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Endless War and the Iran Obsession

Kelley Vlahos comments on the recent U.S. airstrikes against Kata’ib Hezbollah, an Iraqi militia that is supported by the Iranian government:

The Pentagon claimed Sunday that the Iraqi Shia group Kata’ib Hezbollah, an Iranian-backed paramilitary organization that swears loyalty to supreme leader Ayatollah Khamenei and Iran, launched “more than 30 rockets against the base” during the Saturday attack. Furthermore, according to The New York Times, U.S. officials say this is indicative of the “growing risk of attacks by Iranian proxy forces on American interests and forces in the region,” and one of the “one of the two largest over the last two months.”

The airstrikes over the weekend serve as a reminder that tensions between the U.S. and Iran remain high and the crisis created by the administration’s Iran policy has not ended. U.S. forces in Iraq are at greater risk today than they were before the U.S. reneged on the JCPOA and began waging economic war on Iran. It is also a reminder that the ongoing U.S. military presence in Iraq is quite unpopular and will only become more unpopular when it is used to carry the feud with Iran onto Iraqi territory. The U.S. is still far too involved militarily in both Iraq and Syria, and these strikes threaten to pull the U.S. in deeper by feeding a cycle of tit-for-tat attacks in a country where the U.S. has few interests at stake. Our military presence in these countries has become self-justifying: we maintain a military presence and increase it in order to defend it from attacks that wouldn’t happen if our forces withdrew. That puts U.S. military personnel at risk for no good reason. The latest airstrikes can’t be separated from the context of complete policy failure that has led to them.

The airstrikes conducted inside Iraq prompted condemnation from the Iraqi government, which understandably protested against the use of force in their territory as a violation of their sovereignty:

Abdul-Mahdi had made no public comment on Friday’s militia attack but condemned the U.S. retaliatory strike on Sunday. He called it a violation of Iraqi sovereignty and a “dangerous escalation that threatens the security of Iraq and the region.”

U.S. Iran policy has put Iraq’s government in an increasingly difficult position. Iraq has permitted 5,000 U.S. troops to remain in the country, but that does not give them license to carry out military operations against Iraqi militias. Contrary to the mindless rhetoric about “restoring deterrence” that we will keep hearing, the strikes against this militia have likely put these troops in much greater danger. The administration has escalated a fight that it is ill-prepared to continue:

Kataib Hezbollah warned of retaliation following the strikes, and other Iran-backed groups joined it in calling for U.S. troops to be expelled from Iraq.

“We have no choice but confrontation,” Kataib Hezbollah said. “Trump should know that he will pay a heavy price in Iraq and the countries where his criminal forces are present.”

This threat suggests that U.S. forces in both Iraq and Syria could face additional attacks in the near future, and that has the potential to spin out of control into a larger conflict that the U.S. doesn’t need and the region can’t afford. Why should the U.S. be fighting against another Iraqi insurgency? What possible American security interest does that serve?

The U.S. barely gave the Iraqi government advance notice of the airstrikes, and ignored their requests to call off the attack:

In a statement, Abdul-Mahdi said Defense Secretary Mark Esper had called him about a half-hour before the U.S. strikes to tell him of U.S. intentions to hit bases of the militia suspected of being behind Friday’s rocket attack. Abdul-Mahdi said in the statement he asked Esper to call off U.S. retaliation plans.

The statement said Iraqi President Barham Salih also received advance notice from a U.S. diplomat, and also asked unsuccessfully for Americans to call off it off.

The Iraqi government has no interest in being caught in the middle of our government’s Iran obsession.

Defense Priorities issued a statement in response to news of the airstrikes:

The U.S. has no good reason to remain militarily involved in a region of diminishing strategic importance. Keeping large numbers of U.S. forces in the Middle East leaves them vulnerable to attacks from countries and groups who could not otherwise threaten them. There is no justifying rationale for such a risk.

It is hard to see what interest the U.S. has in fighting Iranian-backed militias in Iraq almost seventeen years after the initial invasion. One reason that the U.S. is endlessly at war in that part of the world is that our government keeps looking for excuses to have U.S. forces where they are not needed or wanted.

about the author

Daniel Larison is a senior editor at TAC, where he also keeps a solo blog. He has been published in the New York Times Book Review, Dallas Morning News, World Politics Review, Politico Magazine, Orthodox Life, Front Porch Republic, The American Scene, and Culture11, and was a columnist for The Week. He holds a PhD in history from the University of Chicago, and resides in Lancaster, PA. Follow him on Twitter.

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