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Before US elections, Iraq is forcing America to answer—which ‘forever war’ is worth fighting

​ Both Tehran and Washington wish to avoid war, but both sides will find it difficult to avoid slow-walking into a confrontation with dangerous consequences for the entire region. (The Print)

2/2/2024 5:17:00 PM

  Praveen Swami

Early in the New Year of a new millennium, 1900, a steamer dropped anchor off the ancient city of Nuevitas in Cuba. Hundreds of eager Americans gathered on the deck under the glistening noonday sun to examine their new homeland. “They wore no uniforms, nor did they gather either guns or swords,” one contemporary witness recorded. Two years earlier, America had gone to war against Spain, grabbing Puerto Rico, Cuba, and the Philippines. La Gloria, west of Nuevitas, was to be the first colony, home to a growing army of citrus and winter-vegetable producers.

“America’s overseas empire building began almost like clockwork in the 1890s,” the economist Jeffrey Sachs has written, “once the United States finally stretched from coast to coast, thereby ‘closing the frontier’ in North America.”

Last week, a drone strike carried out by the al-Muqawama al-Islamiyah fil’ Iraq, or Islamic Opposition Forces in Iraq—a loose coalition of pro-Iran Shi’a groups, with varying degrees of direct ties to Tehran—claimed the lives of three soldiers at Tower 22. Located on the edge of the vast, arid Rukban region, just behind a sand berm that marks the border of Jordan and Syria, Tower 22 is used to gather communications intelligence across the border and as a base for special forces to stage cross-border attacks.

The story has something to do with Iran’s growing efforts to evict the US forces from the Middle East. The US military has been stationed in Iraq since 2014, but with the end of their anti-Islamic State mission, Baghdad wants them out.

Even though US President Joe Biden came to power promising an end to what he called Forever Wars like the one in Afghanistan, the US remains committed to warfighting across swathes of the world. The superpower, journalist Jacob Silverman has noted, maintains at least 29 military bases in Africa alone, and engages in combat missions against jihadists in Syria, Somalia, Libya, and Niger.

The US engaged in maritime operations against Houthi insurgents in Yemen, where Biden once vowed not to provide “offensive assistance” to a war waged by Saudi Arabia and the United Arab Emirates.

And that’s not even counting the enormous resources involved in conflicts with nuclear-weapons powers: The confrontation over Ukraine with Russia, the growing tensions with North Korea, and the prospects of a war over Taiwan with China.

The Iraq conundrum

Like so many imperial crises, the showdown over Tower 22 emerged from a series of muddled, incremental actions, rather than actual design. The fall of Iraqi President Saddam Hussein’s government in 2003 opened the way to vengeful participation by militia in hunting down regime figures who had massacred Shi’a, historian Yusri Hazran has written. This often spilled into sectarian warfare. A strong Iraqi military had been the lynchpin of the British colonial system established in 1920, historian Pierre-Jean Luizard observes; the US invasion demolished its foundations.

The destruction of Hussein’s regime, political scientist Vali Nasr explains, had the unintended consequence of setting off a Shi’a renaissance that ran from Lebanon and Syria to Bahrain and Pakistan, with Tehran at its centre. Pilgrims flocked to the cities of Najaf and Karbala, and trade followed in their undertow.

In turn, the growing power of the Shi’a in Iraq set off a Sunni reaction, feeding a growing al-Qaeda insurgency that morphed into the Islamic State in 2014. The US was initially confused in its policy responses to the Islamic State, hoping it would serve the decades-old objective of removing President Bashar al-Assad’s regime from Syria. As the Islamic State threat evolved into a transnational regional challenge, even holding out dangers to Europe, there was no choice but to act.

The US multinational force assembled to fight the Islamic State but they did not wish to commit the colossal numbers of troops used in Afghanistan against the Taliban, or in Iraq against Hussein.  The broken Iraqi army, evicted with ease from cities like Mosul by the Islamic State, was in no position to fight either.

For all practical purposes, military historian Norman Cigar writes, the Shi’a militia served as ground troops for the anti-Islamic State coalition. Even though the militia had ties with Tehran, they effectively received weapons, communications, and technologies from the US, thinly disguised as transfers through the Iraqi military. Air strikes conducted by the US directly supported offences by Shi’a militia.

The end result was the empowerment of hundreds of warlords, journalist Ghaith Abdul-Ahad reported three years ago. The warlords fought the Islamic State, but also burned down Sunni villages and occasionally massacred their residents. They clawed back territory but extorted money from liquor shops and businesses. And, sometimes to Tehran’s chagrin, they worked against its efforts to control Shi’a politics in Iraq.

Iran fights back

Even though Iran played a constructive role in the battle against the Islamic State, the situation turned increasingly adversarial soon after. For Iran, political scientist Kimberley Nazareth writes, former US President Donald Trump’s aggressive policies to rein in its nuclear and missile programmes constituted a dangerous betrayal. Though Trump hoped to contain Iran by improving relations with its enemies—Israel and Saudi Arabia—one consequence of his actions was to lead the US into a frontal confrontation with Tehran’s proxies across the region.

From mid-2019, scholar Luca Nevola has shown, Iran’s proxies sharply stepped up attacks on contractors supporting the US military in Iraq, as well as its diplomatic mission in Baghdad. The increasingly vicious exchanges culminated in the US-authored assassination of Iranian general Qasem Soleimani in a drone strike, following a series of rocket attacks by Shi’a militia on the K2 air base outside oil-rich Kirkuk in Iraq.

Then, as Biden worked to resuscitate a new deal over Iran’s nuclear programme, tensions seemed to decline again. The Shi’a militia turned their attention against Türkiye, fighting alongside Kurdish secessionists from April 2021 onward.

The Gaza crisis

So far, little clarity exists on how much Tehran knew about the drone strike on Tower 22—and precisely what its motives might have been. Experts concur that, like other groups in the Middle East, the conflict in Gaza has inflamed opinion among Shi’a fighters. Hezbollah has been active in targeting Israeli forces stationed along the country’s border with Lebanon, while Houthi insurgents have used drones and crude ballistic missiles to target merchant shipping in the Red Sea. These attacks have been limited in scale, though—and unlike the strike on Tower 22, they have not directly sought to inflict damage on the US military targets.

It was the third attack on Tower 22 in the last six months, Pentagon officials have said. The two earlier strikes were interdicted, but air-defence systems seemed to have failed to detect the last attack as a threat because a US drone was landing at the same time.

Hezbollah, significantly, has said that it will honour any truce negotiated between Hamas and Israel—an important declaration of support from the Shi’a group for a Sunni organisation affiliated with a historical competitor, the Muslim Brotherhood.

For Biden, though, the loss of three US soldiers’ lives poses a significant challenge. He is facing calls for direct retaliation against Tehran, which, with elections looming, he will find hard to resist. However, calibrating such action poses a real problem. Tehran and Washington have both said they wish to avoid war, but both sides will find it difficult to avoid slow-walking into a confrontation with dangerous consequences for the entire region.

Empires, as the United Kingdom discovered, involve more or less perpetual war—but how many should the US be fighting, and at what cost?

Praveen Swami is contributing editor at ThePrint. Views are personal.