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    HomeWorldDeadly attack on U.S. troops highlights an open-ended military mission

    Deadly attack on U.S. troops highlights an open-ended military mission

    For U.S. troops under fire from Iran-linked groups in Iraq and Syria, the military mission that brought them to the Middle East is largely complete, experts say. Whether and when to withdraw them is more complicated — an issue that has taken on greater urgency after three U.S. service members were killed in a drone attack in Jordan on Sunday.

    The roughly 2,500 troops in Iraq and 900 in Syria are described by U.S. officials as part of an operation to keep the Islamic State from regaining a foothold in the region. But with the jihadist group largely degraded, American soldiers now find themselves targeted by other adversaries, who say the attacks will continue as long as Washington maintains its support for Israel’s war in Gaza.

    Locations of all 165 attacks on U.S.

    troops since the Israel-Gaza war began

    Attacks from Oct. 17 to Jan. 29

    Source: U.S. Department of Defense


    Locations of all 165 attacks on U.S. troops since the Israel-Gaza war began

    Attacks from Oct. 17 to Jan. 29

    Source: U.S. Department of Defense


    “What’s happened these past few weeks has exposed their vulnerability,” said Dareen Khalifa, a senior adviser at the International Crisis Group. “I hope this will raise questions about why they are vulnerable, and how else they can make their presence less of a liability for everyone else who is working with them.”

    U.S. mixed up enemy, friendly drones in attack that killed 3 troops

    The United States had close to 3,000 troops in Jordan as of 2023, according to the Congressional Research Service, focused on Jordanian security and the Islamic State. Officials said Monday that the drone approaching Tower 22, a base in the country’s northeast, was mistaken for a returning American aircraft.

    Across the Middle East, U.S. troops have been targeted more than 160 times by Iran-aligned militants since October.

    The U.S. presence in Syria and Iraq dates back to 2014, when a global coalition joined local forces to drive Islamic State militants from a swath of territory the size of Great Britain. Jordan’s Tower 22, a U.S. outpost along the border where the three countries meet, houses about 350 U.S. engineering, aviation, logistics and security personnel, largely providing support to troops in Syria.

    Nearly a decade after U.S. soldiers were first deployed, and five years after ISIS was declared defeated, Biden is the third president to oversee the mission. But the environment it operates in is radically changed. The jihadist group now resembles a low-level insurgency, mostly in Syria, instead of a governing power.

    ISIS no longer holds territory in Iraq, and the presence of U.S. troops there is increasingly controversial among Iraqis, 20 years after a U.S.-led invasion of the country triggered a bloody civil war. Although the U.S. military retains a mandate to advise Iraqi forces, troops mostly stay in their bases.

    Retaliatory U.S. strikes on Iran-linked targets inside Iraq, including the 2020 assassination of Tehran’s most influential general, Qasem Soleimani, have increased domestic pressure to force America out. Iran’s influence in the region has grown as Washington’s has waned.

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    The two camps have coexisted uneasily for years. Iran-backed armed groups grew in wealth and power as they led their own battles against ISIS, and some were later incorporated into Iraq’s armed forces. Tensions between the militias and U.S. troops hardened in 2018, after President Donald Trump withdrew the United States from a landmark nuclear deal that had led to a diplomatic opening with Tehran.

    The slow pace of change in America’s military operation in Iraq is due to, in part, “a degree of malaise as well as a cultural and political risk aversion that is comfortable for the Iraqis and for us,” said Jonathan Lord, director of the Middle East Security program at the Center for a New American Security.

    “But this is how you end up getting 20-year missions in foreign countries that ultimately don’t evolve with the conditions, then politics that demand that the mission end, even when you don’t have lasting, sustainable solutions,” he said.

    When the United States announced a formal end to combat missions in Iraq in 2021, Western and Iraqi officials described the move as more about political optics than changing realities on the ground. Last week, the Biden administration announced that it was restarting talks with Iraqi counterparts over the future of U.S. troops there, marking what appeared to be the most serious attempt of his presidency to rethink the American military footprint in the region.

    U.S. signals it is open to withdrawing some troops from Iraq

    U.S. officials have sought to delink the discussions with Iraq from the upheaval roiling the Middle East, noting that they grew out of diplomatic efforts dating back several years. It’s “not a timeline-driven event,” a senior U.S. military official told reporters last week, speaking on the condition of anonymity to discuss sensitive talks. “We will govern that process with our dialogue together.”

    But ongoing attacks on U.S. troops, and American military retaliation, particularly in Iraq, may also scramble the calculation.

    “If the pace and the intensity of these attacks increase then it’s going to be hard to say ‘okay let’s do this in a thoughtful manner’ because there’ll be more pressure, both domestically in the U.S. and within Iraq,” said a senior congressional aide who was briefed on the ongoing talks. He spoke on the condition of anonymity to discuss delicate negotiations.

    America’s military footprint in Syria may be smaller, but the politics of withdrawal are even more complex.

    A 12-year civil war has left the country divided into zones of control — the U.S. partners with a Kurdish-led force, the Syrian Democratic Forces, in the country’s northeast; a Turkish-backed authority runs the northwest; and the government of President Bashar al-Assad, along with Russian and Iranian allies, control much of the rest of the country, including a stretch of the central Syrian desert where ISIS has retained a foothold.

    As ISIS was rolled back, territories previously held by the group were claimed by other warring parties hoping to deepen their influence and advance their agendas. U.S. officials believe that Iran’s strategic goal is to establish an east-west land corridor connecting it to armed allies in Iraq and Lebanon, and that the U.S. presence at Tanf — a U.S. garrison along Syria’s border with Iraq — stands in the way.

    The senior U.S. military official also cited the vulnerability of prisons holding thousands of Islamic State prisoners and their family members in northeast Syria.

    “Daesh could become operational overnight,” the official said, using the Arabic term for ISIS. “Two thousand prisoners could escape and become part of an operational force, and that is Daesh’s operational goal right now.”

    That fear was bolstered by an analysis published Monday by the Conflict Armament Research group on weapons recovered in the aftermath of attacks by militants in the northeast, concluding that the group may be more resilient than previously thought.

    “ISIS still has a centralized, coordinated acquisition network and distribution network in northeast Syria, and that is surprising because of the extent of united efforts between local security forces and the American presence, and the ongoing monitoring and surveillance of alleged ISIS members,” said Devin Morrow, head of regional operations for Conflict Armament Research and lead author of the report.

    The U.S. mission in Syria remains narrowly focused on counterterrorism, officials and experts say — a policy shaped by past failures. The 2011 withdrawal of U.S. troops from Iraq, when Biden was vice president, combined with ineffectual local governance, left a vacuum where ISIS eventually thrived.

    “Look back to Biden’s position then, it was that we should keep small teams there as a way to keep the boot on the neck of an al-Qaeda in Iraq,” said Aaron Stein, author of “The US War Against ISIS,” which chronicled the evolution of that mission.

    “He believed that the withdrawal from Iraq in 2011, in the way that it was done, was a big mistake, and that’s been driving the mission ever since,” Stein said.

    But the question of how to get out cannot be answered through military means alone, experts say and officials acknowledge. “People say there is no eradicating them fully, and you can’t really define an end game for the counter-ISIS mission. That might all be true,” said Khalifa of International Crisis Group.

    “But it’s also political […] the Turks need to be on board, the SDF need to be on board, the Russians and the regime need to be on board.

    “All of that is hard, but it’s not impossible,” she said. “It’s just very difficult because the complicated lifting requires investment and a lot of things the U.S. is not doing.”

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