About six months after the U.S. ended its longest war, the outgoing head of U.S. Central Command hinted that U.S. involvement in Iraq is probably going to go on even longer.
As the 19th anniversary of Operation Iraq Freedom approaches, there are roughly 2,500 troops still in Iraq, playing a strict advise-and-assist role at the invitation of the Iraqi government.
“As we look into the future, any force level adjustment in Iraq is going to be made as a result of consultations with the government of Iraq,” Marine Gen. Frank McKenzie told Military Times on Friday. “And we just finished a strategic dialogue a few months ago ― we believe that will continue.”
The result of that dialogue was a formal end to the U.S. combat mission there at the end of 2021, though the thousands of troops who have been rotating into the country since 2014 as part of Operation Inherent Resolve haven’t led combat operations for years.
Going forward, McKenzie said, the role will look a lot like it does now, as the Iraqi government comes together to make another go at strengthening the defense of its sovereignty.
“So we’re watching that with great interest and wish them well, despite the many roadblocks that are being thrown up by Iranian-based proxy groups,” he said. “They’re proceeding, you know, maybe not the way we would do it. Maybe slower than the way we would do it. But nonetheless, that moving forward in the long term, we would like to have a normalized security cooperation agreement and posture with Iraq.”
That could look like continued training of local forces, advising military leadership and providing weapons to Iraq to help its security forces remain effective.
“You want to get to the state where nations, and security elements in those nations, can deal with a violent extremist threat without direct support from us,” McKenzie said. “Right now we have the Iraqis doing the fighting. We’re still helping them. Over time you’d like for them to take a larger share of all the enabling that we’re doing now.”
If this sounds a lot like what U.S. military leaders said for the better part of a decade in Afghanistan, after the U.S. combat mission ended in 2014, that’s because the goals are identical. Commanders consistently touted progress in wresting control of the country from the Taliban, though in reality, Afghanistan’s defense forces remained dysfunctional.
The difference in Afghanistan was that the political situation changed, and it became a key presidential campaign platform to end the U.S. presence there.
When President Donald Trump laid the groundwork for a full Afghanistan exit, the understanding was that the U.S. would continue to arm and fund the Afghan military, and possibly look for opportunities to keep training troops outside the country.
President Joe Biden then set the 20th anniversary of 9/11 as the hard deadline for pulling all U.S. troops out of Afghanistan. The same political groundswell for a complete departure from Iraq hasn’t materialized.
That could be because Iraq’s major security challenges are of great interest to the US: ISIS, which has shown its eagerness to attack on U.S. soil; and Iran’s funding of militias in Iraq, part of its larger role in state-sponsored terrorism.
McKenzie has often repeated that the Iraqi government really wants U.S. troops in its country, though of course, so did the Afghans.
“Let me emphasize, whatever we do in the future is something we’ll jointly arrive at with our partners: with the government of Iraq; and again, the North Atlantic Treaty Organization, NATO ― very significant, important and growing presence in Iraq, again at the explicit request of the of the Iraqi government,” McKenzie said.
Meghann Myers is the Pentagon bureau chief at Military Times. She covers operations, policy, personnel, leadership and other issues affecting service members.