The Biden administration's wrongheaded argument for staying in Iraq

The Biden administration's wrongheaded argument for staying in Iraq
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The Biden administration’s plans are in place to (mostly) end the 20-year U.S. war in Afghanistan. But don’t expect a conclusion to the 18-year war in Iraq any time soon.

“We’re going to stay in Iraq,” Marine Gen. Frank McKenzie told Military Times for a report published in April, supplying four rationales for that choice: the Islamic State, Iran, Baghdad and Afghanistan. Each excuse was as wrongheaded as the last, and none justify prolonging the heir-apparent to the notorious title of America’s longest war.

“We’re going to be there, our NATO partners are going to be there,” McKenzie first said, “to finish the ISIS fight.” What exactly does that mean? The mission to reclaim territory from ISIS in Iraq has been completed for nearly four years. It is also complete in Syria, and ISIS leader Abu Bakr al-Baghdadi killed himself during a U.S. raid in 2019. The Islamic State’s “ability to reemerge is extremely low right now,” Lt. Gen. Paul Calvert, who leads the U.S.-led coalition fight against ISIS in Iraq and Syria, told Defense One in March.

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Though Calvert also noted that could change, the same can be said of any of the many extremist militant groups in the Middle East that are enemies of the United States but pose only a limited threat — certainly not a threat that justifies ongoing occupation of Iraq. The idea that we will “finish the ISIS fight” in the sense McKenzie seems to envision (eliminating all remnants of the group by military means) is wildly unrealistic. It is also unnecessary for U.S. security, which is to say, endlessly pursuing ISIS stragglers is no reason to stay in Iraq.

McKenzie’s next reason was Iran. If Tehran wants us to leave Iraq, he implied, that is itself a reason to remain, “I think Iran still pursues a policy of attempting to eject the United States ― and indeed, our partners and allies ― from the region as well.” It’s true that Iran wants the United States out of Iraq. It’s true that Washington has an antagonistic relationship with Tehran. That does not preclude the equal truth that staying in Iraq to spite Iran is an act of self-sabotage. It undermines our diplomatic goals, makes U.S.-Iran war more likely, puts U.S. forces in needless risk, and will never succeed in excising Iranian influence from its eastern neighbor.

When he turned to the subject of Baghdad, McKenzie moved from spite to outright falsehood. “I think it’s very important to realize that the government of Iraq wants us to stay,” he said. “They want us to stay. They need us to continue the fight against ISIS.” This is simply not true. In March, Iraqi Prime Minister Mustafa al-Kadhimi indicated he hopes the latest round of U.S.-Iraq strategic dialogues will end American military intervention in his country. In previous dialogues, “[w]e achieved in a very short period what weapons failed to achieve,” he said. “In a matter of months, we succeeded in reducing the size of U.S. combat forces in Iraq by 60 percent,” and this time, “we can discuss the redeployment of [U.S.] forces outside of Iraq” altogether. The Iraqi parliament likewise attempted to expel all U.S. troops last year. The government of Iraq does not “want us to stay.” They want us to leave.

The final point McKenzie raised was the pending U.S. exit from Afghanistan. “I would just avoid a comparison of Afghanistan and Iraq,” he said. “I’m not going to get into a comparison between Afghanistan and Iraq.” Well, I am. The comparison McKenzie wants to avoid suggests withdrawal from Iraq, the costlier and deadlier of the two wars, is just as overdue as withdrawal from Afghanistan.

The war in Iraq began on false pretenses and is a shameful blight on American foreign policy. Its original mission of regime change is long since over, as is the secondary project of defeating the ISIS “caliphate.” Other missions — nation building, counterinsurgency and containing Iran — are conveniently malleable and open-ended. They significantly concern political and cultural issues that won’t be settled by foreign military intervention. As in Afghanistan, Washington has spent the better part of two decades demonstrating it cannot succeed in these tasks. Perhaps McKenzie isn’t interested in getting into a comparison of Afghanistan and Iraq because it shows this pattern of hubris, harm and failure isn’t limited to just one war. President BidenJoe BidenHaiti prime minister warns inequality will cause migration to continue Pelosi: House must pass 3 major pieces of spending legislation this week Erdoğan says Turkey plans to buy another Russian defense system MORE was right to set Afghanistan withdrawal in motion, and he should leave Iraq, too.

Bonnie Kristian is a fellow at Defense Priorities, contributing editor at The Week, and columnist at Christianity Today. Her writing has also appeared at CNN, NBC, USA Today, the Los Angeles Times and Defense One, among other outlets.