NATO secretary general Jens Stoltenberg announced his decision to increase the size of NATO Mission Iraq (NMI) from 500 personnel to 4,000.
NATO is ready to increase Baghdad’s commitment slowly and steadily in relation to the current situation, but careful communication will be crucial as there will be a more strategic discussion on how to combine different aid efforts.
Although he noted that such deployments would be “conditional,”incremental,” and subject to Baghdad’s permission, the troop numbers were the only element of his widely reported statement in Iraq, and this is the apparently steep increase to the government.
There is no imminent NATO “fluctuation” planned in Iraq anytime soon, instead there is gradually more openness and general intention to provide local authorities with more advisors that can assist with security sector reform (SSR). Taken appropriately and combined with other efforts, this initiative can create good opportunities for quiet, lasting security cooperation that helps strengthen the Iraqi state, move multinational military relations beyond the campaign against the Islamic State (IS), and further spread the burden of support. widely among US allies.
Reform Requirements of Iraq
- There are many SSR needs in Iraq and many partners that help address them. The industry’s most pressing challenges today are:
- Underdeveloped security ministries and other institutions were weakened by the penetration of corrupt groups and inadequate training and organization.
- The depletion of financial resources reveals the need for rationalization.
- Recurring roles and tasks for different intelligence agencies and security forces (eg Department of Defense armed services, Home Office police forces, Anti-Terror Service, Popular Mobilization Forces).
- Lack of national reserve capacity results in the permanent mobilization of all security forces, regardless of current needs.
Baghdad acknowledges the weaknesses of the sector, most evident in the 2014 ISIS takeover of the country. Various partners have enabled Iraq to compensate for some of these shortcomings. The US-led coalition – officially the Thirteen-nation Military Advisory Group (MAG) – provides operational-level lethal support and non-lethal advice to help capture ISIS cells. NATO and the European Union provide strategic advice to the Iraqi Ministry of Defense and the Ministry of Interior, respectively. Some European states, such as France, organize dual military training programs in the context of the ISIS war.
The UN Iraq Relief Mission and the UN Development Program have also provided training on SSR and justice sector reform, for example to strengthen local policing. With these different partners, the Iraqi main interlocutor is the office of the national security advisor, which has long been coordinating SSR activities in partnership with the office of the prime minister.
Nato’s presence in Iraq
The first deployment of NATO, a small unit of hundreds of consultants, to Iraq began in 2004 and ended in 2011 with the withdrawal of US forces. During this time, the mission trained more than 5,000 Iraqi military personnel and 10,000 police officers. In 2014, NATO gradually resumed training and capacity building activities at Baghdad’s request, first through eight personnel deployed from Jordan (at the King Abdullah II Special Operations Training Center) and later in Baghdad in 2017. It beat the IS and provided direct operational support through a fleet of AWACS surveillance aircraft, mostly operated by Germany.
Following the dissolution of the so-called ISIL “caliphate” and the gradual reestablishment of sovereign control over Iraqi territory, NATO leaders decided to launch a new training mission, called NMI, at Baghdad’s request in 2018. Canada assumed command of this mission for the first two years, contributing up to 250 personnel before handing the leadership over to Denmark in November 2020. Before the COVID-19 outbreak forced NATO to freeze training activities, there were a significant 500 staff on the mission. Britain, Denmark, contributions from Spain and Turkey.
Options for NMI
At the 2020 Defense Ministers meeting, NATO decided to explore NMI expansion to meet Iraq’s SSR assistance needs under a new heading, as well as pressure from the Trump administration for more burden sharing. The COVID-19 outbreaks and militia attacks on multinational bases significantly slowed military planning the following year, but the latest announcement shows NATO remains committed to meeting Iraq’s demands in 2021 and beyond. Stoltenberg’s comments show that the following options are now on the table and that they are getting support from Iraq:
- Expansion to single service commands: Currently, NMI operates only at the Ministry of Defense headquarters in Baghdad’s International Region. The next step could be a small increase in consultants and “facilitators” (support staff) to interact individually with the military, air force, navy and other services – perhaps about 150 staff this summer and 70 more in the fall.
- Expansion to other ministries: When Stoltenberg stated on February 18 that the NMI could reach “more Iraqi security institutions”, he was referring to potential cooperation with the Ministry of the Interior and the Ministry of Justice in 2022-2023 and possibly with other institutions in the following years.
- Expansion outside of Baghdad: Stoltenberg’s mention of NMI cooperation in “areas outside of Baghdad” referred to the possibility of working with the Ministry of Peshmerga Affairs and other security agencies in the Kurdistan Region of Iraq.
The senior figure of 4,000 UME staff is not intended as a short term goal. Rather, it relates to the force levels NATO must commit if MAG fully withdraws the providers currently in charge of communications, medical support, force protection, and other tasks. If MAG staffing levels remain as they are, international partners will need to address the current habitat challenge for an expanded NMI in 2022. Similarly, expanding NATO training activities beyond Baghdad can be difficult given the closure of distant US bases last year.
NMI has not accomplished much during its short tenure, so it’s time to “get big or go home”. Several principles should guide the future development of the mission:
Make the structure of the NATO mission open to all Iraqi stakeholders. The local response to the February 18 announcement is a reminder that NATO-related news could reverberate in Iraq if not carefully adjusted. Stakeholders should also understand that NATO cannot replace the anti-terrorism mission conducted by MAG or the tactical training provided bilaterally. Regardless of how it evolves, the NMI will remain only one piece in the puzzle of greater international efforts to support Iraq’s security forces.
Communicate more in private and less in public. Private communication with the Iraqi government must be intense and all news related to NMI must be delivered to Baghdad before it becomes public.
Develop multi-annual plans. Impetus is growing to formulate longer term plans that include every two-year NMI command (currently edited by Lieutenant General Per Pugholm Olsen from Denmark). Doing so would be a smart way to show Baghdad that engaging with NATO is worth paying for domestic political costs given the significant medium-term commitments presented. A multi-year deal could also serve as a bridge to the next Iraqi government in 2022.
Turkey factor. Although Ankara to be an important member of NATO and will offer to contribute undoubtedly mission, any high profile within the NMI could complicate the Turkish role in the issue.
Do not rush to failure. The NMI needs to carefully place every foot on what will be the long road we hope to build a long relationship with a key regional power that can deeply affect stability refugee flows and security issues in Europe. This means that controversial proposals (for example, cooperation with the Popular Mobilization Forces militia network) must be very carefully considered before any action is announced or taken by NATO.
NMI also offers a modest opportunity for renewed dialogue between Washington and Europe. Now that the US has reduced its military footprint to 2,500 personnel, Denmark’s decision to lead the mission and send 285 military personnel shows that European allies are willing to step up their efforts to prevent ISIS from reappearing.
An increased European footprint in Iraq’s security sector could also be beneficial at the regional level. Due to their relative neutrality, European powers could help maintain strong international support for Iraq while reducing the risk of escalation between Iranian-backed militias and US troops.
To ensure that some degree of US military support (e.g. force protection, airlift, intelligence, base access) will be required initially for international security assistance to be sustainable and credible. But Washington should see this short-term investment as the best way to ease US commitments in the medium term.