US, Iraq defense chiefs discuss post-Islamic State strategy

More than four years after the Islamic State surrendered its final bastion along the Iraq-Syria border, top Pentagon officials sat down with their Iraqi counterparts this week to lay the groundwork for the next decade of US military support to Baghdad.

The meetings, led by Iraqi Defense Minister Thabit Muhammad al-Abbasi and Celeste Wallander, the Pentagon’s assistant secretary for international security affairs, included Defense Secretary Lloyd Austin, members of the US Joint Staff, as well as representatives from US Central Command, the National Security Council and the State Department.

This week’s dialogue marked a belated step by the Biden administration toward unifying US government agencies' approaches to enabling Iraq’s military to stand on its own.

“We would want to partner with them as we partner with militaries across the rest of the region,” Dana Stroul, the Pentagon’s Middle East policy chief, told reporters prior to this week’s meetings.

“I think it's fair to say decades into the future, US forces will not be present in Iraq in the current formation that we are today,” Stroul said. 

Thus far the Biden administration’s policy approach to Iraq has largely focused on the campaign to defeat IS. But with the jihadi group driven underground, Washington is seeking to bring economic investment into Iraq to help stabilize its economy while drawing it closer to its Gulf neighbors, including with military partnerships.

“It is now time to take that opportunity,” US Ambassador to Iraq Alina Romanowski told reporters ahead of the meetings. “The prime minister is very open to that.”

“There are opportunities to facilitate Iraq’s integration with GCC partners. We can do that as well through military exercises and military engagements,” Stroul said. 

While US military officials say IS networks aspire to conduct attacks in Iraq and Syria, the group has been reduced to a low-level insurgency with limited ability to carry out foreign operations, with a 64% reduction in IS attacks in Iraq over last year. 

“We believe there's 1,000 or less ISIS at large in Iraq, and the same for Syria,” Army Maj. Gen. Matthew McFarlane, commander of the US-led coalition to defeat IS in Iraq and Syria, said last week.

US defense officials this week praised strides made by Iraq’s security forces since the army’s near-collapse in 2014 at the hands of IS as the group poured across the border from Syria and approached within striking distance of Baghdad. At its peak, IS ruled over a territory roughly the size of Great Britain and containing some 8 million people.

“Year over year, we see the number of ISIS attacks decrease, to include the effectiveness of those attacks,” Maj. Gen. McFarlane told reporters.

In June, Iraqi security forces (ISF) tracked down and killed IS’ wali, or “governor,” of Baghdad using their own intelligence and surveillance, he said.

“We are now focused on them building their capacity to conduct more than one [such operation] at a time and to build it across Iraq.”

ISF continue to rely on some 2,500 US and international coalition advisers in the wake of the war against IS, but officials say that mission won’t likely continue indefinitely.

In 2020-21, the United States withdrew roughly half of its counter-IS troops in Iraq and consolidated operational advisers at key headquarters before publicly announcing the end of the US combat role in Iraq.

Part of this week’s discussions at the Pentagon aimed at delineating mutually agreed criteria to transition to the end phase of the defeat-IS mission, US officials said.

“Over time, I think you'll see as the mission progresses — you'll see things reduce,” a senior US military official said prior to the meetings. 

Iraq’s forces continue to suffer from corruption and are not yet able to conduct simultaneous joint operations that rely solely on their own intelligence. US and Iraqi forces conducted 20 partnered operations against IS in the month of July, according to US Central Command.

“It’s fragile,” McFarlane told reporters last week. “But what I’ve seen compared to my previous tours is [that] we’re on the right path to achieve the desired end-states for this coalition.”

Iraq’s military continues to rely on Soviet-era weaponry mixed with advanced US and other foreign armaments that have proven difficult to maintain and operate.

“We are seeing improvement over time of their ability to independently find, fix and finish, using their aircraft, their F-16s,” McFarlane told reporters. Yet only 66% of Iraq’s F-16s are mission-capable, according to a recent Pentagon inspector general report, in part due to mechanical failures.

“The ISF is becoming increasingly independent in the targeting/strike process, but progress is slow,” read the report.

The Iraqi air force lacks air-to-ground targeting coordination and depends on the US-led coalition to illuminate targets in all airstrikes involving guided munitions. Iraqi F-16 pilots are also unable to communicate with the military’s joint operations center once they take off for strike missions, according to the inspector general report.

“Because ISIS targets are always in austere environments such as wadis, thick vegetation, and cave or tunnel complexes, it is nearly impossible to identify targets and direct strikes through an F-16’s targeting pod using only imagery provided by another source,” the report read.

While Iraq’s landmark $153 billion budget — the government’s first since 2021 — increased funding for the military, it also authoized a doubling of the size of Iraq’s Popular Mobilization Units (PMU) to some 238,000 personnel, allocating salaries to the tune of $2.7 billion per year through 2025.

Although the new funding allocation is unlikely to support a force of that size and the number of fighters in the PMU ranks remains disputed, both the Iraqi parliament’s Finance Committee and US-sanctioned PMU official Falih Fayyadh claimed in April that the forces are to boast more than 200,000 personnel this year — a substantial increase over 2021 numbers.

The PMU, which nominally fall under the command of Prime Minister al-Sudani, retain significant independence, and some are closely aligned with the Quds Force of Iran’s Islamic Revolutionary Guard Corps.

Iraq’s 2023 budget also calls for a reduction in size of the elite Counter Terrorism Service (CTS) by nearly 4,000 personnel, or more than 14% of the force, despite overall higher funding and plans to modernize the force by 2030, the US Defense Intelligence Agency reported. Last year, the US-led coalition in Iraq reported that the CTS was staffed at just 43% capacity.

“The CTS requires funding to recruit new soldiers to address its undermanned, top-heavy and aging fighting force,” the inspector general report read. “The CTS has not recruited any new soldiers since November 2018, with the exception of a small contribution of officers (20 to 50 per year) from the graduating class of the MOD academy.”

The US-led coalition has continued to advise CTS selection training while prioritizing building the wider Iraqi military’s intelligence, surveillance and reconnaissance (ISR) capabilities.

"Of course there's concern about the recently passed Iraqi budget," a senior US defense official told reporters Friday, adding, "We want to see those security elements appropriately and effectively equipped and resourced."

This week's formal dialogue was intended in part to "help us to better understand and be able to talk about their capabilities... and also, frankly, and not surprisingly, help them make their arguments for their budget," Romanowski told reporters. 

In Iraq’s semi-autonomous north, Kurdish peshmerga brigades remain divided and loyal to partisan leaders while dependent on US funding streams left over from the campaign against IS.

“The Pentagon continues to spend upwards of $20 million every month to prop up an Iraqi Kurdish force that will likely disintegrate the day the money dries up,” Jonathan Lord, director of the Middle East security program at the Washington-based Center for New American Security, wrote in an op-ed at Breaking Defense this week.

The senior US defense official speaking not for attribution on Friday said there was no specific deadline in Washington for peshmerga unification, but added that Biden administration officials "have been quite clear that [they] would like to see progress accelerated."

According to Al-Monitor the State Department has been encouraging Persian Gulf states and Jordan to bring investment to Iraq in a bid to shift the country's economic center of gravity away from Iran.

Last month, Saudi Arabia and the United Arab Emirates announced a combined $6 billion in investment deals in Iraq.

In February, General Electric signed an agreement to establish new power plants in Iraq, building upon a $1.2 billion deal inked in 2020 to overhaul the country’s power grid as the United States looks to help Iraq reduce its dependency on Iran for electricity.

“Frankly, it’s not very easy to get American companies and businesses to invest” in Iraq, Romanowski told journalists ahead of this week’s meetings.

“The prime minister has been very clear-eyed and focused on making sure that the fifth and sixth round of competition for energy contracts is open to the best bidders, and US companies are being encouraged to look at those, along with others,” the ambassador said.

US officials say they anticipate attacks on US positions in Syria and Iraq by pro-Iran groups could resume if Sudani doesn’t obtain some outward sign of progress on their demand to end the US troop presence in Iraq. 

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