Pen­tagon seeks over­haul of U.S. mission in Iraq

The Washington Times Weekly - - Geopolitics - BY CARLO MUÑOZ

The Pen­tagon is work­ing be­hind-thescenes on a plan to get NATO al­lies to play a far more sig­nif­i­cant, boots-on-the­ground role in main­tain­ing se­cu­rity in Iraq as the U.S. mil­i­tary re­vamps its anti-Is­lamic State mission into a longer-term sta­bi­liza­tion cam­paign.

Pen­tagon sources have told The Wash­ing­ton Times that De­fense Sec­re­tary James N. Mat­tis in­tends to pre­sent the plan at a NATO meet­ing in Brus­sels this month, call­ing for a larger num­ber of troops from the al­liance to sup­port the new mission.

U.S. of­fi­cials say the over­haul, which has not yet been made pub­lic, would re­shape the Iraq mission into a longer-term, more ad­vi­sory and more multi­na­tional cam­paign akin to cur­rent Amer­i­can-led op­er­a­tions in Afghanistan, with a cen­tral fo­cus on fur­ther bol­ster­ing Iraq’s own se­cu­rity forces.

While de­tails, in­clud­ing the po­ten­tially in­creased NATO role, are still be­ing ham­mered out by se­nior strate­gists around Mr. Mat­tis, sev­eral of­fi­cials told The Times that the goal will be to en­sure Iraqi troops have the heft and train­ing needed to bat­tle back re­main­ing el­e­ments of the ter­ror group known as the Is­lamic State, as well as other ex­trem­ists seek­ing to gain a fu­ture foothold in Iraq.

Pen­tagon of­fi­cials and their State Depart­ment coun­ter­parts head­ing up the counter-Is­lamic State coali­tion led by Wash­ing­ton are co­or­di­nat­ing ahead of Mr. Mat­tis’ im­pend­ing visit to the NATO head­quar­ters, ac­cord­ing to one Trump ad­min­is­tra­tion of­fi­cial who spoke on con­di­tion of anonymity.

In­side the De­fense Depart­ment, sources say the pro­posed changes to the Iraq mission are nei­ther a re­sponse to a wors­en­ing sit­u­a­tion on the ground, nor an in­di­ca­tion that Is­lamic State el­e­ments there or in neigh­bor­ing Syria are poised for a resur­gence.

Rather, of­fi­cials told The Times that the changes rep­re­sent the next step in the evolv­ing U.S. mission in Iraq and, if adopted by Wash­ing­ton’s NATO al­lies, could ex­tend the over­all Amer­i­can mission there for the fore­see­able fu­ture.

The of­fi­cials, who also spoke on con­di­tion of anonymity, said Mr. Mat­tis’ pro­posal likely will not call for an in­crease of U.S. troops num­bers in Iraq. Al­ter­na­tively, said one of the of­fi­cials, the more multi­na­tional mil­i­tary ad­vi­sory oper­a­tion would be based on a the de­ploy­ment of a larger con­tin­gency of troops from other NATO mem­ber na­tions.

If the de­fense sec­re­tary is able bring such a de­vel­op­ment to the fore, it would be re­flec­tive of Pres­i­dent Trump’s wider ef­fort to lessen the U.S. mil­i­tary foot­print in Iraq and Syria, while si­mul­ta­ne­ously prod­ding NATO members to in­crease their mil­i­tary con­tri­bu­tions to on­go­ing op­er­a­tions in Iraq, Afghanistan and else­where across the globe.

It is not yet clear how many al­liance mem­ber troops the Trump ad­min­is­tra­tion will re­quest from NATO, nor from which spe­cific coun­tries the troops may drawn.

Mod­eled af­ter Afghan mission

There are presently 38 coun­tries from around the world con­tribut­ing roughly 6,500 troops to the cur­rent NATO-run ad­vi­sory mission in Afghanistan dubbed Oper­a­tion Res­o­lute Sup­port.

The forces back up some 8,000 U.S. ser­vice members who’ve been on the ground in Afghanistan since the end of full-fledged com­bat op­er­a­tions there in 2014.

The dy­nam­ics are dif­fer­ent in Iraq, where the cur­rent U.S.-led global coali­tion to de­feat the Is­lamic State in­volves con­tri­bu­tions of one kind or an­other from some 75 na­tions, in­clud­ing from NATO members such as France, Ger­many, Italy and Turkey, as well as from non-NATO na­tions such as Bahrain, Jordan, Le­banon, Tai­wan and South Korea.

Roughly 23 na­tions, in­clud­ing the U.S., have de­ployed a total of 9,000 troops to sup­port com­bat op­er­a­tions against the Is­lamic State in both Iraq and Syria — known as Oper­a­tion In­her­ent Re­solve — ac­cord­ing to a State Depart­ment fact sheet.

How­ever, the ma­jor­ity of the troops are Amer­i­can, with only lim­ited de­ploy­ments from the other coali­tion part­ners, in­clud­ing those who are NATO members.

The Pen­tagon has said some 5,000 U.S. ser­vice members are cur­rently de­ployed to bat­tle the Is­lamic State in Iraq and Syria, with the ma­jor­ity sta­tioned in Iraq. The United King­dom has contributed just over 600 troops.

The ef­fort to push other NATO members to de­ploy more fits with Mr. Trump’s call for the al­liance to share more of the bur­den of mil­i­tary coali­tion ef­forts world­wide.

On the cam­paign trail in 2016, Mr. Trump fa­mously bandied the no­tion that the U.S. could pull out of the Cold War-era al­liance if part­ner na­tions did not meet the 2 per­cent in­vest­ment goal of their coun­try’s gross do­mes­tic prod­uct into al­liance cof­fers.

In Fe­bru­ary, NATO Sec­re­tary Gen­eral Jens Stoltenberg said only half of the 29-na­tion NATO al­liance is on track to meet the two-per­cent in­vest­ment goal, with just 15 al­liance members ex­pected to reach it by 2024.

Bagh­dad blow­back?

While de­bate over NATO fi­nan­cial com­mit­ments hangs in the back­drop, the whole Pen­tagon plan for a re­vamped and multi­na­tional force in Iraq could be scut­tled if the new rul­ing gov­ern­ment coali­tion in Bagh­dad at­tempts to push U.S. and al­lied forces out of the coun­try in the near term.

Iraqi Prime Min­is­ter Haider al-Abadi’s gov­ern­ment has thus far sup­ported Amer­i­can-led ef­forts to main­tain a con­tin­ued mil­i­tary pres­ence, to bol­ster the coun­try’s se­cu­rity forces.

Re­gional ob­servers ar­gue the full Amer­i­can with­drawal from the coun­try in 2011 was pre­ma­ture and left the Iraqi forces un­pre­pared for what be­came an on­slaught by the Is­lamic State, which cut a swath of ter­ri­tory from western Syria through north­ern Iraq in 2014.

But the sur­prise par­lia­men­tary elec­tion vic­tory in Iraq this month of a po­lit­i­cal bloc led by Shi­ite cleric Muq­tada al-Sadr has raised doubts around the Abadi gov­ern­ment’s abil­ity to se­cure the necessary agree­ments to al­low U.S. and NATO forces to re­main in the coun­try this time around.

Mr. Sadr, who built his rep­u­ta­tion in­side Iraq by lead­ing the Shi­ite Mahdi Army in a years-long con­flict with Amer­i­can forces in the mid-2000s, has re­peat­edly called for the full with­drawal of western forces now that the cam­paign to de­feat the Is­lamic State is all but com­plete.

Dur­ing his re­cent cam­paign, Mr. Sadr re­port­edly said Amer­i­can and al­lied troops could be­come tar­gets of Shi­ite para­mil­i­tary groups if they re­main in the coun­try.

The Trump ad­min­is­tra­tion is be­lieved to have opened a com­mu­ni­ca­tions backchan­nel to Mr. Sadr and his top aides to probe the cleric’s po­si­tion to­ward the prospect of a long-term U.S. mil­i­tary pres­ence.

AS­SO­CI­ATED PRESS

Pen­tagon sources say De­fense Sec­re­tary James N. Mat­tis in­tends to pre­sent a plan at NATO meet­ing this month call­ing for more troops from the al­liance to as­sist with Iraq.

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