President-elect Joe Biden has announced plans to scale down the U.S. military presence in Iraq through a continuing drawdown of American troops to only 2,500 active-duty personnel. Biden’s announcement follows on the Trump administration’s policy of continuing U.S. troop reductions in Iraq and Afghanistan, aiming to minimize the human and financial costs of America’s military engagement in long wars in the Middle East and Southwest Asia.
Defense and security critics of the Trump-Biden commitment to U.S. military disengagement from Iraq warn of a replay of the 2009-2011 scenario, when the exodus of U.S. troops from Iraq created a security vacuum filled by what became the Islamic State, as well as a host of Iran Shiite paramilitaries. In
short, the U.S. policy debate lays bare Iraq’s geopolitical value for both state and non-state actors, given the country’s geographic location and size, energy resources, and recent history as an incubator for diverse jihadist groups with global scope and impact. Washington’s troop reduction plans come at a particularly fraught conjuncture in international affairs, as four major actors are competing to grow their regional influence, at the expense of American interests and values, in the Middle East—part of a geopolitical calculus for power across Eurasia. ISIS, Iran, China, and Russia will all undeniably benefit from this troop withdrawal, which will create a power vacuum in Iraq and opportunities for geopolitical realignments. Here are three trends to follow when it comes to the linkages between Iraq and Eurasian geopolitics. 1. ISIS: Despite broad claims by the U.S. government regarding a successful outcome to the war on terror (the Global Coalition to Defeat ISIS announced the group's "defeat" in March 2019), the facts on the ground indicate otherwise. The U.S. government has cited ISIS’s decreased hold on territory as evidence of its defeat, a conclusion which Anthony H. Cordesman of the Center for Strategic & International Studies identifies as “absurd.” In fact, the “physical” destruction of ISIS, which involved “the destruction of the homes and business of ordinary people,” only aids the resurgence of ISIS and its radicalization strategies, especially given the Iraqi government’s poor efforts to restore those physical spaces. The coronavirus pandemic has also motivated Washington to accelerate the return of military personnel to America, as U.S. troops have suspended their anti-ISIS operations in order to tame the spread of the Coronavirus. Meanwhile, the nearly 600,000 Iraqis who have been diagnosed with COVID-19 have largely been left to fend for themselves, given the decrepit state of Iraq’s public health and medical infrastructure after almost two decades of war. As Baghdad faces a simultaneous public health crisis and increasing military burdens from the U.S. troop withdrawals, ISIS is poised to take advantage of Iraq’s converging human and state security challenges. There has been a notable spike in online propaganda publications by ISIS and its allied jihadi groups since the start of the pandemic. The leader of Boko Haram, for example, claimed that “the virus is a punishment for those who disobey Islam,” and proposed piety as a solution to the pandemic. 2. Iran: The Islamist regime in Iran remains committed to ideological expansion, political disruption, and force projection across the Middle East, goals that will be enabled by a U.S. troop drawdown in Iraq. Building on extant economic, political, and security linkages developed over the almost two decades since the 2003 fall of Saddam Hussein’s regime in Baghdad, Tehran will view America’s limited military presence in Iraq as an opportunity for expanded militia activity and disruption along Shiite sectarian lines, reinforcing Tehran’s strategic goal of consolidating a land corridor through Iraq to the Mediterranean Sea. On the energy front, Iraq remains dependent on Iran for electricity, and the U.S. military drawdown may weaken Washington’s efforts to assist in Iraq’s pivot from Iran to Saudi Arabia and Kuwait for Baghdad’s electricity needs. 3. China and Russia: Although competitors in Eurasia, China and Russia will undoubtedly view the U.S. troop drawdown from Iraq as an opportunity for expanding their economic and financial influence in the Middle East. Washington's military presence in Baghdad also had economic dimensions—since 2003 the U.S. has provided Iraq with “hundreds of millions of dollars in economic and military assistance.” A U.S. military exit from Iraq will also mean the end of this economic partnership, and Iraq will have to search elsewhere for economic and political support. This will serve as an ideal window for China and Russia to step in. Iraq has natural gas and petroleum resources which are well-suited to China’s Belt and Road Initiative, serving as another addition to Beijing’s massive Eurasian expansion project. On 8 December, Bloomberg reported that “Iraq is poised to sign a multibillion-dollar contract with China ZhenHua Oil Co., a bailout from Beijing for the cash-strapped government which will receive money upfront in exchange for long-term oil supplies.” China will read the absence of the U.S. as an opening to tighten the economic screws on an already vulnerable Iraqi government. Economic ties between Iraq and Russia will also be solidified following the U.S. withdrawal, as evident in the 4 December news that Baghdad is in talks to purchase anti-aircraft systems from Moscow. Neither Washington nor Baghdad seems to have thought through the consequences of a troop drawdown. Although Washington wants to end its long wars, and although Baghdad wants to add robustness to its own sovereignty, it may well be that the drawdown creates the very conditions that require a return to Iraq by the U.S., and that weaken Iraqi sovereignty in the short-term.