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Risks of Afghan Replay in Iraq

Copyright © 2021 Energy Intelligence Group
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The US' chaotic exit from Afghanistan after a 20-year military presence is putting Iraq in the spotlight. The US currently plans to end its combat operations in Iraq at the end of this year. Islamic State's continued presence in northern Iraq and high corruption levels echo the former Afghan government's weaknesses. Iraq is a large oil producer but suffers from financial woes and internal political division. While Iraq has parallels to Afghanistan, its location, resources and Iran's influence there give it more strategic value to the West than Afghanistan. The Biden administration cannot afford a replay of its Afghan debacle there.

The disorderly US departure from Afghanistan is stirring fears that Iraq -- as the only country besides Afghanistan that the US invaded, occupied and sought to rebuild after the Sep. 11, 2001 attacks -- could be next. Iraq's strategic importance differs, however, in that it borders key regional US allies and is Opec’s second-largest producer, and some troops will remain in a training and advisory role. A US footprint there is also seen as critical to limiting Iran's regional reach. But the broader shift in US policy -- away from the region and from oil -- is raising questions about how firm the US commitment to Iraq really is, and what its withdrawal might bring.

Possible Scenarios

Kabul’s fall to the Taliban has clearly focused the attention of top Iraqi officials, who may fear a rerun of Islamic State's devastating invasion and occupation of large swaths of Iraq seven years ago. Defense Minister Jouma Anad summoned a meeting of military commanders on Tuesday to discuss the recent developments in Afghanistan and what he called a significant increase in activity by the jihadist group, whose attacks on electricity infrastructure have escalated lately.

Islamic State may be a pale shadow of what it once was, but the swift collapse of Afghan security forces echoed that of the Iraqi army in 2014, albeit several years after US troops withdrew.

A different narrative circulating among pro-Iran factions stresses the unreliability of the US, proven by its chaotic retreat from Kabul, and the need for Iraq to find different partners, principally Iran and other non-Western countries, including China.

For others, however, any US withdrawal that opens the door to Iran-backed paramilitary groups is of greater concern than an Islamic State resurgence -- and more evocative of a Taliban takeover. Such groups are already engaged in a project of state capture, could be emboldened by the Afghan debacle, and have shown themselves quite prepared to storm the international zone in Baghdad and threaten the prime minister himself if challenged (EC Sep.4'20 ). In the north, expect Turkey to seek to fill any vacuum.

“The US can’t stay here forever. Everyone knows that. And unless the guys ruling us start building the country and have a unified army instead of these militias," Iran will take over, says an Iraqi Kurd based in Erbil. "Right now, the US is the glue that keeps Iraq together.”

Why Iraq Is Different

A State Department official insists that Washington’s commitment to Iraq goes far beyond security assistance, and that the relationship will endure “for years to come.” The presence of US and other Western companies in Iraq's energy sector and the Biden administration’s newfound sensitivity to high oil prices reinforces the idea that the US has interests to protect there that it doesn’t in Afghanistan.
But Iraq’s vast oil reserves do not hold the same importance that they did 10 years ago. Exxon Mobil, the biggest US firm in Iraq, is on its way out. Chevron continues to downsize in Kurdistan. Hunt Oil and HKN, the only US independents left in Kurdistan, are both looking to sell, according to the source in Erbil.  
  
Helping Iraq achieve energy self-sufficiency is an often-stated US goal. However, progress here has been limited, requiring the US to repeatedly issue temporary sanctions waivers allowing Iraq to continue importing Iranian electricity. But even that supports Washington’s overriding priority of curbing Iran’s influence in Iraq and beyond.
“The US is there for itself. The US is there because if it were not, Iran’s grip would be that much tighter, and not just in Iraq ... It reaches the entire region through Iraq. But how many people [in the country] actually see it through that lens?” says a Western military official recently deployed in Iraq.

Islamic State has given the US a powerful pretext to retain a troop presence in Iraq, which, critically, also supports ongoing US military operations in Syria. The agreement struck by Biden and Iraqi Prime Minister Mustafa al-Kadhimi in July envisages the withdrawal of US combat troops by the end of 2021, after which an unspecified number of US military personnel will support Baghdad’s counterterrorism efforts.

A Time of Change 

The current Iraqi government is led by a close ally of the US and clearly looks to Washington for support, especially as it seeks to get its finances in order after last year’s collapse in oil revenues. Finance Minister Ali Allawi revealed this month that Baghdad had begun talks with the International Monetary Fund to revive a proposal on borrowing $4 billion to address a budget deficit.

But the times are changing. Ayatollah Ali al-Sistani, the country’s highest Shiite religious authority who has sought to resist Iran’s influence, is now 91. In Iran, a hard-line president was inaugurated earlier this month, and upcoming Iraqi elections in October have the potential to upend the country's delicately balanced status quo (EC Aug.6'21 ).

Al-Kadhimi managing to get the controversial issue of US combat operations off the table ahead of elections was an enormously successful achievement, argues one Iraq analyst. But he notes that the Iran-backed factions in parliament still have a real chance of winning a commanding majority, which could severely complicate the US strategy of a lasting training and advisory role. “You could see parliamentary resolutions, you could see the appointment of a government that was more hostile to the US presence.”

Whatever the outcome, the Taliban’s takeover of Afghanistan is sure to encourage Washington’s enemies. The US presence in Iraq is "opposed by many there. And yes, probably those who seek a way to remove that presence by attacks will now be emboldened,” says retired US Ambassador Chas Freeman. “There should be a lot of thought in Washington on how to reduce the possible consequences of a withdrawal.”

Simon Martelli is Senior Middle East Correspondent at Energy Intelligence. A version of the article originally appeared in Energy Compass.

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