The Problem with the Narrative of ‘Proxy War’ in Iraq
On May 7, Secretary of State Mike Pompeo made a surprise visit to Baghdad, warning Iraqi officials that the United States had a right to respond to attacks “by Iran or its proxies in Iraq or anywhere else.” His comments came after a month of escalating U.S.-Iranian tensions over the designation of Iran’s Revolutionary Guard Corps as a terrorist organization, renewed U.S. sanctions on Iran, and threats and counter-attacks in the Strait of Hormuz.
Just over a week later, the United States evacuated all non-essential U.S. personnel from Iraq on the grounds that Iranian-linked militias — embedded within a now-official Iraqi security force, the Popular Mobilization Force (PMF) — might have been on the verge of mounting an attack. The intelligence suggesting that these militias presented an increased threat was met with skepticism, including by Maj. Gen. Chris Ghika, second in command of the Combined Joint Task Force — Operation Inherent Resolve (CJTF-OIR). Analysts and U.S. officials alike questioned whether the United States was not so much inflating as overreacting to the threat because of the perceived association of these forces with Iran.
To be sure, these Iranian-linked groups are dangerous, and likely would have no qualms about launching rockets on U.S. embassies or consulates. Many of these militias would attack U.S. assets (and have before, for which some of them were designated as terrorists by the United States). However, even if these groups are worth watching, the recent escalation also illustrates how the narrative of proxy warfare can misdiagnose the nature of the threat and help escalate a geopolitical standoff based on what are in reality local actors’ strategic positionings and machinations.
Describing the bulk of the 150,000+ PMF (and their 50+ parliamentary allies) as “proxies” has become the default in Washington, with most media outlets and many analysts describing them as so without second thought. The head of the Iran’s Quds Force, Qassem Sulaimani, has been described as a “puppet master” preparing proxy militias to wage war against the United States and its allies in the region. However, Iran is not the only foreign actor that tries to use its funding and relationships of support to influence events on the ground in Iraq. In Baghdad, if someone is talking about a proxy war, they’re usually talking about U.S. efforts to assert influence over Iraqi actors (and often not in a flattering light). The United States has its own partners in Iraq, including a long-standing relationship with Iraqi security forces, particularly with Iraq’s premier security forces, the Counter-Terrorism Forces, and a friendly if not immutable partnership with Kurdish leadership and some Sunni tribal leaders. But more often, when Iraqis accuse the United States of using Iraqi territory as a proxy battleground, they point to the bellicose rhetoric of the Trump administration. In Dec. 2018, President Donald Trump said the United States would use its base in Anbar governorate to keep an eye on Iran: “We are watching,” he warned. This prompted outrage from Iraqi politicians and a proposal from the Iraqi Parliament to end the U.S. presence. The incident became the subject of competing narratives of proxy war (or not): While Iraqi actors protested the notion that the United States would use Iraq’s territory to wage war on others, some reporting simplistically portrayed the controversy and the parliamentary proposal as another example of Iran’s proxy influence, with “pro-Iran factions” using the situation to evict U.S. troops.
Both perspectives probably contain elements of truth. But what gets lost in this narrative of proxy warfare is the extent to which foreign interests actually prevail over the parochial interests of the actors on the ground. Do outside powers — Iran, the United States, and (to a lesser extent) Turkey — have genuine proxies in Iraq that will do their bidding? Does the fact that Iraqi groups are trained by, equipped by, and aligned with outside powers make them proxies, acting at the behest of the supporting power? Should those groups’ actions be interpreted as provocations by Iran, and conversely, are they legitimate targets against which to strike in retaliation for actual Iranian provocations? We have spent the last few months examining U.S.- and Iranian-linked groups in Iraq for a project on the Future of Proxy Warfare (a joint initiative of New America and Arizona State University’s Center on the Future of War). It is undeniable that many groups have had close ties to outside powers (not limited to the United States and Iran) since the fall of the Ba’ath regime or even before. However, under closer scrutiny, it’s unclear whether these partner or support relationships can accurately be described as “proxies.”
The forces at the center of the recent controversy, whom U.S. officials and commentators have framed as Iran’s proxies in Iraq, are a number of leading Shi’a forces within the PMF. The PMF draws from a range of groups, ethnicities, and constituencies, but the leadership of the organization — those managing affiliated groups, directing operations, and steering it toward increasing political power — largely consists of a number of Shi’a militia forces that existed before 2014 (when the PMF was formed) and have long-standing ties to Iran. Groups like Katai’b Hezbollah (Hezbollah Brigades), the Badr Organization, Asa’ib Ahl al-Haq (League of the Righteous), the Nujaba Force, and the Khorasani Brigades have received substantial training, arms, and direction from Iran, some for decades now. Iran undoubtedly still provides support to these forces, but how much this translates to control is a point of debate. Nonetheless, these leading PMF forces and figures make no secret of their love for Iran and hatred for the United States. In a 2013 New Yorker interview, Hadi al-Amri, the head of the Badr Organization and arguably the most powerful figure in the PMF, declared, “I love Qassem Suleimani!” and called him “my dearest friend.”
However, as the United States can attest, a common worldview and substantial funding does not always translate into getting another state or substate actor to do your bidding. The political and security dynamics in Iraq are different than they were in 2007, and the type of control that would constitute a proxy relationship is much harder to attain. On the one hand, it is now more difficult for any one actor to control the local situation due to the proliferation of security forces and the fragmentation of the security sector and of overall state control since 2014. Full proxy manipulation is also harder because of a resurgence of Iraqi nationalism — recent gains in security, the country’s collective experience of facing down the ISIL threat, and the failure of purely sectarian or identity-based appeals in the last elections have together created a moment in which being seen as the puppet of a foreign government has significant political costs. In addition, because ISIL’s takeover and eventual expulsion upset the political balance, Iraq is in a state of political flux, with political control and power very much up for grabs. As a result, Iraqi actors, consumed with internal competition, pay much more heed to what they need to do for political survival than what foreign backers might want of them. External influence is present, but in most situations it is overshadowed by internal, domestic political considerations. This holds true even with those groups most frequently alleged to be proxies; the hardline, pro-Iranian forces within the PMF and their political arms. Most of these groups’ actions appear driven more by their internal group dynamics, ideology, and/or a sense of what was needed for their own survival and expansion.
In our research examining incidents or relationships frequently conflated with proxy warfare, we saw much less “patron” control than is typical in proxy relationships, and much greater evidence of local agency. Iraqi actors tended to explain their behavior in terms of local competition, not the desires of foreign patrons. A Sunni tribal leader who is close to al-Amri said he has Iranian advisors and also takes assistance from the Americans, but he’s not carrying out either’s agendas. He said he was just protecting the interests and people of his tribe. In interviews, senior representatives and commanders of the Iran-linked PMFs, including Badr, Asa’ib Ahl al-Haq, and the Khorasani Brigades, did not hesitate to confirm their support for Iran, but maintained that they decided where to deploy forces based on Iraqi government restrictions, security considerations, or their own view of the mission (for instance, protecting Shi’a communities). As one representative from Asa’ib Ahl al-Haq put it, “If you ask me honestly can Iran have an influence on the Hashd [the Iraqi term for the PMF] — yes, of course.” However, he continued: “Any discussion about movement of troops, and where they go — these are all Iraqi decisions.” With rising political power and influence, the domestic and national interests of these groups have sharpened. As one senior PMF official affiliated with Badr argued, “For sure most of the Hashd groups except the Shrine groups are pro-Iran. The influence of Iran is very real. But Badr does have its own identity as a national force and that’s getting stronger over time.”
Self-reporting by armed actors on their interests and intent can be unreliable, of course, but the militia’s actions appear to bear out their claims of autonomy, or at least of strongly pursuing their own interests. Those worried about an Iranian capture of the PMF tend to point to their increasing territorial and political dominance: The PMF hold key border and transit routes, are in de facto control of an increasing number of local areas and economic assets, and enjoyed big wins in the last Iraqi elections. A common theory for the PMF’s expansive territorial gains is that this is part of a larger Iranian strategy to enable access to Syria, and eventually Lebanon, as well as to consolidate control over Iraq. As International Crisis Group’s Joost Hiltermann wrote in 2017, the PMF territorial advances mean that if Soleimani “wanted to travel from Tehran to Beirut, he could now do so by car, driving through territory that, while not necessarily hospitable, is controlled by either Iranian proxies or allies, or by groups with which he could strike a tactical deal.”
Iran certainly does benefit from its local allies’ control of key border and transit points; however, the actors that have benefited the most are the PMF forces themselves. Control of key border posts and transit points have offered opportunities to capture revenue from cross-border trade and smuggling. Holding liberated territories has also allowed Iraqi militias to seize economic assets, accrue potential votes in election rounds, and generally expand their base and domestic political power. The same is true of the PMF’s political gains — yes, Iran benefits from having allies in the Iraqi Parliament, but the ones that benefited the most are the domestic actors (and their backers) who won the seats. There were also cases where Shi’a PMF appeared to be pursuing their own interests, against the wishes of Iran. Interviews with those close to the government formation process in 2018 suggest that Iran did not want Hadi al-Amri to put himself forward as Prime Minister (more out of pragmatism than because they disapproved of Amri), but he did so anyway. What this suggests is that while Shi’a PMF groups and Iran are in close alignment in terms of both ideology and interests, in many cases, the actions of Shi’a PMF groups are taken on the basis of their own calculations and initiative. Such actions may still undermine or threaten U.S. interests (not to mention those of other domestic Iraqi stakeholders) but that is a different issue from ascribing all PMF aggression to an Iranian-driven threat or response.
Our research suggests that rather than proxy manipulation, the idea of “convergence of interests” better captures the relationship between external powers and local actors. When we asked an Iraqi commentator close to Badr whether it was Iran or the PMF forces themselves driving the militias’ aggressive behavior in Diyala governorate, he responded, “The result is one and the same.” A senior European diplomat based in Baghdad said that whether Shi’a PMF forces or other Sunni tribal or Kurdish leaders were seen as cooperating with Iran, in his view it came down to a “convergence of interests between a lot of local actors and Iran — and need for deals to be done.”
This theory not only explains the relationship between more steadfast partners with shared ideological and strategic interests — like the Shi’a PMF and Iran as well as that of the United States and Iraqi Counter Terrorism Service forces — but also the variations in less fixed relationships. For instance, whether actors from the Kurdistan Regional Government at any given moment activated their relationship with Iran or their longer-standing relationship with the United States has depended on the particular convergence of interests at that time. In short, with the political balance up for grabs after the ISIL crisis, Iraqi groups’ parochial political interests do push them to “make a deal” with external actors. It is not that external influence is absent in Iraq, but that its role and the degree of proxy competition can be overstated. Foreign backers do not fully control those they support all, or possibly even most of, the time, and many of the actions by those framed as “proxy forces” are not foreign countries’ directives, but simply their own decision-making, more often driven by domestic political calculations than foreign rivalries.
Understanding that Iraqi security actors act more often on their own calculations is a crucial element in assessing the degree of the Iranian threat (or not), and for de-escalating the current situation. On May 5, the White House announced that it was deploying aircraft carriers to the Persian Gulf and additional bombers to the region to be in position to counter a potential threat by Iran or its “proxy forces.” Our interviews in Iraq suggest that whatever Iran may have thought of this move, Shi’a PMF forces in Iraq certainly interpreted it as a threat of direct action against them (their fears may have been justified, given the number of veiled threats against these groups from U.S. figures such as National Security Advisor John Bolton and Senator Marco Rubio). Local sources suggest that following the U.S. announcement, some PMF forces adjusted their positions and force assets so that they were themselves in a more direct strike position to U.S. bases and interests in Iraq. One commander close to al-Amri framed the thinking as more defensive than offensive, aimed at getting the PMF troops “out of the barracks” to reduce vulnerability and put them in position to retaliate against any U.S. attack.
Regardless of how they intended the move, such a repositioning could certainly have appeared to target U.S. assets. Even if the moves were designed as a responsive deterrent rather than a direct threat, they could still have presented a higher risk. If nothing else, none of these groups have perfect command and control and there’s always the risk that a local force commander could decide to fire off his own response to U.S. saber-rattling. A week after the evacuation of personnel, in fact, there was a rocket attack on the Green Zone (which some attributed to the PMF group Kata’ib Hezbollah, despite being claimed by a previously unknown group). However, perhaps further supporting the point that these Shi’a forces may not have been intending an attack and were instead seeking to forestall or deescalate threats, when the rocket attack happened, key Shi’a militia leaders denied responsibility and argued that they were being unfairly dragged into a war. Qais al-Khazali, the leader of Asa’ib Ahl al-Haq, tweeted in protest against operations that “give pretexts for war.” The Associated Press reported that Khazali and other Shi’a PMF leaders warned “against attempts to pull their country into a war between the U.S. and Iran.”
The United States and the PMF now find themselves in a classic “security dilemma,” in which actions designed to decrease or defend against a threat can instead increase it by causing the other side to also ratchet up security measures or threat postures. Though both sides may view their actions as defensive, they’ve been interpreted by the opposite party as a threat and escalated the standoff further. Although this is in part to do with mixed signals, U.S. reactions have also been muddled by viewing these forces solely as Iranian proxies. Viewing all of these militias’ actions or threat postures as being controlled by and engineered by Iran has meant that any individual counter-response or deterrence by forces on the ground, however rational or irrational, are viewed as an Iranian aggression or response, potentially further escalating geopolitical tensions. On the flip side, treating these forces as an extension of Iran and suggesting that they are therefore also a target could provoke further counter-measures and even aggression on the ground in Iraq. Instead, to deescalate both the local and geopolitical tensions, it is important to differentiate the source and nature of the threat. While no one doubts that Iran (and the United States) are able and willing to exert some influence over security actors in Iraq, these militias are still their own actors first and foremost. Our research shows that in most scenarios, domestic agency and the groups’ own political and strategic calculations explain their actions better than the simplistic narrative of external puppeteering. Overplaying that connection and the idea of Iran’s “proxies” will lead to further mistaken signals and escalating conflict, to the detriment of both U.S. and Iraqi security.
Douglas Ollivant is an ASU Senior Fellow at New America and a Managing Partner of Mantid International.
Erica Gaston is a non-resident fellow at New America and the Global Public Policy institute, and a PhD candidate at the University of Cambridge.
Image: Mahmoud Hosseini