U.S. troops’ presence in Iraq is not making relations with Iran any better. It’s actually spurring Iran to more violence, showing its time to withdraw.
After the Trump administration’s consideration of military strikes on Iran for its nuclear program, the rocket attacks in Iraq’s Green Zone, where the U.S. embassy is located, on Tuesday have the potential to draw the United States closer to a conflict with Iran. But President Trump should keep military retaliation off the table. Military action has incentivized — not deterred — Iran and its proxies in the past, endangering U.S. personnel.
Military force hasn’t made American personnel safe. In the last bout of hostilities with Iran, Kata’ib Hezbollah, an Iran-aligned militia group in Iraq, conducted a rocket attack in December 2019 which killed a U.S. contractor. In response, the U.S. hit Kata’ib Hezbollah hard, striking five of the group’s facilities. If military action could deter further attacks, that should have been the end of it. But it wasn’t.
Escalating tit-for-tat attacks
Instead, a cycle of escalation ensued, with Kata’ib Hezbollah supporters attacking the U.S. embassy that same month. The U.S. then pursued the most aggressive option on the table, killing Iranian general Qassem Soleimani and the leader of Kata’ib Hezbollah, Abu Mahdi al-Muhandis in January. Rather than prevent further attacks, the move prompted Iran’s direct retaliation, with Iran’s ballistic missile attack injuring over 100 U.S. personnel.
What happened in the aftermath of this standoff also underscores the failure of a military response to solve the problem. Attacks continued throughout the year, only stopping in October when Kata’ib Hezbollah pledged to stop attacks if the U.S. withdrew. Tuesday’s rocket attacks came after Pentagon officials said they would withdraw only 500 of the 3000 troops in Iraq.
What can be learned from this and what is the solution?
Neither the American strikes on Kata’ib Hezbollah nor the strike against Soleimani ended the attacks on U.S. personnel. Both ultimately escalated the situation and made an Iran-U.S. war more likely. The longer U.S. forces stay in Iraq, the longer they are in harm’s way. And as was seen in the previous tit-for-tat last December, a single American death acts as a flash-point that risks a war.
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Thankfully, Tuesday’s attack produced no U.S. casualties. That warrants a sigh of relief but not celebration. U.S. personnel are still needlessly endangered for a mission that is largely accomplished. With ISIS’s territorial control gone and its leadership decapitated, the U.S. has little to benefit from staying in Iraq and a lot to lose. The role of preventing an ISIS resurgence should now fall to the Iraqi Security Forces, a role the U.S. military already envisions as the end goal.
Iraqis are the best counterweight to Iran
Military action proved counterproductive against both Kata’ib Hezbollah and Iran, so the solution is a full military withdrawal. This is not an abandonment of the region, but a shift from a militaristic role to one based on diplomacy. The U.S. can and should still engage Iraq in areas of overlapping interest and to share intelligence for counterterrorism purposes.
The inevitable criticism of this move is that Iran would fill the U.S. gap. But the militarized U.S. presence actually drives Iraqis closer to Iran. In the aftermath of the Soleimani killing, Iraqi lawmakers symbolically voted to oust U.S. forces while populist Muqtada al-Sadr led hundreds of thousands in an anti-American rally. This is the same Muqtada al-Sadr who analysts predicted would be a strong anti-Iran influence in Iraq. Withdrawing would redirect this nationalist sentiment against Iran. The natural counterweight to Iran in Iraq is not the U.S. It’s Iraqis.
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The U.S. has not established deterrence with Iran. U.S. military presence in Iraq risks harm to personnel which in turn can bring the U.S. into a war with Iran. The costs are high and the benefits are nonexistent with the defeat of ISIS. The Iraqis are the ones best suited to preventing ISIS from reemerging and opposing a vassalization of their country by Iran. Therefore, it behooves both Trump and Biden to declare that that end has finally come.
Geoff LaMear is a fellow at Defense Priorities and a Marcellus Policy Fellow at the John Quincy Adams Society where he researches Iranian proxies.