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A nation must think before it acts.
After a recent meeting of defense ministers in Brussels, NATO Secretary-General Jens Stoltenberg announced that the Alliance would expand the size of its security training mission in Iraq, increasing troop levels from 500 to 4,000. The move comes less than a month after the inauguration of President Joseph Biden and signals the continued effort to repair the relationship between the United States and the Alliance after four years of degradation during the Trump administration. While NATO has provided continuous contributions to operations in Iraq since 2004, it suspended training activities in January 2020 after the unilateral decision by the United States to assassinate Iran’s Quds Force Commander Qasem Soleimani outside the Baghdad Airport.
NATO’s commitment to resume and to increase training of Iraqi security forces represents an important step in the return to normalcy for the United States and the Alliance, in addition to advancing mutual security objectives for its members. Increased contributions from NATO in Iraq will further those objectives by preventing a resurgence of the Islamic State, countering Iranian influence, and freeing up valuable resources for deterrence efforts against Russia in Eastern Europe.
In 2014, the Iraqi Army all but collapsed in the face of ISIS offensives across northern Iraq. By the end of that year, a Global Coalition to Defeat ISIS had been established, with NATO contributing forces into Iraq. While unified under Combined Joint Task Force Inherent Resolve (combined referring to the multi-national element of the task force), each contributing nation had different rules and restrictions for its forces. While some were allowed to participate in kinetic operations, others began work on the long-term effort of training Iraqi security forces. This training mission was a key line of effort in Inherent Resolve’s campaign plan, enabling a sustainable military partner capacity by training, advising, assisting, and equipping.
By the end of 2017, Iraq had reclaimed 95% of lost territory and Prime Minister Haider al Abadi declared victory over ISIS. A year later, President Donald Trump declared ISIS defeated in Syria and announced his intention to withdraw all U.S. troops from the country. Despite these assertions, ISIS has managed to remain a threat within the region, in addition to maintaining influence globally. General Joseph Votel, then-Commander of U.S. Central Command, warned Congress in 2019 that ISIS was not surrendering, but instead making a “calculated decision” to retreat and preserve what little capability it still maintained.
As NATO prepares to resume and increase its training mission in Iraq, small pockets of ISIS fighters continue to launch attacks in Iraq itself and claim credit for deadly attacks by its sympathizers in Europe. While it has been several years since an ISIS-inspired attack in the United States, the group remains a shared threat for the U.S. and its NATO partners. By recommitting to the training mission and increasing the number of trainers, non-U.S. NATO members are helping to ensure their own security at home. Meanwhile, the United States receives assistance in meeting its own national security objective of combating violent extremist organizations that pose a threat to its citizens at home and abroad.
Shortly after entering office, the Trump administration began a “maximum pressure” campaign against Iran. The campaign did little to alleviate concerns over Iran developing a nuclear weapon, or to stop its sponsorship of violent proxy groups across the Middle East. Instead, “maximum pressure” and the U.S. decision to withdraw from the Joint Comprehensive Plan of Action (JCPOA) spurred Iran into increasing its uranium enrichment program while alienating U.S. allies in Europe who wished to keep the JCPOA in place. The assassination of Soleimani provided the United States with a brief sense of accomplishment, but it also violated the tenuous truce between coalition forces in Iraq and the Iran-sponsored Popular Mobilization Forces (PMF). Iran responded by launching a missile attack on a U.S. base, and violence has continued into the Biden administration with a recent attack on a U.S. base in Erbil that killed one contractor and injured nine others.
The Biden administration has already started the delicate diplomatic dance of attempting to re-join the JCPOA. However, even if it succeeds in getting Iran to abandon further development of a nuclear weapon, the influence of Iranian proxy groups across the Middle East will remain problematic, especially in Iraq. The PMF, formed in 2014 in response to ISIS, continues to operate throughout Iraq and has grown more problematic since the territorial defeat of ISIS.
The NATO training effort can help to counter the influence of the PMF over the Iraqi population, primarily by continuing to build a competent security apparatus that the public has faith in. This would allow the Iraqi government to act from a position of strength in confronting the militias, eventually overseeing their disbandment. Removing the PMF from Iraq would be a major blow to Iran and a major win for the United States. By utilizing a multinational effort under the NATO flag, it also starts to remove the perception that Iraq is simply a pawn stuck between the United States and Iran and, instead, shows the Iraqi people that the international community remains invested in their future.
The 2018 National Defense Strategy declared that “inter-state strategic competition, not terrorism, is now the primary concern in U.S. national security.” With the Russian Federation and People’s Republic of China mentioned specifically, the document outlined a shift away from combating violent extremist organizations to confronting those two countries and their global influence. Despite naming Russia as a primary concern, the Trump administration spent most of its four years berating NATO, conflating defense spending with collective contributions, and announcing that a large portion of U.S. forces in Germany would be withdrawn or relocated.
Upon taking office, Secretary of Defense Lloyd Austin’s first phone call was to NATO Secretary-General Jens Stoltenberg, signalling that the new administration was eager to re-establish this important relationship and forge a new way ahead. President Biden confirmed this intent when he reiterated commitment to the Alliance and declared that “America is back” when addressing the Munich Security Conference. While the NATO commitment to providing forces to Iraq is clearly a boost to American national security objectives in the Middle East, it also helps the United States as it seeks to deter Russian aggression.
Military resources, especially troops, are finite. Even with the United States’ sizeable military, there’s only so much to go around. This has created a delicate balancing act, as policymakers prioritize where troops are needed. By committing 4,000 troops to the training mission in Iraq, NATO is freeing up nearly an entire brigade of combat power for the United States to use elsewhere. The U.S. has been rotating brigades into Eastern Europe on a consistent basis since the Russian invasion of Crimea and has been committing advisors to Ukraine since 2016 to assist in the fight against Russian-sponsored separatists. By helping to ease U.S. commitments in the Middle East, NATO members are allowing those forces to contribute in Europe, which enhances to their own security against Russia. It’s just one more example of members of the Alliance helping themselves by helping each other.
Alliances are often complicated and difficult things. The NATO Alliance itself has endured over 70 years of turmoil, but has always emerged stronger from its challenges along the way. With NATO’s decision to expand its training program in Iraq, the Alliance is signalling that it is still committed to supporting mutual security objectives and to keeping its members safe and secure. The United States would do well to capitalize on this opportunity and continue to re-energize its relationship with NATO. By doing so, it will ensure that whenever conflict does happen, there will be no shortage of friends ready to join the fight.
The views expressed in this article are those of the author alone and do not necessarily reflect the position of the Foreign Policy Research Institute, a non-partisan organization that seeks to publish well-argued, policy-oriented articles on American foreign policy and national security priorities.