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Afghanistan's Fall To The Taliban Has Iraq Nervous

MARY LOUISE KELLY, HOST:

Few countries are watching events unfolding in Afghanistan as closely as the other one that the U.S. and its allies invaded and occupied after 9/11 - Iraq. Our next guest was born in Iraqi Kurdistan. He is now a U.S. citizen and has just traveled back to Iraq. Bilal Wahab is a fellow at The Washington Institute for Near East Policy. His new piece for Foreign Policy magazine is headlined "After Afghanistan Collapse, Iraqis Fear They Could Be Next."

Bilal Wahab, welcome.

BILAL WAHAB: Thank you.

KELLY: So I want to start with the gist of your argument. It sounds like it boils down to something like this, that right now, the U.S. has around about 2,500 troops in Iraq. Is the concern that if President Biden wants to end the so-called forever wars and Iraqis are watching what is happening in Afghanistan, that he would - what? - complete withdrawal from Iraq next?

WAHAB: That is the perception, and that is the fear of many of the Iraqi leaders and family members and journalists and civil society activists that I spoke to. The Iraqis worry that a repeat of what happened in 2011, when the United States withdrew from Iraq, may happen again after Afghanistan. And that worries the Iraqis, both leadership and the public, because Iraq has enemies. ISIS resurgence is a serious threat, as well as a possible militia takeover, if not a civil war.

KELLY: You just nodded to one of the key differences between these two countries, which is the U.S. already fully withdrew from Iraq. It didn't go that well. The U.S. is back in, as we just noted. There's about 2,500 U.S. troops in Iraq right now. Is it not reasonable to think the U.S. would think really hard before going through that again?

WAHAB: I definitely hope so. I mean, Iraq is a different country. It has a history of stronger national identity institutions. Afghanistan does not have that kind of history. And also the Iraqi army, the Counter Terrorism Service and the Kurdish Peshmerga forces under U.S. leadership did fight ISIS and did defeat it and liberated those three provinces that ISIS captured in 2014. And, of course, the United States has significant interests in Iraq, unlike Afghanistan.

KELLY: So those are some of the differences between the two countries. In terms of similarities and why people in Iraq might be watching quite warily what's happening in Afghanistan, you write that one similarity is that in Iraq, as in Afghanistan, it's not a matter of ability but of political will. That's a direct quote.

WAHAB: Absolutely.

KELLY: Explain.

WAHAB: Well, first of all, the Iraqi government and the Afghan government have been competing over who was more corrupt. You also have the political divisions. I would argue that the Iraqi government of 2014 that lost so much to ISIS was politically more coherent than today's government. Iraqi political parties and those in leadership have developed a dependency on the United States, both politically and militarily in the fighting against ISIS. The challenge looking into the future is that any vacuum that the United States leaves behind is going to be filled not by a capable united force like Taliban, but rather, in Iraq, you have many competing forces - sectarian forces, militias, armed groups - that the result might be either a civil war or the division of the country, neither which is a result that the United States can tolerate.

KELLY: I wonder, having done all these interviews, having thought about this as an analyst, where do you land just personally? As someone with one foot in each of these countries, do you feel hope for the future of the U.S.-Iraq relationship?

WAHAB: I have to, and I do. And I believe that the U.S. is a force for good. And despite the many mistakes that the United States makes, it still is better than the alternative. But it gives me pain that Washington is wavering so much, is sending so many mixed signals that staunch allies now doubt not only this country's commitment, but this country's logic and this country's priorities at a time that, I think, especially in Iraq, the country is ripe for a better democracy. But it needs, I think, more patience and more nurturing from Washington. And right now, we have the formula, and it's just a matter of commitment to that formula.

KELLY: That is Bilal Wahab of The Washington Institute for Near East Policy.

Thank you.

WAHAB: Thank you so much. Transcript provided by NPR, Copyright NPR.