Protesters gather in front of the White House on January 4 to protest against a new war in the Middle East and calling for the withdrawal of all US troops after an airstrike in Iraq killed Iranian commander Qasem Soleimani. (Salwan Georges/The Washington Post via Getty Images)

Confusion Abounds: US Military Leaving, Then Not Leaving, Iraq

Amid tensions with Iran, US officials scramble to explain away a letter sent to Iraqi counterparts announcing troop withdrawal from country

Apparent mass confusion within the US political and military establishments is threatening to further destabilize the Middle East by casting doubt on President Donald Trump’s commitment to curbing Iranian influence in the region while protecting American allies from possible attacks, analysts told The Media Line.

On Monday night, news broke that a letter had been submitted to Baghdad by the head of the US military’s Task Force Iraq announcing Washington’s intention to withdraw its troops from the country. “We respect your sovereign decision to order our departure,” read in part the authenticated missive by US Brigadier General William Seely, which was reportedly sent after the Iraqi parliament voted to expel all foreign forces.

Within hours, US officials were scrambling to explain away the communiqué, with the chairman of the Joint Chiefs of Staff calling it a “draft” that “should not have been sent.” Mark Milley further described the incident as “an honest mistake” precipitated by the fact that the US was “moving forces around” in the wake of Friday’s assassination of Iranian Quds Force chief Qasem Soleimani. Defense Secretary Mark Esper later reiterated that “there’s been no decision whatsoever to leave Iraq … nor did we issue any plans to leave or prepare to leave.”

About 5,000 US soldiers are presently stationed in Iraq, making up the bulk of a 70-plus nation anti-Islamic State coalition that was welcomed by Baghdad in 2014 as the terror group was capturing major cities throughout the nation.

“I am not aware of any past situation quite like this, because not only was [sending the letter] an error in details, but it also has strategic consequences as it undermined the resolve of the US president,” Col. (ret.) Richard Kemp, a former commander of British forces in Afghanistan who also directed troops in Iraq during the First and Second Gulf Wars, told The Media Line. “Coalition forces are meant to prepare contingency plans so they would undoubtedly have had a procedure in place to withdraw from Iraq irrespective of recent events.

“Among those plans,” Col. Kemp elaborated, “would have been various mandatory documentation including a letter of notice to the Iraqis, so the existence of one is not a surprise. While we don’t know exactly what transpired, it is possible that a different was letter was supposed to be sent – or that the one received was sent earlier than it should have. The only other possibility is that an order was, in fact, given from Washington … but this is also unlikely to have been deliberate as I hope the Pentagon would not call for a troop withdrawal in defiance of the president.”

Nevertheless, Col. Kemp concluded that the incident “is extremely embarrassing for the Americans. Even though this sort of thing happens, this level of exposure is not normal. There should have been a fool-proof system in place for communication with the Iraqis.”

The misunderstanding comes on the backdrop of an escalating war of words between President Trump and Iranian Supreme Leader Ali Khamenei, with the latter vowing “severe” retaliation for Soleimani’s killing. To this end, The New York Times reported that Khamenei has instructed that a revenge attack be carried out directly by Iranian forces rather than by one of Tehran’s proxies. Sources cited in the article speculated that Iran might target American troops in Iraq, Syria or Gulf states, or possibly US diplomatic missions worldwide.

In turn, President Trump has warned the Islamic Republic against targeting American interests, and, in the eventuality, threatened to respond by striking 52 Iranian positions.

Soleimani’s assassination followed a missile attack by Iranian-backed Kata’ib Hizbullah on the K1 military base in Kirkuk, Iraq, which killed a US defense contractor and injured American and Iraqi soldiers. Days later, pro-Iranian demonstrators swarmed the US Embassy in Baghdad – which, parenthetically, has since been targeted with rockets – setting fire to the building and forcing the evacuation of diplomatic personnel.

Thereafter, US officials seemed to be on the same page with consistent anti-Iranian messaging emanating from the highest echelons of the Trump Administration. Now, this unity may have been exposed as a façade, as internal discord was made evident on Monday when the Pentagon, in an unusual statement, rejected President Trump’s repeated assertion that Iranian cultural sites could be targeted in a future multi-pronged assault. The prospect also drew criticism from Democrats – who were already angered by not having been notified in advance of plans to eliminate Soleimani – and Republicans alike.

All of this “demonstrates the difficulty that the Trump Administration is going to have in conducting a clear policy following Soleimani’s killing,” Dr. Chuck Freilich, a former deputy national security adviser in Israel who now teaches at both Tel Aviv University and Columbia University in New York City, told The Media Line. “Strange things do happen and it is possible the letter was not meant to be sent to the Iraqis. Even so, it really makes the US look bad,” he said.

“If it wasn’t a mistake,” Freilich postulated, “then the first major outcome of Soleimani’s death would be to hand Iran a huge victory, one it has not been able to achieve in 17 years [since the US invasion of Iraq.] In this case, it would show great weakness and send a message to American allies in the region that they no longer have a superpower backer.”

In this respect, Prof. Ross Harrison, a senior fellow at the Washington-based Middle East Institute and a faculty member at the School of Foreign Service at Georgetown University, explained to The Media Line that Iranian officials believe that the US’s assassination of Soleimani was tantamount to a self-inflicted wound. “Beforehand, the pressure was on Tehran, with protests in Iraq erupting against government corruption and Iranian influence. However, presently the discussion has shifted toward whether the US should leave the country,” he said.

“Moving forward, this is not going to lead to a good outcome for the US, even if the Iranians do not [retaliate with major force]. Iran will look to consolidate its [sway] across the region while the US is in a defensive position in terms of its military posture in Iraq, the second-order effect of which will be the degradation of the [impact of the] very limited American troop presence in Syria. Ultimately, Iran benefits and the US-led effort against ISIS will be harmed.”

Regarding the intense partisan political divide in the US, Prof. Harrison does not believe that this will hamstring President Trump, as “what the Democrats are focused on at this moment is more process-related – questioning the recklessness of the assassination – rather than [on initiating a] broad debate about US strategy in the Middle East, especially vis-à-vis Iran. That said, President Trump tends to revel in the role of disruptor and has very few guardrails in his administration that would push him to uphold traditional norms of foreign policy. So, I am very skeptical this will lead to a sea-change in the latitude the president has to act.”

From a broader geopolitical perspective, Prof. Harrison fears that Washington “is no longer perceived

in the Middle East as an ‘honest’ broker and guarantor of international norms. Soleimani’s killing, the talk of attacking Iranian cultural sites and the lack of an overall coherent policy have been internalized not only by the US’s enemies but also by its allies,” he said. “Saudi Arabia and the United Arab Emirates, for example, may be realizing that a détente will need to be reached with Tehran.”

Indeed, President Trump’s approach to the Middle East is seemingly in disarray, beginning with his flip-flop late last year on a decision to pull out all US soldiers from Syria. Since then, he has completely changed tack, ordering a major military build-up in the Gulf that includes this week’s deployment of some 3,500 quick-response forces.

Analysts near-unanimously agree that a concurrent withdrawal from Iraq – ground zero in an emergent low-intensity conflict between the US and Iran – would be inconsistent with developments on the ground, and effectively hand over the country to the Islamic Revolutionary Guard Corps, which has cultivated therein a vast network of pro-Iranian Shi’ite paramilitary organizations that have made strong political inroads in Baghdad.

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