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Biden Faces a Decision on Our Presence in Iraq
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Biden Faces a Decision on Our Presence in Iraq

Overcharged political rhetoric about 'endless wars' masks the reality of the situation.

On February 15, a series of rockets rained down on the American base in Erbil, Iraq. Though no Americans were killed, one civilian contractor perished. At least nine people were wounded, including one U.S. service member and several other American contractors. Within hours, a little-known group calling itself Saraya Awlia al-Dam (or the “Guardians of Blood Brigade”) claimed responsibility, saying in a message that the attack was intended to bring about an end to the American “occupation.” 

American suspicions immediately fell on Iran, which has built a network of proxies inside Iraq and has repeatedly targeted the U.S. presence. However, Secretary of State Anthony Blinken said that the U.S. is still investigating the incident and would “hold accountable those responsible.” 

The attack in Erbil, though relatively small in scale, highlights another key decision point for President Biden. Like former President Donald Trump, Biden has decried the so-called “endless wars” and vowed to take steps to extricate America from them. This overcharged political rhetoric masks the reality of the situation. In Iraq, as elsewhere, the U.S. maintains only a small military footprint. And the real question is whether or not the benefits of keeping that reduced presence in place outweigh the costs. The Biden team will have to consider a number of variables in this equation. Let us briefly examine several of them.

Biden will have to confront the gap between the “endless wars” rhetoric and reality on the ground. 

As I’ve written previously, the days of large-scale American counterinsurgency efforts are long over. Gone are the days when the U.S. had more than 100,000 troops in Iraq or Afghanistan. Those types of missions ended during the Obama administration. President Trump did temporarily increase the size of the deployments to Iraq and Syria, as well Afghanistan, but he never came close to a Bush-style surge. In the final months of his administration, Trump ordered drawdowns across the board, halving the American presence in Iraq from about 5,000 troops to the current level of approximately 2,500. 

Some of Trump’s diehard fans cheered on his anti-endless war rhetoric, but it is worth remembering that the 45th president didn’t end a single conflict. In fact, during his final year in office, Trump actually justified a continued presence in Iraq. If Biden agrees that the U.S. should retain a small contingent in Iraq, then he’d be well-served to explain why the American presence is necessary and sustainable, instead of decrying this “endless war.”

The U.S. is primarily working with partners and allies to counter terrorist threats. 

Although the “Guardians of Blood Brigade” called the American presence in Iraq an “occupation,” it is nothing of the sort. A few thousand Americans are not capable of occupying a population of about 40 million Iraqis.Instead, the Americans are in Iraq to bolster local partners, including the Kurdistan Regional Government (KRG). Masrour Barzani, the prime minister of the Kurdistan Region, was quick to decry the attack in Erbil and pledged his support to the Biden administration.

The Kurdish Peshmerga forces have played a key role in combating ISIS. The Peshmerga were part of the ad hoc coalition of fighters, backed by the U.S., who demolished ISIS’s territorial caliphate. For instance, they helped retake Mosul, one of the so-called caliphate’s twin capitals, during intense battles with the jihadists in 2016 and 2017. The Peshmerga played a leading role on the ground in multiple other battles as well. Since 2014, Kurdish fighters and other local partners have suffered the vast majority of casualties in the anti-ISIS campaign. This means that the American presence is primarily dedicated to standing up others to take the fight to the jihadists, so that their caliphate remains a thing of the past. 

ISIS has been greatly weakened, but the organization is still alive and maintains a global network.

The principal reason for the American presence in Iraq is to keep a lid on ISIS. Despite losing its territory, ISIS continues to operate in and near the Kurdish regions. The jihadists have taken advantage of a seam north of Baghdad that developed out of a dispute between the KRG and Iraq’s central government, as the two sides quarreled over the oil-rich ground. This created a security vacuum that ISIS was happy to exploit in the months following the dissolution of its caliphate.

In addition to ending the caliphate, one of the Trump administration’s signature counterterrorism successes was the elimination of Abu Bakr al-Baghdadi in October 2019. Tens of thousands of ISIS followers around the globe owed their fealty to Baghdadi. But how important was Baghdadi’s demise for the jihadists’ cause? It’s difficult to say. His successor is a man known as Abu Ibrahim al-Hashimi al-Qurayshi (a.k.a. Hajji Abdallah and Amir Muhammad Sa’id Abdal Rahman al-Mawla). To date, Abu Ibrahim hasn’t released a single audio or video message to the public. This has caused some in counterterrorism circles to speculate about his overall importance. 

However, the counterterrorism officials I’ve spoken with think that Abu Ibrahim retains control over a global network. In their estimation, his public silence is not indicative of his private influence. Instead, they think Abu Ibrahim has chosen to remain out of public view for security reasons. He and other ISIS leaders know the U.S. is relentlessly hunting them. Any public statement would require a chain of transmission that could lead back to their hideouts. ISIS has been forced to reshuffle its chain of command, but the group still has a hierarchy.

There is plenty of evidence indicating that ISIS retains a cohesive organization. In early January, the U.S. Treasury Department estimated that ISIS has about $100 million in cash reserves and is still able to generate new cash through oil smuggling, kidnappings for ransom, looting, and other illicit finance schemes. These funds are used to pay for the group’s ongoing operations in both Iraq and neighboring Syria, as well as elsewhere. ISIS has transferred funds as far away as Afghanistan, where a branch of the group regularly conducts terrorist operations. The U.S. Treasury report notes that ISIS leaders and facilitators routinely move cash from Iraq into Syria and Turkey.        

Biden’s decision point approaches. 

The attack in Erbil may not have been enough to force a decision right now, but the Biden administration will have to determine its course in Iraq sooner rather than later. A more deadly attack could force the issue. President Trump took a hard line with Iran’s proxies. Trump approved retaliatory strikes against Iran and its proxies, including the January 2020 targeted killing of Qassem Suleimani, the commander of Iran’s Islamic Revolutionary Guard Corps Quds Force. Suleimani had the blood of thousands on his hands, including Iraqis, Syrians, and Americans. 

It remains to be seen how Biden will respond to Iranian provocations. The Biden administration also desires a return to the 2015 nuclear accord with Iran, commonly known as the Joint Comprehensive Plan of Action (or JCPOA). This could further complicate decision-making with respect to Iraq, as Biden may prioritize a version of that deal over all else. 

In any event, the attack on American forces in Erbil, Iraq won’t be the last. It doesn’t appear that any Americans were killed, but that outcome easily could have been different.  

Tom Joscelyn is a senior fellow at Just Security.