An American contractor has been killed in Iraq. Several U.S. troops have been wounded. The American Embassy in Baghdad has been stormed by protesters and following the assassination of an Iranian general, the Islamic Republic retaliated this week by launching missiles at two bases in Iraq housing American troops. And now, an Iraqi militia group has vowed to attack U.S. targets. The drama of the past few weeks is enough to make your head spin. Before the cycle of escalation spirals out of control and we find ourselves fighting another insurgency in Iraq and Syria — or worse, a war with Iran — we need to withdraw all American forces from the Middle East, avoiding further ensnarement in the region’s endless problems.
Many claim the troops have been and remain necessary in the two countries to “finish the fight” against Islamic State. Leaving, they warn, will increase the risk of a resurgent ISIS. That is not now nor has it ever been true. Our security in America is not contingent on having a handful of troops deployed in Iraq and Syria.
And with tensions in the region boiling over, our forces in Iraq and Syria are in a vulnerable position.
The combined territories of Iraq and Syria include 240,000 square miles. In Iraq, considerable portions of both the Sunni and Shiite populations are virulently anti-American and may foment insurgent-style attacks against us, or at the least turn a blind eye to those who would.
Syria is even worse, as the government, its military, the Russian military, Iranian military and militia, and scores of Islamic radical groups are scattered throughout the country — many are willing to attack Americans given the chance. There are approximately 6,000 U.S. troops in both countries, a number grossly insufficient to accomplish eliminating an insurgency, much less claiming victory in an outright war with Iran.
Instead, the majority of our troops’ efforts center on endless self-preservation. With so few on the ground in any given location, maximum focus has to be devoted to defending themselves, turning an impossible task into a farcical one. The mission does nothing to defend America and instead puts our troops into vulnerable positions that our enemies will continue to attack until we withdraw them. Recent events in Baghdad illustrate the risk.
On Dec. 27, a joint American-Iraqi base in Kirkuk, Iraq, was attacked with 30 Katyusha rockets, killing one U.S. contractor and wounding a number of American and Iraqi military personnel. Initial investigation revealed the abandoned launch site, but no evidence of who was behind the attack.
Barely 48 hours later, however, U.S. forces retaliated against an Iraqi-based Shiite militia unit known as Kataeb Hezbollah by launching coordinated airstrikes in five separate locations. The attacks were devastating, killing at least 25 Kataeb Hezbollah members and wounded another 51. There were many problems with these attacks.
First, three of the strikes took place on Iraqi soil. Second, Kataeb Hezbollah is not simply a rogue radical Islamic group but an Iraqi government-sanctioned militia, which Baghdad claims was on the “front lines” of its fight against ISIS. Lastly, both the Iraqi prime minister and president’s requests for the Pentagon to call off the attacks were ignored. There is little doubt that this action helped play a role in unifying otherwise competing political actors in Iraq who are now calling for the U.S. troops to be expelled from the country.
President Donald Trump should not wait to be kicked out, but instead issue orders for the orderly, professional withdrawal of all U.S. military personnel. Simply stated, there is no threat to American security at stake in Iraq or Syria that necessitates a permanent and open-ended U.S. military presence.
As I have been arguing since early 2018, the only thing we accomplish by having troops in this region is to increase the risk we have of being drawn into a larger conflict. Three times in an 18-month span, Trump said he would withdraw troops from Syria, yet they remain there, still at risk of attack.
There has long since been no rationale for our troops to remain in Iraq since ISIS was routed from Mosul. Had we redeployed them, there would not have been any Americans in Iraq to have been attacked, and the escalating tensions with Iran could have been avoided. Further escalating this already tense conflict could eventually be the spark that turns the already turbulent region into a raging inferno.
Before we get to this stage, before one more American troop or contractor is killed, Trump must safeguard American interests and withdraw all our troops from both Syria and Iraq. Allowing the situation to deteriorate further could have catastrophic results for our country.
Daniel L. Davis is a senior fellow for Defense Priorities and a former lieutenant colonel in the U.S. Army who retired in 2015 after 21 years, including four combat deployments.