Regardless of how the Iraqis feel, the US should leave
As a response to the killing of Iranian general Qassem Soleimani by the U.S., the Iraqi parliament voted this month in support of a resolution demanding an end to the extended-stay U.S. forces have enjoyed in Iraq.
The U.S. response has so far been resistant to heed this call, and this week the U.S. even resumed anti-ISIS operations with the Iraqi military — it remains unclear who in Iraq’s government approved these exercises which had been suspended following the parliament vote to expel the U.S. military.
Regardless, it would be very wise to leave Iraq — not only because we are not welcome there, but because staying puts U.S. forces at risk for murky or unclear aims and drains U.S. power.
Secretary of State Mike Pompeo contends that Iraqi leaders are privately assuring him they want the U.S. to stay. Pompeo previously rejected the Iraqi Prime Minister’s request to discuss a troop withdrawal. According to Pompeo, U.S. troops will remain in Iraq to combat the remnants of the Islamic State, while a spokesperson for the State Department recently said the U.S. is a “force for good” in the Middle East.
Neither of these is good reasons to stay in Iraq. ISIS will never be entirely eradicated and can be handled without a permanent U.S. military occupation of the Middle East. Our presence there paints a target on the backs of U.S. forces for attacks from extremist elements, while also serving as a tripwire for war with Iran. Demanding to stay in Iraq mistakes the country as a prize for the U.S.— but in truth, Iraq is a burden we should be eager to free ourselves of.
Indeed, there are still elements of ISIS present in Iraq. But they currently pose no threat to the United States. The fall of their physical caliphate — accomplished with an unofficial U.S.-Iranian coalition of airpower and local Shia militias — has severely diminished their ability to project power. They are currently the weakest power in the region and are surrounded by states who seek their elimination.
Conditioning a U.S. exit on ISIS’s total elimination is a recipe for staying forever, as there is no shortage of Sunni extremists in the Middle East. ISIS is — at its most basic — a set of ideas and motivating principles. While eliminating the ISIS caliphate was an achievable goal for the U.S. military, reducing the extremist ideology of its adherents is not something that can be accomplished with firepower.
The U.S. presence can catalyze extremist activity, as evidenced by the growth of various Islamist insurgencies and groups — that had previously not existed — across the Middle East and East Africa, since the initial invasion of Iraq.
Leaving Iraq also doesn’t mean ignoring Iraq. The U.S. doesn’t need a permanent military presence in the Middle East to protect itself. Thanks to our unrivaled global reach capability, the U.S. can strike at anti-American threats anywhere in the world. If a specific, credible threat emerges, the U.S. retains the right to use its special forces and precision raids to neutralize it, as was the case with the mission that eliminated ISIS leader Abu Bakr al-Baghdadi.
Insisting on remaining in Iraq needlessly put U.S. forces in harm’s way and risks serving as a tripwire for what would inevitably be a long and disastrous war with Iran.
The Iranian retaliation for the killing of Soleimani was calculated in a symbolic way to avoid U.S. casualties. But what would have happened had the Iranians made a mistake and accidentally did take an American life?
The administration is continuing its maximum pressure campaign on the regime, which is inherently an escalation policy. As evidenced by all the provocative actions Tehran has taken since the U.S. pulled out of the Iran deal, maximum pressure is bringing the U.S. closer to another war in the Middle East — it has certainly done nothing to make negotiations more likely.
To be blunt, maximum pressure puts us one accident away from full-blown conflict. The presence of U.S. troops—viewed as potential targets by anti-American actors, including Iran’s proxies — makes that scenario even more probable.
The U.S. should forego these risks and exit Iraq. A war with Iran would be disastrous, and the U.S. has done all it can in the region to combat ISIS. Regardless of how the Iraqis feel, after more than a decade and a half, the U.S. should realize that it’s past time to pack up and leave finally.
Jerrod A. Laber is a fellow at Defense Priorities. Follow him on Twitter @JerrodALaber.