The Pentagon announced Sunday that U.S. forces had conducted strikes against Iranian-backed militia groups on the Iraqi-Syrian border in response to drone attacks targeting U.S. troops and facilities. America has tried this strategy before, and it has failed to stop such proxy attacks: Iranian rockets, and now unmanned aircraft, continue to rain intermittently on U.S. personnel with no signs of abating. Instead of allowing U.S. contractors, troops and property to face attack, the Pentagon would be better off withdrawing from Iraq altogether.
The domestic threat to the U.S. of ISIS-inspired attacks isn’t diminished by stationing troops abroad because the threat stems from radicalization, not from ISIS’ material strength.
The tit-for-tat process started under President Donald Trump and escalated following the January 2020 U.S. assassination of Iranian Gen. Qassem Soleimani, a senior figure involved in most of the Iranian attacks on U.S. troops. That flashpoint nearly started a war between Iran and the United States, and Iran’s missile strikes in the days following left 110 U.S. troops injured.
Today, not much has changed. Attacks continued through the end of Trump’s presidency, and President Joe Biden began to encounter these proxy attacks from the outset of his administration. But the most recent reciprocal attacks prove that the strategy isn’t working. Deterrence is not shaky; it is nonexistent.
Trump established an implicit but mutually understood red line that Biden seems to have adopted: The deaths of U.S. personnel will be met forcefully. Fortunately, no U.S. service members have been killed by these attacks. But if there’s no shift in U.S. strategy, regular rocket attacks will eventually result in the red line being crossed, inadvertently or purposely.
There’s no reason to wait for that outcome. The United States conducts these strikes to protect American personnel, but the solution compounds the problem by incentivizing further attacks from Iran’s proxies. Instead, the U.S. can ensure its security by simply withdrawing all forces. Withdrawal isn’t defeat; it’s an acknowledgment that there’s no good reason to stay and a lot of good reasons to leave. And while Iran does want to see the U.S. exit Iraq, it diminishes its interest in targeting U.S. forces by decreasing Iran’s threat perception.
What would be the consequences of this exit?
First, it's helpful to understand the U.S. presence in Iraq and Syria is an advise-and-assist mission to help the Iraqi government counter the Islamic State militant group, with around 2,500 U.S. troops stationed throughout Iraq and 900 more in Syria. ISIS, however, has been forced to disperse to other parts of the world following its territorial and strategic losses in Iraq and Syria, and it doesn’t have the same conventional means of attack as when it conquered territory in 2014. Instead, it operates a disparate network of affiliated groups stretching from Nigeria to the Philippines. Despite ISIS’ aspirations for a global caliphate, these groups are largely offshoots of local jihadi groups fighting in local conflicts.
Within Iraq itself, ISIS capitalized on the alienation of Sunni Muslims by a government that at the time blatantly favored Shi’ites. Preventing ISIS from returning to Iraq is no longer a military issue because of the blows the U.S. has already delivered to the terror organization; the effort now must focus on policing to locate remaining terror cells, on building confidence in the Iraqi government among alienated Sunnis and on addressing the population’s grievances. Ameliorating these issues denies ISIS the ability to entice new recruits.
None of these goals can be achieved militarily, however, and none of that is even within the purview of the U.S. government. It’s an Iraqi matter for Iraqis to decide. The domestic threat to the U.S. of ISIS-inspired attacks isn’t diminished by stationing troops abroad because the threat stems from radicalization, not from ISIS’ material strength. Likewise, there is no “safe haven” in Iraq from which ISIS can organize attacks.
Furthermore, if conditions aren’t ripe for withdrawal now, will they ever be? ISIS was denied the last patch of its territorial caliphate more than two years ago, so the upside for the U.S. staying is minimal. Likewise, the downside will only increase in the coming months. Iran’s incoming president, ultraconservative Ebrahim Raisi, is likely to be more bellicose and risk-tolerant than his predecessor. Raisi boasts strong connections within Iran’s Revolutionary Guard, the military component that equips and trains Tehran’s proxies. That means these proxies may act with less restraint, increasing the odds of American forces being endangered.
U.S. decisionmakers should consider Biden’s own words from April on the coming Afghanistan withdrawal when contemplating the fate of U.S. troops in Iraq: "We cannot continue the cycle of extending or expanding our military presence in Afghanistan — hoping to create ideal conditions for the withdrawal and expecting a different result."
The U.S. should apply the lessons from Afghanistan rather than relearning them in Iraq. Getting entangled further without an exit strategy doesn’t bolster U.S. security, it undermines it. The phrase “forever wars” is plural. As the U.S. winds the Afghanistan conflict to a close, it needs to follow suit in Iraq.