How America Can Avoid a War of Attrition with Iran
This is what Washington can learn from Jerusalem’s Campaign Between the Wars.
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 Republic’s 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.
Since much of Iran-backed paramilitary infrastructure is meant to be clandestine, pulling their activities out of the shadows is damage in and of itself. Revealing covert military activities that violate Iraqi law also enhances the legitimacy of such operations as it has for Israel in Lebanon.
At the same time, Israel maintains a measure of deniability for its own role in these airstrikes. Likewise, the United States should not rush to claim responsibility for harm inflicted on Iran-linked assets outside of Iraq. Anonymous strikes frustrate the adversary while minimizing the political cost since there is no smoking gun. Iran regularly employs this tactic—last year’s attacks on Saudi oil facilities and tankers in the Persian Gulf are among the boldest cases.
Another lesson of CBW is to expand covert, surgical raids into the territory of the adversary. Israel has been striking the IRGC Quds Force and its affiliates throughout the Middle East. For example, when Jerusalem was in a deadlock with Palestinian Islamic Jihad (PIJ) and Hamas, the IDF realized that striking these Iran-backed groups in Gaza would erupt into an unnecessary conflagration. Israel then looked for PIJ and Hamas outside of Gaza: the IDF targeted PIJ deputy head Akram al-Ajouri in his Damascus villa, and rocket shipments headed to Hamas in Sudan.
Similarly, to deter Iran and its proxies in Iraq, the United States should pursue them in additional arenas—an approach with the additional advantage of avoiding friction between Baghdad and Washington. While headquartered in Iraq, many Iran-backed groups such as Kata'ib Hezbollah and Asa'ib Ahl al-Haq are active in Lebanon and in Syria and even Yemen. This brand of proactive strategy may necessitate a new Authorization for the Use of Military Force (AUMF) from Congress. At present, the U.S. military can only hit Iran-aligned paramilitaries in response to attacks on targets or when there is an immediate threat. Congress has been deadlocked for years with regard to AUMFs, but the White House should approach the challenge from the perspective of how to overcome domestic political challenges so that American forces can embrace the best strategy.
While CBW emphasizes the targeting of infrastructure rather than enemy troops, it will be necessary at times to target militiamen or IRGC personnel in Iraq and beyond. Thus, the deliberate killing of Soleimani made sense because of his unique role as the chief military strategist of Iran’s expansionism. When targeting militia personnel, the United States should also use network analysis to identify key figures whose removal will be most disruptive to militia systems regardless of rank. Such figures are not necessarily the head of groups but are crucial nodes in the supply chain of militia operations. This will minimize the backlash and maximize the efficacy of a strike. For example, in November 2019, the IDF identified and killed Baha Abu al-Ata, a regional PIJ commander, who was central in coordinating imminent attacks at Iran’s behest.
The ultimate objective for the United States should be to make malign activities too costly for Tehran. Destroying infrastructure raises costs, but CBW also pursues financial channels directly. To that end, Washington should target capital flow beyond sanctions and cyber transactions. Besides hawala, a paperless remittance system that relies on trustworthy moneychangers, Iran finances terror by transferring cash by land and air. Such funding continues even as the Islamic Republic has requested a five-billion-dollar emergency loan from the International Monetary Fund to fight the Middle East’s worst coronavirus outbreak. Israel has been following these money trails from Iran to PIJ, Hamas, and Hezbollah, and has been targeting those who move the money, particularly couriers smuggling suitcases from Egypt to Gaza. While such transactions demand a different kind of intelligence collection and fieldwork, if the United States is to really drain the militia swamp, the intelligence community ought to focus on these networks.
Finally, while continuous military and financial pressure is critical, such a campaign would be incomplete without efforts to build international support. The United States must continue to emphasize that Iran and its proxies will be held accountable for the damage they inflict on the United States and its allies in Iraq, the Persian Gulf, Gaza and elsewhere. Washington must hammer home that rocket attacks are part of a systematic campaign ordered by Tehran, not a supposed grassroots revolt.
Diplomacy will give the United States the political oxygen and legitimacy it needs to expose the Iranian proxy system for what it is. Germany’s recent outlawing of Hezbollah as a terrorist organization is an important milestone. Previously, Berlin distinguished between the group’s “political” and “military” wings, a distinction that is fictional even according to Hezbollah itself. Through strategic intelligence sharing, a wide messaging campaign, and cooperation between the United States, Israel, and Germany, Hezbollah’s masquerade as a non-violent political entity has come to an end.
A CBW-style campaign would require a sustained confrontation with Iran and its proxies at a time when American voters and many elected officials want to focus on “ending endless wars.” While true peace is always far preferable to war, a war cannot end if one side pretends it is over while the other continues fighting. The United States is discovering that right now in Afghanistan and learned a similar lesson after its rushed withdrawal from Iraq in 2011 facilitated the rise of the Islamic State.
The Islamic Republic of Iran wants to drag the United States into a war of attrition, in which Tehran has a decisive advantage because the United States cannot or will not move beyond its passive and reactive posture. While there is no simple solution to contain Iran’s influence in Iraq, confronting Iran requires a campaign that takes the initiative away from Tehran and continuously raises the cost of its destabilizing actions.
However, if the United States learns from Israel’s experience with CBW, this can be a surgical campaign that does not necessarily require a greater commitment of ground troops. Rather, it will engage the enemy remotely mainly through air raids, drones, and precision weapons. This requires augmenting the intensity of the American reaction and allocating more resources to the processing of actionable intelligence—yet fewer boots on the ground. The duration of this campaign would depend on how long it takes for Iran to get the message and deescalate.
What is clear is that the current U.S. approach to deterring attacks by Iranian proxies is not working. If nothing changes, then Iran and its militia will likely weather the U.S. maximum pressure campaign and solidify its regional presence. However, if Washington prudently increases proportional kinetic measures, solidifies economic pressure, and employs a vigorous political campaign, it may be able, in time, to erode the Islamic Republic’s creeping expansion.
Eliora Katz is a research analyst at the Foundation for Defense of Democracies. Follow her on Twitter @eliorakatz.
Eyal Tsir Cohen is a visiting fellow at the Brookings Institution in Washington, DC. Eyal is on leave from the Israeli civil service where he has served for the last thirty years in various senior positions. His career has focused on security issues and the sharping of counterterrorism and national defense strategies.