All Risk, No Reward: The Perils and Absurdity of Iraq War 4.0

Secretary of State Anthony Blinken might have been "outraged” by a rocket attack on a U.S. base in northern Iraq – that killed a foreign contractor and wounded an American service member and several other contractors – but he shouldn’t have been surprised. After all, it’s the muddled US military mission and ongoing troop presence itself that creates nearly all the conditions for current crisis. That this is particular truth tablet might be rather uncomfortable to swallow doesn’t make it any less so.

If Blinken’s boss needs proof, he might consider applying what we could call his very own "Biden Rule:" that staffers should avoid overly academic or elitist language in memos or policy papers. "Pick up your phone, call your mother, read her what you just told me," he reportedly tells aides – "If she understands, we can keep talking." Well, does Joe really think most American mothers, or fathers, or other lay citizens, could honestly explain just what the heck US troops are doing – and may well die doing – in Iraq, almost 18 years after George W. Bush’s initial invasion? Give us a break! All that Washington wish-wash about avoiding ISIS-resurgence, "building partner capacity," and balancing Iran, is liable to get even a hometown boy like Biden laughed out of a Scranton pub.

Nevertheless, such attacks could very well derail Biden’s announced intent to reestablish Obama’s Iran nuclear deal, or even lead to a military escalation. After all, earlier this week, NATO agreed to an eight-fold increase in troops for its training and advisory mission in Iraq, and Secretary Blinken has himself begun a review America’s Iraq policy – to include feedback from the Pentagon – which may reach the White House as early as next month.

There’ve actually been three separate rocket attacks on US bases in Iraq over the last week, one targeting each of country’s distinct communal regions – Erbil in semi-autonomous Kurdistan, another on Balad in mostly Sunni Salah al-Din Province, and lastly on the Green Zone in Shia-heavy (especially since the 2005-08 civil war’s ethnic cleansings) Baghdad. It seems American troops and – more on this soon – contractors still aren’t safe anywhere inside Iraq.

Odd, that, since I recall plenty past (premature) pronouncements that "the surge worked," and that "we have defeated ISIS.” Well, the first [surge success] bit was always a farce, and, while the second suggestion is basically true – despite mop-up-ops that Iraqi, and invested regional, forces can handle – it ain’t ISIS that’s set to take the blame for the recently raining rockets. No, that supervillain stature shall – as ever – belong to Iran.

Bogus Boogyman Iran

Iranophobia and Tehran-alarmism are gifts that keep on giving – if mostly to the likes of Lockheed and Raytheon – in Washington. Only there’s hardly any basis to the threat. The whole thing’s political theater, a false binary blame game meant for domestic consumption and signal-sending to America’s Israeli and Gulf Monarchy mates. Thing is, real people die behind such drama.

It all starts with what should be suspicious certainty of bipartisan policymakers and media pundits that Tehran’s tugging all the rocket-flingers’ strings. Take Ned Price, spokesman for Biden’s polite liberal State Department. He said, after Monday’s attack on Baghdad’s Green Zone that the US holds Iran responsible for the recent rocket spurt. Then there’s Trump’s former assistant secretary of state for Middle East policy, David Schenker, who was sure – after the initial Erbil attack – that: "Ultimately, this is all about Iran – the missiles, the weaponry, the funding, the direction all comes from Tehran." Then again, it’s always worth considering the source. In this case, Mr. Schenker is now a senior fellow at the Washington Institute for Near East Policy – which is known for its fiercely and uncritically pro-Israel stance, and was initially funded by the Israel Lobby-top dog AIPAC’s donors, staffed by AIPAC employees, and originally located just one door away from AIPAC’s D.C. headquarters.

Then throw in Douglas Silliman, formerly US ambassador to Iraq from 2016 to 2019, who asserted after the Erbil attack: “I have no doubt who’s behind it. It is the Iranian-supported Iraqi Shia militias who are behind this." Only here again an astute observer must channel the street-wisdom of Queens’ own rapper 50 Cent and thus – "step up in" the Washington "club" and ask "Who you wit?" In Silliman’s case, it isn’t "G-Unit" but the Arab Gulf States Institute that’s now his post-government service "clique." In fact, he’s president of the damn thing. Keep an eye on that, it might matter – seeing as from the think tank’s 2015 inception, it was funded entirely by UAE and Saudi sources. You know, it’s enough to make you wonder whether Silliman’s Gulf autocrat paymasters – locked as they are in perennial quasi-war with Iran – might have some investment (pun intended) in having ole Doug pin the latest bombs-over-Baghdad squarely on Tehran.

Still, setting such conflicts of interest aside for the sake of argument, both Schenker’s and Silliman’s Iran-the-omniscient assertions strike as just a little too neat, too convenient for Washington’s hovering hawks. Maybe these specific guns did flow from Iran; maybe they didn’t. However, Tehran’s aren’t the only tools available. Iraq has long been awash with weapons, as anyone who ever walked a Baghdad beat – or frightened a few families with aggressive late-night house searches – knows all too well.

Furthermore, despite Washington’s bipartisan propensity to "create the enemies it needs" [in order to reap profits and power, that is] – by fabricating foes that seem ten-feet-tall and bulletproof – the truth is Iran hasn’t half the armed strength, or clear control over Iraqi proxies, as the hawks would have you believe. On the military side, Tehran’s mostly weak and unable to project any real power very far at all. Furthermore, as I noted in a 2019 Defense Priorities analysis, Iran’s American-allied regional antagonists – Turkey, Israel, Saudi Arabia, Egypt, and the UAE, for example – militarily outspend Tehran by a factor of ten!

As for Iran’s ostensibly ironclad grip on the Iraqi militias allegedly launching all them rockets – if not exactly a mirage, the situation is definitely far more complex and ambiguous than all that. This much even some senior military officers occasionally admit. For example, after the Erbil attack, the U.S.-led coalition’s counter-ISIS mission deputy commander for strategy, British Army Major General Kevin Copsey, surmised that the fusillade was likely the work of an offshoot, not the core, of the mainline militias typically linked to Tehran. He also noted the crucial – if oft-ignored – concept of local agency: that paramilitaries and their associated politicians pursue personal motives and interests when deciding whether to take violent action.

Copsey described it thus: "You have your main militia groups, which arguably have their influence back into Tehran, and then you have these splinter groups that are self-interested. And they’re unpredictable and they’re out of control." Allow me to surmise that the key words there are "arguably," "self-interested," and "unpredictable." In rebellions, proxy conflicts, and civil wars, matters are rarely clear, and always contingent.

Here’s the basic rub: The ill-advised and illegal 2003 US military invasion caused most of the current madness; Trump’s "maximum pressure" sanctions and saber-rattling predictably and demonstrably backfired; Iran’s offensive military capacity is actually rather limited and wildly exaggerated. Yet the one weapon it does have – as do the militias Tehran may or may not have sway over – are several variants of ballistic and cruise missiles.

To review, then: America’s murky, no-exit, mission plays right into Tehran’s only viable military hands – not only strengthening the hardliners in their government, but turning our ever-adulated soldiers into little more than bewildered rocket-magnets.

Context Counts

If Biden bolsters the US military’s anti-Iran proxy combat mission – which masquerades as ISIS-elimination – it will, by my count, constitute the fourth phase of America’s 30+ year war on or in Iraq. Call it Iraq War V. Kind of has a nice ring to it, and ask any movie producer – sequels sell, even if they usually make for awful art (Godfather II aside, naturally). The cost of the running franchise has been fatal for some 2.5 million Iraqis – bombed, shot, starved, or diseased – over those three old school-imperial decades.

Here on the tail end, in January 2020, the Iraqi government’s American friends went so far as to assassinate the top Iranian political and military figure Qasem Suleimani – on Iraqi soil, without informing the Baghdad government – thereby challenging and insulting Iraqi sovereignty. This triggered (imagine that) a not yet broken wave of political fury within both neighboring countries. In response, the Iraqi parliament voted to require the government to "end any foreign presence on Iraqi soil and prevent the use of Iraqi airspace, soil and water for any reason" by foreign troops.

Washington promptly ignored the democratic will of the Iraqi democracy it claimed to have built via its absurdly titled "Operation Iraqi Freedom" 2003 invasion. There may (for now) be only 2,500 uniformed Americans in country, but these days, a big part of what’s long-bothered average Iraqis is Washington’s use of sundry – and often unhinged – civilian security contractors to do much of the occupying.

Mercenary Camouflage

Given the tortured track record of America’s mercenary misadventures, perhaps Iraqis can be forgiven their frustration with the ongoing US presence in their country. Anger tends to come in waves and flared again last month, when dear Donald pardoned four American security contractors – from the infamous Blackwater outfit – for their roles in massacring 17 Iraqi civilians around Baghdad’s Nisour Square in 2007. I was in town for that sick show, and we in uniform sure felt some of the understandable blowback. Clearly, American policymakers aren’t exactly known for their self-awareness. Still, it hardly seems as outrageous as Secretary Blinken claimed that some locals might fling a few rockets at a few foreigner bases – and many more countrymen view it as legitimate resistance – when their own government’s Washingtonian "friends" just let four Iraqi-child-killers off the hook. I don’t know, call me crazy.

Either way, all this raises the not-so-minor matter of America’s shadowy security contracting apparatus in Iraq – an occupation-outsourcing as old as the adventure itself. The combat and logistics privatization factor is exposed in the composition of casualties in these ubiquitous rocket attacks. Over the last few years, more often than not the majority of the dead and injured have been contractors. For example, Saturday night’s strike on Balad airbase reportedly wounded a South African – I know, a bit on the nose for the mercenary game – employee of the US defense company Sallyport.

This subsidiary of Caliburn International LLC – which has no less than five retired generals and admirals on its board, including former Trump White House chief of staff John Kelly and former Bush-era CIA director Michael Hayden – had been contracted to provide base services supporting Iraq’s F-16 fighter program. Caliburn is perhaps better known for another of its subsidiaries operating America’s largest facility for unaccompanied migrant children. However, as of 2018, the US government had reportedly paid Sallyport itself over $1 billion since 2014 to provide security, life support, and various training at Balad Air Base.

There, Sallyport has been mired in past scandal. In 2019, a Daily Beast report indicated that The Department of Justice was investigating the company’s earlier alleged role in bribing Iraqi government officials in exchange for contracts costing American taxpayers billions. The Daily Beast’s earlier 2017 investigation also exposed that a clique of white South African security guards – the very nationality of the employee reportedly wounded in the recent rocket strike – had been promoting apartheid and abusing Sallyport’s minority members (along, apparently, with the base’s local dogs). By the way, the irony of Washington – amidst an era of renewed racial turmoil at home – hiring thousands of ex-apartheid soldiers to man its conflicts across the Middle East and North Africa: well, it almost defies imagination.

So sure, there are key – if rarely reported – contractor connections to the recent rocket attacks. Yet, widening the aperture reveals the far broader and systemic mercenary madness masking – and underpinning – America’s entire enterprise in Iraq and the Greater Middle East. And unless Status Quo Joe, and a largely bought&sold (by defense industry campaign contributions) Congress, address this invisible enemy, then messing at the margins with uniformed boots-on-the-ground counts won’t measurably alter America’s two-decade-old regional adventure-fiasco. Oh, and speaking of those masters of the military-industrial complex contributions to the very congressmen with the power to end this entire hopeless crusade – recall that the F-16s Sallyport secures for the Iraqi Air Force are produced by Lockheed Martin. In the 2018 midterm elections alone, Lockheed bestowed $2,865,014 in blood money on the Capitol Hill crew.

Only that ain’t the half of it. Consider the scale of the US contractor apparatus, by-the-numbers: In 2019, the Pentagon spent $370 billion on contracting – in other words, more than half its total discretionary spending. By the DOD’s own reckoning – during 1st quarter of FY21 – that translates to 38,164 contractor personnel supporting Pentagon operations in just the US Central Command (CENTCOM) area of responsibility (AOR – from essentially Egypt to Afghanistan). That includes 4,677 in the Iraq-Syria sub-theater – 2,300 of them American citizens. Which is to say, contractors now maintain more than a 2 to 1 ratio over US military members in the CENTCOM sphere.

There’s a design, and a cost, to all this. According to her June 2020 report, what Heidi Peltier of Brown University’s Cost of War Initiative called the contracting "Camo Economy," has been used by the US government to conceal the costs – in cash, killing, and American blood – of its endless, meandering, military missions. The proof is in the mortality pudding: since 2001, some 8,000 US contractors have died in America’s Greater Mideast adventures – that’s actually more than the Pentagon’s official tally of 7,056 uniformed troop deaths.

That few people know this, exposes its enduring political utility. A one minute Google search offers precise, to-a-man and up-to-date, statistics on US military deaths – but I wouldn’t wish the required Department of Labor archive-mining to find contractor casualty details on my worst enemy. Take it from me, it’s a maddening enough rabbit-hole-spiral to garner a grin from Kafka. And, as matters now stand, more deaths of those once invisible contractors could end up pulling the US into yet another phase of hopeless, wasteful war in Iraq. Now that’d deserve the American foreign policy tragicomedy award for 2021.

Look, I like context and nuance as much as the next guy, but sometimes the simplicity of "Sutton’s Law” – a medical mantra that, when diagnosing, one should first test for the obvious – is the best policy prescription. The dictate derives from real-life famed criminal folk hero Willie Sutton, who when asked why he robbed banks, replied – perhaps apocryphally – "Because that’s where the money is!" It’s a hell of a story, the sort Biden’s sure to like.

And in a sense, it tracks today’s mess. Ask an ayatollah or a local militiaman why he allegedly attacks US bases in Iraq – and a clever one might accurately quip: "Because that’s where the Americans are!"

In other words…because we’re there.

Danny Sjursen is a retired US Army officer, senior fellow at the Center for International Policy (CIP), contributing editor at, and director of the new Eisenhower Media Network (EMN). His work has appeared in the NY Times, LA Times, The Nation, Huff Post, The Hill, Salon, The American Conservative, Mother Jones, Scheer Post and Tom Dispatch, among other publications. He served combat tours in Iraq and Afghanistan and later taught history at West Point. He is the author of a memoir and critical analysis of the Iraq War, Ghostriders of Baghdad: Soldiers, Civilians, and the Myth of the Surge and Patriotic Dissent: America in the Age of Endless War. Along with fellow vet Chris "Henri" Henriksen, he co-hosts the podcast “Fortress on a Hill.” Follow him on Twitter @SkepticalVet and on his website for media requests and past publications.

Copyright 2020 Danny Sjursen