Small Wars Journal, an online academic publication covering counter-insurgency, counter-terrorism, and other features of the seemingly open-ended US involvement in Iraq and Afghanistan, on Tuesday published a blunt review of the US assassination policy against known terrorist leaders, and, despite some misgivings, gave it its approval (Decapitating the Islamic Revolutionary Guard Corps-Quds Force and the Implication for US policy in Iraq and Beyond).
Authored by Dr. Peter K. Forster, Dr. Gregory J. Kruczek, and Ava Sullivan, the article recalls the January 3, 2020 American drone strike that killed Iranian Brigadier General Qasem Soleimani and Abu Mahdi al-Muhandis, leader of Katai’b Hezbollah militia, and noted that that and previous and consequent attacks have succeeded in “sowing discord within the PMF (Popular Mobilization Forces in Iraq – DI), which is directly related to Tehran’s struggle to replace Soleimani’s operational genius and charismatic personality.”
At the same time, the authors point out that despite the serious damage inflicted by those US actions, it remains to be seen whether there will be a long-range impact, and if there has been a realignment within the Islamic Revolutionary Guard Corps-Quds Force in Iraq and what are the implications for US policy regarding Iraq and Iran.
“Soleimani was an efficient and decisive decision-maker who enjoyed the unwavering support of Iran’s Supreme Leader Ayatollah Khamenei,” write the authors, comparing the effects of his strong personality to those of the Taliban military commander Mullah Dadullah who was killed in 2007. Indeed, it was because of Soleimani’s actions that the IRGCQ received its designation as a terrorist group, despite its official rank as a state-run organization. So that at least in the short-term, assassinating Soleimani had negative effects on the groups that relied on his leadership.
However, according to the article, Iran continued to place great importance on maintaining its policy of harassing US forces in Iraq, borne by Tehran’s growing weaknesses from within: the collapse of its economy under US sanctions, and the ravages of the coronavirus pandemic.
In analyzing the implications for US interests in Iraq and beyond, the authors note:
The implications of Soleimani and al-Muhandis’ deaths are far reaching and fluid. It is quite possible that the strike was the Trump Administration’s attempt to declare victory paving the way for the US to extricate itself from Iraq. However, US strategy encompasses somewhat contradictory messages with regard to influence and interest in Iraq. Second, tactical shifts within Iraq including apparent competition among Iranian-backed militia are creating a new dynamic of conflict. Finally, the elevated role of Lebanese Hezbollah both in Iraq and generally, raises the spectrum of broader regional and global retaliation against American interests and the US itself.
In the end, the authors say, the US must make up it mind whether it wants to stay in the Middle East and block hostile players such as Iran (but also Moscow) from tipping the balance against Western interests. If it does, then using the weapon of assassinations is justified, despite what they describe as the ripple effect of regional instability in response to these measures: “Washington, now more than ever it must figure out what is worth fighting for in Iraq and what is not.”
It stands to reason that, had the US maintained a consistent strategy of its involvement in the region, “decapitation” as the authors refer to them, offer considerable tactical advantages: “In removing Soleimani, the US eliminated an Iranian center of gravity in Iraq and disrupted Iranian influence but its strategic benefit has been less clear. Iran is having difficulty replacing Soleimani and al Muhandis. Yet attacks against U.S. forces have persisted largely unabated.”
The article concludes: “Until the factors of regional instability and the potential for more global violence are clearer, it is difficult to assess whether the decapitation offered more strategic results.”