U.S. executing weak-hand troop reset in Iraq

Got an uncomfortable feeling about this.

At first glance, this might not sound to some observers like it’s that bad a move.  But it’s worrisome, and the reason is stated simply.  It leaves U.S. troops in Iraq, some still at the remote bases, but with less security than they had before the “drawdown.”

It’s also being done as the result of attacks on the U.S. and other Coalition troops at the Iraqi bases earlier in 2021.  Such a prelude inevitably creates a sense that the Iran-backed “militias” that launched the attacks have the U.S. on the run.  That’s not a useful basis for security expectations going forward.

It isn’t getting much media attention in the U.S., but an 18 December article indicates the Iraqi army has announced that “foreign combat troops” have left Al-Asad air base in Anbar Province, and that the base is now under the full control of the Iraqi army.

However, as the article goes on to note, “foreign ‘advisors’ remain in the base to ‘provide logistical support and empower Iraqi forces.’”  Please don’t neglect to read that.  We’re not moving all our troops to safety; we’re leaving some of them on the front line, but no longer with a robust capability to defend themselves.

An Iraqi official “went on to highlight that ‘even the advisors’ are now under the protection of the Iraqi army, and that ‘the base is now completely under the control of the Iraqi armed forces exclusively.’”

This shift is part of an agreement reached by Iraq and the Biden administration after a series of attacks by Iran-backed militias on the U.S. and other foreign forces operating from Al-Asad (as well as other facilities, mainly the airport at Erbil in northern Iraq) earlier in 2021.  See here, here, and here, for example.

The issue isn’t whether we should have troops in Iraq.  That’s a point worth debating, but it’s not the problem.  The problem is that retreating before enemy fire is inevitably a sign of weakness – and as it turns out (although relatively few Americans are aware of it), we intend to continue having troops in Iraq, some in exposed positions, with only the Iraqi army to protect them.

CENTCOM Commander General Frank McKenzie (USMC) seems pretty clear-eyed about that, as quoted by AP earlier in December.

The top U.S. commander for the Middle East said Thursday that the United States will keep the current 2,500 troops in Iraq for the foreseeable future, and he warned that he expects increasing attacks on U.S. and Iraqi personnel by Iranian-backed militias determined to get American forces out.

Military Times continues:  “Noting that Iranian-backed militias want all Western forces out of Iraq, [McKenzie] said an ongoing uptick in violence may continue through December.”

Again, the issue here is that we’re not drawing down, leaving fewer Americans as targets.  We’re behaving as if formally changing the role of our troops from “combat” to “advice” (which as McKenzie notes has been pretty much the case for a while now) will make Iran’s proxies less inclined to attack them.  Keep in mind, the Iran-backed militias are made up of Iraqi shi’as, with Iranian Qods Force advisors; they are suffered to operate in Iraq not as foreign forces but as forces affiliated with political groups in Iraq’s parliament and governing coalitions.  Their ambiguous status doesn’t make it more likely that the Iraqi army will court armed confrontations with them to protect U.S. and Coalition personnel.

It’s of value to know that McKenzie is willing to operate on this basis.  But with an ongoing debacle in Afghanistan, Americans can still be pardoned for being concerned.  Notably, this was much the situation at several bases in Iraq in 2014-2015, when Iran was emboldened to launch what was basically an invasion of Iraq under Qassem Soleimani’s command, using the need to “fight ISIS” as the pretext.  (Sorry about the scrubbed maps and images at the link.  Diligent webmasters at our old LU site trying to keep the media library size down.)  Americans in small groups, not organized or present in sufficient numbers for robust self-defense, were put at risk then.  They could be again.

Iran hasn’t grown more reluctant to go after Americans, or America-adjacent forces, in the years since.

Burn, baby, burn. Oil field sabotage by ISIS near Tikrit, where U.S. troops and contractors at an Iraqi air base were hunkered down with little protection, in Mar 2015. (Image via Twitter)

Feature image:  Iran-backed Hashd militia troops flying the Khataib Hezbollah flag man a U.S. 155mm howitzer, in fighting in Iraq. (Image via Twitter, Mohamad 6234)

7 thoughts on “U.S. executing weak-hand troop reset in Iraq”

  1. OT re this post, but having just had a chance to do some catching up on my online reading, I wanted to say this, re your 15 DEC Ready Room: As an Israeli of American ancestry, I want to thank you for the most on-spot, even-keeled treatment I’ve seen of the recent news splash re Trump and Netanyahu.

    (I’ve been appreciating your work ever since someone pointed me towards your LU post in 2014 “Finally Obama Leads from the Front” about the FAA gambit during the the Gaza operation Tzuk Eitan.)

    1. Welcome, Maoz, and apologies for the delay in your one-time “approval.” The approval requirement for new commenters fends off the ever-present spam. But you’re “in” now, so please feel free to comment whenever the spirit moves you.

      Thanks for the kind words. I didn’t think it necessary to go to high warble over the reported statements by Trump. It so obviously is not reflective of any animosity that affected his Israel policies, which were the most pro-Israel we’ve ever had from a US president. If there was one thing that frustrated Bibi, or at least prominent members of his coalition, I think it was the Trump administration apparently wanting, at the end, to effectively substitute the Abraham Accords for an extension of sovereignty.

      I was dubious about making that an either-or myself, and was never clear on why it so quickly became that proposition. Most observers seem to think it was Jared Kushner’s influence, but again, I don’t know. I’m not a Kushner-hater.

      What we’ve seen since the Abraham Accords has to stump the conventional-wisdom pundits, who swore for years that no rapprochement between Israel and Arab nations was possible without settling the matter of an Arab Palestinian state. In spite of at best lukewarm treatment by the media, and heel-dragging by the Biden administration, the Accords have really taken off.

  2. My old man’s warning that American Politicians tend to use the military in dangerous and often suicidally isolated ways. Well.. he didn’t put it that way. He said: “Up $hit’s creek, in a half-a$$ed canoe – paddles don’t matter.”

    He was speaking about his estimation of the 1962-1965 “advisory” period in Vietnam. The Democrats repeat their errors and the American people keep putting them in office to do it. Frustrating stuff.

    ‘You can depend upon the Americans to do the right thing. But only after they have exhausted every other possibility.’ – reputedly by Winston Churchill.

    NOTE: A formation of 2500 troops is on the order of 3 current sized battalions and a combat team Headquarters unit. An army battalion is listed by the US Army as 1,000 troops but we all know that the Army has been hollowed out of late and most battalions are lucky to have around 700 troops.


    1. Yeah, the problem is that it’s NOT a formation of 2500 troops.

      That’s the whole problem, succinctly stated. It’s 2500 troops scattered around the country. In sub-company-size units or even smaller, and with civilian advisors and techs mixed in, they can’t man and operate the most networked, powerful weapon systems for self-defense. Lot of Air Force, less Marine Corps and Army; nothing against USAF but their self-defense capabilities *if they aren’t controlling the base* are inadequate to some key threats. (Air Force does fine if it’s in command of a facility.)

      The Green Zone has C-RAM for rocket defense, but it also has the largest single contingent of US troops in Iraq now. Doesn’t help the advisors stationed at Iraqi air bases (i.e., the ones actually used by the Iraqi air force, such as Tikrit and Qayyarah), or at Irbil or Al-Asad.

      1. You make my old man’s point… up a nasty creek in a leaky bad boat… all the paddling in the world isn’t going to keep you out of the cesspool.

        You are right it’s a dangerous scattered undefendable position(s) and I fully expect that the Air National Guardsmen and Reservists who will be forced to try to defend them won’t be able to. (For those unaware, the Air Force is actually quite small, and 2/3rds of it are part timers of either Air National Guard or Reserve members).

        This is stupid and dangerous on steroids, and we can only pray that they aren’t prey.

        But the SecDef has found “Extremists” and is going to tear them out by the roots. CRT (which is relabled Diversity, Inclusion, and Equity – aka DIE) must be followed regardless of the cost.


  3. I’ve said day one these guys are either suicidal idiots or setting us for an excuse for re-entry. Probably sounds crazy but in this economy a full blown military export means massive domestic economic injection. It’s a favorite of depression avoidance!

    Give the war hawks time to formulate the bait, retaliation and excuse.

    Also, JE it took me a bit to re-find you! I’m glad I did, your analytics were sorely missed for a few months!

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