NATO Secretary General seeks to ‘scale-up’ training role in Iraq

24 January 2020

While addressing European Parliament Foreign Affairs committee members at the European Parliament in Brussels on 21 January 2020, NATO Secretary General Jens Stoltenberg said the alliance must beef up its military training operation in Iraq to ensure that its members are not drawn back into combat there against the Islamic State.

Senior NATO and Iraqi officials were meeting the same day to discuss when NATO might be permitted to resume its training activities in Iraq.

Amidst cautious optimism that the NATO mission might resume in the near future, Stoltenberg said, “We need to go heavy in and train... build everything from Ministry of Defence, institutions, command and control, to train forces. NATO can do that., we already do it, but we can scale up”.

NATO agreed in 2018 to launch a training mission in Iraq involving around 500 troops with the aim of building up the country’s armed forces so they could better combat Islamic extremist groups. But the operation was suspended after a US missile strike at Baghdad airport killed Iranian military commander Qasem Soleimani earlier this month and the Iraqi government demanded that foreign troops leave its territory. As tensions mounted, US President Donald Trump called on NATO to do more in the region.

While acknowledging that he opposed the Iraq war as a Norwegian politician in 2003, Stoltenberg said he thought “the West left a bit too early” and that the Islamic State took advantage of the security vacuum by seizing vast swathes of territory in northern Iraq and Syria. “I strongly believe that if we don’t act now, we may be forced back in combat,” he told the parliamentarians. “We must prevent that from happening again. And therefore, we need to build some local capacity, so they prevent ISIS (Islamic State) from coming back”, he added.

Stoltenberg also said that Turkey is crucial in the fight against the Islamic State. "No ally has suffered more terrorist attacks than Turkey. They are important in the fight against Daesh (Islamic State). They are the only ally which is bordering Syria and Iraq," he said, adding that the progress and achievements NATO made in that fight would not be possible without using Turkish bases and infrastructure.

The Secretary General also said that NATO is currently holding discussions within the alliance and also with regional partners whether NATO should play more of a role in the Middle East. "We are discussing now what that means. So there is a process inside NATO but also with our partners, not least with partners in the region, Iraq, Jordan and other partners in the region about if NATO is to do more in the region what work we can do", he said. "So I cannot give you conclusions, but I can describe the process which is going on. I believe there is a potential for NATO to do more. But not mainly in combat," he added.

Stoltenberg also welcomed closer NATO-EU cooperation, including on maritime security, military mobility and countering cyber and hybrid attacks. He described Europe and North America as "two sides of the same coin" and emphasized the importance of a strong transatlantic bond in order to maintain peace and security in the world. He said NATO will bring together the EU and the US to address three issues of concern: terrorism, relations with Russia, and new and emerging challenges such as artificial intelligence and autonomous weapons platforms.