On June 27, President Joe Biden ordered airstrikes against three targets used by Iranian-backed militias in Iraq. “The U.S. strikes targeted operational and weapons storage facilities at two locations in Syria and one location in Iraq, both of which lie close to the border between those countries. Several Iran-backed militia groups, including Kata’ib Hezbollah (KH) and Kata’ib Sayyid al-Shuhada (KSS), used these facilities,” a Pentagon statement said. One of the targets was reportedly a facility used to launch and recover Iranian drones. The airstrikes are the second ordered by Biden against pro-Iranian militias in just over four months. On February 25, Biden ordered similar strikes against a facility in eastern Syria.
Last night’s strikes will be no more effective.
Such military actions reflect multiple decisions over the last several days: National Security Advisor Jake Sullivan presumably presented Biden with a multitude of decisions that included military strikes. When Biden picked these, the Pentagon then provided Biden with a range of options covering scope and targets. Biden chose an option that, in his mind, posed the least chance of escalation or Iraqi diplomatic opprobrium. In effect, Biden chose to prioritize symbolism over effectiveness.
If the purpose of limited airstrikes was to deter Iranian-backed militia action, they did not work. The February strikes did not stop Kata’ib Hezbollah or similar groups from targeting U.S. personnel in Iraq. Quite the contrary; the groups have grown powerful enough that even Prime Minister Mustafa al-Kadhimi not even fears taking substantive action against them, but even attends their parades. Rather than counter the militias as he was selected to do against the backdrop of popular protests, Kadhimi now seeks to co-opt their support in an attempt to win their support for a second term. For Biden and Sullivan to expect this most recent strike four months later to achieve what the first did not reflect the laziness if not delusional Biden strategic thinking.
Part of the problem for the ineffectiveness of the military option is Biden and Sullivan’s embrace of proportionality. For the Pentagon to calibrate rather than escalate a response leads Iranian strategists to calculate the price of continued drone and rocket strikes is worth it. Simply put, they are willing to accept the occasional inconvenience that American strikes represent. Rather than a red line, they see a green light. Proportionality does not win conflicts; it perpetuates them.
I spent a couple of weeks in April 2021 in Baghdad. Many Iraqis including top leaders expected violence by pro-Iranian militias to get worse up to scheduled October elections. No one, they explained, believed that Biden would ever repeat a strike equivalent to President Donald Trump’s January 3, 2020 decision to target Iranian Qods Force chief Qassem Soleimani and his Iraqi ally Abu Mahdi al-Muhandis, founder of Kata’ib Hezbollah.
This does not mean they embraced Trump’s strategy such as it was; they only recognized that his unpredictability had its advantages. Biden, however, is as predictable as the sunrise. As such, Iraqis expect the Iranian-backed militias to act with an increasing sense of impunity as they target Americans and intimidate American allies. For Biden and Sullivan to choose targets both peripheral to Kata’ib Hezbollah command-and-control and easily rebuilt suggest the Iraqi assessment to be correct. That the Iraqi Ministry of Defense has now explicitly and officially condemns the American strikes suggests not only reflects Iraqi unease at paying a high price for a U.S.-Iran proxy war, but also reflects an Iraqi sense of self-preservation at a time when Baghdad believes momentum is on Iran’s side.
The limited and peripheral nature of last night’s strikes also reflect another problem in Biden administration thinking: They compartmentalize their Iraq strategy and treat it in isolation from the slow-motion train wreck that U.S. policy toward Afghanistan has become under both Donald Trump and Biden. When Biden unilaterally surrenders Afghanistan to the Taliban, the conclusion all insurgents and terrorists make is that they can outlast the United States. The unwillingness of Biden team to strike command-and-control of Iran-backed militias simply reinforces their assessment.
Terrorism is a tactic employed when the gains outweigh the costs. Again, Biden is not alone in his failure to understand this basic fact. Trump did serious harm when he ordered unilateral withdrawals under fire. But there is now nothing in Biden’s strategy that reverses the Iran cost-benefit analysis. If Biden is serious, he must target the leadership and command structures of any group that targets the United States or its personnel. A one-off strike against isolated border facilities will not cut it.