America’s Afghan War Is Over, So What About Iraq – and Iran?

By Medea Benjamin, cofounder of CODEPINK for Peace, and author of several books, including Inside Iran: The Real History and Politics of the Islamic Republic of Iran and Nicolas J. S. Davies is an independent journalist, a researcher with CODEPINK and the author of Blood On Our Hands: the American Invasion and Destruction of Iraq

At Bagram air-base, Afghan scrap merchants are already picking through the graveyard of U.S. military equipment that was until recently the headquarters of America’s 20-year occupation of their country. Afghan officials say the last U.S. forces slipped away from Bagram in the dead of night, without notice or coordination.

The Taliban are rapidly expanding their control over hundreds of districts, usually through negotiations between local elders, but also by force when troops loyal to the Kabul government refuse to give up their outposts and weapons.

A few weeks ago, the Taliban controlled a quarter of the country. Now it’s a third. They are taking control of border posts and large swathes of territory in the north of the country. These include areas that were once strongholds of the Northern Alliance, a militia that prevented the Taliban from unifying the country under their rule in the late 1990s.

People of good will all over the world hope for a peaceful future for the people of Afghanistan, but the only legitimate role the United States can play there now is to pay reparations, in whatever form, for the damage it has done and the pain and deaths it has caused. Speculation in the U.S. political class and corporate media about how the U.S. can keep bombing and killing Afghans from “over the horizon” should cease. The U.S. and its corrupt puppet government lost this war. Now it’s up to the Afghans to forge their future.

Iraq when our leaders suddenly decide that the over 150,000 bombs and missiles they have dropped on Iraq and Syria since 2001 were not enough, and dropping a few more on Iranian allies there will appease some hawks in Washington without starting a full-scale war with Iran.

But for 40 million Iraqis, as for 40 million Afghans, America’s most stupidly chosen battlefield is their country, not just an occasional news story. They are living their entire lives under the enduring impacts of the neocons’ war of mass destruction.

Young Iraqis took to the streets in 2019 to protest 16 years of corrupt government by the former exiles to whom the United States handed over their country and its oil revenues. The 2019 protests were directed at the Iraqi government’s corruption and failure to provide jobs and basic services to its people, but also at the underlying, self-serving foreign influences of the United States and Iran over every Iraqi government since the 2003 invasion.

A new government was formed in May 2020, headed by British-Iraqi Prime Minister Mustafa al-Kadhimi, previously the head of Iraq’s Intelligence Service and, before that, a journalist and editor for the U.S.-based Al-Monitor Arab news website.Despite his Western background, al-Kadhimi has initiated investigations into the embezzlement of $150 billion in Iraqi oil revenues by officials of previous governments, who were mostly former Western-based exiles like himself. And he is walking a fine line to try to save his country, after all it has been through, from becoming the front line in a new U.S. war on Iran.

Recent U.S. airstrikes have targeted Iraqi security forces called Popular Mobilization Forces (PMF), which were formed in 2014 to fight the Islamic State (IS), the twisted religious force spawned by the U.S. decision, only ten years after 9/11, to unleash and arm Al Qaeda in a Western proxy war against Syria.

The PMFs now comprise about 130,000 troops in 40 or more different units. Most were recruited by pro-Iranian Iraqi political parties and groups, but they are an integral part of Iraq’s armed forces and are credited with playing a critical role in the war against IS.

Western media represent the PMFs as militias that Iran can turn on and off as a weapon against the United States, but these units have their own interests and decision-making structures. When Iran has tried to calm tensions with the United States, it has not always been able to control the PMFs. General Haider al-Afghani, the Iranian Revolutionary Guard officer in charge of coordinating with the PMF, recently requested a transfer out of Iraq, complaining that the PMFs are paying no attention to him.

Ever since the U.S. assassination of Iran’s General Soleimani and PMF commander Abu Mahdi al-Muhandis in January 2020, the PMFs have been determined to force the last remaining U.S. occupation forces out of Iraq. After the assassination, the Iraqi National Assembly passed a resolution calling for U.S. forces to leave Iraq. Following U.S. airstrikes against PMF units in February, Iraq and the United States agreed in early April that U.S. combat troops would leave soon

But no date has been set, no detailed agreement has been signed, many Iraqis do not believe U.S. forces will leave, nor do they trust the Kadhimi government to ensure their departure. As time has gone by without a formal agreement, some PMF forces have resisted calls for calm from their own government and Iran, and stepped up attacks on U.S. forces.

>At the same time, the Vienna talks over the JCPOA nuclear agreement have raised fears among PMF commanders that Iran may sacrifice them as a bargaining chip in a renegotiated nuclear agreement with the United States.

So, in the interest of survival, PMF commanders have become more independent of Iran, and have cultivated a closer relationship with Prime Minister Kadhimi. This was evidenced in Kadhimi’s attendance at a huge military parade in June 2021 to celebrate the seventh anniversary of the PMF’s founding.

The very next day, the U.S. bombed PMF forces in Iraq and Syria, drawing public condemnation from Kadhimi and his cabinet as a violation of Iraqi sovereignty. After conducting retaliatory strikes, the PMF declared a new ceasefire on June 29th, apparently to give Kadhimi more time to finalize a withdrawal agreement. But six days later, some of them resumed rocket and drone attacks on U.S. targets.

Whereas Trump only retaliated when rocket attacks in Iraq killed Americans, a senior U.S. official has revealed that Biden has lowered the bar, threatening to respond with airstrikes even when Iraqi militia attacks don’t cause U.S. casualties.

But U.S. air strikes have only led to rising tensions and further escalations by Iraqi militia forces. If U.S. forces respond with more or heavier airstrikes, the PMF and Iran’s allies throughout the region can respond with more widespread attacks on U.S. bases. The further this escalates and the longer it takes to negotiate a genuine withdrawal agreement, the more pressure Kadhimi will get from the PMF, and other sectors of Iraqi society, to show U.S. forces the door.

The official rationale for the U.S. presence, as well as that of NATO training forces in Iraqi Kurdistan, is that the Islamic State is still active. A suicide bomber killed 32 people in Baghdad in January, and IS still has a strong appeal to oppressed young people across the region and the Muslim world. The failures, corruption and repression of successive post-2003 governments in Iraq have provided fertile soil.

But the United States clearly has another reason for keeping forces in Iraq, as a forward base in its simmering war on Iran. That is exactly what Kadhimi is trying to avoid by replacing U.S. forces with the Danish-led NATO training mission in Iraqi Kurdistan. This mission is being expanded from 500 to at least 4,000 forces, made up of Danish, British and Turkish troops.

If Biden had quickly rejoined the JCPOA nuclear agreement with Iran on taking office, tensions would be lower by now, and the U.S. troops in Iraq might well be home already. Instead, Biden obliviously swallowed the poison pill of Trump’s Iran policy by using “maximum pressure” as a form of “leverage”, escalating an endless game of chicken the United States cannot win—a tactic that Obama began to wind down six years ago by signing the JCPOA.< The U.S. withdrawal from Iraq and the JCPOA are interconnected, two essential parts of a policy to improve U.S.-Iranian relations and end the U.S.’s antagonistic and destabilizing interventionist role in the Middle East. The third element for a more stable and peaceful region is the diplomatic engagement between Iran and Saudi Arabia, in which Kadhimi’s Iraq is playing a critical role as the principal mediator.

The fate of the Iran nuclear deal is still uncertain. The sixth round of shuttle diplomacy in Vienna ended on June 20th, and no date has been set for a seventh round yet. President Biden’s commitment to rejoining the agreement seems shakier than ever, and President-elect Raisi of Iran has declared he will not let the Americans keep drawing out the negotiations.

In an interview on June 25th, U.S. Secretary of State Blinken upped the ante by threatening to pull out of the talks altogether. He said that if Iran continued to spin more sophisticated centrifuges at higher and higher levels, it will become very difficult for the United States to return to the original deal. Asked whether or when the United States might walk away from negotiations, he said, “I can’t put a date on it, (but) it’s getting closer.”

What should really be “getting closer” is the U.S. withdrawal of troops from Iraq. While Afghanistan is portrayed as the “longest war” the United States has fought, the U.S. military has been bombing Iraq for 26 of the last 30 years. The fact that the U.S. military is still conducting “defensive airstrikes” 18 years after the 2003 invasion and nearly ten years since the official end of the war, proves just how ineffective and disastrous this U.S. military intervention has been.

Biden certainly seems to have learned the lesson in Afghanistan that the U.S. can neither bomb its way to peace nor install U.S. puppet governments at will. When pilloried by the press about the Taliban gaining control as U.S. troops withdraw, Biden answered,

“For those who have argued that we should stay just six more months or just one more year, I ask them to consider the lessons of recent history… Nearly 20 years of experience has shown us, and the current security situation only confirms, that ‘just one more year’ of fighting in Afghanistan is not a solution but a recipe for being there indefinitely. It’s the right and the responsibility of the Afghan people alone to decide their future and how they want to run their country.”

The same lessons of history apply to Iraq. The U.S. has already inflicted so much death and misery on the Iraqi people, destroyed so many of its beautiful cities, and unleashed so much sectarian violence and IS fanaticism. Just like the shuttering of the massive Bagram base in Afghanistan, Biden should dismantle the remaining imperial bases in Iraq and bring the troops home.

The Iraqi people have the same right to decide their own future as the people of Afghanistan, and all the countries of the Middle East have the right and the responsibility to live in peace, without the threat of American bombs and missiles always hanging over their and their children’s heads.

Let’s hope Biden has learned another history lesson: that the United States should stop invading and attacking other countries.

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  1. Procopius

    It was clear from the moment Secretary Blinken announced that the United States would not “negotiate from a position of weakness,” and the Iranians must return to full compliance with the original JCPO before the United States would talk about easing sanctions, that the neoconservatives are firmly in control and the U.S. does not intend to return to its obligations.

  2. Louis Fyne

    One would like to think that the Pentagon has broken out the drum and started Kumbaya.

    Here is my utterly cynical take: the Pentagon and hawkish-think tank land is so dismayed by the erosion of fighting capabilities against Russia and China (by 25 years of bombing developing nations), that the Pentagon finally realized to stop throwing lives and resources into the meat grinder.

    That also implies, don’t hold your breath for Iraq/Kurd-US occupied Syria, the US is there because of the Russians, who showed up because of the US.

    1. PlutoniumKun

      I don’t think its any secret that senior military officials have tired of fighting this type of war and want to get back to ‘real’ soldiering.

      Plus of course its been noticed that the type of permanent alert needed is proving unsustailable on military hardware which was designed for short sharp conflicts, not endless use in deserts of the high seas. The US airforce and navy are hitting real problems as they find their hardware is falling apart and they will have to make hard calls about what will replace it (especially as programmed replacements such as the F-35 and LCS, etc., are proving expensive failures).

      The reality is that conflicts like Afghanistan can go on for as long as the overall military industrial complex thinks it can benefit. They end when they realise that its not in their overall interest. I’ve been wondering why Biden was willing to take the potential political risk of leaving Afghanistan so early in his presidency, when it has the potential to rebound on him in a year or two if Afghanistan falls apart. I think the likely reason is that he didn’t make the decision, it was made for him. I suspect the same will happen in Iraq.

  3. orlbucfan

    The bloodthirsty, corrupt MIC yahoos do NOT represent me nor millions of my fellow Americans. They are stupid and backwards, a direct insult IMO. Thank you Yves for this read. Here’s hoping that you are almost done healing. Please take care!

  4. doug

    Not cynical enough?
    I am pretty sure I saw the ground work being laid on national news that we really can not leave as it would not be…wait for it….. humanitarian…
    I will believe we are out when we are out. And I don’t mean with bombers still flying over and ‘contractors’ still there.

  5. The Rev Kev

    For the past few months there has been a series of ongoing attacks on US supply convoys in Iraq using IEDs or rockets and sometimes you have several attacks in one day. The Iraqis do not want the US there as they know that one day, the US might try to attack Iran and they would use Iraq as a platform whether the locals wanted to be involved or not.

    Attacking those PMF units on the border did not go down well, especially since they were stationed there to put a check on ISIS activities. Doing so the day after they were visited by the Iraqi PM was just stupid. And feelings against the US is still running strong. Several months ago the remains of General Soleimani’s car was installed as a memorial at Baghdad Airport. They have not forgotten-

    It is only a matter of time until advanced rockets and drones are deployed against those US bases as you do not have to be a nation-state to deploy them anymore. If the Houthi have developed the know-how to use them, then it is only a matter of time until the Iraqi resistance learns as well. Might be wiser to shift those bases out of Iraq and to go back to an over-the-horizon approach instead.

    1. PlutoniumKun

      … or shiny trinkets or railways or civilization or little red (green) books….

      1. Thuto

        “The mission of civilizing the native will not be disrupted” – Francois Mitterand after the killing of Thomas Sankara in 1987. The books were green in our case and the railways originated from the mines to the ports so the minerals could be loaded onto waiting ships headed back to the old world.

  6. Felix_47

    Desert Storm was 1991, as I recall. I spent eight months there. What struck me at the time was the number of American Iraqis in the prison camps…..doctors, business owners from the Michigan area who were there visiting family and were drafted and given a rifle. Then another couple of years in the mid 2000s and then AFG for a couple of tours after 2010. So that makes 30 years of bombing Iraq and the writer did say 26 of 30. No, it is 30 of 30. Basically, Iraq spans my entire military career. It is a patriarchal society and the culture is totally foreign to us but so is Afghanistan. And since our involvement both countries have reacted by becoming more religiously conservative. Can you imagine if the US had simply sent a check to every Iraqi and every Afghan man woman and child of around 500,000 how prosperous both countries would be? Or we could have put the money in a fund and put everyone in both countries on a salary of 30,000 per year in perpetuity. And if we had given them all a green card with the proviso they buy run down real estate in places like Detroit or Cleveland can you imagine the transformation we would see? Even now I say we should give all the women a green card and let the men figure out how to build a society. Then for the first time in a few thousand years women would be valued. One thing I missed in Joe’s comments on abandoning Bagram is some sort of thought about how the US could prevent these repetitive disasters from Viet Nam to AFG, to Iraq to Somalia and on and on. My thought would be campaign finance reform with publically funded campaigns and no allowance for any other funding at all combined with a draft with no exemptions and military pay to draftees of 250 per month and make it three years. And no bullshit jobs like working as an attorney (Beau) or accountant (Buttligieg) in an air conditioned office in Bagram…..for the reservists and draftees. No, you get to go in the field and take orders from a Haitian NCO and no contractors to clean you latrines and you patrol the villages with your Harvard or Yale degree and your rank will be E3 when you get out. You do it just like we did it 40 years ago. I do recall Trump had bone spurs and Joe had juvenile asthma (a varsity athlete though) so they could enjoy their 20s without a Viet Nam experience. Bernard Lewis pointed out that one of the problems with governance in the Mid East and Iraq in particular was that the people were not taxed. They simply expected something from government which was made possible by oil. They had and have no stake. The US seems to have adopted that strategy as well in that 80% of Americans get more from the government than they put in, and they do not have to put their kids up for war and there is nothing expected from them. The way we abandoned Bagram sneaking out at 3 AM and not coordinating with the Afghans so it could be looted sure suggests AFG is going to be described by future historians as the grave of the US empire. Sadly from what I heard from Joe it seems we have learned nothing.

    1. The Rev Kev

      ‘AFG is going to be described by future historians as the grave of the US empire.’

      You say that if it as a bad thing. Afghanistan already has a reputation of a graveyard for empires so America would be just the latest and not even the most notable. But that Bagram bug-out will always be remembered with not even a decent hand-over ceremony with the local Afghan forces.

      1. drumlin woodchuckles

        The US force-planners to do with the quiet departure from Bagram may well have been concerned that there are Taliban spies hidden in the Afghan military and they would pass word back to the Taliban who might stage some humiliating recreational attacks on the departing Americans.

        Or that 3rd party bad actors might attack departing Americans in order to get America to reverse the leave decision and come right back and keep staying. Any number of other powers want America weakening itself further in Afghanistan or wherever.

        So it made sense to tell no one.

        1. The Rev Kev

          Still, it would have looked better if the US forces could have had a hand-over ceremony with the Taliban themselves. They could have saluted each other, lowered the US flag, raised the Taliban’s flag, shook hands and then left. Maybe some of the US troops could have called out ‘GG, man’ on the way up the airplane’s ramp. At least that would have had a bit of dignity to it.

    2. Societal Illusions

      yes, Feliz_47, your suggestions of alternative outcomes or options brightened my morning. yet they would have all required a goal that has never been agreed or attempted. I expect so much failure isn’t possible – that the objectives sought were not those promoted.

    3. JTMcPhee

      Paying taxes = “stake”? How does that work? My time was in Vietnam 67-68 and the peasants were taxed and extorted by the US-supported S. Viet government, and of course by the alt-government of the Viet Cong. From what I could see, of farmers and fishermen and shop keepers, people just worked the soil or the nets to get a modicum of sustenance, though of course the shopkeepers profited sometimes wildly from the presence of so many horny and grasping young troops who bid up the prices with their princely $250/month paychecks. Perverted the economy everywhere the US boot print goes, including here in the Homeland.

      I read that of the 2-4 million killed during the Vietnam thing, it averaged out to about $150,000 for each body counted in those perverse Imperial fraudulent accountings of how effective we were. I thought at the time that if we just used those Rolling Thunder and Arc Light bombers to drop hundreds of thousands of the little gold ingots I saw being used as savings and exchange (Wukchumni take note) on little red silk parachutes over the countryside for the Vietnamese proles to pick up, the dominoes should never have had a chance to fall and the record of the forking murderous Empire would not be what it is today. But then the US foreign policy has always been to demand that “the enemy” has to “Say UNCLE,” louder and louder, and do whatever the people who Smedley Butler noted are the true beneficiaries of “War as a Racket” demand. With the demands being ratcheted, just like in the Homeland economy of kleptocratic extortion and extraction, always upward and tighter.

      I enlisted to go fight the commies. I have regretted my blindness and my having been treated as a “Freier” (Yiddish for “sucker”) all those years ago ever since.

      I don’t see any way out of the system the oligarchs and kleptocrats have created, whether it’s looting all the resources, stealing all the “property” both real and intellectual, and killing the planet’s biosphere with greed-driven idiocy. Because the consequences never fall on the people who are sharp enough to rise to the level of the Kissingers and Rumsfelds and Cheneys and the rest of the gang of racketeers that drives and accelerates the system in its mad rush toward the cliff…

    4. responseTwo

      ‘had juvenile asthma’ – that’s the same thing I had. I sent in a doctor’s note about it and got the draft card back that said 1A.

  7. Rod

    They simply expected something from government which was made possible by oil. They had and have no stake.

    got the nut out of the shell and that is what it looks like…

    “Thank YOU for YOUR Service” just grinds that point in– for me.

  8. Hepativore

    How much of this supposed withdrawal from Afghanistan is going to be offset by the number of “advisory” troops/contractors that are probably going to remain? Then in the near future, the Bidarris administration or whomever; if the Republicans win in 2024, will change its mind and increase the number of troops in Afghanistan again. It is probably the same yo-yo effect of the presence of American occupation that we have seen throughout the previous three presidential administrations.

    We have all seen this movie before.

  9. Dick Swenson

    The final sentence is a hope that Biden learns something. I hope that Americans in general and our politiians and military leadership in particuar learn a lesson. We are not the indispnsible do-gooders who are responsible for saving the world from evil that we see ourselves as.

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