The approval of the US’ allies to strengthen the role of the North Atlantic Treaty Organisation (NATO) mission in Iraq, indicates Washington’s intention to “disengage” militarily from Baghdad. However, those allies have asked the US administration to maintain its military engagement in the region to combat Daesh.
A European diplomat stated that: “The transfer of responsibilities to NATO has always been a precursor to the US’ military disengagement,” citing two examples: the Kosovo Force (KFOR) and the Resolute Support Mission (RSM) in Afghanistan.
The diplomat stressed that: “This will only work if the NATO mission includes a strong US component.” The US troops currently account for half of the 16,000 soldiers affiliated with the RSM.
He indicated that the US’ request to hand some training activities designated to the Iraqi forces, over to NATO on behalf of the international coalition to defeat Daesh, falls within this context.
US president, Donald Trump, announced his intention to reduce his country’s military presence worldwide and withdraw from many areas of operations, especially in Africa, Latin America and the Middle East, to focus his efforts on Asia, in the context of confronting China.
However, the situation changed with the escalation of tension with Iran, as the US attempted to deploy more troops and sent aircraft to the Gulf region.
In the wake of the death of General Qasem Soleimani, commander of the Quds Force, in early January in a US raid near Baghdad, anger against the US in Iraq escalated, forcing Washington to suspend the operations of the international coalition and seek to limit its presence there.
The solution to achieve this was to strengthen the role of the small NATO mission deployed in Iraq since 2018.
During their meeting on Wednesday and Thursday in Brussels, the defence ministers of the NATO countries approved the transfer of some coalition activities to the NATO mission, with the mission being strengthened by troops from the alliance’s member states.
After the Iraqi government agreed on Wednesday night to transfer some training activities to NATO, the mission is expected to be strengthened rapidly.
NATO secretary-general, Jens Stoltenberg, announced on Thursday that the number of troops to be transferred from the coalition to the NATO force, and the details of training activities to be resumed by the mission, will be discussed during a meeting of the international coalition on Friday in Munich, on the sidelines of the security conference.
On Thursday, Spain confirmed to NATO the transfer of a portion of its units to the NATO mission. However, Spanish defence minister, Margarita Robles, confirmed that: “It is out of the question to take over combat activities.”
Stoltenberg stated repeatedly that NATO must train the Iraqi forces to be able to fight Daesh and prevent it from reorganising its ranks, intensifying its activities in Iraq.
The US troops will remain in Iraq to fight Daesh. However, Washington is determined to continue strengthening NATO’s presence in Iraq, while transferring defensive missions to it, and asking other allies to assume more responsibilities, allowing them to disengage militarily from Iraq, US defence secretary, Mark Esper, explained during the meeting in Brussels.
French defence minister, Florence Barley, warned of the US approach during a visit to Washington at the end of January, stating that Trump’s “NATO-Middle East” policy should not turn into a “NATO without the US” policy. She also expressed the same concerns during the NATO meeting.
German defence minister, Annegret Kramp-Karrenbauer, was more frank while discussing the situation, stressing that it was out of the question for Germany to increase participation to replace US forces in Iraq.