Joe Biden in Baghdad: Is the US making headway against ISIS?

The vice president visited Baghdad Thursday in part to address growing concerns about Iraqi national unity. 

Josh Lederman/AP Photo
Vice President Joe Biden is greeted by U.S. Ambassador Stuart Jones after stepping off a C-17 military transport plane upon his arrival in Baghdad, Iraq, on Thursday.

Vice President Joe Biden made a surprise visit to Iraq Thursday, in an effort to “encourage national unity” in the fight against the Islamic State. 

Mr. Biden’s visit to Iraq is just one of many he has made throughout the Obama administration in order to shore up the Iraqi government. His arrival comes at a time when ISIS forces are in retreat in Iraq and Syria, but political turmoil in Baghdad continues.

“Iraq is a central theatre in the fight against the Islamic State. As a result, the US has every interest in trying to bolster the Iraqi government,” says Steven Cook of the Council on Foreign Relations in a phone interview with The Christian Science Monitor. “Should there be further fragmentation of the country, the fight against the Islamic State just gets that much harder.”

The vice president’s first meeting after arriving in Iraq was with Prime Minister Haider al-Abadi. Mr. Abadi has recently suffered significant opposition from former Prime Minister Nuri al-Maliki and cleric Muqtada al-Sadr.

Concerns about security in Baghdad due to sectarianism have even led Abadi to pull troops away from the fight against the Islamic State in order to bolster security in the capital

Although the White House has not disclosed Biden’s official itinerary, he was expected to meet with various other national leaders to emphasize the importance of unity and the continued effort against the Islamic State.

"The more the political system in Baghdad is consumed with everybody keeping their job, or figuring out how to rearrange the government,” an unnamed government official traveling with Biden told CNN, “the more difficult it is for everybody to be on the same page as it relates to the next step in the counter-ISIL campaign."

According to Dr. Cook, the US could not hope to oppose the Islamic State in the region without a functioning Iraqi government.

“The weakest link in the chain of the effort to establish a stable Iraq is Baghdad,” says Graham Allison, director of Harvard’s Belfer Center for Science and International Affairs, “and the absence of a competent, inclusive government could hinder the fight against ISIS.”

Biden has made several trips to Iraq, Cook says, with a fair degree of success. Thursday’s trip is the first that the vice president has made since 2011.

“This is an effort and something that has happened periodically over the last eight years in order to resolve differences,” Cook says. “Biden has been a troubleshooter on Iraq since the beginning of the administration.”

Are Iraq and the United States (and other allies in the fight against ISIS) enjoying success?

“There seem to be indications that ISIS is suffering setbacks,” Cook says. “The conventional wisdom is that ISIS is under a tremendous amount of pressure.”

The Obama administration has given indications that it hopes to end this conflict as soon as possible, preferably before the next administration enters the White House. Just last week, US Defense Secretary Ash Carter announced plans to send 217 troops  – and eight Apache attack helicopters – to Iraq. 

The US, Iraq, and allied forces hope to retake the city of Mosul from ISIS before the summer ends, although officials have been reluctant to release a timeline for the operation.

Islamic State recruitment for foreign fighters has dramatically plummeted. Numbers have dwindled from nearly 2,000 new recruits per month to just 200.

US airstrikes have reportedly damaged ISIS sources of funding, including oilfields and banks. The Islamic State has lost up to $800 million in airstrikes since October, say US officials.

During his surprise visit to the country, Biden plans to also visit troops stationed in Iraq, according to a White House statement. The US has about 4,500 to 5,000 US soldiers in Iraq. The vice president says he wants to thank American troops for their service.  

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