U.S. Marines assist with security at an evacuation control checkpoint at Hamid Karzai International Airport in Kabul, Afghanistan, on August 26. Photo by Staff Sgt. Victor Mancilla/USMC | License Photo
Sept. 7 (UPI) -- Following the disastrous U.S. capitulation and withdrawal from Afghanistan, handing victory to the brutal Taliban, there are growing fears that President Joe Biden may also withdraw the American military totally from Iraq. The lightning advance of the Taliban across Afghanistan caught the United States and the world by surprise. They control every part of the country, including the remote region of Panjshir province in the Hindu Kush mountains north of the Afghan capital Kabul, which finally fell on Monday.
The Taliban's victory in Afghanistan will have emboldened Islamist jihadists worldwide. The Islamic State-Khorasan, who are archenemies of the Taliban, showed their contempt for Taliban security with their horrific suicide bomb and gun attack on Kabul airport, killing hundreds, including 13 U.S. service personnel. The IS leadership will, however, have looked enviously at the way the Taliban drove every U.S. soldier out of Afghanistan.
They will recall their own rapid advance across Iraq in 2014, when the apparently well-equipped Iraqi military, similarly armed and trained by the United States, simply abandoned their weapons and fled in the face of a relatively small force of IS militants, who then captured around 40% of Iraqi territory. The ensuing conflict to drive the IS out of Iraq and recapture Mosul, Fallujah, Tikrit and Ramadi led to many thousands of deaths and the virtual destruction of these ancient Iraqi cities.
IS will be praying that Biden will repeat his catastrophic decision to abandon Afghanistan by ordering a complete withdrawal from Iraq. In anticipation of such a move, President Emmanuel Macron has pledged that France will remain in Iraq even if America goes. He said last week that the French military will continue to fight IS, stating: "No matter what choices the Americans make, we will maintain our presence in Iraq to fight against terrorism."
This followed the announcement by Biden in July that combat operations against IS in Iraq, where there are still around 2,500 U.S. troops, would cease by the end of the year. But a continuing French presence after an American withdrawal might not be enough to deter a resurgent IS. There are known to be thousands of jihadist militants still in Iraq and Syria, where they have continued to wage a low-level insurgency against security forces and the civilian population. Only last month, an IS suicide bomber killed 35 people and injured over 50 in a Baghdad market. IS will have been greatly heartened by the American defeat in Afghanistan, and a French force of only 800 military personnel in Iraq may not deter them.
After almost three decades of conflict, insurgency, genocide and foreign meddling, Iraq is on the verge of becoming a failed state, riven by corruption and maladministration. Iran has seized its chance to extend its influence in the country. Tehran took control of the plethora of Shi'ia militias that ranged across Iraq, training, arming and molding over 150,000 of them into the so-called Popular Mobilization Forces.
Commanded by Gen. Qassem Soleimani, the Iranian chief of the Islamic Revolutionary Guards Corps' Quds Force, a listed terrorist organization, the PMF began a systematic campaign of genocide against Iraq's Sunni population. Under the guise of helping the West to fight IS, Soleimani supervised the murder of thousands of innocent Sunni civilians. Answerable directly to Iran's supreme leader, Ayatollah Ali Khamenei, Soleimani's objective was to turn Iraq into an Iranian province, as a perfect conduit for the supply of Iranian military personnel and arms to Bashar al-Assad in Syria and Hezbollah in Lebanon.
Soleimani's death in January 2020, following an American drone attack on his car as he left Baghdad airport, brought the mullahs' campaign to a shuddering halt. The PMF leader, Abu Mahdi al-Muhandis, was killed alongside Soleimani in the drone attack, ordered by former President Donald Trump. The mullahs swore revenge and, in their hysteria, shot down a Ukrainian airliner, killing all 176 passengers and crew, after it was mistaken for an American military aircraft.
Tehran regards America as its main enemy, and there will be satisfaction in the Iranian regime at the U.S. rout in neighboring Afghanistan, despite the Taliban being Sunni. The mullahs will be content to adhere to the famous idiom: "My enemy's enemy is my friend."
Meanwhile, Iraq's prime minister, 54-year-old Mustafa al-Kadhimi, continues to walk a tightrope. He is the first Iraqi to hold the top job since the fall of Saddam Hussein who cannot be accused of being an Iranian puppet. But this may yet turn out to be his Achilles heel. The theocratic regime in Iran regards Kadhimi with great suspicion.
Presiding over an economy that has been destroyed by years of conflict and corruption and a security system that has been hijacked by pro-Iranian warlords is no easy task. The collapse in oil prices, coupled with the coronavirus pandemic, have crippled the nation. Unlike previous Iraqi leaders, Khadimi has no political party he can call on for support in times of trouble. However, Iraq's dire financial position means that he must rely on Washington for economic support.
If America pulls out of Iraq and withdraws financial aid, the country will be plunged into economic chaos. Trying to balance the interests of Iran and the United States in a country plagued by foreign meddling is hard. Kadhimi knows that a single vote of confidence in Iraq's Majilis could end his career, and there are dozens of Iraqi MPs who owe their allegiance to Tehran and may yet be ordered to vote that way.
An American withdrawal from Iraq would be disastrous for the Iraqi people. It would almost certainly lead to a resurgence of a re-energized IS. The Iranian regime would once more use the excuse of fighting against terrorism to deploy their forces throughout Iraq, effectively seizing control of the country.
Biden demonstrated a serious lack of judgment in Afghanistan. It has cost the Afghan people dearly and made the world a more dangerous place. It would be a grave mistake for him to repeat that error in Iraq.
Struan Stevenson is the coordinator of the Campaign for Iran Change. He was a member of the European Parliament representing Scotland (1999-2014), president of the Parliament's Delegation for Relations with Iraq (2009-14) and chairman of the Friends of a Free Iran Intergroup (2004-14). He serves as chair of the In Search of Justice committee on the protection of political freedoms in Iran. He is an international lecturer on the Middle East and president of the European Iraqi Freedom Association.
The views and opinions expressed in this commentary are solely those of the author.