For now there’s still a line of separation.
We’re supplying Iraq with Hellfire missiles and surveillance drones. The CIA will do the targeting and the US will supply the weapons, but we won’t be the ones directly pulling the triggers.
The line seems to exist more for political reasons than practical ones.
The United States is quietly rushing dozens of Hellfire missiles and low-tech surveillance drones to Iraq to help government forces combat an explosion of violence by a Qaeda-backed insurgency that is gaining territory in both western Iraq and neighboring Syria.
The move follows an appeal for help in battling the extremist group by Iraqi Prime Minister Nouri al-Maliki, who met with President Barack Obama in Washington last month.
But some military experts question whether the patchwork response will be sufficient to reverse the sharp downturn in security that has already led to the deaths of more than 8,000 Iraqis this year, 952 of them Iraqi security force members, according to the United Nations, the highest level of violence since 2008.
The surge in violence stands in sharp contrast to earlier assurances from senior Obama administration officials that Iraq was on the right path, despite the failure of US and Iraqi officials in 2011 to negotiate an agreement for a limited number of US forces to remain in Iraq.
In a March 2012 speech, Antony Blinken, who is currently Obama’s deputy national security adviser, asserted that “Iraq today is less violent” than “at any time in recent history.”
Obama didn’t have much of a plan for Iraq post-withdrawal, but he can safely claim that there were no good options. But Syria is entirely his fault. He chose to back the Arab Spring and then spent years flirting with the Sunni opposition, partially arming them and suggesting that he would one day intervene.
Iraq wouldn’t have be as bad as it is now if Syria hadn’t melted down.
Al Qaeda’s regional affiliate, the Islamic State in Iraq and Syria, has become a potent force in northern and western Iraq. Riding in armed convoys, the group has intimidated towns, assassinated local officials and, in an episode last week, used suicide bombers and hidden explosives to kill the commander of the Iraqi army’s 7th Division and more than a dozen of his officers and soldiers as they raided a Qaeda training camp near Rutbah.
There’s a countdown on for Iraq turning into Syria. It would take even less because all the combatants are already armed and parts of Iraq are separately ruled in all but name.
Iraq’s foreign minister has floated the idea of having US-operated, armed Predator or Reaper drones respond to the expanding militant network. But al-Maliki, who is positioning himself to run for a third term as prime minister and who is sensitive to nationalist sentiment at home, has not formally requested such intervention.
The idea of carrying out such drone attacks, which might prompt the question of whether the Obama administration has succeeded in bringing the Iraq War to what the president has called a “responsible end,” also appears to have no support in the White House.
Again, Obama is making security decisions for political reasons. So instead we’re doing an awkward dance around actually using Predators in Iraq.
For now, the new lethal aid from the United States, which Iraq is buying, includes a shipment of 75 Hellfire missiles, delivered to Iraq last week. The weapons are strapped beneath the wings of small Cessna turboprop planes and fired at militant camps with the CIA secretly providing targeting assistance.
In addition, 10 ScanEagle reconnaissance drones are expected to be delivered to Iraq by March. They are smaller cousins of the larger, more capable Predators that used to fly over Iraq.
US intelligence and counterterrorism officials say they have effectively mapped the locations and origins of the Qaeda network in Iraq and are sharing this information with the Iraqis.
Administration officials said the aid was significant because the Iraqis had virtually run out of Hellfire missiles. The Iraqi military, with no air force to speak of and limited reconnaissance of its own, has a very limited ability to locate and quickly strike Al Qaeda militants as they maneuver in western and northern Iraq. The combination of US-supplied Hellfire missiles, tactical drones and intelligence is intended to augment that limited Iraqi ability.
What it’s really doing is clumsily duplicating the Predator setup, without actually giving them Predators, which is smart because anything you give Iraq, you also give Iran.
But clumsily outsourcing Predator strikes means that intelligence moves much more slowly and is more vulnerable to leaks on the other side. It also means that Al Qaeda and Iran both get a preview of our intelligence resources.
So it’s a bad solution that’s meant to keep Obama at arm’s length from the I word.
“The real requirement today is for a long-range, high endurance armed drone capability,” added Knights, who frequently travels to Iraq. “There is one place in the world where Al Qaeda can run a major affiliate without fear of a US drone or air attack and that is in Iraq and Syria.”
And that’s because Obama fears alienating the rebels in Syria and getting too close to Iraq before the 2014 elections.