The Implications of a US Withdrawal from Iraq for USCENTCOM Priorities and Great Power Competition

By: LTC Octavian Dorobantu, ROU Army, CSAG CCJ5
24 Feb 2021


Due to economic changes and the loss of American popular support for long wars, the Trump Administration designed a plan to withdraw troops from Iraq. If the Biden Administration were to act along the same lines, a withdrawal could cause significant harm to US national security interests at home and in the Middle East. In 2018, the US National Defense Strategy changed the order of the US’ priority threats. Countering the threat of terrorism was supplanted by Great Power Competition (GPC). This change was the harbinger of a reduced US military footprint in Iraq and Afghanistan. The Trump Administration changed the US’s foreign policy, implementing a less nuanced manner of assessing achievements and costs.

The US initially stated its reasons to deploy troops to the Middle East were to fight and defeat regional terrorism, and to protect the American people, its territories and allies from attacks. The timing of deployments also appeared to indicate that the US sought economic benefits by securing Iraqi oil. However, US interest in Iraq’s energy resources waned over time as the shale boom fostered US energy independence. In terms of distribution of resources, the Trump Administration assessed that US troop deployments in Iraq were not cost effective, and the resources used could better serve US interests elsewhere without compromising national security. This cost analysis perspective matched the Trump Administration’s isolationist approach. In its war against terrorism, the US spent almost 6.4 trillion dollars since 2001. Others have noted the high cost to life of recent US military invention in the Middle East. Notably, the Watson Institute of International and Public Affairs at Brown University reports that in the Middle East’s military conflicts, more than 801,000 people, including many civilians, and regional and American service members died as a direct result of fighting.

The US intervention in Iraq provides an excellent case study of the achievement of medium and long-term objectives. While violence has been reduced, the country unfortunately remains plagued by endemic instability, fueled by the permanent struggle between Iraqi political and sectarian factions. If the US substantially withdraws its troops, the US will likely struggle to counter Iranian influence, and be unprepared to prevent or respond to a Daesh resurgence. Decision makers must understand that the mission in Iraq is more important than the numbers.

Key Points:

  • To best analyze the implications of a US withdrawal from Iraq, an accurate determination must be made of the current level and required level of the Iraqi Security Forces (ISF) capabilities to deter Iran and counter terrorism.
  • The Iraqi Security Forces have improved, but still lack the capability to prevent Daesh resurgence, and resist Iranian influence, without substantial US support.
  • To mitigate Daesh’s resurgence and growing Iranian influence, the US must maintain a capable military posture in the Middle East to deter adversaries, support allies, sustain freedom of military and commercial movement, and counter terrorism.
  • An ill-timed US withdrawal would be interpreted internationally as the US being less willing or less able to globally intervene militarily. In GPC terms, China and Russia would welcome this perception.

Read the complete paper here.

The opinions and conclusions expressed herein are those of a number of international officers within the Combined Strategic Analysis Group (CSAG) and do not necessarily reflect the views of United States Central Command, not of the nations represented within the CSAG or any other governmental agency.