The February US strike responded to an extremely reckless militia rocket attack on a US base in Iraq, but the pin prick killed only one night watchman. This first exchange of retaliation appears to have whetted the appetite of Iranian-backed militias for more attacks against the Americans. According to statistics compiled by the Washington Institute’s Militia Spotlight project, since Biden took office, militias have launched 24 attacks on U.S. bases but have received only three retaliatory responses. These groups are increasingly hitting US assets with drones, with more precise drone attacks starting to outnumber unguided rocket strikes.
This week’s strike by US planes may have killed five militiamen, the militias involved claim, but if true, they were all junior troops. It is difficult to assess whether the United States caused property damage to the drone workshops of Iranian-backed militias, but given the low cost of manufacturing the drones (typically less than $ 10,000 each), the damage will be quickly repaired. For the Iranian-backed militias, this is an ideal situation. They can display their apparent strength by pushing out a superpower foe, without incurring significant costs.
Team Biden periodically retaliated when and where they chose, wisely separating provocation from retaliation over time. But the strikes weren’t inventive or daring enough to affect the militia leaders’ calculations, instead hitting targets that just don’t matter. The administration seems obsessed with sending clear and unambiguous deterrent messages that are anything but clear and unambiguous to Iran and its militias. Indeed, US strikes are deliberately limited in order to avoid escalation, but that means they are too weak to be a deterrent. Each US strike has been calibrated to roughly mirror the previous militia strike in terms of destruction, but when 11 out of 12 militia attacks go unanswered, the cost swap is still strongly in favor of the group.
Meanwhile, US lawmakers have questioned the administration’s right to engage in a long string of retaliatory operations against Iranian-backed militias. Senator Chris Murphy (D-Conn.) Noted after this week’s strike that “the danger here is that you fall into a pattern of military escalation that becomes a war without the voters ever having a say. “. After Biden’s first use of force against Iraqi militias in February, Murphy also questioned whether retaliatory deterrence strikes could qualify as self-defense, saying that “retaliatory strikes, not necessary to prevent a threat imminent, must fall within the definition of an existing Congressional authorization of military force. ” Between the two incidents, the House of Representatives voted to revoke the 2002 authorization for the use of military force in Iraq.
Caught between relentless militia enemies and a skeptical Congress, the Biden administration must find a formula that will work better than the tit-for-tat of recent months. Having seen during my stay in Iraq what discourages and does not discourage these militias, the solution is simple to say, more difficult to do, but nevertheless essential.
First, hit enemies harder than they hit you. In my experience observing closely, operating near, and even encountering Iraqi militia leaders, there is only one consequence that they really fear: their own death. This was evident by watching militia leaders disperse, curl up and keep a low profile after the US murder of Iranian General Qasem Soleimani and Iraqi militia hub Abu Mahdi al-Muhandis in January 2020.
But instead of going for the more extreme option, the administration should start by hinting at it. Concretely, the United States must achieve a deliberate near miss on a very sensitive target, like a senior militia leader. And the next time a major rocket or drone attack hits an American base, a militia leader should instead be killed, at a time and place of our choosing.
Second, to reduce the risk of escalation, do not advertise the involvement of the United States. The United States has been criticized by the Iraqi government for the recent strike inside Iraq, but Iran and the militias it supports in Iraq have not been criticized for their rocket strikes and drones because they do not openly claim such attacks. For years, Israel did not claim many of its deterrent strikes, which gave its enemies some leeway to ignore, procrastinate or delay retaliation. While unclaimed strikes raise valid surveillance and transparency concerns, the U.S. government has procedures not only to undertake strikes using the Title 50 intelligence community and covert action authorities, but also to inform Congress of these actions behind closed doors.
Third, don’t allow Iran to transfer the risk to proxies. Iran needs to understand that there is a cost to giving advanced drones to their militia proxies. Send messages to the Iranian security establishment – regardless of the nuclear talks in Vienna – that the United States will associate Iranian covert action with its own.
De-escalation with Iran through nuclear negotiations is unlikely to bring any relief. These talks did not prevent the escalation of militia attacks under Biden (after the initial nuclear deal went into effect in 2015, Iranian military activism and proxy warfare also accelerated). Iran’s newly elected president, Ebrahim Raisi, said Iran’s military, missile and drone activities were “non-negotiable” and the Biden administration was also bringing these issues to a later point. The only way to protect US troops in Iraq and Syria is with simple old-fashioned deterrence. To use Raisi’s expression, America’s right to defend its forces should be non-negotiable.
Biden wants to reduce the American footprint in the Middle East and defuse with Iran, and congressional leaders like Murphy want to avoid unlimited use of force in the name of self-defense. The approach of the administration so far has, paradoxically enough, undermined all these hopes. Relying on periodic and limited strikes has clearly failed to deter Iranian-backed militias from attacking US sites, which only requires more strikes and keeps the US and Iran on. a collision course. Hitting harder and softer is the best way to end the vicious cycle. If, as the Biden team likes to say, the Middle East is an issue that can only be managed but not resolved, at least let’s deal with the issue as effectively as possible and get the Middle East off the agenda. President.