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Fast Thinking June 28, 2021

FAST THINKING: What Biden’s airstrikes left behind

By Atlantic Council


The fight isn’t over. The Iraqi government on Monday sharply criticized US airstrikes that took place overnight in Iraq and Syria. President Joe Biden’s first known strikes in Iraq hit operations and weapons-storage targets that the United States says were used by Iran-backed militias to attack American forces with sophisticated drones. What does this mean for the future of drone warfare and the US military presence in Iraq? Our experts sort through the fallout.


  • William Wechsler: Director of the Rafik Hariri Center and Middle East programs and former deputy assistant secretary of defense for special operations and combatting terrorism
  • Kirsten Fontenrose: Director of the Scowcroft Middle East Security Initiative and former US national-security official

The dawn of a new drone era

  • First, the backstory in brief: The small remaining US military presence in Iraq, intended to combat ISIS, has long faced rocket attacks from Iran-backed militias. It was these attacks, Will tells us, that led to the US assassination of the Iranian general Qasem Soleimani in early 2020 and Biden’s first airstrike in Syria in February. “But more recently Iran appears to have once again decided to march methodically up the escalation ladder and have its local proxy now use precision drones to attack American targets,” Will explains.
  • A new era defined by the proliferation of drones is upon us,” as the arsenals of dozens of armies can attest, Will notes. But what’s unique here is that “only Iran routinely provides such technologies to foreign nonstate actors and directs their use in other countries and across borders.”
  • These increasingly sophisticated, explosive-packed drones deployed by the Iraqi Popular Mobilization Forces (PMFs) have been dive-bombing targets that reportedly include CIA and US Special Operations personnel. “The most recent drone attack involves an aircraft with a longer range and more complex setup than those used before, according to [unmanned aerial vehicle] experts,” Kirsten says. “One I spoke with added: ‘Iran’s militias in Iraq have more drones than Iraq does.’”

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Mission accomplished?

  • But while hitting weapons depotswill delay the rogue militias’ ability to hit Americans again,” Kirsten tells us, “it won’t end it.”
  • Which prompts Kirsten to pose an intriguing question: “Instead of sparring with this snake, can we defang it?” She argues that the United States can help pressure the PMFs to negotiate with the Iraqi government to address their grievances and figure out why they are accepting support from Iran. “These discussions would make it clear to the Iraqi government and public, and to the international community, which PMF units are loyal to Iraq and which are loyal to the regime in Iran,” Kirsten says. “Those that are not loyal could be evicted from the Ministry of Defense.”

Now for the blowback

  • By sparring with the snake, however, the United States is now on shakier political territory in Baghdad. The Iraqi government has stated that the strikes violated its sovereignty, and the next step could be a parliamentary vote to expel US forces from the country, Kirsten notes. “Should this happen, Iran’s top objective in Iraq is achieved, Iraqi troops being trained by Americans to counter [ISIS] are left high and dry, and members of the Iraqi government who support a strong and enduring US-Iraq relationship are silenced by pro-Iranian peers.”
  • But Will, reading between the lines, points out that the Iraqi statement was not as strident as it could have been. He points out that it came “in writing and not in the voice of any elected official,” and adds that “the Iraqi government also did not deny the US right to defend itself, did not excuse the Iranian-backed attacks on US forces, did not make statements suggesting that the US should depart, and certainly did not echo one of the targeted Iran-backed groups that declared that it will now ‘go to open war’ with the US.”

Further reading

Related Experts: William F. Wechsler and Kirsten Fontenrose

Image: Members of Iraqi Popular Mobilization Forces (PMF) take part in a military parade in Diyala province Iraq, June 26, 2021. Media Office PMF/Handout via Reuters.