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.
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)