Esper: A Bigger NATO Role in Iraq, Mideast ‘Would Over Time Allow Us to Bring Some Forces Home’

By Patrick Goodenough | February 12, 2020 | 4:27am EST
NATO Secretary-General Jens Stoltenberg addresses the press in Brussels ahead of the ministerial. (Photo: NATO)
NATO Secretary-General Jens Stoltenberg addresses the press in Brussels ahead of the ministerial. (Photo: NATO)

( – NATO defense ministers meeting in Brussels on Wednesday will discuss a Trump administration push for more help from allies in Iraq, and in the wider Middle East region.

NATO Secretary-General Jens Stoltenberg told reporters on Tuesday the ministers would discuss the future of the NATO mission in Iraq, where both the alliance and the broader U.S.-led coalition to defeat ISIS suspended training missions amid escalated U.S.-Iraq-Iran tensions early last month.

“Our aim is to resume that training as soon as possible,” he said.

Beyond Iraq, Stoltenberg said, the ministers “will consider what more NATO can do in the wider region to build long-term stability and security.”

He underlined the need for greater NATO involvement, saying that violence and instability in the Middle East were driving the refugee and migrant crisis, and fueling the threat of terrorism.

Flying to Brussels for the meeting, Defense Secretary Mark Esper told reporters that the U.S. wants NATO allies to do more to help in the Iraq training mission, saying that as allies deploy more forces, “that would over time allow us to bring some forces home.”

The U.S. has some 5,000 troops in Iraq, whose parliament has been calling for their withdrawal since the early January U.S. airstrike that killed Iran’s Qods Force commander Qassem Soleimani in Baghdad.

Asked what incentives the U.S. could offer NATO allies to commit more forces in Iraq, Esper said it’s not a case of offering incentives but of recognizing the “shared interest” of “ensuring the continued defeat of ISIS.”

Esper said the U.S. is also looking to NATO for more help in the broader Mideast region, for instance to help partners, including but not limited to the Saudis, whom he said “need additional air defenses to deter Iranian bad behavior.”

The U.S. and Saudi Arabia blame Iran for a cruise missile and drone attack on Saudi oil infrastructure last September that temporarily knocked out half of the kingdom’s oil production. The Iranian regime denies responsibility.

After that attack, Esper recalled on Tuesday, he had “called at least a half dozen of our NATO partners” who have compatible air defense systems, asking for help. “And so I want to continue that dialogue” in Brussels this week.

The U.S. National Defense Strategy (NDS) is focused on “great power competition” with China and Russia, and in line with that Esper is reviewing ways to adjust the U.S. military footprint, assessing one theater of command at a time.

If NATO allies put more forces in in the Middle East, he explained, the U.S. will be able to reduce its forces, allowing troops to return to the U.S. to increase their readiness, or to redeploy elsewhere in the Indo-Pacific region.

“I want to implement the NDS, and the NDS means right-sizing our forces in every theater,” he said. Esper acknowledged, however, that China and Russia are also in the Middle East, so it would not be a case of the U.S. “completely moving out.”

‘Train local forces, enabling them to fight terrorism themselves’

In Brussels, Stoltenberg was asked whether he had “a clear understanding of what President Trump actually wants NATO allies to do in Iraq and the Middle East.”

He said Trump had sent two “very clear” messages from day one – a call for greater NATO defense spending – where Stoltenberg said the 29-member alliance was making “significant progress” – and “the need for NATO to do more fighting terrorism.”

“NATO allies and NATO already play a role in the region and in the fight against terrorism, but we can do more,” he said. “President Trump has expressed a clear wish for more support from NATO. We have a good dialogue among NATO allies and, of course, also with the countries concerned, for instance, Iraq, on how we can do this, how we can do more.”

Stoltenberg said it was too early to announce any specific decisions, but “we believe that one of the best weapons we have in the fight against terrorism is to train local forces, enabling them to fight terrorism themselves.”

Other issues on the agenda for the NATO ministerial on Wednesday and Thursday include the training mission in Afghanistan, and arms control issues including concerns about Russia’s deployment of a nuclear-capable ground-launched cruise missile, the SSC-8. The deployment violated the Intermediate-Range Nuclear Forces (INF Treaty) and prompted the U.S. to withdraw from it last year.

Stoltenberg stressed that “NATO allies have stood united on Russia’s breach of the treaty.”

The defense ministers will also meet with their Ukrainian counterpart to review defense reforms being undertaken by that country. The former Soviet republic has long aspired to join the transatlantic alliance, a move firmly opposed by Moscow.

After the two-day meeting in Brussels, Esper is scheduled to take part in an international security conference in Munich, Germany.


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