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US strikes in Iraq show risk of escalation to wider war

US strikes in Iraq show risk of escalation to wider war

Washington doesn't want to grapple with the problems inherent to stationing troops in volatile Middle East states.

Analysis | QiOSK

The United States has conducted two retaliatory airstrikes against Iraqi militias this week after ballistic missile attacks against America’s Al Asad Air Base, the latest in a troubling tit-for-tat between the U.S. and Iran-backed militias in the region that was triggered by the Israel-Hamas conflict.

CENTCOM appears to believe that the status quo of attack and reprisal with Iraqi militias is sustainable. There’s an assumption that Washington, Iran, and Iraq’s militias understand each other’s red lines. However, this assumption comes with a lot of risks.

The potential for one-upmanship between various Shi’a militias, each trying to prove they’re more hostile toward Americans than the others, is a concerning possibility. A deadly attack on U.S. troops could prompt the Biden administration to respond more forcefully, especially in an election year. What is the administration’s plan to manage escalation and prevent a larger regional war (with heavy U.S. involvement) if this were to occur?

While the timing and scale of the war in Gaza may have been unpredictable, it was always evident that the presence of scattered U.S. troops in Iraq and Syria posed a risk of escalating the U.S. into greater conflict in such an unpredictable region. That’s why I’ve long argued for rethinking America’s military posture in Iraq, including in new research this year exploring how Washington could conduct a phased withdrawal of troops and successfully recalibrate our approach to the country and region.

It is true that the presence of U.S. military advisors in Iraq helps maintain cohesion and a working relationship between competing factions of Iraq’s military. U.S. troops also offer critical capabilities in the fight to contain ISIS. But it is time for Washington to consider whether these benefits are outweighed by the risk of malign actors using U.S. troops to provoke a wider conflict – either intentionally or inadvertently.

While the risks of keeping U.S. troops in Iraq are apparent, the overall utility of their presence is unclear (particularly in deterring attacks on themselves). With each new day comes a fresh opportunity for crisis. It’s past time Washington grappled with the true costs and benefits of our military presence.

Photo credit: Marines disembark from a V-22 Osprey at Al Asad Air Base in Iraq in 2018 (Cpl. Jered T. Stone/ Marine Corps)
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