Challenges and Consequences: U.S. Counterterrorism Policy in the Middle East

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The U.S. has had a determined strategy for counterterrorism prevention approaches in Iraq and Syria for decades, yet many point to considerable evidence that the U.S. strategy needs to be revised. In April 2023, Secretary of Defense Austin reaffirmed the U.S.’s obligation to ” maintain U.S. forces in Iraq and Syria in an advise-and-assist capability to support partner forces in their fight against ISIL.” The Department of Defense remains determined to abolish the presence of ISIL in Iraq and Syria. However, resistance to the U.S. defense strategy has emerged. 

According to the Center for Strategic and International Studies, “the US has never described workable grand strategic objectives, made sufficient efforts to create a stable post-conflict Iraq, or established the Iraq people its presence serves their interests.”

Distinct examples of where the U.S. strategy failed in its goals would be the inability to handle the thousands of ISIL detainees after U.S. successes in Syria. Task and Purpose said the threat this poses to the U.S. and every country that is a part of the Defeat ISIL Coalition: about “10,000 ISIL fighters currently detained in Syria by the U.S. military’s partners in the country are on the brink of a mass escape according to Defense Department.” 

This poses a notable national security threat to the U.S. and its partners. The Syrian prison system holding these ISIL fighters cannot adequately maintain them, nor can it ensure an escape-proof system. Most of the detainees are under the watch of the Syrian Democratic Forces, and this increases the problem of whether the U.S. can entirely rely on the SDF to ensure that the prisoners are correctly preserved in the prison system. In recent years, the SDF has lowered its guard presence in prisons, promoting the concern of a mass breakout. 

The U.S. has also demonstrated its incapacity to stabilize the Iraqi government and economy. Experts indicate this drastic fluctuation within the region as proof of how the U.S. and its approach toward the Middle East have been inadequate. Policymakers have an increasing suspicion of Iraq developing into a failed state, which would have harmful impacts on any U.S. interests in the area. The fear of Iraq developing into a failed state derives from its failure to stabilize itself politically and to build a functioning government system. 

After the U.S. exit from Iraq in 2011, ISIL was capable of claiming the power vacuum the U.S. had departed behind, along with the fluctuation of the country and leaving behind the concerns of the Syrian civil war. The U.S. has failed to consider strategies to promote expansion in Iraq’s economy. 

According to the Center for Strategic and International Studies, “Iraq has been steadily growing in the rankings among the most corrupt countries in the world by Transparency International. As of 2019, it was ranked 162 out of 190, thus in the top 10% of most corrupt countries in the world.”

The U.S. cannot be the world’s redeemer, and many policymakers have had the illusion that the U.S. can do whatever it desires; however, the contrary is true. The U.S. should use its leverage and aid in dire need, not when pressured into pursuing action. 

Throughout the years of U.S. military existence in Iraq and Syria, hatred towards U.S. troops has become a growing risk element. The country of Iran is an example of this, as they have been supporting attacks undertaken by Iraqi Popular Mobilization Forces on U.S. troops, as well as aggression and rallies in front of the U.S. Embassy in Iraq. This increasing hostility towards U.S. troops materialized into parliamentary measures taken by the Iraqi administration. “After encouragement from Iraq’s caretaker Prime Minister Adil Abul Mahdi, Iraq’s parliament-with strong pro-Iran political factions underpinned by street militias- voted that U.S. military forces must leave Iraqi territory. The United States has dismissed the resolution as non-binding and has refused to honor it.” 

As of August 2022, nearly 2,500 U.S. soldiers remain in Iraq, according to Task and Purpose. In 2020, millions in Iraq protested in opposition to U.S. military existence, with the Shia cleric Muqtada al-Sadr screaming for “U.S. troops to leave the country in a proposal to steer clear of another war.”

The commonly held notion is that the presence of U.S. military forces shows stability and regional peace within the Middle East. However, this conception needs to follow the evidence. The opposite is valid in this case. In Iraq, US’s “disengagement from political and military clashes may be a positive force for peace and stability.”

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