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Opinions | The Trump administration rolls out Operation Backfire

The Washington Post logo The Washington Post 2020-01-06 David Ignatius
Mike Pompeo wearing a suit and tie: Secretary of State Mike Pompeo holds a news conference at the State Department on Dec. 11. (Saul Loeb/AFP Via Getty Images) © Saul Loeb/Afp Via Getty Images Secretary of State Mike Pompeo holds a news conference at the State Department on Dec. 11. (Saul Loeb/AFP Via Getty Images)

Editor’s note: The opinions in this article are the author’s, as published by our content partner, and do not necessarily represent the views of MSN or Microsoft.

If a real-life “Beetle Bailey” — the Mort Walker comic strip soldier who’s a perpetual grumbler and questioner of authority in the U.S. military — were to mutter a cynical assessment of what’s happened in the days since the killing of Iranian Maj. Gen. Qasem Soleimani, he might be tempted to call it “Operation Backfire.”

The big shots, led by President Trump and Secretary of State Mike Pompeo, have been talking tough about the resolute move they’ve made; meanwhile, the troops are hunkered down waiting for the rockets to land — and watching much of what they’ve been fighting for slip away into the swamp of abandoned military missions.

“Force protection” — meaning keeping our own troops safe from enemy fire — is the new order of the day following the killing of Soleimani, rather than training partners or fighting terrorist enemies. The military is devoting so many surveillance drones to watching for threats to U.S. personnel that it doesn’t have many left for other missions, such as pursuing the still-dangerous Islamic State.

Defense Secretary Mark T. Esper said Monday afternoon the Pentagon was “repositioning” troops, but he said the United States hadn’t made any decision to leave Iraq, rebutting a report earlier that had cited a draft letter that U.S. forces in Iraq would “prepare for onward movement.” At Beetle’s base at Camp Swampy, folks are scratching their heads.

Also watch: Pompeo goes on media blitz to defend Soleimani killing

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Officials fear that the Iranians, through proxies, may launch multiple reprisal attacks across the region, on a half-dozen or more U.S. military targets. The thousands of troops who are being sent into the region are mostly to help protect (and perhaps evacuate) the ones already there.

Pompeo on Sunday dismissed possible Iranian reprisals as “a little noise here in the interim.” Trump said of possible retaliation: “If it happens, it happens.” How would that sound to Beetle? Not so good, I suspect.

The stand-down message was sent Sunday by Operation Inherent Resolve, the Pentagon task force that’s overseeing operations against the remnants of the Islamic State in Iraq. If you read carefully, you’ll note that the official word is “pause” from a mission that has become too dangerous.

Also watch: How Trump’s administration defended his threat to strike Iranian cultural sites

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The statement notes that because of recent rocket attacks by an Iranian-backed militia called Kataib Hezbollah that killed Iraqi troops and a U.S. civilian, “we are now fully committed to protecting the Iraqi bases that host Coalition troops. This has limited our capacity to conduct training with partners and to support their operations against [the Islamic State] and we have therefore paused these activities, subject to continuous review.”

The same problem exists for U.S. soldiers training the Lebanese Armed Forces. They’re targets for retaliation by Iranian proxies now. Should they “pause,” too? That’s an issue that U.S. planners are weighing, even as Pompeo assures the country that “it’s very clear the world’s a safer place today” after the killing of Soleimani. U.S. operations in Bahrain, Kuwait, Saudi Arabia and the Red Sea are possible targets, too.

Also watch: ‘America is the enemy of God’: Calls for revenge at Soleimani funeral in Iraq

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America’s relationship with Iraq also looks like another casualty. Prime Minister Adel Abdul Mahdi had been trying to get a little distance from his Iranian neighbors and work more closely with Washington, up until a week ago. But on Sunday, after the Soleimani attack, he backed a law calling for “canceling” the alliance with the U.S. military and to “end the presence of any foreign forces in Iraqi territory” — i.e., U.S. forces.

The legislation wasn’t binding, so there was a little wiggle room, but Trump further humiliated Abdul Mahdi Sunday by threatening him with “sanctions like they’ve never seen before ever.”

This unraveling of U.S. military operations and partnerships didn’t have to happen, says Beetle, down in his foxhole. He’s read on the Internet that Abdul Mahdi told parliament that on the day Soleimani was killed at Baghdad airport, the general planned to visit the prime minister to deliver a response to a Saudi deescalation proposal. Wait a minute, says Beetle. Was that the “imminent” threat Pompeo was talking about? A meeting with a prime minister? Maybe the real intelligence is so sensitive and highly classified that it can’t be shared with the grunts, but Beetle has heard that before.

The last thing that bothers our imaginary cartoon soldier in the bunker, as he’s waiting for the shooting to start, is how the Iraqis he’s been mentoring seem genuinely angry with the United States. He’s read that the Shiite leadership in Najaf, Iraq, led by Grand Ayatollah Ali Sistani, was encouraging protesters who burned the Iranian consulate in Najaf just two months ago.

But now he reads that Mohammed Redha Sistani, the ayatollah’s son and closest adviser, escorted Soleimani’s body to the airport in Najaf for its flight to Tehran. Ammar al-Hakim, a member of a prominent Shiite clerical family that supported the United States before and after the 2003 invasion of Iraq, also joined the funeral procession. That sure sounds like a plan that backfired.

But what does Beetle know? He’s just a soldier. The big shots know best.

Read more:

Stephen Hadley: The Soleimani killing heightens the risk of war — but also opens doors to diplomacy

Josh Rogin: Trump’s dysfunctional foreign policy meets its biggest crisis

Masih Alinejad: Don’t believe Iranian propaganda about the mourning for Soleimani

Eugene Robinson: Welcome to Trump's war

The Post’s View: If deescalation with Iran is the goal, Trump is actively thwarting it

Michael Gerson: Trump’s Iran policy may be impulsive, but we should all hope it succeeds

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