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A U.S. airstrike that killed Iranian Gen. Qassem Soleimani near Baghdad International Airport has set off a string of events that may have put the future of America’s military presence in Iraq in question.
Last week, Iraq’s parliament passed a nonbinding resolution calling for U.S. troops to leave the country in response to the strike, which also killed a powerful Iraqi militia commander backed by Soleimani. The next day a Pentagon letter expressing America’s intent to leave was sent to the Iraqis. U.S. Secretary of Defense Mark Esper said the letter was a draft that was shared by mistake.
“There’s been no decision whatsoever to leave Iraq,” he said. Undeterred, Iraqi Prime Minister Adil Abdul-Mahdi said he asked the U.S. to begin planning for a withdrawal.
There are currently about 5,000 U.S. troops in Iraq, a small fraction of the force that was present during the Iraq War, which at one point included more than 160,000 soldiers. The U.S. invaded the country in 2003 and maintained a major military presence there until the war formally ended in 2011. Some American soldiers returned — this time with Iraq’s permission — in 2014 to help combat the emergence of the ISIS terrorist group, which had taken control of a large portion of northern Iraq. That effort successfully reclaimed all ISIS-held territory.
Why there’s debate
The Trump administration has argued that the continued presence of American soldiers is necessary to avoid a resurgence of ISIS. Many observers see America’s initial withdrawal in 2011 responsible for creating a power vacuum that allowed the terror group to emerge in the first place. U.S. forces are also seen by many as an important counterweight to Iran’s efforts to spread influence in neighboring Iraq.
There are also questions about the legitimacy of the resolution calling for the U.S. to leave. The vote was protested by a large portion of Iraq's parliament and it’s unclear if Abdul-Mahdi, who is planning to resign, would follow through on the effort to oust U.S. troops.
Those who support an American withdrawal have argued that the American military would be occupying a sovereign nation illegally if it ignored an Iraqi order to leave. Some Middle East experts also argue that the U.S. presence in the region is destabilizing to the region and responsible for more violence than it prevents. There are also fears that American soldiers are being put in harm’s way unnecessarily and an attack on them by Iran or its proxy forces could spark a war.
The U.S. State Department has thus far pushed back on the idea that troops be withdrawn, despite calls to do so from the Iraqi government. The Trump administration has threatened to cut off Iraq’s access to critical funds it stores in the Federal Reserve Bank of New York if it attempts to force American forces out of the country.
U.S. troops should stay
Withdrawing would lead to a resurgence of ISIS
“Some may argue that by leaving, the United States will make Iraq and the jihadists there into Iran’s problem. But that ignores recent history, including the global chaos wreaked by the Islamic State just five years ago after American troops had left.” — Daniel Benaim, New York Times
Leaving would be a gift to Iran
“The U.S. military presence in Iraq might not be popular, but it is necessary to both the U.S. and Iraq as a deterrent to Iran. Iraq has admitted as much,” — Kaylee McGhee, Washington Examiner
A U.S. withdrawal would lead other countries to abandon support of Iraq
“Although shocked by recent U.S. actions, many Iraqis still want a new era of strategic cooperation with the U.S. and the other 80 nations of the global coalition to defeat the Islamic State, nations that have collectively adopted an ‘in with the U.S., out with the U.S.’ posture, meaning that they would not continue their in-country support without the U.S. alongside them.” — Michael Knights, Politico
The U.S. should keep a small advisory force in Iraq
“If the United States could maintain an advisor position, it might be able hold on to its combined counter-Islamic State headquarters and continue funding the training and equipment. All of these things are in Iraq’s interest and they could be renegotiated if American diplomats were empowered to do so.” — Ben Connable, Los Angeles Times
Iraq’s military isn’t strong enough to keep the peace on its own
“If American soldiers are ejected, the Iraqi security forces will lose their most capable and beneficent ally. Iraqis prosecuting the ongoing counterinsurgency against Islamic State would be in serious trouble. American advisors who have provided logistics and medical support would disappear. The Iraqi Counter-Terrorism Service, which has long been dependent on American support, would be cut loose to fend for itself.” — Ben Connable, Los Angeles Times
The U.S. is needed to promote stability in the region
“The American presence in the Middle East is so vexing precisely because that part of the world is constantly in crisis and has so many hostile actors. Which is why America can’t leave, as presidents to their chagrin keep learning the hard way.” — Jeff Jacoby, Boston Globe
American troops should be withdrawn
The U.S. has suffered enormous losses from being in Iraq
“The ongoing military presence and state-building project in Iraq has cost the U.S. trillions in taxpayer dollars and just south of 5,000 military deaths, with little to show by way of geopolitical dividends. The Iraqi government’s continued insistence on a full U.S. withdrawal may serve as the impetus for new solutions to Washington's military quagmire in the Middle East.” — Mark Episkopos, National Interest
America’s presence is counterproductive to its strategic goals
“It has to be said, but seldom is: Iran has enjoyed far more strategic success in the Middle East since the beginning of the Global War on Terror than the United States, and those gains have come at a considerably lower cost in blood and money than what the American people have borne for their troubles.” — James A. Warren, Daily Beast
Keeping troops in Iraq leads to violence
“If there is a lesson to be learned in Baghdad, it is that useless suffering is not a byproduct of war but the essential nature of the thing. Violence begets violence, and however noble the reason for invasion, bombing or Reaper drone strike, the effect will be ruinous: destroyed infrastructure, economic devastation, graft, corruption and chaos.” — Sam Thielman, NBC News
Staying if ordered to leave would be illegal
“If neither side backs down, we’re facing a situation where U.S. troops remain in Iraq without the Iraqi government’s permission. That’s unknown territory for the U.S.-Iraq relationship, and it could be interpreted as an act of aggression under international law.” — Joshua Keating, Slate
An attack on American troops could lead to war with Iran
“The United States should remove its forces from Iraq and begin exiting the broader region. As the events of the last two weeks underline, the smattering of U.S. forces in the region are not accomplishing anything useful, but are enough to pull the United States into another needless war.” — Benjamin H. Friedman, USA Today
The U.S. needs to accept that its mission in Iraq has failed
“So 17 years, trillions of American dollars, more than 35,000 Americans killed or wounded -- you probably know one -- and this is what we get at the end in return: Another Iranian proxy state that hates us. ...And yet suddenly there may be an upside to all of this sadness -- and it's this, we can go now. Iraq's democratically elected government has asked us to leave, and we should leave, immediately.” — Tucker Carlson, Fox News
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Cover thumbnail photo illustration: Yahoo News; photo: Azad Lashkari/Reuters