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Why Is the U.S. Still in Iraq After 18 Years?

Joe Biden Iraq
An F-16 Fighting Falcon pilot assigned to the 134th Expeditionary Fighter Squadron performs preflight checks at the 407th Air Expeditionary Group, Dec. 29, 2016. The 134th EFS is flying combat missions for Operation Inherent Resolve to support and enable Iraqi Security Forces’ efforts with the unique capabilities provided by the fighter squadron. (U.S. Air Force photo/Master Sgt. Benjamin Wilson/Released)

The 18th anniversary of the 2003 U.S. invasion of Iraq came and went last month with little fanfare.

Perhaps it’s unsurprising: One does not particularly care to celebrate the launch of our country’s second-longest war, which has spilled so much blood and treasure and accomplished so little good.

Unfortunately, the decency of eschewing untoward celebration does not yet extend to ending this untoward war altogether. But the Biden administration now has an opportunity for exactly that: Strategic dialogues between Washington and Baghdad took place on Wednesday, and while the White House framed the talks as a broad “opportunity to discuss our mutual interests across a range of fields from security to culture, trade, and climate,” Iraqi Prime Minister Mustafa al-Kadhimi advocated a more straightforward goal: Ending U.S. military action in his country.

In a prior round of strategic dialogues last year, “[w]e achieved in a very short period what weapons failed to achieve,” Kadhimi said in mid-March. “In a matter of months, we succeeded in reducing the size of U.S. combat forces in Iraq by 60 percent,” he continued, and in this month’s session, “we can discuss the redeployment of [U.S.] forces outside of Iraq” entirely. The Iraqi government is ready for Washington’s war in Iraq to end, and the U.S. government should be, too.

One reason for this war’s remarkable staying power, of course, is its ever-evolving mission. First, the goal was ousting Saddam Hussein and destroying his imaginary cache of weapons of mass destruction. With that accomplished (well, insofar as it was possible), the project morphed into nation-building and counterinsurgency. After then-President Barack Obama declared the war completed in 2011, U.S. troop levels rose again starting in 2014 with a new mission: fighting the Islamic State, which had emerged in the power vacuum created by U.S.-forced regime change. Since the ISIS caliphate was dismantled, its leader killed, and victory over the group declared during the Trump administration, a new logic of containing Iran has emerged.

The Biden White House says U.S. “coalition forces are in Iraq solely for the purpose of training and advising Iraqi forces to ensure that ISIS cannot reconstitute,” but that’s hardly a credible claim. “Iran policy has simply taken over Iraq policy,” Douglas Silliman, who was U.S. ambassador to Iraq from 2016 to 2019, told The Atlantic last year. Former President Donald Trump infamously said he wanted to keep U.S. troops in Iraq “to watch” Iran, and President Biden has already shown himself similarly willing to engage in proxy conflict with Iran in Iraq and neighboring Syria.

This is exactly the wrong calculation. Maintaining a U.S. military presence in Iraq (and elsewhere in the Middle East, not least Afghanistan) means constant vulnerability to escalation with Iran, and it complicates Biden’s purported diplomatic goals instead of easing his path to them. “Troops in Iraq and Syria serve as a tripwire, perhaps by design, that can derail attempts at diplomacy at unpredictable times,” observes Defense Priorities fellow Richard Hanania. “Even if President Biden and his top officials are able to avoid any major confrontations that escalate to all-out war … a future administration that wants to undo diplomatic gains will have a ready excuse to do so.”

Prolonging the war in Iraq is also a bad idea in its own right: It’s a “forever war” of the sort Biden pledged to end. It has no plausible path to any resolution that might fairly be dubbed “victory.” It does not make Americans safer and indicates no capability of imposing stability or democracy in Iraq. It has inflicted obscene suffering on the Iraqi people—particularly the Christian minority—and undermined regional security instead of enhancing it.

Moreover, Baghdad wants us gone. The Iraqi Parliament passed a resolution expelling all foreign forces from its territory over a year ago. (It was never binding, and the Trump administration made clear it would have been ignored regardless. About 2,500 U.S. soldiers plus thousands more contractors and civilian staff remain in Iraq today.) After nearly two decades of U.S. occupation, this is not a supplicant client state begging for Washington’s help with ISIS, Iran, or anything else.

Here’s the good news for Biden: Americans want the war in Iraq to end, too. Strong majorities believe the invasion was a mistake, the war was not worth fighting, and U.S. soldiers should come home. Ask the average American what these U.S.-Iraq talks should cover and the answer won’t be “security[,] culture, trade, and climate.” It will be “the redeployment of [U.S.] forces outside of Iraq” entirely. Washington should take note and withdraw from Iraq.

Bonnie Kristian is a fellow at Defense Priorities, contributing editor at The Week, and columnist at Christianity Today. Her writing has also appeared at CNN, NBC, USA Today, the Los Angeles Times, and Defense One, among other outlets.

Written By

Bonnie Kristian is a fellow at Defense Priorities, contributing editor at The Week, and columnist at Christianity Today. Her writing has also appeared at CNN, NBC, USA Today, the Los Angeles Times, and Defense One, among other outlets.

5 Comments

5 Comments

  1. Rusul

    April 9, 2021 at 4:55 am

    The bad news ..
    Does America realize the extent of the devastation caused by that wrong war in Iraq, as well as the handing over of the fate of the entire country in the hands of Iran’s agents in Iraq?
    Do you realize that the withdrawal of US forces at the present time would or would endanger the Middle East, as it would allow Iranian expansion in Iraq to be greater and pave the way for arms to be passed to Lebanon!
    Certainly you realize that. Nevertheless, they are working hard to destroy Iraq and its people simply because of a mistake in making the war decision. President Biden was one of the voters and Iraq alone paid the price.

  2. ven ze

    April 9, 2021 at 11:05 pm

    Why should US not be in Iraq after 18 years? It has a huge military base and heavily fortified embassy in the Green Zone of Baghdad overseeing and monitoring the ever precarious situation in Mideast all the time.
    It is a strategic place to watch every movement of Tehran..

  3. Don Bacon

    April 13, 2021 at 12:08 pm

    Some facts:
    >The Obama pull-out from Iraq was dictated by a US-Iraq agreement made by Bush-43 — the Iraq Withdrawal Agreement. Obama had no choice but to pull out, which he later corrected.
    > The Islamic State didn’t just magically “emerge” in a power vacuum, it was the Obama/Kerry US response, using former Iraq army troops, to counter the pro-Iran government which derived from Operation Iraqi Freedom.

  4. pink prince

    April 13, 2021 at 2:30 pm

    The US has been in Iraq even longer than it has been in Afghanistan. After Operation Desert Storm and before the Iraq War, the USA as well as the UK have been bombing Iraq from the No-Fly-Zones. Iraqis under 30 have never lived at a time when there was peace in their country anymore than Afghans under 20 have lived in a time when there was peace in their country.

  5. Tony Mena

    July 8, 2021 at 8:50 pm

    Ven Ze spoken like a true war monger. Stay in Tehran to, “watch” the Middle East. What a stupid, idiotic reason to have so many of your own soldiers and local civilians killed. We are not endanger of Irán or Iraq of ever coming over here. So why really are we there? It’s just about the trillions $ being made and you know it, small man.

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