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The historic opportunity awaiting Trump to stabilize Iraq, eventually withdraw troops

The stakes are high for a strategic dialogue later this week between U.S. officials and new Iraqi prime minister Mustafa al-Kadhimi.

Updated: June 8, 2020 - 1:25pm

President Trump has long railed against “endless wars,” but for much of his presidency the opportunity to move Iraq toward stability has not presented itself, thwarted by a meddlesome Iran, an ISIS insurgency, economic crisis and populist protests demanding reform.

But starting this week, his administration faces a significant opportunity with the strategic dialogue opening Thursday in Baghdad, which will allow U.S. officials to directly engage with Iraq’s new prime minister, Mustafa al-Kadhimi

Iraq has lacked a leader like al-Kadhimi for a long time. A journalist-turned-Cabinet-secretary, al-Kadhimi proved his mettle to the West as Iraq’s intelligence chief during the war on ISIS while delicately balancing a relationship of respect with the Shia Muslims in his country aligned with Iran.

The window of opportunity for al-Kadhimi to succeed is real, but narrow. The coalition forces led by U.S. troops substantially disabled ISIS, although the elements of the group have begun reconstituting in the country’s northwest region.

An American drone strike in January took out Iran’s chief military strategist, Gen. Qasem Soleimani, the architect of the IED-infused insurgency against American soldiers.

Oil prices have stabilized and ticked up, giving a needed boost to Iraq’s main economic engine.

And COVID-19 has distracted the entire region, including Iraq and hard-hit Iran, creating a moment of pause in the usual chaos and tension.

Al-Kadhimi has maximized the opportunity, unveiling a reform agenda to end corruption and security abuses and opening a dialogue with protesters and insurgents who have fueled sectarian violence.

But for al-Khadhimi to succeed long-term in his mission to return Iraq to an autonomous and stable nation state, he will need a significant show of support from the United States, from money to continued short-term military presence and flexibility with Iran.

Al-Kadhimi and Iraqi President Barham Salih are trying to make Iraq sovereign and secure again, and want strong ties with Washington. But they also don’t want to provoke a fight with Iran. 

Ahead of Thursday’s meetings, the Trump administration has signaled it is ready to engage.

Secretary of State Mike Pompeo signed a waiver to the Iran sanctions in early May, allowing Iraq to buy much needed power from its neighbor. And President Trump, without much fanfare, in late May extended the emergency executive order 13303, which started the Iraq War under George W. Bush in 2003, for another year to authorize U.S. military presence in the country.

But those early gestures must be followed by concrete steps if Trump wants to achieve the sort of stability that will allow him to deliver on his promise to withdraw troops from Iraq.

First off, Iraq needs money. Al-Kadhimi found the Iraqi treasury mostly empty when he took over. The fall in oil prices and COVID-19 worsened an already dire economic situation.

The first injection is the most logical: The U.S. can increase security assistance and cooperation and signal, as Trump did by renewing the executive order, that the 5,000 remaining U.S. troops aren’t abandoning Iraq quickly. 

Even if Trump is tempted to announce before the U.S. election a timetable for a U.S. troop withdrawal, as he has done in Afghanistan, there should be no ambiguity about the U.S. commitment to training and support operations, as well as intelligence operations.

The Pentagon has requested $645 million in FY 2021 for security assistance to Iraq through the Counter-ISIS Train and Equip Fund (CTEF), a decline of $200 million over the past two years. The battle against ISIS has been a success, the Pentagon classifying it as a ‘low level insurgency.’ But the terrorist group is nonetheless making a comeback in northwestern Iraq. 

This assistance, and cooperation, matters more than ever. Perhaps an outcome of this week’s strategic meeting could be a hard look at what more Iraq needs to continue to strengthen Iraq’s capacity for security, air support, and intelligence sharing to eventually reach autonomy.

Another opportunity on the economic front is resurrecting oil production in the semi-autonomous region controlled by the Kurdish Regional Government, which possesses some of Iraq’s highest grade and most lucrative crude.

In 2014, the Obama administration launched an initiative to have U.S. oil giants help the Kurds drill and send oil to Iraq’s oil ministry for sale on the open market, but the program became paralyzed by violence by both ISIS insurgents and Iran-backed rebels.

There’s a unique opportunity to create a grand bargain between the KRG and Iraqi to get that oil flowing again, and fattening the lean treasury coffers of the state with a self-reliant flow of cash that is not U.S. tax dollars.

A third challenge comes from Iran. Iraq is Iran’s front yard. Tehran's paramilitary proxies in Iraq escalated attacks against U.S. personnel starting last December, killing and injuring Americans, and convening a mob to threaten the U.S. embassy in Baghdad. 

Iran crossed a line in Iraq, and Trump powerfully struck back. The U.S. killed Iran’s Islamic Revolutionary Guard Quds Force Commander Qassem Soleimani and Abu Mahdi Al-Mohandis, Iran’s man in Iraq, in January. Tehran appears to have gotten the message, at least for now.

But Iraq needs to reclaim its own territory, without posing an overt threat to Iran.  Iraq wants good ties with Iran, but less of the heavy hand. 

Trump can help here by intensified security cooperation and reform in border security and other means to consolidate military authority in Iraq’s Ministry of Defense, while professionalizing its Ministry of Interior to deal with internal security. 

A fourth option comes from America’s partners in the Gulf, especially Saudi Arabia, Kuwait, and the UAE, who have the resources and marketplace to forge strong economic ties with Baghdad.  

Iraq Finance Minister Ali Allawi was in the Gulf recently to discuss investment and infrastructure projects, and seek billions of dollars on debt relief from Kuwait.  Money is tight in the Gulf, also reeling from low oil prices and COVID-19. But these countries have a stake in Iraq’s stability, and have the ability to create an economic counterweight to Iran

Ret. Brig. Gen. Robert S. Spaulding, who authored Trump’s well-received National Security Strategy in late 2017, said the administration must find the right mix of strengthening security through regional allies and growing the natural oil economy inside Iraq.

"To the extent that we are involved, we ought to be much more involved economically, in terms of working with them to bring that oil to market,” Spalding told Just the News.

Trump’s negotiating strategy enunciated in the book "Trump: The Art of the Deal" rests on knowing what a deal partner most wants and most fears.

Iraq wants to become autonomous and stable so it can free U.S. troops from 17 years of continuous combat. And its fears slipping back into the chaotic violence that has marred much of the last decade.

Trump, experts believe, has the ability to push that vision forward. But it means this week’s dialogue in Baghdad needs big ideas and execution and not small ball. Al-Khadimi is a short-lived opportunity for long-term stability.

The payoff, in terms of U.S. blood and treasure, could be enormous if there is a chance for success.

And that’s why most Americas tired of rioting and pandemic ought to cast a watchful eye on what happens in Baghdad later this week.