In October 2011, then-president Barack Obama made a dramatic declaration meant to conclude the American-led war in Iraq. “The American combat mission in Iraq has ended,” he proclaimed. “The Iraqi people now have lead responsibility for the security of their country.”
US troop strength in Iraq then stood at 40,000. Almost three years later, as US jet bombers began to pound Islamist terrorists in Iraq, only a few score US special operation troops were on the ground, spotting Islamic State guerrilla targets.
Obama repeated, “The American forces that have been deployed to Iraq do not and will not have a combat mission.”
That began the American habit of pretending that aerial bombing was not the same as combat, a distinction that largely depends on the enemy not having anti-aircraft capabilities.
Fast forward to last week’s announcement by President Joe Biden, who said, once more but with a different date, that “there will be no US forces with a combat role in Iraq by December 31, 2021.”
US troop strength stands at 2,500 and those service members currently in Iraq have rarely fought. During all of 2020 in Iraq, two American soldiers were killed in combat and two others died when an Islamic State rocket hit a US base, according to the Stars and Stripes newspaper.
Why not announce a full exit, as he had done earlier this summer in Afghanistan, and end yet another “forever war” that has long sapped US attention?
The Afghan announcement, with its drawdown of 3,500 soldiers, signaled a process of reducing Middle and Near East military commitments to free up troops, equipment, money and attention to confront the growing power of China. Theoretically, a full withdrawal from Iraq would have contributed to the same mission.
But fully pulling out from Iraq would present a problem for Biden not evident in Afghanistan: the need to show he is confronting Iran. The Islamic Republic not only wields political influence in Iraq but also controls an array of allied militias that roam freely there.
In part, the US invaded Iraq to transform an arch-enemy into a democratic ally. A full exit would leave Iran, its other regional nemesis, as the major outside power on the scene.
Then-president Donald Trump had already shifted the Iraqi mission toward containing Iran. In defending his decision to keep a US airbase operating in Iraq, he told a US television interviewer, “One of the reasons I want to keep it is because I want to be looking a little bit at Iran, because Iran is a real problem.”
In announcing his no-more-combat-troops policy, Biden indicated that the Americans would only advise the Iraqi government, provide it intelligence and train its army in fighting the Islamic State – illusive practitioners of holy war in Iraq and elsewhere.
US officials assert that the group still operates in Iraq despite having been defeated two years ago in Iraq and neighboring Syria. Yet, Biden’s actions suggest that Iran was the reason for maintaining the rump military US presence.
In February, in ordering his first military operation, Biden sent jet bombers to hit military encampments occupied by pro-Iranian militias. Jets dropped seven 500-pound bombs on small buildings at a Syrian-Iraqi border crossing used by pro-Iranian militias to smuggle weapons.
The raid was retaliation for a rocket attack on American personnel at an airport in Kurdistan that killed a Filipino contractor. The Pentagon had offered to strike more extensive targets but Biden preferred a less aggressive attack in order not to escalate the conflict with Iran early in his administration.
Since then, bases housing US troops have periodically come under drone and mortar attack by pro-Iranian Iraqi forces, most of which did little or no damage. The latest assaults occurred in June when Iranian-made drones struck the entrance to Baghdad airport used by US diplomats and again attacked the airfield in Kurdistan.
Biden reacted by bombing distant depots on the Syrian border. The reaction showed a willingness to retaliate – but not to display unbridled animus. Four militia members were reportedly killed, although no one has been able to pinpoint exactly who controlled the border installations.
By way of contrast, Trump had responded to Iranian-backed militia attacks with sometimes dramatic retaliation. In 2020, a US drone attack in Iraq killed Qasem Soleimani, Iran’s commander of foreign operations. The attack was in retaliation for a rocket strike that killed an American civilian contractor and wounded a handful of US soldiers.
Trump promoted regime change in Iran. At the beginning of his term, Trump canceled a deal negotiated with Iran by the Obama administration to wind down the country’s nuclear weapons program. He subsequently tightened economic sanctions on Tehran.
With Biden, regime change is out, and reviving the nuclear deal with Iran is in. Biden, who was vice president under Obama, selected top veteran Obama-era diplomats for his team. In their eyes, the biggest diplomatic triumph of those years was the signing of the deal with Iran.
Iraq hostilities get in the way of Biden’s plans. He needs to confront Iranian-backed militias (if nothing else, showing the American public he’s not a weakling) but also wants to indicate he is not generally hostile to the Islamic Republic.
It’s yet unclear whether Tehran, under incumbent Supreme Leader Ayatollah Ali Khamenei and new president Ebrahim Raisi, would consider it worthwhile to back off in Iraq. The Iranians may well want to revive the nuclear deal but, in line with their longtime objective of ousting America from the Middle East, they also want all US troops out of Iraq.
Moreover, the killing of Soleimani still rankles Tehran. An end to their harrying of US forces would suggest a forgive-and-forget attitude that hasn’t been notable in relations between the US and Iran.
Keep an eye on Iran’s allied militias. If they keep attacking, it means Iran’s anti-American front remains alive. If not, tensions might be suspended enough to get the nuclear negotiations moving.
It’s worth remembering that, even when the nuclear deal was in force, mutual animosity persisted. America’s “forever war” in Iraq, even in its current low-intensity version, has a good chance of continuing.