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General McKenzie Argues to Stay in Iraq & Syria. Does His Argument Hold up to Strategic Logic?

Updated: Apr 13

This article is part of Strategy Central's mission to assist the national security community in developing, implementing, and evaluating strategy. It is by practitioners, for practitioners.




This week, Strategy Central examined the February 17, 2024, article by General Kenneth F. McKenzie Jr. (USMC Ret) published in the New York Times. We deeply respect General McKenzie and honor his service to the nation. However, we found his strategic logic in keeping U.S. forces in Iraq and Syria problematic. We review and analyze his article and offer constructive criticism on the logical underpinnings of his argument.

By Monte Erfourth

Strategy Central - February 23, 2024




It is Not Time for Our Troops to Leave the Middle East

By Kenneth F. McKenzie Jr. (14th commander of U.S. Central Command)

February 14, 2024

New York Times


The former USCENTCOM Commander General Kenneth F. McKenzie Jr. (USMC Ret) argues that U.S. forces should remain in Iraq and Syria to counter the resurgence of ISIS and Iranian-backed militias. He emphasizes the strategic importance of U.S. presence in deterring adversaries, securing prisons holding ISIS fighters, and supporting local forces. General McKenzie highlights the withdrawal risks, including the potential for ISIS to re-establish itself and the negative regional impact of perceived American withdrawal. He advocates for a clear commitment to stay, underpinned by strategies to deter, deflect, and defeat attacks on U.S. forces, ensuring the U.S. defends its interests from a position of strength abroad.





The following are excerpts from the General's article:

1)         “The attack in Jordan was the clear, foreseeable result of our tepid responses to more than 150 attacks against U.S. forces in Syria and Iraq since October. 

2)         “(Iraq and U.S. discussions about withdrawing U.S. forces) can be seriously damaging to U.S. interests in the region. It gives hope to Tehran that it is succeeding in its long-term goal of ejecting the United States from the region through its proxy militias.” 

3)         “A firm commitment to keeping our troops in Syria and an additional, nuanced commitment to work with the Iraqi government to find a mutually agreeable force level in that country.”

4)         "It is reasonable to assume that our troop presence in Iraq will decrease as negotiations continue with the government and will shift to a more normal security cooperation arrangement that will require fewer U.S. forces."

5)         "Our long-term goal in fighting ISIS in this part of the world has always been to get to the point that local security forces will be able to assume primary responsibility for preventing attacks."

6)         "We also need to bear in mind that a platform in Iraq is a precondition for maintaining our forces in Syria."

7)         "In the end, American troops are in Syria and Iraq to prevent ISIS from being able to attack our homeland." 

8)         "Leaving is not a choice that should made lightly, but staying is not a good choice, either, unless we can end the attacks on our troops. It is still unclear whether we will be able to do this, and a stream of U.S. casualties will make it increasingly hard to stay. If we want to remain, we must effectively deter, deflect, and defeat attacks on U.S. forces by Iranian-backed groups."

9)         “I believe it is best to stay the course and to defend our homeland abroad rather than at home.”


When boiled down to its essence, the message is:


The U.S. must stay in Iraq and Syria to prevent ISIS from taking control of ungoverned space from which they could attack the homeland. Talks with the Iraqi government about a withdrawal of U.S. forces and our lack of response to attacks embolden Iran and its militias. If Iran is undeterred, their attacks will drive our forces out, and ISIS will take control of the ungoverned space and use it to attack the U.S. homeland.

We can restate General McKenzie’s argument by applying the ends, ways, and means strategy construct:

·      The end: Prevent ISIS attacks on the homeland (from Syria/Iraq specifically, in this case, which is a "deny safe haven" objective). 

·       The ways/means: Use U.S. troops to train local security forces to deny enemy space to generate attacks on the homeland. Presence in Iraq is necessary for presence in Syria.

·       Primary Assumption: The approach is only effective if Iranian-backed attacks on U.S. troops are deterred, as U.S. casualties make staying untenable.


Our analysis suggests that this approach is flawed for four reasons:

I.                  McKenzie’s proposed approach relies on the assumption that U.S.-trained Iraqi and Syrian security forces can suppress or eradicate ISIS militias once fully trained. However, there is little successful precedent to support this assumption.

II.               McKenzie suggests the United States can use the right combination of its national power to deter Iran and its militias from firing at American military personnel. This assumes independent militias are directly controlled by Iran, which they are not in most cases.

III.            McKenzie assumes that ISIS will attack the United States from Iraqi or Syrian space, despite the terrorist group not having done so in the past. The General assumes the conditions for the rise of ISIS are the same as in the past, even though local populations familiar with ISIS are not supportive of the group’s return.[1] Lastly, no report addresses the impact of a total U.S. departure or the threat to the U.S. within the next few years, so assertions about attacks on the homeland are speculative.[2]

IV.           If Iranian attacks on U.S. troops persist, McKenzie indicates that staying becomes an untenable choice, which provides Iran with a clear path to oust the U.S. presence even with a full set of U.S. deterrence measures and an end to negotiations with the Iraqi government.


Iraq's Prime Minister Mohammed Shia al-Sudani seeks a quick, negotiated exit of U.S.-led military forces from Iraq without setting a specific deadline. He described the U.S. presence as destabilizing, especially amid the regional tensions due to the Gaza war.[3] Iraq has demanded the withdrawal of our forces from Iraq under pressure from Shia militia groups considered part of Iraq's defense and supported by Iran. These Shia groups are firing rockets and conducting drone attacks against U.S. forces and are coming under return fire. The Iraqi government believes this could ignite a larger war in Iraq that they want to avoid. 


The U.S. government is currently negotiating and wants to slow down the process of leaving, which means it could take two to five years.[4] Is that enough time to prepare Iraqi and SDF forces to fight ISIS on their own? Despite withdrawing from Iraq 15 years ago and the country maintaining its democracy—a success—it has become significantly influenced by Iran—a setback. The U.S. has trained Iraqi Security forces for over twenty years, and they remain incapable of fending off ISIS on their own. They continue to need U.S. support, but the U.S. cannot remain against the Iraqi government’s wishes. According to Mrs. Singh, the DoD spokesperson, three factors that impact the withdrawal of U.S. forces include the current nature of the threat from ISIS, operational and environmental requirements, and Iraqi security forces‘ capability levels.  Time will tell how long before U.S. forces are withdrawn, but it looks like several years in the future and the correct set of variables are being considered for the mission to revert to the routine Security Cooperation mission found in most countries.[5]


If Mrs. Singh’s comments mean another five years before the Iraqi army can stand on its own, it will have taken 25 years to get there.  A markedly similar situation is occurring in Syria. After a decade of building and supporting the SDF (to fight the Syrian regime and ISIS), we have not accomplished the objective of an independent SDF, a securely detained camp of ISIS prisoners that can continue under local control, and local governments seem ill-equipped to manage the looming humanitarian crisis of displaced Iraqi and Syrian refugees who are mostly families of the detained ISIS fighters. The small number of coalition forces keeping these plates spinning are working miracles daily.


If our doctrinal approach to train local defense forces to work with and eventually replace us takes twenty-five or more years to achieve, is it a viable option? How long should it take to be replaced? Why are they not ready? In both Syria and Iraq, ISIS persists, albeit significantly weakened. Is it feasible for an empowered intelligence agency to continue "mowing the grass" and support the SDF without U.S. military personnel on the ground? It is possible, but not probable that a clandestine service might achieve the same outcomes with similar risks. There are few other good choices. Knowing the Americans will stay as long as their local forces appear unable to combat terrorism is a well-worn game across the Middle East. There is a "damned if you stay, damned if you leave" quality to the Iraq and Syria situation.


Behind the request by Iraq for the withdrawal of U.S. forces (besides Iran) is the failed U.S. strategic objective to maintain access, placement, and influence with the Iraqi government. In short, Iran beat us to it. The failure to maintain the upper hand on Iran's relationship with the Iraqi government has resulted in a dilemma where we might lose the relationship with the democracy we helped establish. As a result, we will lose the ability to perpetually contain ISIS in Iraq and Syria with our forces and the “never ready for prime time” crew of locals. Our presence in these countries does offer a possible check against Iranian expansion, but it is paid for in American lives. Can we tell the Iraqi government that we will not leave? The answer is no.  Unfortunately, Iran is calling the shots in Iraq, not us, and that is a strategic failure. It is likely this point that prompted General McKenzie to pen his article. However, Iranian control is the consequence of our toppling Saddam’s regime and happened well before our current Presidential Administration. Negotiating the terms of our departure is not what is driving the power dynamic between Iran, the United States, and Iraq.  That die was cast in 2003.


While not stated, it appears General McKenzie is relying on the theory of "denying safe haven." In 2011, the National Military Strategic Plan stated:


"One of the most important resources to extremists is safe haven. Safe havens provide the enemy with relative freedom to plan, organize, train, rest, and conduct operations."[6] This theory has appeared in almost every top-level national strategy since the W. Bush administration. In short, the theory proposes that under/ungovernable spaces provide terrorist networks the time and space necessary to grow and become capable of launching attacks against the United States and friendly nations. By eradicating these terrorists through and with indigenous forces, the United States can reduce terrorist threats and

the risk of attack.[7] 


This reliance on indigenous forces and control of geography sounds effective in theory but leads to flawed logic in application. The failure is in overgeneralizing and expanding what is a safe haven and then believing we can do something about the millions of square miles across several continents this represents.


In the face of this massive geographic challenge, the U.S. has settled on a war of attrition with groups we think are operating in these safe havens. "Mowing the grass" is the euphemism for targeting these groups and has been expensive and, in some cases, counterproductive.  Furthermore, this approach is fundamentally based on a negative as proof. We take out commanders and capabilities, but we also stoke hatred and often find the collateral damage creates more combatants than we killed. It is a vexing problem because terrorism is permanent, and "mowing the grass" is a short-term solution meant to take pressure off local governments, thereby giving them time to improve their security forces to resist the terrorists. The pressure remains. The local forces can rarely take on the problem or are the problem, and the U.S. only gets a temporary reprieve from the threat of attack. How long is this sustainable? 


In over twenty years of fighting terror, could we find any better way to solve the problem? Many methods have been tried. Counter Insurgency, Irregular Warfare, Unconventional Warfare, Counter Terror, Security Cooperation, Foreign Internal Defense, and all the other asymmetric doctrines have been tried with varying degrees of success and failure. Maybe a lack of imagination led us to believe that the large swaths of the earth where governance is weak, and terrorists are plentiful could be dominated by our forces and those we train. Perhaps if we say it enough times, the locals we train for years on end will become sufficient for the task without our intervention. It happens occasionally, but only for short periods and with sustained support by our best special operators. As of this writing, there is scant evidence to justify the automatic listing of "deny safe haven" in our national strategic documents as our best hope to limit attacks on the homeland. 


"Deny safe haven" could be considered the "Domino Theory" of our times. While influenced by communism, simply having a communist Vietnam did not mean all Southeast Asia would fall like dominos to its siren song. We paid a heavy price for believing this theory. What is needed is data collection, examination, analysis, and honest accounting of sound "deny safe haven" theory, where it can work, if it can work, and if we should abandon it or reform it. This theory is an ideal path to strategic exhaustion. We could throw our entire military into this enormous pit and see no appreciable result. One could argue that has already been done.



For a prime example of  “denying a safe haven“ in the application, we need to look no further than Afghanistan. After twenty years, we did not have the trust of the Afghan government, nor did we trust them. The Afghan army we built for twenty years with our NATO allies crumbled in months. Did the Afghan people trust that the United States would remain in Afghanistan, supporting and sustaining all manner of governance and civic programs in perpetuity? President Trump negotiated a U.S. withdrawal from Afghanistan with the Taliban without inviting the Afghan government. A plus-up of 2,500 or 4,500 forces would not repair the lack of trust between the U.S. and Afghan governments, nor would it be a permanent solution to hold back the Taliban’s triumphant return. 


By early spring of 2021, President Biden declared we would withdraw our forces and end the military mission in Afghanistan. At the time, General McKenzie was the U.S. Central Command Commander.  Before the President’s announcement, General McKenzie requested 2,500 forces remain behind, but the President denied the request.  General McKenzie might have been looking for a delaying tactic and hoping chance would favor future U.S. military actions against the Taliban march to Kabul. Most commanders would want that. No general wants to be the one to withdraw an army from the field without a victory.


The "field," in this case, was a small corner of a country we were supposed to pacify for the safety of our homeland—the entire country, not a sliver. The primary strategic objective was to establish a stable, democratic, and self-sufficient Afghanistan government with security forces able to defend national sovereignty. The nation was to be free of Al Qaeda and strong enough to resist the return of the Taliban. This objective was unachievable and should have been known to the General. The only plausible objective should have been an orderly withdrawal. Twenty years of strategic mismanagement meant wanting to stay was an act of futility and denial of reality by 2021.


Reading the Afghanistan Papers: The Secret History of War 8, one can see that delusion, hubris, and lies are the hallmarks of the entire U.S. government's effort to prevent attacks on the U.S. homeland coming from Afghanistan. To quote from the book:


“Richard Boucher, the State Department's chief spokesman at the start of the war, says the United States "foolishly tried to do too much and never settled on a realistic exit strategy." In effect, the United States set an impossible goal: to replicate U.S. practices in many ways. "[They were] trying to build a systematic government à la Washington, DC in a country that does not operate that way."[8]


This is also true of our efforts to build the Afghan army, the economy, and a new set of cultural and social norms.  It is hard to read this book if you served there or participated in the support of this war from any headquarters or major staff. Afghanistan was a moral, political, and military failure.  But there are lessons to be learned.


We spent twenty years, the lives of over 2,300 service members, more than 4,000 contractors, and an estimated $2.313 trillion to "deny a safe haven" to Al Qaeda from which they could launch another attack on our homeland.[9]  We suffered a botched withdrawal that likely (partly) inspired Vladimir Putin to invade Ukraine, given the perceived American weakness. Again, all of this transpired to deny safe haven in Afghanistan to a terrorist organization. The failure to test this theory with accurate data and analysis is hard to fathom. Do we still believe this is a sound theory?


Given this background, one can have deep sympathy for General McKenzie's support of U.S. forces in present-day Iraq and Syria and his call to protect better and support them.

However, does his logic for maintaining a U.S. military presence make sense? Are we going to defend the homeland from attack by denying safe haven to ISIS in Iraq and Syria like we did in Afghanistan?   Returning to General McKenzie's argument, he implies there is little reason to believe in the success of his approach because Iran has a clear way to defeat it. Despite this, we should do it anyway because fighting them over there is better than here.   


This makes little strategic sense. Historical evidence indicates the Iraqis and SDF will not be able to defeat ISIS on their own, even with decades of U.S. training.   Additionally, it is not clear whether ISIS will attack our homeland if they carve out operational space for themselves. They are a determined and fanatical group that could try but face a strong headwind to get there.  An enduring U.S. tactical mission is about the least likely action that will prevent ISIS from pursuing its goals.[10] The evidence does not seem to support the General’s argument.


If the General’s article is strategic messaging, it suggests the White House stop negotiations and advance deterrence. Still, even if they did, Iran only needs a few American casualties to force a U.S. withdrawal. If it is strategic advice, the General offers something ineffective and easily defeated. If our best, brightest, and most experienced are short on answers, it is hard to see how we will ever develop a winning strategy for combating terrorism. The likely first step is to collectively stop lying to ourselves and start questioning, testing, analyzing, and wargaming our theories. If reality keeps demonstrating that your theory does not yield the results expected, then it is time to fact-check the old one and develop new ones for testing. We can correct this problem, but like any addicted person, we have to admit we have the problem first.



[7] The Office of the Deputy Assistant Secretary of Defense for Policy Planning developed a full report on Denying Safe Havens in 2008. See the full report at:

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