Who among us has never accidentally clicked “send” on a draft and made an embarrassing faux pas—like, say, prematurely ordering U.S. troops out of Iraq?
On Monday afternoon, Reuters and the Washington Post’s Liz Sly reported that the U.S.-led military coalition in Iraq sent a letter suggesting that U.S. troops would soon be pulling out of the country.
“Sir, in due deference to the sovereignty of the Republic of Iraq, and as requested by the Iraqi Parliament and the Prime Minister, CJTF-OIR will be repositioning forces over the course of the coming days and weeks to prepare for onward movement,” read the letter signed by Marine Brigadier General William H. Seely III. The missive added: “We respect your sovereign decision to order our departure.”
Huge if true! But Sly later followed up on Twitter, quoting Gen. Mark Milley, chairman of the Joint Chiefs of Staff as saying that the letter had been a draft and that releasing it had been a mistake—but that it had been sent to the Iraqi military and then released by the Iraqi prime minister’s office. Whoops!
Even if the U.S. didn’t mean to send it, the letter is worth parsing. It refers to the Iraqi parliament’s unanimous vote on Sunday calling for the country’s government to order the removal of U.S. troops from the country in the wake of the airstrike that killed Iranian Gen. Qassem Soleimani as well as a senior commander of Iraq’s state-backed Shiite militias. There’s no formal basing agreement between the U.S. and Iraq, like there was before the last troop withdrawal in 2011. U.S. troops returned to the country in 2014 to fight ISIS, and around 5,000 remain at the Iraqi government’s invitation.
Prime Minister Adil Abdul-Mahdi spoke in support of the measure, but the legislation isn’t binding, and it’s not clear how he would proceed with forcing U.S. troops out or how much he even wants to. President Donald Trump reacted angrily to the vote, threatening sanctions against Iraq and to charge the country for the cost of building U.S. bases.
Given that it’s not clear U.S. troops would actually be required to leave Iraq at this time, it would certainly be an odd decision for the U.S. to do it unilaterally. The U.S. has sought to keep troops in Iraq to continue fighting the remnants of ISIS, a task it’s far from clear that the Iraqi state is up for.
It would also be strange for the U.S. to accede to a major Iranian demand right now. The contest for influence in Iraq was, after all, the main reason for the recent round of tension and violence. Soleimani fought for nearly two decades to force the U.S. out of Iraq. Is the U.S. really going to grant him his wish just days after killing him?
The vagueness of the draft statement gives the U.S. a lot of wiggle room to avoid a full troop withdrawal. At this point, we should know better than to take troop withdrawal announcements from this administration at face value.
It seems more likely the Trump administration is considering calling the Iraqi government’s bluff by keeping its troops in the country for the foreseeable future. It should probably figure out if that’s what it actually wants to do—and until it does, stay away from that send button.