Just days into 2022, multiple military bases housing U.S. troops in Iraq and Syria came under attack. Two drones carrying explosives were destroyed last Tuesday as they headed toward U.S. troops in western Iraq. The next day, rockets and indirect fire hit bases in western Iraq and eastern Syria. And last Monday, two armed drones were shot down as they approached a facility housing American advisers at the airport in Baghdad.
Though there were no casualties, the Iran-backed militias behind the attacks have made clear that they will continue. That alone should encourage the Biden administration to get American soldiers out of harm's way—and if it doesn't, the faulty justifications keeping troops in Iraq and Syria should.
Last week's attacks show how a continued U.S. troop presence in the Middle East invites danger. Americans and Iran-linked groups have exchanged many attacks in recent years, especially after former President Donald Trump ordered the January 2020 assassination of Iranian General Qasem Soleimani. Last week's skirmishes are the latest installment. According to the Associated Press, the drones shot down near the Baghdad airport were decorated with the words "Soleimani's revenge" and "revenge operations for our leaders."
"It is certainly possible that [the increased frequency of attacks] could be related to the anniversary of the Soleimani strike," said Pentagon Press Secretary John Kirby in a January 5 statement. "It is certainly possible that it could be related to the change in mission."
The change in question was marketed as a significant shift in U.S. activities in Iraq, but it amounted to little more than an on-paper adjustment. President Joe Biden announced last summer that U.S. military forces in Iraq would be shifting to a noncombat mission, with American troops focused on "training and advising" the Iraqi Security Forces. Around 2,500 U.S. troops remain in Iraq and will be there for the foreseeable future, according to Marine Gen. Frank McKenzie.
Dan Caldwell, vice president of foreign policy at Stand Together and a Marine veteran of the Iraq War, calls this change in mission "a distinction without a difference" and says "an American military presence in Iraq and Syria is not required for our safety nor for the protection of our vital national interests." Beyond this, Caldwell notes, "our stated mission [in Iraq] is to train and equip the Iraqi Security Forces to counter ISIS. But ISIS's caliphate is destroyed and the Iraqi Security Forces are often allied with the very militias trying to kill American troops in Iraq."
Meanwhile, roughly 900 U.S. troops are still stationed in Syria. Biden officials say a withdrawal from that country is unlikely anytime soon. These troops too are theoretically there to fight the Islamic State, even though the group was effectively defeated years ago. The Islamic State has not held territory in Iraq or Syria since 2019.
"We are long overdue to declare victory and come home," says Gil Barndollar, a senior research fellow at Catholic University's Center for the Study of Statesmanship and a veteran of the war in Afghanistan. "The remaining anti-ISIS mission is best left to Iraqi and Syrian forces."
"The United States needs to ruthlessly prioritize where and when it deploys military forces abroad," Barndollar adds. "Even for putatively low-risk advising missions."
Withdrawing from the two countries "would save lives, tens of billions of dollars, and allow the United States to focus on more urgent priorities at home and abroad," Caldwell argues. He says the Afghanistan withdrawal "was more than justified" despite the chaos seen as the country fell to the Taliban. The Islamic State is unlikely to mount a similar resurgence in the event of a U.S. withdrawal from Iraq and Syria, and the possibility should not be used "as an excuse to [continue] to risk American lives in other endless wars that aren't necessary for our security."
Biden rightly stuck to his guns when he defended the long-overdue U.S. withdrawal from Afghanistan, but he fails to apply the same logic to Iraq and Syria. In Afghanistan, Biden said last August, "the real choice" was "between leaving or escalating." The same is true in Iraq and Syria. The U.S. has accomplished its mission in both countries. Keeping boots on the ground at this point will do little more than put American lives at risk.