Commentary

Iraqis, not US troops, must be the ones who counter Iran’s influence in Iraq

The third time was the charm. After six months of uncertainty and chaos, last week Iraq’s parliament finally confirmed Mustafa al-Kadhimi, the third nominee for the post, as prime minister. Kadhimi faces a pandemic, plummeting oil prices, ISIS remnants, and a simmering anti-corruption movement that has had hundreds of its demonstrators killed by security forces. The last thing he needs is a proxy war on his soil.

A few thousand U.S. troops remain in Iraq today, despite being hamstrung by both the coronavirus pandemic and the force protection measures that followed January’s flare up in tensions with Iran. These troops are a liability, not an asset: bottled up on big bases, they are hostages to Iranian military power in the region. The U.S. presence in Iraq enables Iran to escalate at will, with at least some deniability via its Iraqi proxies in the Popular Mobilization Forces (PMF) militias.

At the tactical level, trading missiles with Iranian proxies is a fight America should avoid. Last month the Pentagon conducted operational planning to destroy the Iran-sponsored Kataib Hezbollah militia — a task that is not achievable without enormous U.S. military escalation on the soil of an American partner. The U.S. commander in Iraq, Lt. Gen. Robert P. White, bluntly warned against just that.

Iran also gets a lopsided return on its investment in Iraqi surrogates. A U.S. Special Forces soldier costs over $1 million to recruit, train and equip. A brand new Marine infantryman has at least $45,000 invested in him. But the obsolescent Katyusha rockets being flung at U.S. outposts in Iraq can be had for $450. The militiamen who set them off also come cheap. With ample recruits available to the PMF, a war of attrition is one the United States will not win, even against a plague-ravaged, economically wrecked Iran.

Further fighting in Iraq is also a dangerous distraction for the United States. The Islamic State, which justified the U.S. military presence in the first place, has been reduced to dead-enders in rural redoubts. The United States has invested fifteen years in training Iraqi security forces; Baghdad should be able to extinguish Islamic State remnants on its own.

As even former Trump administration officials have publicly warned, any further conflict in the Middle East is a distraction from countering America’s only major adversary: China. This is doubly true today, with coronavirus-stricken aircraft carriers tied up in port, the Department of Defense still struggling with how to handle the pandemic, and American allies preoccupied with their own borders and public health measures.

The long-term cost of remaining in Iraq is even more dire: further entrenching Iranian power in Baghdad.

The original sin of the U.S. invasion in 2003 handed Iran predominance in its neighbor’s affairs. Though opposed by many Iraqi Kurds, Sunni Arabs, and even many Shia, Iran has enormous influence in Iraq. Nowhere is this more obvious than in the security forces.

The PMF themselves are part of the Iraqi state, receiving over $2 billion in government funding last year and reporting directly to the prime minister. Mustered by a fatwa from Grand Ayatollah Ali Sistani in 2014, the PMF are justly considered heroes in Iraq. Together with Kurdish peshmerga and Iraq’s Counter-Terrorism Service, the PMF destroyed the Islamic State in Iraq through a grinding three-year campaign of urban warfare.

There is only one instrument likely to reverse Iranian influence in Iraq: the triumph of genuine Iraqi nationalism. There have been stirrings of this, especially in the wave of the anti-corruption protests that have only recently hit a lull. The rhetoric of the enigmatic Muqtada al-Sadr, an enemy of the U.S. occupation but now a sometime opponent of Iranian influence, is further evidence of Iraq’s struggle for true independence.

The keyword, though, is “genuine.” The best way to de-legitimize Iraqi nationalism and sovereignty is with U.S. missiles killing Iraqi militiamen, even when amply justified. Regular Iraqis have already been caught in the crossfire: the March 13 U.S. airstrikes on Kataib Hezbollah are alleged to have also killed Iraqi soldiers, police, and civilians. Just as nations invariably rally around the flag in wartime, so are U.S. strikes in Iraq likely to undermine nationalists and drive hesitant Iraqis toward Iran. Few will support perceived American puppets or quislings. America’s endless efforts to find and nurture Iraqi nationalists have yielded little fruit.

This all comes at a time when Iran may have overplayed its hand. A leadership struggle is ongoing among the PMF, a rare positive unintended consequence of the U.S. killing of Iranian Maj. Gen. Qassem Soleimani and PMF leader Abu Mahdi al-Muhandis in January. Though he was elected with the tacit approval of both the U.S. and Iran, Kadhimi has already reinstated the popular, U.S.-friendly head of the CTS.

U.S. forces were wisely withdrawn from a number of outlying bases last month, a long-planned consolidation that also put troops under the protection of Patriot missile defense and shorter-ranged C-RAM (counter rocket, artillery, and mortar) systems. Getting U.S. troops out of Iraq altogether should be the next step. America can still exert influence in Iraq through other, better means: diplomacy, information, and economic aid.

If Iranian dominance of Iraq is to be overcome, it must be at the hands of Iraqis. The American military mission in Iraq is long overdue for conclusion. After nearly two decades of futile and bloody American effort, it is time for Iraqis to solve their own problems.

Gil Barndollar is a senior fellow at Defense Priorities and at the Catholic University of America’s Center for the Study of Statesmanship. He served as a U.S. Marine infantry officer from 2009 to 2016.

Editor’s note: This is an Op-Ed and as such, the opinions expressed are those of the author. If you would like to respond, or have an editorial of your own you would like to submit, please contact Military Times managing editor Howard Altman, haltman@militarytimes.com.

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