U.S. troop withdrawal from Iraq: What it means for regional stability

Iraqi soldiers replace US troops at Camp Echo in Diwaniya in December (photo:dpa)
Iraqi soldiers replace US troops at Camp Echo in Diwaniya in December (photo:dpa)

US combat troops pulling out of Iraq have left complex and far-reaching implications for stability in the country and the wider region. Violence and political instability in the country and the loss of deterrent power in the regional context are among the concerns. But despite the troop withdrawal more defence spending cuts may be needed.

THE FINAL departure of United States combat troops from Iraq has complex and far reaching implications.

They affect Iraq’s domestic security and politics, regional stability and the political and economic situation in the US and Europe.

The eventual consequences of the cascading impact of withdrawal will be determined by the stability of Iraq and its relations with neighbouring countries

The eventual consequences of the cascading impact of withdrawal will be determined by the stability of Iraq and its relations with neighbouring countries in the aftermath of the end of the American military effort.

But it is not actually correct to say that the US has ‘withdrawn’ from Iraq.

Combat forces

While the last US combat forces left Iraq territory on December 17, 2011, approximately 120 US military personnel remain there as part of Office Security-Cooperation Iraq (OSC-I).

OSC-I serves as part of the US embassy. It is responsible for training and assistance to the Iraqi military including foreign military sales, foreign military financing, and international military training and education.

The US embassy staff also includes about 18,000 civilians. They provide, in addition to diplomatic duties, capacity building assistance such as a training programme administered by the State Department’s Office of International Narcotics and Law Enforcement, as well as economic and infrastructure programmes managed by the US Agency for International Development (USAID).

Security developments

Spending in the financial year ending September 30, 2012, will be about US$1billion. About half will be for economic development and half to support infrastructure for maintaining US government civilian and diplomatic activities.

These activities employ a large number of contractors who provide logistics and support, including some 5,000 security contractors.

Despite these commitments, the absence of armed forces is widely believed to have significantly lowered the capacity of the US to affect political and security developments in Iraq.

Violent factions

The first concern over withdrawal is the potential for a resurgence of violence and instability.

American forces had dampened the violence in the country by deterring aggression among Iraqi factions and combating state-sponsored and transnational terrorism. However, the Sadrist militias, elements of al Qaeda, and other violent factions remain a security threat.

Ensuring there will be no violence will depend, in part, on the capacity and leadership of Iraqi security forces which are more than 765,000-strong. But questions remain over their adequacy.

The Iraqis have established a competent counter-insurgency capability. But reports by both the US Senate Committee on Foreign Relations majority staff and the US Special Inspector General for Iraqi Reconstruction in 2011 cast doubt on the capacity of the Iraqi forces to meet ‘minimum essential capabilities’ in all defence functions.

Political influence

An additional concern is political influence and corruption. In the past, for example, Prime Minister Nouri al-Maliki has established extralegal security and intelligence organisations under his personal direction. He has also personally directed military activities bypassing the ministry of defence.

In summary, the Iraqi military may lack the capacity to deter violence, protect the country, and foster political reconciliation over the long term.

The withdrawal of US forces has removed a deterrent from the political environment which might have served as a check on the current power struggle

There are also concerns over Iraq’s political stability. The current Iraqi political system does not respect power-sharing and the rule of law under the Iraqi Constitution.

Arrest warrant

Prime Minister Maliki indicated in a December, 2011, press conference, that he favoured rule by political majority over a government based on national partnership. Such a policy would marginalise the influence of the country’s minority Sunni and Kurdish communities.

At the same time, some provinces have sought to assert increasing independence from the government in Baghdad. For example, recently, both the Salah ad-Din and Diyala provinces have sought to establish more autonomous federal regions.

In the most recent high profile confrontation Sunni-leader and Vice President Tariq al-Hashemi fled to the semi-autonomous Kurdish region after the Iraqi-led Shia government issued a warrant for his arrest on the crime of terrorism.

Deterrent removed

Whether the divisive political tensions in the country continue to escalate remains to be seen.

American officials, including US vice president Joe Biden, the director of the Central Intelligence Agency David Petraeus and the former US commander of ground forces General Ray Odierno, have personally spoken to Iraqi government officials to de-escalate the crisis without avail.

The withdrawal of US forces has removed a deterrent from the political environment which might have served as a check on the current power struggle.

There are potentially other checks on violence. Since the fighting in 2003, the Sunni, Shia, and Kurdish regions are more homogenous, hence the groups are more separated.

Regional stability

In addition, Iraqis are exhausted by conflict. No single group believes it could easily dominate the others and, despite its persistent presence, al Qaeda is largely discredited. Whether these factors will compensate for the withdrawal of US forces is unclear.

A second consequence of the US withdrawal is the impact on regional stability. Iran will likely continue to attempt to expand its influence in the region.

The influential Shia figure, Muqtada al-Sadr, continues to receive support. A splinter Sadrist group, Asa’ib Ahl al-Haq, reportedly receives millions of dollars in cash and weapons monthly from the Iranian Revolutionary Guard Corps.

More aggressive

Meanwhile Iran’s leaders have been publicly more aggressive since the US withdrawal and are threatening to close the Straits of Hormuz, the key waterway for the transit of Middle East petroleum exports.

How much of the Iranian action is due to the US withdrawal or as a response to economic sanctions being imposed on Iran over concerns about its nuclear programme is an issue of great debate.

The US withdrawal may also impact on the protests in Syria where more than 250,000 Iraqis live. Trade between Iraq and Syria is worth more than US$3billion.

Without US pressure, links to Iraq could be a lifeline in propping up the Syrian regime. Conversely, Iraqi leaders including Sunni Sheikh Ali Sleiman al-Dumeni have warned they fear Syrian unrest will spill over into Iraq.

Global power

It is still unclear what the US will do to off-set the withdrawal of forces and maintain its influence in the region.

Increased arms sales to friendly nations will likely be part of that response as reflected by the December, 2011, announcement of a US$30billion sale of F-15 fighter aircraft to Saudi Arabia.

The Pentagon is still some months away from announcing its new intended force structure for the region, though officials have countered reports that the US will leave significant combat forces in neighbouring Kuwait.

The final consequence of the withdrawal is the impact on US global power.

The Pentagon released new strategic guidance in January, 2012, reflecting scheduled defence spending cuts of approximately US$500billion.

Strategic guidance

These reductions will be achieved largely by reducing the size of the US Army and Marine Corps, as a result of the drawdown of combat operations in Iraq and Afghanistan.

While there was much discussion in the strategic guidance of a ‘pivot’ towards Asia with American forces, US defence analysts do not expect to see a significant increase in investment or forces in that region in the near term.

On the other hand, reductions in ground forces in the Middle East and nearby bases in Europe are clearly in the plans. These include the removal of two of the four combat brigades in Germany, some 35,000 to 40,000 soldiers from bases in Baumholder and Grafenwohr.

Europe remains the biggest base for US soldiers abroad and at the end of the Cold War in 1990 numbers were reduced from 230,000 to 81,000.

Defence cuts

While the reduction in defence spending as a result of the US withdrawal from Iraq is largely going towards deficit reduction, these cutbacks will not be nearly sufficient to meet the spending reductions mandated by the US Congress under the Budget Control Act of 2011.

Despite the withdrawal of American forces the Pentagon may still have to undertake upwards of an extra US$500 billion in defence cuts

Therefore, despite the withdrawal of American forces the Pentagon may still have to undertake upwards of an extra US$500 billion in defence cuts.

Pentagon officials have acknowledged that the recently released strategic guidance could not be implemented if these additional cuts in spending were imposed.

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