“As we leave, we can expect to see some turbulence in security initially, and that’s because you’ll see various elements try to increase their freedom of movement and freedom of action,” he told journalists at a briefing at the U.S. Embassy in Baghdad, just weeks from the planned departure of the last American troops.
Austin’s comments represent the clearest statement yet by a U.S. military commander that the United States is leaving unfinished business in Iraq — particularly at a time of mounting regional instability that risks exacerbating long-standing tensions.
Militant groups on both sides of the sectarian divide have not been vanquished, the country’s fractious politicians remain deadlocked on key issues, and the Iraqi security forces lack many of the capabilities that would enable them to fill the gaps left by the departing Americans.
Austin said conditions for a U.S. exit are better than at any point in the previous 81
2 years, but he said that “there will probably be unfinished business for many, many years to come.”
The U.S. military had hoped that as many as 20,000 of its troops would remain to continue to train Iraqi security forces, but an agreement on the terms under which the troops would stay foundered on the issue of whether the trainers and those assigned to protect them would be granted immunity from prosecution.
Though it is possible that the Iraqis will ask for additional help after the drawdown is complete, Austin said, no such request has been made.
Foremost among U.S. concerns is the risk posed by militant groups, including al-Qaeda in Iraq, which remains a potent threat in the north and center of the country and is capable of staging devastating attacks. Austin said the group is expected to try to take advantage of the United States’ departure.
“Al-Qaeda will continue to do what it’s done in the past, and we expect that it’s possible they could even increase their capability,” he said. “If the Iraqi security forces and the government of Iraq are able to counter that, it will be a good thing. If they can’t, they’ll continue to grow in capacity.”
At the same time, Iranian-backed Shiite militias, based mostly in the south and around Baghdad, are also expected to try to expand their role, in ways that could challenge the Iraqi government’s hold on power.
“These are elements that are really focused on creating a Lebanese Hezbollah kind of organization in this country,” Austin said. “As we leave, if those elements are left unchecked, they will eventually turn on the government, and they should be concerned about that.”