Star Tribune: Biden makes nuanced shift on Iraq


Shafaq News/ Just as he had done with the U.S. presence in Afghanistan, President Joe Biden announced a policy shift on Iraq this week. But unlike the perilous pullout of nearly all U.S. forces in Afghanistan, the end of the combat mission is more semantic than seminal.

"Our role in Iraq will be … just to be available to continue to train, to assist and to help, and to deal with ISIS as it arrives, but we're not going to be, by the end of the year, in a combat mission," Biden told Iraqi Prime Minister Mustafa al-Kadhimi during a Monday White House meeting.

And yet despite a few troops redeployed elsewhere, most of the approximately 2,500 now in Iraq will remain, reclassified into training and advisory roles.

That's wise, considering the lingering threat from a reconstituted ISIS and the looming threat from a regionally destabilizing Iran, which already has considerable influence in Iraq, including with some Shiite militias responsible for attacking U.S. personnel.

Whether Biden's nuanced policy is enough to stabilize the Iraqi prime minister's political position will be more apparent in parliamentary elections scheduled for October. It's unlikely to placate the ever-more aggressive Shiite opposition groups, which have demanded a complete U.S. pullout.

What is apparent, however, is that the policy shifts in Iraq and Afghanistan, as well as renewed efforts to end the era of holding detainees at Guantanamo Bay, Cuba, are advancing and amplifying Biden's determination to end the "forever wars" and more broadly turn from the "War on Terrorism" era toward Asia — especially the country that a consensus of foreign policy professionals sees as the biggest geopolitical challenge: China.

But just as the Obama administration's vaunted "Pivot to Asia" was tripped up by the rise of ISIS and continued regional strife, the Mideast may bedevil the Biden administration, too. It's happened before in Iraq, with U.S. forces having to redeploy to a country they pulled out of in 2011 in order to blunt and ultimately defeat ISIS, which had seized major swaths of Iraq and Syria in 2014.

And even though Biden has executed an Afghanistan drawdown that is relatively popular with Americans, it's likely the public, the Pentagon and allies will sound the alarm if (or more likely when) the Taliban takes control of the country again and reverts to the brutality, especially against women and girls, that characterized its previous governance.

Other threats persist, including an expansionist Iran that just chose a new hard-line president who may ultimately reject Biden's attempt to negotiate a reentry into the Iran nuclear deal. Iran's malevolent presence is being felt elsewhere, including in the war in Yemen, site of the world's worst humanitarian crisis; in Syria, where Iran (and Russia) have backed the homicidal Assad regime, and in Lebanon, which is slipping into an economic abyss that is further destabilizing the teetering nation.

Also, there's always the implacable conflict between Israel and Palestine — and among Palestinians — which can quickly flare up into an international crisis. And there's an enduring threat of terrorism from existing or metastasizing organizations that could immediately draw the U.S. back into the region.

Biden's not wrong about the strategic need to focus on China, but it would have reassured the country — indeed, the world — if he had handled the draw-down in Afghanistan more like the one in Iraq.

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