But whether we are safer is just one of the many questions unleashed in the wake of Friday’s drone strike at the Baghdad airport, along with profound implications for the security of Americans abroad and here at home.
As the shadowy leader of the Quds Force — the external operations wing of Iran’s Islamic Revolutionary Guard Corps — Soleimani was behind mayhem from the Middle East to Asia and Latin America. The Quds Force also brazenly targeted our nation’s capital. As the head of the Justice Department’s National Security Division, I oversaw the investigation of the 2011 plot to murder the Saudi ambassador in a Washington restaurant designed at the behest of Soleimani’s Quds Force officers. And as President Barack Obama’s homeland security and counterterrorism adviser from 2013 to 2017, I chaired weekly national security meetings to assess threats to embassies and the U.S. response posture around the world — including threats from terrorists such as Iranian proxy forces that had been directed by Soleimani. The administration has said Friday’s strike was designed to deter threats to our personnel in the region. The administration should explain in greater detail what led to the strike, as an escalation of the threats we faced a few days ago is now all but certain. At least three steps require our immediate focus:
First, we should be preparing for a magnified threat to our people in Baghdad and across the Middle East. It will become increasingly hard to secure and sustain the diplomats and military personnel whose job is to work with the Iraqi government and our dwindling number of partners in the region. While Baghdad presents an immediate and obvious concern given the legions of pro-Iranian militia members (some of whom breached our embassy before the U.S. military targeted Soleimani), the threat to our personnel and American interests is much broader.
The Quds Force is a clandestine proxy force for Iran abroad — we should be stepping up protections for our embassies and American interests beyond the Middle East. Threats to our personnel warranted regular assessments of global hot spots and response force posture before Soleimani’s death. If the National Security Council wasn’t conducting those assessments on a regular basis before last week, it should be doing so today. And Congress should be getting briefed on those efforts.
Second, the most immediate threat here at home is from Iranian cyber forces who have targeted our financial sector and energy infrastructure. The intelligence community has told us that Iran has been positioning itself for future operations against the United States, including against critical infrastructure. We should anticipate more of the same and be prepared for Iran to dial it up this time. The Department of Homeland Security’s top cybersecurity official, Christopher Krebs, rightly took to Twitter following the strike to warn private-sector partners of the potential for Iranian retaliation. The cyberthreat from nation-states — including Iran — calls for a new mode of collaboration with the private companies that are now on the front lines in a game of geopolitical one-upmanship. But DHS is without key confirmed personnel, and the job of NSC cyber-coordinator — the quarterback of government-wide responses to global cyberthreats — was eliminated in 2018.
Finally, in a scenario such as this, chaos is the starring player across the entire region. The strike on Soleimani makes even more fraught the position of U.S. troops in Iraq, where the parliament has now voted in favor of a non-binding resolution for the eviction of U.S. forces. The loss of U.S. presence in Iraq would strengthen Iran’s hand there and compound the damage to our fight against the Islamic State from our abandonment of Kurdish partners last fall. While the Islamic State has been pushed out of much of the territory it once held, it has melted back into the population and seeks to capitalize on ungoverned space with insurgent attacks. Ungoverned space was oxygen for the Islamic State’s rise in 2014. Whatever else Soleimani’s death means, it is sure to add to chaos within Iraq and Syria, and that benefits the Islamic State.
We should be thankful that the world is rid of Soleimani. But, be careful what you wish for. We are in uncharted territory. The biggest question is whether we are prepared for whatever reaction this action will unleash.