By December 31, 2021, the United States will have completed its second formal withdrawal from Iraq in a decade. Just three years after the last American withdrawal, the Iraqi state was in peril, with a third of the country fallen to the Islamic State and Baghdad and Erbil under direct threat. The result was the return of U.S. combat operations in Iraq in 2014, and thus a second occasion to withdraw today.
How will the next U.S. withdrawal impact Iraq’s political and security environment, and in particular, Erbil-Baghdad relations and stability in the Kurdistan Region? To answer this question, one must account for whether the withdrawal will lead to real change on the ground, as well as how the withdrawal will be perceived by relevant actors, regardless of the scope of actual change.
Since 2003, the United States has been a powerful mediator in the ever-tense relations between Iraq’s Kurds and the central government. America’s renewed combat presence in Iraq, and security assistance to both Erbil and Baghdad in the war against the Islamic State, provided the U.S. with additional capacity and leverage in pacifying Kurdish-Arab affairs. As such, some may speculate that the American withdrawal may lead to a serious deterioration of Erbil-Baghdad relations, which could eventually spiral into violence between the two actors. Although relations between Erbil and Baghdad have been relatively stable during Prime Minister Mustafa al-Kadhimi’s time in office, the possibility of greater instability between Iraq’s Kurds and the central government is always present. The October elections, and subsequent government-formation bargaining, can upend the terms of this stability, and the main sources of conflict between the Kurdistan Regional Government (KRG) and Baghdad (i.e. the status of disputed territories and internal borders, budgetary issues, and oil revenue-sharing) remain unresolved.
Yet there are at least two reasons why any renewed conflict between Erbil and Baghdad– if it were to transpire – will have little to do with the withdrawal of American combat forces in Iraq.
First, the American drawdown is mostly symbolic: Approximately 2,000-2,500 U.S. troops will remain in country (not including contractors); given that the American mission had already transitioned to a mostly training and advisory operation, the role of these remaining troops will be largely unchanged; and the domestic legal authorization for America’s combat presence in Iraq – the 2001 and 2002 AUMF – remain in effect. Therefore, whatever leverage and stabilizing benefits originated from America’s military presence in Iraq prior December 2021 will likely remain unchanged thereafter.
Furthermore, unlike the 2011 withdrawal, the U.S. is likely to stay deeply engaged in monitoring and suppressing the terrorist threat from groups like the Islamic State. While the Obama Administration was eager to move on from war in Iraq – in part to enable the U.S. pivot to near-peer competition in Asia – the lesson has been learned that the best way to safeguard the pivot East is to keep regional threats in the Middle East at bay. Given growing concern over the Islamic State and al-Qaeda’s resurgence after the Afghanistan withdrawal and the continued U.S. counterterror mission in northeast Syria, the Biden Administration is unlikely to disengage itself from the security situation in Iraq.
Second, even if the U.S. withdrawal – no matter how limited or symbolic – leads to a real decrease in Washington’s leverage over Erbil-Baghdad relations, it may not directly change the likelihood of conflict between the two. Playing peacemaker between Erbil and Baghdad is a political choice and responsibility which the U.S. has avoided even when it has held maximum leverage from its on-the-ground presence. For example, the most recent and extreme episode of sustained violence between Iraqi Kurds and the central government (since the fall of the Saddam Hussein regime) occurred during the height of America’s war against the Islamic State in October 2017, just weeks after the Kurdistan independence referendum. Instead of using its position to pacify a violent response from Baghdad, the U.S. chose to turn a blind eye from the joint Iraqi Security Forces-Popular Mobilization Forces (PMF) offensive until large amounts of disputed KRG-controlled territory were retaken by force.
This is not to say that the U.S. presence cannot and has not deterred Kurdish-Arab violence in the past. For example, American forces played a central role in diffusing escalating tensions in the disputed city of Khanaqin in 2008. The point is simply that America’s ability to mediate and diffuse tensions between Erbil and Baghdad has always been, and will remain, a political choice in Washington – a choice that is at least partially independent of the state and size of American forces on the ground. The worse-case scenario that some fear – physical violence between Kurds and Arabs, and further separatist advancements by Erbil – have occurred even when America’s local influence has been strongest. As such, while a sustained and sizable U.S. combat presence in Iraq may provide the U.S. with a greater capacity to play an intra-Iraq peacemaker, its continued capacity to do so would have little meaning if the political will is low.
The question of how the U.S. withdrawal will impact behavior of the PMF – simultaneously militia actors and intricate members of the Iraqi state – will be pertinent for both the KRG and other parties in Baghdad. Part of Kadhimi’s reasoning for securing the formal American withdrawal was to appease certain pro-Iran factions within the PMF who were using the American combat mission to oppose Kadhimi’s leadership. But while some groups are eager to use the withdrawal as an opportunity to deepen participation in government, others see the mostly symbolic agreement for what it is and will continue their opposition. As such, the nebulous and fractured nature of the PMF mean that the U.S. withdrawal will not have a uniformly pacifying or aggravating effect on all militia groups and their affiliated parties.
Although the points above indicate that the December withdrawal will not substantially alter the political and security environment within Iraq – and in particular, the prospect for instability between Baghdad and Erbil – such an event, no matter how symbolic, could still impact the political and security environment. This is because perceptions of policy change can sometimes be as impactful as the degree of change itself. And the fact that the Iraq drawdown comes on the heels of America’s very real and chaotic withdrawal from Afghanistan could increase local perceptions that the U.S. sees its “exit” from Iraq with similar finality.
Finally, one must consider not only how the U.S. withdrawal will impact Erbil-Baghdad relations, but also other regional players like Turkey and Iran. A downgrading of the U.S. role in Iraq may encourage Ankara and Tehran to become more assertive vis-à-vis both Baghdad and Erbil, both to fill the void of American influence and to impede the other’s ability to do the same. With a lighter American counterweight to back Baghdad and Erbil’s sovereignty claims, Ankara may expand its attacks against PKK targets in northern Iraq. Furthermore, Iran can expand its operations against Iranian Kurdish rebels based in northern Iraq with less fear of irking U.S. forces on the ground, while pro-Iran Shia militias may feel empowered to challenge the KRG over disputed territories. Although the influence of Turkey and Iran will be felt differently by Kurdish parties in Erbil and Sulaymaniyah, all Kurdish parties will be forced to think more creatively about how to manage the need for growing coordination with Ankara and Tehran without jeopardizing whatever is left of its American counterweight.
Overall, it is difficult to predict how the upcoming U.S. withdrawal will affect Iraq’s political environment because so much is contingent on whether the various local actors choose to perceive the American withdrawal as a moment of change or merely rebranded continuity. And such perceptions will themselves be contingent on how the American withdrawal actually unfolds in practice, in terms of the ultimate size, operational scope, and physical location of American forces by 2022. But if one thing is certain, it is that key actors in Baghdad, the KRG, Ankara, and Tehran will be keen to test the parameters of America’s new role in Iraq to find out. While this period may be one of great uncertainty, there is more reason to anticipate general continuity than change.