrificing Iraq’s stability on the altar of pushback against Iran; or third, talking ourselves out the game with reckless rhetoric and policies.
First, there is a risk that, as fighting ends, the Trump team declines to do the heavy lifting needed to steer Iraq toward stability. The needs are immense, and American engagement will be critical as Iraqis stabilize liberated areas, rebuild their institutions and economy, fight corruption, and begin to address the massive psycho-social damage that the Islamic State’s genocidal brutality has wrought. This is morally urgent, but also a matter of hardheaded self-interest in ensuring Iraq is equipped to sustain the fight against terrorists and manage internal political dynamics without falling back into conflict or chaos. Hosting Prime Minister Abadi and the international coalition this week presents an opportunity, but it remains an open question whether the short-staffed Trump administration will take on the painstaking work this will require.
Vice President Joe Biden, our former boss, was fond of quoting an old saying: “Don’t tell me what you value, show me your budget and I’ll tell you what you value.” By that metric, the Trump administration has made clear how little stock it puts into non-military tools of influence. The president’s new supplemental budget request includes funds to train and equip anti-Islamic State forces in Iraq and Syria — but no additional money for stabilization, humanitarian response, or reconstruction as displaced Iraqis seek to return to their homes and rebuild their lives.
The last time the 60-plus members of the international coalition came together last July, the focus was securing more than $2 billion in pledges to address humanitarian and stabilization needs for the Mosul campaign. Even then, we knew that amount would not begin to cover the assistance Iraq will need to help stabilize post-Islamic State Mosul, much less the rest of Ninewa, Anbar, and other parts of Iraq formerly occupied by the Islamist group. And while many on Trump’s national security team have deep experience in Iraq, nothing in Trump’s own words or actions so far — or in his budget — suggests that the president has his eye on this particular ball.
Even more discouraging, Trump’s efforts to “deconstruct” the non-Pentagon parts of the U.S. foreign policy apparatus — as well as cuts to support for international institutions — threatens to strip the United States of the tools required in Iraq and elsewhere, just when we need them most. Unless we plan another occupation of Iraq (or genuinely and absurdly seek to “take the oil”) it is a reality that as the fighting stops our military will step aside and the State Department, USAID, the IMF, and the U.N. will have to take over. Secretary of State Rex Tillerson’s praise of his own gutted State budget seems to miss this point — even if counter-Islamic State efforts are given special priority. The result is an increased risk that we leave behind a vacuum or worse.
The second pitfall for U.S. policy in Iraq is a type of “mission creep” — the danger that the administration’s hawks will turn Iraq into a battlefield between the United States and Iran. This rests on the thinking — evident in Donald Trump’s tweets and reportedly prevalent among some at the White House — that Iran is “taking over” Iraq and thus America is being suckered if it invests in holding the country together.
A zero-sum caricature that America’s support makes Iraq “safe for Iran” is insulting to Iraqis who have just bled to reconquer their own lands and do not wish to be anyone’s puppet. And it is belied by the influence the United States has exercised in recent years in Iraqi political and military affairs, including pushing Iranian-backed sectarian militias to the sidelines of the counter-Islamic State fight. But the surest way to turn this caricature into a self-fulfilling prophecy is to empower Iran and its militia allies by pulling U.S. support for Iraq’s army and other national institutions. Iran’s influence inside Iraq and mischief across the region are problems that have bedeviled successive administrations. But the scenario where Iran’s influence is greatest is the one where America forces a choice or walks away — leaving Baghdad nowhere to turn but Tehran.
Using Iraq as a battleground as part of a broader strategy to counter Iran would also ignore the foundation of America’s presence there — as the invited guest of the Iraqi government. As much as Iraq needs us, we also need Iraq, particularly as we pursue persistent threats against the homeland — including as a hub for the continued fight against the Islamic State in Syria. A decade ago, 180,000 Americans fought — at great cost — Iraqi Shiite and Sunni militants at the same time. We now have fewer than 5 percent of those forces in Iraq today, working “by, with, and through” Iraqi ground forces. We have not faced attack by Shiite militia since the counter-Islamic State fight began — no small thing — and we are not postured for such a two-front war, nor should we be. Any escalation would likely wear out our political welcome, turn Iraqi politics upside down, and empower those hostile to U.S. interests in Iraq. In such a scenario, conflict could very quickly spread beyond Iraq into Iran itself — or could spill into Iraq were the United States to escalate against Iran elsewhere in the region. A heedless rush down this path could well end in bloodshed that results in America’s departure from the country.
A related line of thinking says that America should abandon Baghdad to Tehran in favor of Sunni and Kurdish forces. Certainly, America needs partnership in Iraq with Sunni Arabs and Kurds along with Iraq’s national institutions. But the notion that a close security partnership can be achieved with Iraqi Sunnis without a functioning or constructive relationship with Iraq’s central government in Baghdad is either wishful thinking or a recipe for the dismantling of the country. Either way, it’s dangerous for our security and interests.
The third factor that could derail America’s strategy in Iraq is a novel risk that hangs over all U.S. foreign policy under Trump — the words and deeds of the president himself. Trump has persisted in a pernicious line of rhetoric, started on the campaign trail, suggesting that stealing Iraq’s oil would be in the U.S. interest, musings he still has not disavowed. Trump has also tweeted that Iraq is being taken over by Iran, and — perhaps most damagingly of all — issued an order (wisely blocked by courts) banning Iraqis fighting alongside U.S. forces from setting foot on American soil. A revised executive order, also now blocked, remains full of objectionable provisions that send to Iraqis the same message they hear from the Islamic State and Iranian propaganda alike: that Iraqis who partner with America are foolish because America views Muslims as its enemy.
Trump could be writing our ticket out of Iraq one tweet at a time. While many of Iraq’s leaders may privately want Americans to stay, there remains a risk that Trump’s words and deeds inflame the Iraqi public, potentially empowering anti-American leaders that seek to expel us, or simply refuse to extend terms for remaining that we can accept.
Trump inherited America’s Iraq portfolio in a relatively strong position, marked by military momentum and unprecedented cooperation among the Iraqi Army, Kurdish Peshmerga, and local Sunni forces. As continued military progress has shown, Trump’s critiques of President Obama’s Mosul campaign were largely illusory. But the risks ahead, especially if President Trump sets aside the advice of his most experienced aides in search of a more cynical or expedient path, are all too real. The campaign against the Islamic State that Trump inherited is succeeding — you might even say we are winning. What comes next is on his watch.
Photo credit: ARIS MESSINIS/AFP/Getty Images