This week, Iraqi Prime Minister Mustafa al-Kadhimi urged U.S. President Joe Biden in a meeting at the White House to end Washington’s combat mission in Iraq but maintain U.S. military assistance to his country.
The first part of Mr. Kadhimi’s request, meant to serve political purposes at home, is a non-issue. The roughly 2,500 American troops we have in Iraq are there primarily to advise and assist the Iraqi army. It’s the second part of the Iraqi leader’s appeal, however, that’s worth looking into.
Mr. Kadhimi has stated repeatedly that the Iraqi army is now capable of defending the country without the help of U.S. troops. If that’s the case, then we need to transition our assistance, and more generally our relationship, from the counter-ISIS operational phase to a more “normal” state.
It’s only logical, and fair to the U.S. taxpayer, that our foreign aid to Baghdad should reflect facts on the ground. While ISIS still poses a security threat, as evidenced by its attacks over the past few months against the Iraqi army and lately against a crowded market in Baghdad, killing more than 35 people, it no longer has the ability to control territory and terrorize large segments of the Iraqi population.
The emergency conditions and authorities under which we have operated in Iraq since 2014, where we have given the Iraqis money and equipment worth billions of dollars and fought with them side-by-side to stop ISIS’s reign of terror, are no longer relevant.
This doesn’t mean we should end our military assistance to the Iraqis. But we shouldn’t preserve the current, high levels of assistance either, as the Iraqis have requested. Even more importantly, the very nature of that assistance should change.
Moving forward, our posture in Iraq must focus a lot more on helping the Iraqis build defense institutional capacity so they can take full advantage of all the hardware we’ve already provided them, including F-16 fighters and armored vehicles, and protect the security gains they’ve made.
The Iraqis don’t necessarily need more arms, they just need to learn how to better employ, integrate, and sustain the arms they have. This requires something all of our Arab partners either struggle with a great deal or simply don’t have: proper defense governance.
Serious weaknesses on the strategic level, where policies, strategies, plans, and material and human resource management systems typically are formulated, have impeded the Iraqi army’s tactical and operational effectiveness more than anything else.
Since 2011, senior American military advisors based in the U.S. Embassy’s Office of Security Cooperation-Iraq (OSC-I) have been entrusted with the responsibility of helping the Iraqis with some aspects of institutional capacity building.
Those advisors, assigned to various elements in the Iraqi Ministry of Defense and in the Prime Minister’s Office, are well-intentioned and highly knowledgeable about tactical and operational affairs. But they have no background or proper training in defense management. For years, the U.S. effort on Iraqi capacity building was underperforming because, aside from Iraqi politics, corruption, and disorganization, it was not effectively structured to achieve its goals.
Things began to improve in 2016-17 when the Institute for Security Governance (ISG), which is now part of the Defense Security Cooperation Agency (DSCA), was tasked by the Office of the Secretary of Defense with providing advice to the Iraqis on defense institution building.
Leveraging DSCA’s Ministry of Defense Advisors (MODA) program (which until the recent U.S. military withdrawal had a large presence in Afghanistan), ISG’s small cadre of civilian experts have done more impactful work than their military colleagues. Among their accomplishments, they’ve helped the Iraqis formulate a more coherent Iraqi national security strategy and refine the requirements of professional military education.
However, limited access to Iraqi leaders and stakeholders has obstructed further progress. So has the modest size of the ISG team. The U.S. civilian experts have been in Baghdad mostly as part of the NATO Mission in Iraq (NMI), rather than the U.S. Embassy. This means that to a large extent they have relied on NATO for Iraqi access, which is good but not great.
This has constrained our capacity building effort with the Iraqi Counter Terrorism Service (CTS). Because NATO doesn’t have a mandate to work with the CTS, those U.S. civilian advisors have little to no access to this organization. That’s a problem because the CTS is our most important military investment in Iraq and it desperately needs strategic-level help.
While the CTS is the most competent unit in the Iraqi army, it doesn’t have enough capable strategic planners and resource managers. It has legal autonomy due to its ministerial-level status, but it doesn’t have the administrative capacity to run its various processes more effectively. It’s also not well-integrated with other Iraqi ministries with security responsibilities.
To be sure, there’s nothing wrong with the United States contributing to the institutional capacity building mission in Iraq through NATO’s various programs. But it’s beneficial for us to have our own framework operating from the U.S. Embassy, one that effectively coordinates with NATO. Such an arrangement would give us the opportunity to better assess, monitor, and evaluate our own activities in ways that would be consistent with the wishes of appropriators in the U.S. Congress.
But for this to happen, some major modifications have to be made. Most needed is greater policy clarity and strategic guidance on Iraq from the National Security Council. On a more tactical level, the State Department should increase expert civilian advisory manpower in the U.S. Embassy and along with the Defense Department allocate sufficient financial resources to the overall defense institution building initiative.
We’re on track to invest roughly $5 million on defense institution building in Iraq next year. That’s nowhere near enough, considering the billions of dollars we spend on training and equipment. What’s even worse is that some of this money will be resourced through the Pentagon’s Overseas Contingency Operations (OCO) fund, whose future availability is very much unclear.
Also critical to our effectiveness is the integration of the work of the State Department and the Defense Department on Iraq. That’s an old problem that exists in all U.S. diplomatic missions around the world, but it doesn’t change the fact that absent a more cohesive Pol-Mil team in the U.S. Embassy, our efforts will remain scattered and stove-piped.
For many years, we couldn’t really emphasize and sufficiently invest in defense institution building in Iraq because of the extreme exigencies of the battlefield and the fight against ISIS. Now that the ISIS threat has greatly subsided, we can reorient our position in Baghdad to help the Iraqis truly become more capable and self-reliant.
Unlike in Afghanistan, we have much to work with in Iraq (although the corruption problem is probably as big in Baghdad as it is in Kabul): a less unstable political foundation, more capable units within the Iraqi army, a more literate Iraqi society, a more permissible security environment, and a reform-oriented prime minister.
Let’s effectively leverage these conditions and commit to moving our relationship with Iraq from crisis mode to proactive planning.
Bilal Y. Saab, a former Pentagon senior advisor on security cooperation in the Middle East, is a senior fellow at the Middle East Institute. The opinions expressed in this piece are his own.
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