Former President Barack Obama declared an end to the U.S. military mission in Iraq and withdrew troops in 2011, only to redeploy troops three years later, in 2014, to combat the rise of the Islamic State group (ISIS), given the power vacuum left behind.
Now, President Joe Biden appears poised to potentially make a similar move, as he announced on Monday a declaration to cease U.S. combat missions in Iraq by the end of 2021, Mediaite reported.
It was unclear from the president’s remarks whether some or all of the troops deployed to Iraq would be withdrawn or remain to fill other roles, such as providing the Iraqi military with advice and training.
U.S. combat mission to end
The announcement from President Biden came Monday afternoon ahead of a White House meeting with Iraqi Prime Minister Mustafa Al-Kadhimi to discuss a range of issues. One of those issues was the cooperative effort to combat the Islamic State group and other extremists in Iraq, which according to Biden, would soon be entering a “new phase.”
Asked about that new role and how many U.S. troops would still be deployed to Iraq by the end of this year, Biden replied, “Our role in Iraq will be as a — dealing with not — it’s just to be available, to continue to train, to assist, to help, and to deal with ISIS as it — as it arrives.”
“But we’re not going to be, by the end of the year, in a combat mission,” he added.
A “change in mission”
During the daily press briefing that occurred shortly before that Oval Office meeting, White House Press Secretary Jen Psaki was also asked how many U.S. troops would be in Iraq by year’s end in anticipation of an expected “drawdown” of the U.S. military presence.
Psaki noted that there had been roughly 9,000 troops in Iraq, at the invitation of the Iraqi government, when the current “strategic dialogue” began, but is now down to roughly 2,500 troops. “So, but the real — the real announcement today — or real news today, I should say, is about a change of mission,” Psaki said. “And the numbers will be driven by what is needed for the mission over time. So, it is more about moving to a more advising and training capacity from what we have had over the last several years.”
She reiterated that only the “change in mission” was being announced and declined to get into “operational details,” adding, “but the first step is the change in mission, the end of combat — of a combat role in Iraq and moving to a more of a train, advise, and assist role,” she said. “That is what the Iraqi leadership have conveyed they want to see on the ground.”
“Not a removal of our partnership or our presence”
Pressed again later in the briefing on the matter and whether the changed mission — and potential withdrawal — would be viewed as a “capitulating” to the increasingly powerful pro-Iran militias, Psaki replied, “We are maintaining a presence in Iraq with a different mission, in coordination with leadership of, of course, the Iraqi leadership, and one where we feel we can continue to be quite constructive in fighting ISIS and fighting the dangerous threats from Iranian proxies.”
“So, this is a shift in mission; it is not a removal of our partnership or our presence or our close engagement with Iraqi leaders,” Psaki added.
The American people, of course, will have to wait and see if this apparent drawback in Iraq will allow U.S. troops to finally return home or whether continued instability and a resurgent militant threat will convince government leaders to keep those troops deployed for the foreseeable future.