As the U.S. prepares to draw down its last 2,500 troops in Afghanistan, the head of Central Command told reporters Thursday that there are no current plans to begin a similar withdrawal of the last 2,500 in Iraq.
There have been discussions about it with the defense secretary, Marine Gen. Frank McKenzie told Military Times, but Operation Inherent Resolve’s efforts against ISIS aren’t finished.
“We’re going to be there, our NATO partners are going to be there, to finish the ISIS fight,” he said. “And we’re going to stay in Iraq.”
Though the physical ISIS caliphate has been defeated, reports estimate there are as many as 10,000 loyal fighters still active in Iraq and Syria.
At the same time, Shi’a militia groups funded by the Iranian government continue to operate within Iraq, attacking coalition bases. McKenzie offered that pressuring the U.S. to leave Iraq is one of Iran’s goals.
“I think Iran still pursues a policy of attempting to eject the United States ― and indeed, our partners and allies ― from the region as well,” he said.
Iran’s role in attacks on U.S. and coalition troops makes the case that the threats in that country are not under control in the same way the Biden administration considers the al-Qaida presence in Afghanistan diminished.
“Our troops have accomplished the mission that they were sent to Afghanistan to accomplish,” Defense Secretary Lloyd Austin said during an April 14 press conference at NATO headquarters in Brussels, Belgium. “And they have much for which to be proud.”
When asked about the end goal in Iraq, McKenzie pointed to the recent strategic dialogue between the Iraqi and U.S. governments in April, adding that it’s likely the NATO mission will expand and outpace the U.S. role there.
There was a brief moment of tension early last year, however, when Iraq’s parliament voted to expel the U.S. following the assassination of Iranian Gen. Qasem Souleimani.
“I think it’s very important to realize that the government of Iraq wants us to stay,” he said, though they had an opportunity last year to rescind their invitation. “They want us to stay. They need us to continue the fight against ISIS.”
At the same time, the U.S. has resolved to pull troops out of Afghanistan despite strong support from that government to continue counter-terror and train-advise-assist missions with the Afghan security forces.
“Clearly, in Iraq, there’s still great work to be done with ISIS on the ground,” McKenzie said. “And I would just avoid a comparison of Afghanistan and Iraq. I’m not going to get into a comparison between Afghanistan and Iraq.”
Still, he said, the Biden administration is reviewing U.S. presence in Iraq, and McKenzie is in regular contact with his boss about force levels there.
“I’m sure we’ll get some guidance and some decisions on this in the future,” he said.
Meghann Myers is the Pentagon bureau chief at Military Times. She covers operations, policy, personnel, leadership and other issues affecting service members. Follow on Twitter @Meghann_MT