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How America Can Avoid a War of Attrition with Iran (nationalinterest.org)

A new flag recently appeared on the Iraqi horizon featuring a raised fist clenching an AK-47 in front of a globe. This is the ensign of the newly announced militia, Usbat al-Thairen (League of Revolutionaries), which claims responsibility for the March 11 rocket attack that killed two Americans, a British soldier, and wounded fourteen others at Camp Taji, a military base north of Baghdad. The United States responded with airstrikes two days later, resulting in condemnation from Iraqi officials. The following day another rocket attack on Camp Taji wounded five coalition soldiers and two Iraqi ones.

This back-and-forth demonstrates the breakdown of American efforts to deter attacks by Iran-backed Shiite militias. U.S. officials receive daily intelligence of assaults planned against assets in Iraq, and they believe it is only a matter of time before more troops are wounded or killed. May has already seen two separate rocket attacks near American personnel in Iraq. U.S. airstrikes might do substantial damage to the attackers, but the United States is far more sensitive to casualties. Thus, the current dynamic favors Iran and its proxies. As the Pentagon braces for further aggression and lays down the blueprint for a new campaign in Iraq, it should consider incorporating elements of the Israeli approach to dealing with Iranian proxies, known as the Campaign Between the Wars (CBW). Through preemptive and continuous kinetic actions that degrade and deter enemy capabilities, CBW delays wars and improves Israel’s position should a war erupt. It depends on proportional kinetic measures, financial warfare, and dynamic diplomacy. It is more proactive while containing the risk of escalation.

CBW seeks to address Iran’s growing military entrenchment in the region and deployment of advanced weapons to allied groups surrounding the Jewish state. Specifically, Iran has spent decades developing a base for aggression on Israel’s northern border. The frustration Israel encountered in its 2006 war with Hezbollah led the Jewish state to rethink its approach to dealing with Iran. Instead of preparing for the next war, Israel would have to prevent Iran from building up the capabilities necessary to launch the next war.

As Syria descended into civil war, it became clear that Iran’s Islamic Revolutionary Guard Corps (IRGC) was not just supporting the regime of Bashar al-Assad, but preparing to turn Syria into a second base for aggression against Israel, just as Lebanon had become the base for Hezbollah.  

During the war in Syria, and especially since 2017, Israel has conducted hundreds of airstrikes, recently expanding its campaign into Iraq and Lebanon. In 2018 alone, the air force dropped two thousand bombs in Syria. This implementation of CBW has thwarted attacks on Israeli soil, slowed Iran’s force buildup, and curtailed Hezbollah’s precision missile capabilities while avoiding a wider conflict, diplomatic backlash, or significant Israeli casualties. Yet the campaign is far from over. CBW demands consistency in the face of an enemy that has been fighting for decades.

The key to this strategy’s success is Israel’s precise targeting of infrastructure—not people—in order to minimize the risk of escalation. The IDF gathers intelligence to target enemy infrastructure when empty, or drops dummy missiles warning militants to evacuate buildings or cars, a tactic known as “knock on the roof” or “knock on the bumper.” Hezbollah operatives in Syria have reportedly even received phone calls from Israeli officials urging them to vacate bases before they are demolished. Although there has been collateral damage, the number of casualties per raid appears to be low. Precise data is not available, but a survey of open-source reporting has counted 452 fatalities over the eight years.  Israel’s Defense Ministry Director-General acknowledged conducting one hundred raids from 2012 through 2017, and the pace appears to have accelerated, so there seems to be an average of one or two fatalities per raid.

Instead of being dragged into tit-for-tat skirmishes on Iraqi soil, the United States should conceptualize and implement a systematic, proactive campaign independent of attacks by Iran and its proxies. Such a campaign, like CBW, would focus on degrading the adversary’s critical infrastructure while minimizing unnecessary casualties that would trigger inevitable retaliation. 

Iranian Strategy in Iraq 

The Islamic Republics geopolitical playbook is built on a paradox. On the one hand, Tehran cultivates foreign paramilitaries who build states within states by penetrating their national governments. Hezbollah is a case in point: Lebanon’s current government is an extension of the group and its allies. Iraq is moving in a similar direction as militias who take orders from Tehran have become among the most powerful players in the country’s political and public life. These paramilitaries became an official part of the Iraqi security forces and their political arms formed a coalition that placed second in the 2018 parliamentary elections. Yet as these militias are institutionalized, they acquire a more stable and visible structure that is increasingly susceptible to retaliation. Thus, in order to protect its proxies from retaliation by the United States and others, Iran often seeks to give them plausible deniability for attacks, by rebranding branches of existing groups as distinct entities, frequently labeled as “up and coming” or “rogue” militias.

Maj. Gen. Qassim Suleimani, the late commander of the IRGC external operations branch known as the Quds Force, was the architect of Iran’s efforts to sow militias across the Middle East. Since Soleimani’s death, a slew of allegedly new entities have emerged in Iraq including Saraya Thawra al-Ashreen, Ashab al- Kahf, Qadbat al-Huda, and Usbat al-Thairen—the latter having claimed responsibility for the March 11 attack on Camp Taji that killed two Americans and a Briton.

These groups present themselves as novel grass-roots formations seeking revenge for the U.S. attack that killed Soleimani and Iraq’s top paramilitary commander, Abu Mahdi al-Mohandes, yet U.S. officials have discerned that such groups are, in fact, fronts for established militias such as Kata’ib Hezbollah and Asa’ib Ahl al-Haq—essentially proxies for Iran’s proxies. One need not look further than the logos of the new outfits to notice they all borrow the IRGC insignia of an upstretched fist clenching an AK-47 in front of a globe. Ironically, in an age where hard evidence has become the standard for establishing state culpability, these groups realize they can maintain plausible deniability while still flaunting their patron’s symbols.

Indeed, proxy proliferation is a fulfillment of Suleimani’s direct orders. Last October, the late general tasked Kata’ib Hezbollah with assembling a group of low-profile militiamen to strike American troops in Iraq, noting that said unit “would be difficult to detect by the Americans.”

In response to the growing threat, the United States has taken force protection measures such as consolidating troops on at fewer bases and deploying enhanced missile defense systems. The Trump administration is also increasing pressure on the Iraqi government to rein in the militias while ramping up sanctions on actors underwriting Iran’s aggression.

Yet these measures are not without limitations. While defensive measures reduce the effectiveness of Iranian attacks, they can only go so far, and a diminished U.S. presence allows militias to roam more freely. Just last month, members of several Iranian proxies took over two areas near both the prime minister’s office and the U.S. Embassy in Baghdad’s Green Zone. Relations between Washington and Baghdad are already strained, and Iraq has proven incapable of cracking down on these militants.

The Trump administration’s economic sanctions have been remarkably successful in hitting Iran’s economy and restricting some of the cash flow to its empire of proxies, however, Tehran still seems able to operate its networks, and militias in the PMF receive Iraqi state funding as well.  

How the United States Can Adapt 

The United States can deal with the militia threat in Iraq more effectively by pursuing a campaign informed by the principles of CBW. Pursuing infrastructure and assets, as opposed to personnel, lessens political fallout, reduces the likelihood of retaliation, and exacts a higher financial toll on the Islamic Republic. In time, it sends a devastating message to Tehran that its investments in command and control centers, training campaigns, weaponry, and bases, will be lost. A persistent campaign would handicap Tehran’s ability to retaliate given that the United States will have systematically degraded enemy capabilities, and more importantly, reestablish deterrence. Iran will also pay a political price domestically as Iranians will be further enraged that their government is pouring capital into projects that are all for naught as its own people suffer economically at home. Indeed, last year, in the deadliest political unrest since the Islamic Revolution, many demonstrators chanted, “Not Gaza, not Lebanon, my life only for Iran.”

Flaunting the vulnerability of Iran’s proxies is also a form of psychological warfare. The targeting of highly visible infrastructure denies militia the appearance of strength, tarnishing their public image among local populations. Hitting a militia office and having the image of the aftermath shared widely via traditional and social media is an effective way to humiliate Iran-aligned forces, lower morale, and display how much damage the United States can inflict. This is likely to be met with little resistance by Iraqi citizens who have themselves torched headquarters of Iran-back militias over the past two years.

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