Home/Daniel Larison/Escalation in Iraq Would Be Insane

Escalation in Iraq Would Be Insane

Top Trump administration officials continue to agitate for escalation in Iraq against Kata’ib Hezbollah and other Iraqi militias supported by Iran:

Some top officials, including Secretary of State Mike Pompeo and Robert C. O’Brien, the national security adviser, have been pushing for aggressive new action against Iran and its proxy forces — and see an opportunity to try to destroy Iranian-backed militia groups in Iraq as leaders in Iran are distracted by the pandemic crisis in their country.

Trying to destroy these groups would be folly under normal circumstances, and doing it while the pandemic is still spreading is insane. The last thing that the U.S. needs right now is an escalating conflict in Iraq. Escalation in Iraq would require a significant increase in the number of U.S. troops there, and it would also mean waging open war on armed groups that are part of Iraq’s own security forces. This is not a fight that the U.S. could realistically win. Even at the height of the U.S. occupation in the 2000s, U.S. forces were not able to eliminate Iraqi militia groups, and there is no chance of doing it now. Even if the U.S. managed to inflict considerable damage on these groups in the short term, the damage to the relationship with the Iraqi government would be extensive and very likely permanent.

The Iraqi government naturally doesn’t want their country to be turned into a battlefield once again because of the anti-Iranian obsession of U.S. officials. There is no conceivable U.S. interest that is served by escalating a conflict with Iraqi militias. The only reason that U.S. troops are in any danger from these groups is the administration’s refusal to withdraw from Iraq as their government has insisted. The U.S. would be going to war in Iraq for the sake of keeping troops in Iraq indefinitely over the objections of the Iraqi government, which is one of the dumbest reasons for escalation imaginable. Needless to say, the president has absolutely no authority to launch such a campaign, but that hasn’t stopped him from ordering illegal attacks before.

According to the latest report, military commanders in Iraq have been ordered to draw up plans for escalation against the militia, and that has led to unusually strong pushback from the top U.S. commander in Iraq:

The Pentagon has ordered military commanders to plan for an escalation of American combat in Iraq, issuing a directive last week to prepare a campaign to destroy an Iranian-backed militia group that has threatened more attacks against American troops.

But the United States’ top commander in Iraq has warned that such a campaign could be bloody and counterproductive and risks war with Iran. In a blunt memo last week, the commander, Lt. Gen. Robert P. White, wrote that a new military campaign would also require thousands more American troops be sent to Iraq and divert resources from what has been the primary American military mission there: training Iraqi troops to combat the Islamic State.

Among other things, U.S. escalation against these militias would be a gift to Iran. Like every other deluded hawkish policy in this part of the world, it would drive Iraq closer to Iran out of necessity. I can’t believe that it has to be said, but escalation against Iraqi militias will not make the Iraqi government more hostile to Iran. Obviously, a U.S. campaign that seeks to kill many of the same people that defended the country against ISIS will result in deeper hostility towards the U.S. from both the government and most of the population. The more force that the U.S. uses in Iraq to “weaken” Iranian influence, the weaker the U.S. position in Iraq will become.

This section of the report might be the understatement of the year:

The memo also pointed out that such a campaign might run afoul of the current agreement with the Iraqi government that allows American troops to operate in the country.

There is no question that launching a major campaign with the goal of killing tens of thousands of Iraqis would “run afoul” of any agreement with Baghdad, because it would amount to launching illegal attacks on Iraqi citizens on their own soil. The only legal fig leaf that U.S. troops have for operating in Iraq is the permission of the local government, and the government has already told the U.S. to leave. Killing Soleimani didn’t make U.S. troops safer, and launching a larger campaign will get many of them killed for nothing. The U.S. should be hastening the withdrawal of all forces rather than looking for new excuses to escalate.

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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