AIDAN SMITH-FAGAN WRITES — After 20 years of war, the Biden administration finally ended the US presence in Afghanistan. And by the end of this year, the US role in Iraq – the second of the America’s 9/11 wars- will be reduced as well.
Last July, President Biden announced that – by the end of the 2021 – US troops in Iraq would officially transition to a non-combatant role. Instead, the US will “continue to train, to assist, to help and to deal with ISIS,” Biden told reporters during a July press conference alongside Iraqi Prime Minister Mustafa al-Kadhimi. Rather than serving on the frontlines, American troops will focus on training and intelligence sharing with Iraqi forces.
“When we go to Iraq or to Afghanistan, we are basically…building up their military units,” says Nate Boyer, a former Green Beret who served in Iraq from 2008 to 2009. His unit trained and fought alongside Iraqi special forces soldiers. According to Boyer, the training side of the US mission in Iraq is effective at producing skilled and better-prepared soldiers.
“We saw a lot of progress, especially on the individual level,” he tells me. “Our hope is to train them to a level that they’re able to fight for themselves.”
So will Biden use the new non-combatant role as a stepping stone to a full withdrawal from Iraq? Ending the ‘forever wars’ of the Bush-era was one of his signature campaigns promises. In a 2019 speech, Biden argued that America should “bring home the vast majority of our combat troops from the wars in Afghanistan and the Middle East,” and focus only specific threats from Al-Qaeda and ISIS.
But Ben Connable – a Middle East specialist at the RAND Corporation- says that the new Iraq policy isn’t as big a shift as it may seem on the surface. “I don’t think there will be a practical change,” he says, noting that the US combat role in Iraq has been declining since well-before Biden took office. “This is widely seen as a change in name only.”
Biden also faces a major hurdle to an Iraq withdrawal: Syria, where US forces continue to carry out anti-ISIS operations. Those efforts are supported and based out of US installments in Iraq. “If we leave Iraq…then I think we can expect operations in Syria to end as well,” says Connable. “I don’t think they would be sustainable without a footprint in Iraq.” Connable is concerned that a shrinking of the US role in Iraq and Syria would give more influence and freedom to ISIS and other terrorist groups in the region.
But shortly after Biden announced the end of the US combat mission in Iraq, Politico reported that the administration has no plans to withdraw its roughly 900 troops from Syria. And in September, a press release from the US military’s anti-ISIS task force stated that American “remains steadfast in its commitment to supporting partners in Iraq and Syria.”
As for Biden’s promises to dramatically reduce the US footprint in the broader Middle East, the US still has plenty of military partnerships anchoring it in the Middle East, sometimes literally. Countries like Israel, Bahrain, Saudi Arabia, and Kuwait remain host to thousands of US airmen, sailors, and soldiers each year.
Although Biden has taken some steps to reduce America’s role in Yemen, the administration has yet to propose a military retrenchment that matches the scale of current US commitments in the region.
So while President Biden may want to roll back US involvement in the Middle East and focus on the Indo-Pacific, his hands may be tied in the short term. The ‘forever wars’ of the Bush years may be cooling down, but decades of military partnerships and ongoing terror threats will likely keep the US operating in the Middle East well into the future.