What to Expect When You’re Expecting NATO in Iraq


When NATO suspended its training and advisory mission in Iraq following the killing of Iranian Gen. Qassem Soleimani in January 2020, the alliance experienced its first reality check on its new enterprise in the country. Iraq was and remains a tragic playground for domestic, regional, and international competition. Now NATO member states have agreed to expand the alliance’s Iraqi mission. What has changed in the last year? And how will the alliance fare?

COVID-19 may have temporarily constrained the behavior of some regional actors, particularly Iran, but the situation remains as challenging as ever and the distance between the level of ambition in Brussels and the reality on the ground in Baghdad remains significant. Despite renewed support for the alliance, the new U.S. administration appears still eager to continue with progressive disengagement from Iraq. The mission will therefore test NATO’s well-known burden-sharing problems. European allies will be called to a greater role in the mission as the United States draws down, a factor that will necessarily bring about significant operational challenges to overcome.



The expanded mission will present NATO with the opportunity to evaluate its limited role in the Middle East, as well as its ability to deliver effective results in security-sector reform in such a polarizing political and security environment. The mission will only succeed if it is properly resourced by the alliance nations and rooted in serious and meaningful engagement with the Iraqis. In its search for relevance beyond Europe, including by articulating its approach to China and to the wider southern flank, NATO needs to decide whether it wants to invest in building effective political influence in the Middle East or be confined to the role of providing technical capacity-building.

A Greater European Role

In February 2021, NATO defense ministers agreed to enlarge the alliance’s mission in Iraq. The expanded mission will work with a broader range of ministries beyond just the Ministry of Defense, and will possibly operate outside the Baghdad area. There will be a significant rise in personnel too: Up to 4,000 civilian and military staff are set to join the mission, up from a maximum of 500. The expansion will be incremental, conditions-based, and negotiated step by step with the Iraqi authorities.

Established in 2018, NATO Mission Iraq has thus far focused on professionalizing the Iraqi security forces, advising national security institutions — the Ministry of Defense and the Office of the National Security Advisor — and training the trainers, including the Iraqi Army Bomb Disposal School, the School of Administration and Logistics, and the Military Medical School. These activities have complemented the work of the American-led Global Coalition to Defeat ISIL, the United Nations, and the European Union Advisory Mission in Iraq, the last of which is small and confined to strategic-level advising at Iraq’s Ministry of Interior. Over the last year, however, many of these activities have stalled due to a double whammy of factors — the killing of Soleimani in January 2020 and the global COVID-19 pandemic — that have together contributed to halting progress and led to a departure of NATO personnel from Iraq.

With the Global Coalition to Defeat ISIL reducing its footprint and activities in Iraq, the upgraded NATO mission is set to expand its scope. For instance, it is expected that the mission will initially broaden its role within the Ministry of Defense to include advising on leadership development, good governance, and policy and planning. In the future, and subject to Iraqi requests, NATO may also undertake the advising of the federal police, which sits under the Ministry of Interior and has up until recently been trained and advised by the Italian Carabinieri.

Italy will take the command of NATO Mission Iraq from Denmark in 2022, reflecting the sustained willingness of European countries to play their role in NATO’s burden-sharing. Spain, which is a leading European contributor to the anti-ISIL coalition and already plays a prominent role in NATO Mission Iraq’s training activities, is also well-placed to undertake a future leadership role. In a departure from President Donald Trump, the Joe Biden administration has been quick to praise and reinforce the role of NATO allies and the value of multilateral frameworks, including in Iraq. With the U.S. presence in Iraq drawing down, European nations’ willingness to step in to fill the likely operational gaps will therefore be crucial to the sustainability of NATO’s mission in Iraq.

Operational Challenges

The drawdown of the anti-ISIL coalition will have some significant implications for NATO in Iraq, but the upgraded NATO mission should not be simply considered as a transition of activities from the coalition to NATO. The two missions’ mandates are different — unlike the coalition, the NATO operation remains a non-combat mission with NATO personnel not involved in the training or accompanying of military units at the tactical level. But NATO will build upon the coalition’s gains and will be likely to put more emphasis on strategic-level advisory efforts once the main coalition-supported military operations end. While the coalition is in the last phase of its military campaign, we do not yet have an announced end-date for its operations.

In light of a greater European role within the NATO mission in Iraq, there are likely to be teething problems. Moving from the agile and flexible coalition framework to the highly standardized, bureaucratic, and consensus-based NATO mechanisms will bring operational challenges. NATO’s force-generation process, the formal and often lengthy procedure through which alliance nations provide the necessary personnel and equipment for missions and operations, will take time to reach the required operational capability. Any significant expansion of the mission will therefore have to deal with a protracted process before it is properly equipped.

The NATO mission in Iraq is the first such mission with a strong civilian component, which mainly provides strategic-level advice to the Ministry of Defense. The expanded NATO mission will likely see an increase in these civilian elements. Success will therefore rest on NATO allies providing high-quality civilian personnel capable of navigating the complex bureaucracies of the Ministry of Defense and possibly the Ministry of Interior. The NATO mission aims to become more self-sufficient but currently relies on the anti-ISIL coalition’s enablers — mainly American-provided intelligence, infrastructure, basing, and logistics. Some countries may decide to reflag their military personnel under the NATO umbrella, but the mission will require its own enablers, as briefly alluded to by NATO Secretary General Jens Stoltenberg during a recent press conference. If European allies are serious about burden-sharing, this is an area where they could do more.

It is not yet clear whether and how the NATO mission will go beyond the Baghdad area. It is not unimaginable that NATO could move to providing some level of strategic advising to the Kurdish Peshmerga in the north of Iraq in the future. Any such expansion, however, will have to be requested by the Iraqi government and approved by NATO countries, to include Turkey. Given the difficult triangle of relations between Iraqi Kurdish factions, Baghdad, and Ankara, this will be tricky to negotiate.

Expectations for NATO in Iraq and in the Middle East

The upgraded NATO Mission in Iraq will be demand-driven, and the relevant question is: What does the Iraqi government want or need? The Iraqi government has definitely requested support in the professionalization of their security institutions. However, NATO should not overlook the political, security, and socio-economic context in which the mission will operate in order to link strategic ambitions with realistic expectations.

Iraq is still experiencing a delicate transition process from a military campaign to recovery, reconstruction, and wider stability. There are myriad issues to consider — an ambitious economic reform program, looming parliamentary elections, the unresolved future of the Popular Mobilization Forces, resurgent jihadist activity, and the uncertain prospect of American-Iranian relations. In opening up to the expansion of the NATO mission in Iraq, with a demand-driven approach and more of a European face than an American one, Iraq’s Prime Minister Mustafa Al-Kadhimi has attempted to reach the dual objective of an assertion of Iraqi sovereignty coupled with a U.S. drawdown. He has also tried to seriously engage with neighboring countries, including Iran, Turkey, and Saudi Arabia, to secure political and economic support and navigate the region’s dangerous and delicate competitions.

In this context, the NATO mission will play a role in wider security-sector reforms — an important domain, but one that cannot deliver quick wins and is highly polarizing in Iraq. And such reforms are not a panacea for wider structural problems.

NATO can provide technical capacity-building to Iraq in the form of training or advisory activities. However, this will be futile if not streamlined in a coherent strategy developed by the Iraqi government and supported by NATO, which is a highly politically sensitive process. NATO therefore should be more politically savvy with regards to what is happening in Iraq and its power relations, rather than just limiting itself to technical capacity-building. Iraq will continue to be at the crossroads of several regional and international issues — relations between the United States and Iran and between Iran and the Gulf monarchies, as well as Turkey’s regional ambitions. The expanded NATO mission cannot ignore this political context by staying in its comfort zone of capacity-building — it needs to be more proactive if it wants to earn relevance. Bridging this political versus technical gap will contribute to NATO attaining a more significant and positive influence in achieving its stated objective of projecting stability in neighboring and partner countries in order to ensure the alliance’s own security. This will provide NATO with more robust political reach and relevance in the Middle East — limited thus far — and give much-needed coherence to the multitude of military partnerships established in the region.



Paolo Napolitano, Ph.D., is an independent international consultant with over 10 years of professional experience working in conflict analysis and crisis management for International Organizations and prominent research centers. He was the lead political and security analyst responsible for the Middle East at NATO’s Strategic Military Headquarters until October 2020 and deployed to Iraq as a part of the NATO mission from July to October 2019. The opinions expressed here are his own.

Image: NATO