The U.S. Dilemma in Iraq

By: - September 30, 2021

“The fall of Kabul paves the way for the fall of Baghdad, an inevitable fact the U.S. government must realize and deal with decisively to avoid getting into a new predicament.”

The fall of fragile states and the rise of dominant empires is just a new reality and a state of disorientation in a weary region trying to find a path between the timeworn Sykes-Picot and the neoteric Middle East. This reality is not the result of the moment but rather imposed by the circumstances in a turbulent region ruled by geopolitical conflicts and deep-rooted historical aspirations.

The Iraq war in 2003 has significantly changed the foundations, standards, and approaches that the successive U.S. administrations resorted to while dealing with the Middle East in general and the Iraqi situation in particular. The same set of conflicts has been inherited by the different administrations since invading Iraq in 2003, leading every administration to the same conclusion: the situation is irreparable.

Today, President Biden’s administration is following in the footsteps of their predecessors in an attempt to withdraw U.S. forces from the Middle East, abandoning U.S. interests and alliances in the region, trillions of U.S. taxpayer dollars wasted on installing incompetent and corrupt governments, ditching every valuable sacrifice and loss incurred by the United States and allies during the past two decades, and leaving the region engulfed in chaos, violence, and terrorism. 

The shape and direction of the current administration’s foreign policy are apparent, and U.S. credibility and commitment have become widely questionable, especially after the disastrous withdrawal from Afghanistan, which is best described as militarily miscalculated, operationally mismanaged, and a catastrophic decision in terms of foreign policy and national security. 


The Complex Dilemma

“Two fateful choices: either staying or withdrawing and both may result in undesirable outcomes.”

The U.S. administration is caught in a real dilemma, and the severity of the situation places Washington in front of two hard choices, the best of which can and will result in undesirable outcomes. On the one hand, Washington is focused on maintaining the presence of an adequate force on the ground (under various titles) to perpetuate counterterrorism efforts and obstruct the return of the Islamic State (ISIS) in both Iraq and Syria. On the other hand, the Biden administration is facing enormous pressure to withdraw from Iraq and avoid any military confrontation with Iran, especially under the continued attacks carried out by the Iranian-sponsored Shiite militias on U.S. forces and interests in Iraq.

The Iranian regime’s inclination to carry out direct military attacks against U.S. targets highly depends on Iran’s conception of the U.S. reaction and response seriousness. Tehran has a unique ability to conduct operations through different proxies over geographically scattered areas without triggering direct conflict and without jeopardizing any possible sanctions relief or interrupting current or future negotiations.

Loss of Tactical Advantage / Field Superiority

Area knowledge, in-depth insight into the tribal and societal structure and influence, and understanding the territorial elements are the main elements to ensure adequate and effective response and counter-tactic. Understanding the geographical climate, tribal connections inside Iraq and across the borders into Syria is critical in combating the group’s constant activities.

Despite the collapse of the organizational structure of the Islamic State (ISIS), the threat remains at its highest levels by all military and operational measures due to the fact that the organization (ISIS) is known for its unique experience in operating in a decentralized clustered structure and that alone is a great challenge to both the Iraqi and the U.S. forces in both capacities; combative and advisory, especially after the reduction of U.S. presence in Iraq and the reduction in combat-related activities.

Activity-Based Intelligence (ABI) is highly essential at this point, and with the Military Advisory Group taking over and surrendering the frontlines (military bases), the process will significantly limit the volume and the quality of the incoming intelligence.

ISIS operates in a new structure designed for hit-and-run operations and runs an estimated number of (2) platoons of active members in each district or (operations territory) within northern and western Iraq. The terror group has also shown development in its geographical and territorial distribution strategy by expanding its network deep into the southern provinces of Iraq known for being predominantly Shiite (Shi’a Sect).

Negative Indicators

The American public, congress members, current and former diplomats, military and intelligence officers, and subject matter experts have been deeply concerned due to the current administration’s foreign policy approach in the Middle East and the critical decisions that can (and will) be catastrophically damaging to the U.S. position regionally and globally. The new foreign policy roadmap does not bode well and will eventually lead to undesirable outcomes both diplomatically and militarily.

The floundering foreign policy and the indifference to the implications and consequences is an alarming signal and is evident through the administration’s approach; beginning with the uncalculated and poorly-executed withdrawal from Afghanistan, the timid and ineffective response to the Iranian militias attacks in Iraq, and the inadvisable hyper-enthusiasm to repeal the Authorization for the Use of Military Force in Iraq (AUMF) that the congress passed in 2002.

However, even more alarming and concerning is the “Retrograde” status evident within the military institution and the dissatisfaction and resentment among members of the military establishment. 

The Iranian Strategy in Iraq

Iran’s strategy in Iraq is based on applying indirect pressure on the U.S. military through the Iranian-sponsored militias’ repeated attacks on U.S. bases, installations, and diplomatic missions to force the U.S. government to consider a complete withdrawal process. It is worth noting that the attacks of pro-Iranian militias have noticeably decreased since the U.S. government announced its intention to withdraw from Iraq. The recent decline in the quality and quantity of attacks against U.S. targets in Iraq and the decline in confrontational activities is attributed to Iran’s conviction that the U.S. withdrawal is an inevitable reality.

The recent U.S.-Iraqi agreement was nothing but a huge compromise, and a victory for the armed militias forcing the U.S. government to withdraw from Iraq once again, under Iranian pressure. Therefore, and from Iran’s point of view, there is no need to attack retreating forces, especially since Iran’s militias and proxies are on the ground and have the capability to launch severe military attacks against U.S. forces and facilities whenever the facts on the ground change.

The Iranian escalation and the continued attacks carried out by the Iranian-sponsored militias in Iraq against the U.S. base in Erbil and other installations is an intended message to both the U.S. and Iraqi governments, clearly stating that Tehran will not only fill the gap after the U.S. withdrawal from Iraq, but it will manage to sabotage any intentions to perpetuate Iraqi-American relations.

Iran – The Existing Regional Threat

Iran will continue to pose an imminent threat to the U.S. and allied interests in the Middle East as Tehran increases its efforts to minimize the U.S. presence and influence in the region. To this end, Iran will continue to maintain the clandestine existence of the Iranian Revolutionary Guards Corps – Quds Force’s  (IRGC-QF) Special Missions Battalion in various locations south of Baghdad and east of Diyala province to train and support Shiite factions and armed groups in Iraq. Iran is also maintaining an open channel of logistical and intelligence support to Hezbollah and affiliated militias in Lebanon and Syria and Hamas and Palestine Islamic Jihad in Gaza.

The Iranian territorial dominance and regional expansion are not limited to a particular area. It is a geostrategic expansion and a desire for broader geopolitical dominance over the Middle East – North Africa region, in addition to Iran’s massive desire to control major straits and strategic maritime navigation pathways such as Hormuz Strait and The Gate of Tears. Therefore,  Iran has been actively engaged in fostering armed groups, cultivating and recruiting proxies, and coordinating operations with various insurgency groups, armed militias, piracy squads, and terrorist organizations, including al-Qaeda, al-Qaeda in Iraq and ISIS.

It is no longer a secret that Iran has been cooperating and hosting senior al-Qaeda leadership since the fall of the Taliban’s regime in 2001. The Islamic Revolutionary Guard Corps (IRGC) has also been involved in sponsoring and operating more than five (5) training camps inside Iran that have been specifically designated for al-Qaeda in Iraq (AQI), formerly known as “Jama’at al-Tawhid wa al-Jihad” (Zarqawi’s Network). 

The IRGC-QF, under the leadership of Gen. Qassim Soleimani, whom a US airstrike had killed in January 2020 in Baghdad,  played a significant role in successfully building and organizing six (6) ideologically loyal and mission-driven armies outside the Iranian territories, namely Lebanese Hezbollah in Lebanon, Hamas and The Jihad Movements in Gaza, the Regime Forces in Syria, the Iraqi Popular Mobilization Forces (PMU), and the Houthis in Yemen. Soleimani was able to unify the six (6) armies’ vision and mission statements and form what Tehran calls today “The Iron Shield.”

Understanding Iraq’s Operational Environment

The complex structure of Iraq and the operational procedure of the different terrorist groups, insurgents, and especially the Iranian-sponsored sectarian militias should never be compared to the war in Afghanistan or examples from the guerrilla wars in Latin America. Iraq is a unique case, and in order to make progress, the U.S. administration must understand the reality and realize that ineffective or actionably tenuous attacks will not achieve the desired outcomes, nor will they have any deterring effects on these hostile militias.

During the past 18 years and since the change of the Iraqi regime in 2003, Iraq has been battling the new culture of armed groups, terrorist organizations, and radical ideologies. However, the Iranian influence and strategic infiltration of the government and social sectors were systematically established from day one.

In the years between 2004-2008, most of the insurgency activities were focused on applying constant pressure to force the U.S.-led coalition forces to withdraw from Iraq. Local insurgents and terrorist organizations have a lot in common when it comes to their operational activities, ground strategy, and perhaps numerous objectives, but they never had a shared goal.

Terrorist organizations such as “Al-Qaeda” (AQ), “Jama’at al-Tawhid wal-Jihad” (Zarqawi’s Primary Network), Al-Qaeda In Iraq (AQI), and most recently, the Islamic State (ISIS), and other affiliated groups are generally internally managed and operated, self-funded with a significant dependency on donations, prizes, taxes and impositions, and in some cases covertly funded by regional states whether officially or throughout front entities and institutions. In Iraq, and despite the expansion and far-reach of these groups, terrorist organizations such as AQ, AQI, and ISIS had limited national and religious legitimacy, and limited social recognition, except among their sympathizers, followers, and operatives. 

On the other hand, Iranian-sponsored Iraqi Shiite militias have a completely different system, territorial dominance, government recognition, institutional legitimacy, and unlimited access to public and government resources. Iranian-sponsored militants and proxies are not only engaged in the political process, but the militias’ activities extend to a broader range to include the social, legal, and public sectors, in addition to both the official and religious legitimacy imposed by the Shiite Seminary, also known as the al-Hawza al-Ilmiyya in Najaf, represented by (Ali al-Sistani), or Iran’s Shiite Clergy, represented by Iran’s supreme leader; Ali Khamenei.

Iran has been actively involved in destabilizing the region, fueling sectarian conflicts, and extending territorial and sectarian dominance in the Middle East region in general and Iraq in particular. Analyzing Iran’s most successful enterprise in the Middle East will shed light on Hezbollah in Lebanon. However, Iran’s new mission in Iraq is to establish an advanced version of the “Lebanese Hezbollah”, with a more profound political dominance and greater military power.

The U.S. government must acknowledge the magnitude of the problem and the implications of the Iranian expansion and territorial dominance on regional stability and security. Tehran’s policy and influence in Iraq threaten to exacerbate the deteriorating political process and the fragile security in the country. Iranian-sponsored Iraqi Shi’ite militias continue to challenge the central government in Baghdad, dominate the military and law enforcement institutions, and run the country from within.

Factual Reality vs. Diplomatic Idealism

Iraq is a failed state; Despite the outstanding efforts made by the U.S. diplomatic mission in both the U.S. Embassy in Baghdad and the Consulate in Erbil, the reality in Iraq is one thing, and the assessment reports that Washington receives from Baghdad is another thing. Iraq is a failed state by all measures, threatened by ISIS re-emergence, Iranian-sponsored Shiite militia dominance, new independent Shiite armed groups (formerly sponsored by Iran), rampant corruption, mismanagement, poor services, and rising public anger and resentment. However, the U.S. foreign policy concerning Iraq is still being shaped based on the overstated statements and the repeatedly used terms; supporting democracy, governance, resilience programs, unlimited aid programs, and training the Iraqi security forces. The reality is an entirely different story. It is worth noting that the same terminologies and baseless optimistic assessments flowed enthusiastically from Kabul-to-Washington until the last days before the disastrous fall of Kabul. 

Iraq is an Iranian colony; Dominantly controlled by the Iranian Revolutionary Guard Corps – Quds Force (IRGC-QF) and the affiliated militias, Iraq is internally controlled by Iran’s proxies.  The Iranian influence and tactical capacity in Iraq have increased severely, and the U.S. presence in Iraq is the last trench between Iran and its geostrategic dominance aspirations. Targeting U.S. forces, civilians, installations, and interests will continue to occur as long as the Iranian-sponsored militias undermine the Iraqi government and military institutions, and as long as the Iraqi parliamentary Shiite majority, as well as many Sunni and Kurd members, report to Tehran or its representatives in Baghdad.  The current de-escalation and the inactivity in carrying out attacks against U.S. targets should not be conceived as a positive sign; it is not more than a temporary preoccupation while preparing for the upcoming elections.

The fragile political process; The Iraqi political process since the regime change in 2003 has been hijacked by Iran through its Iraqi proxies and the Iranian-sponsored militias soon after. The regional powers and neighboring countries have their shares, too. However, Tehran still has the upper hand. Democracy does not exist. In Iraq, the term “democracy” is nothing more than a title symbolized by the predetermined elections or sometimes used to fill in the blanks of a poor conversation whenever Iraqi officials and their U.S. counterparts attend an official event. The political process is too fragile and will collapse in its first confrontation with the people or with a reliable political opponent.

The Trenchant Approach

A continued U.S. military presence in Iraq is essential to ensure the enduring defeat of The Islamic State  (ISIS). The reduction or withdrawal of U.S. troops would constitute a major blow to the war on terrorism. ISIS is still capable of delivering painful attacks to vital facilities and strategic targets. The quantity and severity of the attacks would increase rapidly in the absence of U.S. and coalition support. To maintain the progress and ensure the continuity the U.S. military must remain in Iraq, otherwise, any premature withdrawal will lead to the re-emergence of ISIS in its STATE structure, precisely as ISIS emerged shortly after the defeat of al-Qaeda in Iraq (AQI), and the withdrawal of U.S. forces from Iraq, in 2011. Additionally, Iran is tightening its grip on the Iraqi scene. The fall of Afghanistan has encouraged the Iranian-sponsored armed groups to consider copying Kabul’s scenario in Baghdad, especially that the disaster in Afghanistan has been met with international silence and unexplainable military failure.

The Biden administration has numerously responded to the Iranian-sponsored militia attacks in Iraq and Syria. However, the U.S. response had a marginal effect on Iran’s militias.   The U.S. administration must realize that the “plinking” activities (Weak Air Strikes) that the current administration has performed in retaliation for Iranian-sponsored militants’ rockets and drones attacks against the U.S. forces and installations are tactically and militarily inadequate and will not reduce neither the quantity nor the quality of these attacks.

Iran-sponsored militias’ continued attacks on U.S. forces, installations, diplomatic missions, and strategic interests in Iraq must be addressed adequately. The U.S. administration must change the current approach and firmly assert, in actions, that attacking and endangering the safety and lives of U.S. forces, military advisers, diplomats, foreign and civil service officers, contractors, and mission-support personnel will not be tolerated.

Iran and its militias and proxies will continue to threaten the United States at both levels, domestically and abroad. The U.S. government, whether at the Department of Defense (DoD), State Department (DoS), or the Intelligence Community (IC), are well aware of the fact that Iranian-sponsored attacks, terrorist activities, and aspirations to undermine the U.S. national security will continue and most likely will increase in the next phase especially with Tehran’s ability to continue to deny any direct responsibility for the attacks that Iraqi militants carry out.

The U.S. administration must resort to an aggressively sound approach; clandestine operations and covert activities are the most effective, efficient, and strategically actionable mitigation measures available at the moment. Avoiding direct confrontations and overt military operations is vital to reduce retaliatory actions and mitigate regulatory limitations.

Measures and Methodology

Finding Shared Formulas:  A consensual working formula capable of striking a balance between the operational enthusiasm at the DoD and other government agencies on the one hand, and the enduring optimism and delicate diplomatic patience pursued by both the State Department and the White House is a crucial step forward in unifying the U.S. national security strategy and the broader foreign policy objectives.

The U.S. intelligence community (IC) since 9/11, has been a significant pillar in the war on terrorism. However, U.S. intelligence and specifically the CIA, must reposition its forces and capabilities and redefine the balance between intelligence activities and the paramilitary role that has been rapidly growing since 9/11.

Reliable Action: Militarily precise and complex hits are the optimal solution at the current stage. Direct strikes targeting the militia’s leadership, disrupting the chain of command, supply lines, and organizational structure are tactically more damaging than targeting facilities and bases.

The killing of Gen. Soleimani and the PMU commander Abu Mahdi al Muhandis in a U.S. operation in January 2020 in Baghdad, has proven that targeting the foundation of the organizational structure is a powerful deterrent that has significantly disrupted the Iranian-sponsored militias’ chain of command, the operational capacity, and determination. In fact, the death of Qassim Soleimani caused a deep division between the different Iranian-sponsored militias and armed groups in Iraq, the most recent is the collapse of the Iraqi Popular Mobilization Committee (PMU).