'Why This Matters:' Rep. Elissa Slotkin of Michigan shares insights on leaving Iraq

January 06, 2020, 2:56 PM

Before being elected in November 2018 as a Democrat to represent Michigan's 8th Congreessional District, covering parts of Oakland County, the writer was a CIA analyst and Defense Department official specializing in Iraq and Middle East Policy. She issued this statement Monday in Washington, D.C.

By Elissa Slotkin

As I watched the Iraqi parliament respond Sunday to the killing of Qasim Soleimani by passing a resolution rejecting U.S. military presence in Iraq, I had some thoughts on the implications.

The question many Americans are likely asking now: Why does it matter if we are kicked out of Iraq? I certainly understand why many would question why we’d want to stay, given the blood and treasure we have invested in that part of the world. 


Elissa Slotkin: "Ironically, [Soleimani's] death may achieve precisely what he set out to do in life." (Photo: Instagram)

A bit of context: In 2014, when ISIS took over large swaths of Iraq (and Syria), the desperate government of Iraq formally asked for U.S. military help fighting ISIS. It was immediately clear that ISIS was dangerous, well-funded and had global reach that could (and soon would) organize and inspire attacks in the West. At the time, after the U.S. had withdrawn forces from Iraq in 2011, the United States had no uniformed military presence performing independent military missions in Iraq – only a very large embassy carrying out regular diplomacy.

In 2014, the U.S. and Iraq quickly negotiated the terms of U.S. force presence through an exchange of letters, which remains the only agreement on the books that authorizes U.S. military personnel in Iraq. I represented the Pentagon in those negotiations. This agreement allowed us to send roughly 5,000 forces to support counter-ISIS operations and train the Iraqi military. While Sunday’s vote in Baghdad gave the PM [prime minister] political cover to kick us out, it was neither necessary nor binding.

That said, I expect the issue will be taken up by the Iraqi Cabinet this week, with the real possibility that the PM will follow through and formally ask for the removal of U.S. forces. 

Why this matters:

First and foremost, our presence in Iraq helps ensure that ISIS doesn't regenerate and regain the ability to threaten the United States, Europe and the Middle East. After U.S. forces withdrew from Iraq in 2011, it took ISIS only two short years to gain power. Mosul and Raqqa, the two ISIS power centers in their self-proclaimed caliphate were finally liberated in 2017.

The second reason to stay is, ironically, the same reason the president chose to go after Qasim Soleimani: to counterbalance Iran’s destabilizing influence in the Middle East.

If the United States is kicked out, it gives the Iranian government a freer hand in Iraq. That’s a freer hand to exert influence on Iraqi decision-making. A freer hand to continue to expand the capabilities of the Shia militias and Iran’s placement of ballistic missiles in Iraq, which can project violence into places like Saudi Arabia and Israel. This last issue could be a game changer.

Soleimani was the architect of a strategy, going back to 2004, that was built on the idea that if U.S. forces were attacked in Iraq, the casualties would eventually force the United States to withdraw. That is why he invested so heavily in the Shia militia groups in Iraq that he would teach to target U.S. forces. Ironically, his death may achieve precisely what he set out to do in life.

If we do indeed get officially asked to leave Iraq, we will need robust diplomacy to outline a plan with the Iraqi government that maximizes pressure on ISIS and allows us time to safely withdraw in a way that doesn’t cost the U.S. in blood and treasure.

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