As the U.S. special operations presence in Iraq grows, President Barack Obama’s diplomats are promising its government he has no intention of sending large contingents of combat troops to join those well-trained fighters already on the ground. There is a good reason for this: Iraq and Iran don’t want them.
U.S. officials tell us Iraq’s prime minister, Haidar al-Abadi, has asked the U.S. for more equipment, more training and more air support. But he has been clear that his government opposes any influx of U.S. combat troops like those that fought inside Iraq between 2003 and 2011.
“Ground troops at this point is just not politically sustainable in Iraq,” one senior State Department official said. This official added that Baghdad’s opposition to ground forces “put a ceiling” on what the U.S. could offer militarily.
On Tuesday, at a hearing before the House Armed Services Committee, Defense Secretary Ashton Carter announced that the U.S. will deploy “a specialized expeditionary targeting force” in Iraq to assist Iraqi and Kurdish fighters and conduct targeted raids, on top of the U.S. special operations forces that have already conducted such operations for many months.
Carter and General John Dunford, chairman of the Joint Chiefs of Staff, testified that the deployment was part of Obama’s plan to increase the intensity of the current fight against the Islamic State. Some Republicans are pushing Obama to go further.
Calling this tactical uptick insufficient, they urge him to deploy thousands more U.S. military personnel to Iraq. But the administration is not the only obstacle to such a plan. The government of Iraq is squarely against it, as are the Iranians, who wield more influence over Baghdad than ever.
“We have said the allies and the United States are guests of our country. We think the Iraqis should fight this themselves but should be enabled by allies like the United States,” Iraq’s ambassador to the United States, Lukman Faily, told us. “We do not want U.S. combat forces on the ground.”
Faily also said there have been no formal discussions about a permanent U.S. military presence in Iraq. In some ways, this position is not new. Abadi’s predecessor, Nouri al-Maliki, privately sought to extend the U.S. presence in Iraq when Obama first came into office.
But Obama insisted that any extension be approved by Iraq’s parliament, as opposed to an executive agreement approved just by Maliki. As a result, Maliki ended up supporting a full U.S. withdrawal in 2011. Obama sent special operations forces and airmen back in 2014, after the Islamic State had taken Iraq’s second largest city, Mosul.
Even the two chief Republican proponents of a larger ground force in Iraq say that, due to Iranian influence, the Iraqis probably could never agree to a large influx of U.S. ground troops. Senate Armed Services Committee Chairman John McCain and Republican presidential candidate Lindsey Graham traveled to Baghdad and Irbil over the weekend to meet with Abadi, among others.
McCain told us that even if Abadi could be convinced to ask Obama for ground troops, the Iranians would likely use whatever means necessary to squash the proposal. “There’s very little doubt Abadi’s activities are circumscribed to a large degree by the Shiites and the Iranians,” said McCain. “They basically have a veto power over the Abadi government.”
Matthew McInnis, a former senior Pentagon analyst on Iran and now a scholar at the American Enterprise Institute, agreed with that analysis. “The Iranians look at any sustained U.S. military presence in Iraq as a threat to their long-term objectives in the country,” he added.
Nonetheless, Iran and the U.S. have worked together in Iraq now for more than a year. U.S. airstrikes are providing cover for Iranian-backed Shiite militias, McCain said. Those militias have done most of the fighting against the Islamic State and have exercised an increasing influence over the Iraqi military.
One consequence of Iraqi and Iranian jitters over expanding the U.S. troop presence in Iraq is that the Obama administration has had to play a numbers game. Currently, Obama has authorized no more than 3,500 U.S. soldiers to be in Iraq at any given time.
Many of the special operators sent to Iraq today fly in and out of the country every few weeks, so they are not officially counted against the cap. McCain said the administration is misrepresenting the number of U.S. troops in Iraq to avoid the perception of mission creep. “There’s 400 special forces that they are not counting. So they are cooking the books,” he said.
At the hearing Tuesday, Dunford said he would request more troops in Iraq if he thought them needed: “We are managing with 3,500 because that’s the number the president has approved to date.” The Iraqi government is asking for more U.S. advisors and trainers, Graham told us, and Abadi told the two Senators he also wants more American air missions in Iraq and greater sharing of intelligence.
“Abadi wants more American power, he knows that his army is weak and he doesn’t want to be controlled by Iran,” Graham said. But Abadi doesn’t have faith in the U.S. commitment to the fight, and therefore cannot afford to alienate Iran, Graham said.
For example, Abadi told the senators that he feared the U.S. would withdraw if even one U.S. soldier in Iraq were taken hostage or one plane downed. “The mindset of the Iraqis is that we don’t have the will to see it through, and that’s the biggest impediment in our way,” said Graham Hillary Clinton has criticized Obama’s effort in Iraq and Syria and called for increased U.S. involvement, a no-fly zone in Syria, and other adjustments.
But she does not support the idea of vast numbers of ground troops in Iraq. “We don’t know yet how many special forces might be needed, how many trainer and surveillance and enablers might be needed,” she told Charlie Rose on “CBS This Morning.”
“But in terms of thousands of combat troops like some on the Republican side are recommending, I think that should be a non-starter.” The Iranian and Iraqi governments couldn’t agree more.
Eli Lake is a Bloomberg View columnist writing about politics and foreign affairs. Josh Rogin is a Bloomberg View columnist writing about national security and foreign affairs.