Attacks on U.S. troops in Iraq and Syria have interrupted the Defense Department’s larger counter-ISIS mission in the region, according to an Inspector General report released Friday.

Combined Joint Task Force-Operation Inherent Resolve began in 2014 and consists of a global coalition of partners, including the U.S., dedicated to assisting regional security partners and aiding in the destruction of ISIS. In December 2021, the U.S. military announced the end of its combat role in Iraq and transitioned to a mission focused on training, advising, and assisting Iraqi special forces.

With continuously escalating violence in the region, including more than 150 attacks on U.S. troops since the Oct. 7, 2023 Hamas attack on Israel, the U.S. was distracted from counter-ISIS efforts, according to the IG report. 

“The combined effects of the Israel-Hamas conflict and the increased militia group attacks have resulted in a more challenging operational environment for the [Operation Inherent Resolve] campaign,” according to the IG report.

At the outset, the Pentagon sought to separate the war between Israel and Hamas from escalatory attacks on U.S. troops based in the region. But the IG report said that “militias sought to exert pressure on U.S. and Coalition forces as tension rose in the region” following Hamas’ Oct. 7 attack and Israel’s ground offensive.

Since Oct. 18, Iranian-backed militias have used a variety of one-way attack drones and rockets against U.S. and coalition forces in Iraq and Syria, including ballistic missiles that targeted an airbase in Iraq. U.S. troops have come under attack in more than 150 instances, which killed three soldiers and injured around 146 troops, a majority of whom suffered traumatic brain injuries.

The Defense Intelligence Agency also reported that daily attacks continued except during a brief halt that coincided with a “humanitarian pause” between Israel and Hamas in late November. Once the pause ended on Dec. 1, the groups resumed their attacks, according to DIA.

The Pentagon and White House statements have repeatedly referred to their military response as defensive in an effort to prevent wider regional escalation. However, the IG report found that the groups publicly threatened to expand their attacks to U.S. and coalition troops based in Kuwait and the UAE, according to DIA. None of the attacks were carried out.

Consequences for U.S. efforts in the region

By October, the Secretary of Defense had 2,000 U.S. troops in a “heightened state of readiness” and additional troops were given prepare-to-deploy orders. The Pentagon also sent two carrier strike groups, a Marine Expeditionary Unit, F-15 and F-16 fighter squadrons, and anti-missile batteries to the region.

The IG found that the increased attacks diverted attention and resources away from Operation Inherent Resolve and hindered momentum. Coalition officials have had to balance immediate security challenges while strengthening local partner capabilities for the long term, the IG said. 

“Changes due to the ‘new operating paradigm’ are primarily aimed at ensuring the safety and security of Coalition forces and maintaining stability in the region,” according to the report.

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Because of the attacks, U.S. military resources were diverted toward immediate threats and key leader engagements were delayed or canceled, according to the report. 

The U.S. also ordered the departure of certain embassy staff and the redeployment of service contractors that the embassy shared with Union III base in Baghdad which “degraded base operation systems.” 

In October, the State Department ordered 23% of Iraq personnel to depart but a majority of its security personnel remained. The departure order was extended to Feb 16.

The IG connected the embassy orders to interruptions in supply chains and slowed or prevented the distribution of material from the Counter-ISIS Train and Equip Fund to Iraqi security partners. 

Since 2014, the U.S. and coalition partners have conducted thousands of airstrikes against ISIS targets. But the IG reported that Iraqi security force airstrikes decreased due to poor weather, a reduction in ISR resources allocated to airstrikes, and a decrease in U.S. intelligence. However, there were no changes in the type or location of airstrikes, according to the report.

“The airstrike objectives were met but did not produce significant shifts in ISIS tactics, techniques or procedures,” the report said. 

As attacks on troops continued, threats to U.S. embassies “increased significantly” with threats of drones, and rocket and mortar attacks. The U.S. diplomatic center in Baghdad was hit by indirect fire in October and the U.S. embassy compound was hit by indirect fire in December.

Escalations also brought the Erbil consulate project to a standstill. Its original completion date was October 2024 for $795 million, but the IG said that the interruptions will likely lead to additional expenses and delay the project’s completion. According to the report, personnel are still waiting for approval to remobilize its construction workforce.

You can’t play offense if you’re always on defense

“It’s hard to see how troops are able to devote much bandwidth to fighting ISIS in the midst of protecting themselves,” said Brian Finucane, senior advisor for the International Crisis Group.

Finucane said that the report talks a lot about training the Free Syrian Army — their counter-smuggling and counter-narcotic operations — as well as securing the area from Iran-backed militias, “but not a lot about fighting ISIS” which is the main purpose and legal backing for U.S. troops stationed at al-Tanf in Syria.

“On the one hand, you have the administration characterizing U.S. presence at Tanf and by extension Tower 22 in Jordan where three soldiers were recently killed as being part of the Operation Inherent Resolve and part of the counter-ISIS effort,” he said. “On the other hand, you have the Inspector General provide a factual description which is very much different than that. It doesn’t describe anything that’s really counter-ISIS.”

Over two decades into the non-stop U.S. presence in the Middle East, many Americans are left with a variety of questions about what American troops are still doing there, and why they’re still in harm’s way.

“Why are American men and women in harm’s way at places like Tanf and Tower 22?” Finucane said. “Is the U.S. government being honest with the American public about why U.S. forces are located in these positions, and why they’re exposed to the fire, and why they got killed a little over a week ago in Jordan?”

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