The United States’ commitment to fight the Islamic State in Iraq has ended. On Monday President Joe Biden and Prime Minister Mustafa Al-Kadhimi signed an agreement in the White House. The announcement serves both: the former can give substance to his promise to end the “forever wars” in the Middle East, and the latter can get rid of the perception of Iraq’s dependence from the US, which has become all the more uncomfortable since January 2020, when the Iranian leader Qassem Soleimani was killed in the Iraqi capital. There are also substantial security matters, considering the numerous attacks on American infrastructures that have occurred in recent years.
However, it would be a mistake to equate the US’ withdrawal from Iraq with that from Afghanistan. This one is less sudden, more gradual and properly agreed upon with local authorities and allies, with Italy in the lead. Rome is destined to take command of the new NATO commitment in the country, starting next May.
About twelve days ago PM Al-Kadhimi received a US delegation led by Brett McGurk, coordinator of the Middle East and Northern Africa (MENA) Desk at the National Security Council of the White House. According to the note, the two sides discussed “the mechanisms for the withdrawal of combat forces from Iraq and the transition to a new phase of strategic cooperation,” which (as the White House explained on Monday) entails training activities and intelligence support. A few days earlier, as part of his European tour, Al-Kadhimi was in Rome to meet the Italian PM Mario Draghi.
Last month, Italy’s Foreign Minister Luigi Di Maio and the US Secretary of State Tony Blinken co-chaired the ministerial meeting of the Global Coalition to Defeat ISIS/Daesh in Rome, the setting that frames the US engagement in Iraq. In the meeting’s joint note, the Coalition ministers “welcomed the incremental expansion of NATO’s non-combat advisory, training and capacity building mission in Iraq based on the requirements and consent of the Iraqi authorities and complementing the Coalition’s efforts.”
This declaration is coupled with the decision taken by the leaders of the Atlantic Alliance, who gathered in Brussels two weeks ago: “we will strengthen our support to Iraq through our NATO Mission Iraq. We will broaden our non-combat advisory, training, and capacity building mission to support Iraq in building more effective, sustainable, accountable, and inclusive security institutions and forces. This expansion […] will be demand-driven, incremental, scalable, and based on conditions on the ground.”
Plans to strengthen the role of the Atlantic Alliance in the country had been known for some time. In September 2020, the US formalized their intention to partially withdraw its troops deployed in the country since 2014, scaling back from 5,200 to 2,500 units. Given the timing, this could have looked like an electoral stunt by Donald Trump, in line with similar downsizings announced for Syria and Afghanistan. In fact, Mr Trump had talked about the withdrawal directly with PM Al-Kadhimi in August. Two months earlier, the governments of Washington and Baghdad had inaugurated a new “strategic dialogue,” which was precisely intended to coordinate the plans in place. This body had met at the ministerial level four times prior to Monday’s visit, which in turn was accompanied by a series of meetings involving the State Department and the Pentagon.
Besides, the American move followed through on what was agreed within the NATO sphere. The Alliance had already decided (in February 2020) to strengthen its “training mission,” inheriting skills from the anti-Daesh Coalition and increasing deployments from 400 to 5,000 units. All this was mainly geared at lowering the US’ profile in Iraq, which had become complex (and overexposed) after the killing of General Soleimani.
Clearly, considering the withdrawal maneuvers from Afghanistan and the simultaneous increase of focus on the Indo-Pacific, the US there is manifesting its well-known desire to direct its military posturing towards areas they now deem more strategic. In this sense, Washington always coupled the re-orientation of its efforts – on the basis of an all-round confrontation with China – with a request directed at allies and partners, that is, to take on greater responsibility in the scenarios of direct interest to them. This is also the case in Iraq.
Italy responded immediately and resolutely. In 2020, our Parliament authorized the deployment of 1,100 units for the Prima Parthica operation within the anti-Daesh Coalition, plus 46 units for the NATO training mission. With the progressive strengthening of the Alliance’s mission, the Italian contribution to the two commitments is also destined to change.
In mid-June the Italian government approved a resolution on international missions that is now being examined by Parliament. It marks the partial asset shift from the anti-Daesh Coalition to the NATO mission, with the first having authorized a maximum deployment of 900 units (200 less than in 2020) and the second rising to about 280 units (over 200 more than to 2020). It’s all contextual to Italy taking the lead of the NATO mission in May next year, when the Danish turn will end. The goal was announced by Defense Minister Lorenzo Guerini several months ago and it’s already been made official on the agenda of the Atlantic Alliance. Besides, the ties between Rome and Baghdad are solid, as demonstrated by the frequent trips (four in just over a year) of the Italian defense chief to the Middle Eastern country.
This is due to very specific interests, which add those of a strategic and economic nature to the fight against terrorism. According to data from the Italian Oil Union, Iraq was Italy’s second largest supplier of crude oil in 2020 (behind Azerbaijan) and covered over 17% of the national demand. In 2019 Iraq was first, with a share of 20%, while in the first four months of 2021 it ranked fourth, after Azerbaijan, Libya and Saudi Arabia.
“The Italian commitment in Iraq comes from afar,” wrote General Mario Arpino, former Defense Chief of Staff, in the latest issue of AirPress. “Other than the military engagement that happened thirty years ago (Desert Storm was Italy’s first war event since 1945) and the subsequent peacekeeping missions, [there has been] a long series of economic and industrial activities, which followed one another over the years with alternating success. Among these we should mention refining efforts, with Italian firms being assigned with designing new plants and updating the existing ones, as well as the designing and construction of new oil pipelines and even a dozen combustion power plants.”
The maintenance (and military protection) of Mosul’s defense is more recent and well known. “Many of these activities were impacted by George W. Bush’s war and then by our hasty decision to withdraw from the Ancient Babylon mission,” added General Arpino. “According to the sentiment of the Iraqis, the US management was very disappointing, as well as that of those who tried to fill our void. Sure enough, today the Iraqis regret the Italians’ absence. If we remain welcome as soldiers, we are equally welcome as joint actors in the reconstruction.”
“The possibility of our substantial return for civil activities had been anticipated as early as March 2019 during Iraq Day, when Confindustria (the Italian national chamber of commerce, editor’s note) promoted a meeting in Rome between Italian and Iraqi entrepreneurs,which was preceded by other events […] the leadership of the NATO military mission could be the culmination of all the activities that have been carried out or planned so far. Not only do we know that in Iraq, after so many disappointments, our presence will be appreciated, but also that it is already expected.”