The U.S. should have left Iraq and Syria after the fall of the Islamic State's caliphate. However, especially after the strike on Iranian Gen. Qassem Soleimani, the U.S. should withdraw its forces immediately. Doing so would protect U.S. soldiers, avoid war with Iran and preserve U.S. power, which is essential for deterring great power conflict.
The Pentagon claimed the U.S. military strike that killed Soleimani and a number of high-ranking Iraqi members of the Popular Mobilization Forces was necessary because Soleimani “was actively developing plans to attack American diplomats and service members in Iraq.” Our ostensible ally Iraq, however, saw the matter differently. The Iraqi parliament voted Sunday against retaining U.S. forces in Iraq.
Prime Minister Adel Abdul Mahdi was unequivocal and stern in his response. “The assassination of an Iraqi military commander is an aggression on Iraq as a state, government and people,” he said.
The threat from Iran, however, carries the most risk for the United States.
Soleimani wasn’t just a high ranking official, but one who was viewed as a hero among common people throughout Iran. His death has sparked deep emotions and demands for “severe revenge.”
The State Department recognizes the danger and has told all U.S. citizens to leave Iraq immediately. U.S. military units throughout Iraq and Syria are on heightened alert and have suspended joint training with Iraqi partners. Things are not likely to get better any time soon.
There is widespread recognition in all quarters of Washington that the most vulnerable American targets are the U.S. troops in Iraq and Syria. When a reporter asked if there was a risk to U.S. troops in the region, Chairman of the Joint Chiefs of Staff Gen. Mark Milley emphatically replied, “Damn right there is a risk!”
What should be of most interest to Americans, however, are the questions the reporter didn’t ask.
Chief among them: “Why are U.S. troops still in Iraq and Syria?” The answer: No one knows.
Explanations include finishing the job against ISIS and “countering” Iran (though no one can tell you how a handful of troops in Syria actually accomplishes that objective). The reality is that they are permanently garrisoned in the region to pursue murky, unclear aims that perpetuate our failed endless wars, or worse, to provoke a war with Iran.
Bluntly stated, there are no security threats to our country against which a handful of troops in Syria and a few thousand in Iraq protect us. To the contrary, they merely add to our strategic risk and expose our troops to daily threats to their lives. Now that Iran and other Shia actors in Iraq have threatened to kill American troops, it would be irresponsible and immoral to ignore the heightened risk to U.S. lives with no justifying security payoff.
Though it would have been better if Trump had withdrawn the troops in Syria any of the three times he previously vowed to do so, he would be wise to do it now. There is an even greater imperative to withdraw our troops from Iraq, then the broader region. Doing so would greatly reduce the ability of Iran and its proxies to target and kill Americans.
Withdrawing now, while overdue, would show enormous strength and courage, precisely because it must be done in the face of strong attacks from leading voices in Washington — the same voices who brought us two decades of failed wars and want a new war with Iran.
Strategically, withdrawing would strengthen America’s deterrent, considerably reduce our risk, and leave Iran even more vulnerable than it is now.
Iran is a middling power with very limited ability to project power even in the region, much less beyond it. The greatest chance it has in retaliating against America is by the military presence we have surrounding its borders. By withdrawing those vulnerable troops, we deny Iran the ability to easily attack us and make it more likely we can discover their attempts to strike outside the region via our global intelligence, surveillance, and reconnaissance capabilities.
We would still retain the full ability to deter any anti-U.S. threats with our unrivaled global ability to project power, strike from thousands of miles away, and do so with little risk to our troops. Our 2011 raid to take out Usama bin Laden in Pakistan and Abu Bakr al-Baghdadi in northwestern Syria in 2019 are perfect examples of our ability to take out threats from great distance to enhance our security. We do not require boots on the ground to conduct these operations.
If we fail to withdraw our troops, the chances are considerable that we will continue to see American men and women killed by malign actors. We will then likely retaliate further, escalating the level of attacks, and could eventually get drawn into a full-scale war that nobody wants and could claim the lives of hundreds or thousands more Americans and tens of thousands of innocent civilians abroad. Withdrawing gives us a solid chance to prevent that outcome and avoid war altogether.