After several years of discussions between the two governments, the first package of US drone material made its way to Baghdad last week and ahead of its 2014 schedule. The possibility of drone-aid has surfaced periodically in response to al-Qaeda’s ongoing campaign and the violence that continues to plague Iraq, with options ranging from material assistance to a fleet of MQ-9 Reapers that would be flown by US personnel. Given the potential for political backlash, Prime Minister Nouri Al-Maliki has currently settled for Hellfire missiles to arm his squadron of Beechcraft Super King Air turboprops and Cessnas.
Unfortunately this decision, even at its beginning stage, makes less sense from a strategic perspective and is mostly attributable to power politics.
Consider the run-up to this bilateral decision: the US government enters a war under false pretenses, underestimates the mission and proceeds to engage in the under-resourced occupation of a foreign country. Following eight years of countless losses and ambiguous gains, US combat troops were forced to exit when the two governments failed to reach a new Status of Forces Agreement (SOFA) before its expiration in December 2011. Among other objectionable demands from the Obama administration: immunity for those US soldiers that would form a residual combat force (estimated between 5,000 and 20,000 personnel).
Nouri al-Maliki, already an unpopular figure and now checked by both Sunni and Shia forces – namely the shrewd cleric Muqtada al-Sadr – lacked the political ability to push a favorable deal through Iraq’s parliament.
US defense officials lamented the “missed opportunity” to secure a longer foothold, seemingly unconcerned with the country’s political dynamics.
Iraq’s situation would, predictably, turn for the worst in 2012. Emboldened by America’s telegraphed departure and the shift of emphasis towards Afghanistan, al-Qaeda’s cells began to reemerge into a disenchanted Sunni population and pick up their operations. 2010’s controversial parliamentary election aided their subversion when the Obama administration backed a second term for al-Maliki. In exchange, the premier was supposed to hand over his personal control of the Interior and Defense ministries, as well as create a position of national security for the election’s main challenger, Ayad Allawi. However al-Maliki kept a firm hold on the Ministry of Interior, defaulted on his commitments to Allawi’s Iraqiya party and launched a political campaign against his allies.
Low-intensity violence has burned every day between Iraq’s political fissures.
In short, the US entered a war due to Saddam Hussein’s alleged involvement with al-Qaeda and the 9/11 hijackers. No weapons of mass destruction or traces of al-Qaeda leadership were found. After eight years of misguided warfare, the US then began to withdraw from a country that now, in fact, houses a sizable al-Qaeda network. Throughout the period following America’s combat withdrawal, and especially during 2012’s presidential campaign, the Obama administration claimed that Iraq’s war had reached an end, a clever but morally bankrupt tactic that ignored the country’s harsher reality. Iraq’s violence had dropped from 2006-2007’s horrific level of 50,000+ casualties, but its war is unconventional by nature and thus not eligible for clean breaks.
Iraq Body Count put the estimate for 2012-2013 at nearly 14,000 fatalities and many more thousands wounded, with casualties doubling in 2013.
Unable to stem the rise in violence, Iraq’s government has requested U.S. aerial support to counter al-Qaeda’s resurgence in the western provinces, where the group’s members once more rove openly in armed convoys. The hope is that quieter ScanEagle drones and other UAVs will track al-Qaeda’s cells as they mobilize through a desert environment and across Syria’s border, and the US is obliging as part of its effort to continue fighting terrorism under the expired SOFA of 2011. The Obama administration has already sent three Aerostat balloons, proposed to lease Apache attack helicopters, and is preparing a shipment of F-16 fighter jets and 48 RQ-11 Ravens for 2014.
“The United States is committed to supporting Iraq in its fight against terrorism through the Strategic Framework Agreement,” Jen Psaki, a spokeswoman for the US State Department, explained of the decision. “The recent delivery of Hellfire missiles and an upcoming delivery of ScanEagles are standard foreign military sales cases that we have with Iraq to strengthen their capabilities to combat this threat.”
US security analysts were quick to point out that the Obama administration’s shipments lack the tools to help trim al-Qaeda’s revitalized network, except this focus ignores the bulk of non-military factors that largely dictate Iraq’s conflict. The precision usually afforded by machines cannot escape a jarring collision with misguided strategy – Iraq’s unfolding drone narrative makes as much sense as the rest of the war. Al-Maliki has chosen to mix security crackdowns between his slander in response to a year-long popular demonstration against him, merely exacerbating a deep-rooted political conflict. Al-Qaeda, in turn, remains viable due to Iraq’s unstable environment, where marginalized Sunnis have united (if only temporarily) with Shia and Kurdish protesters.
This situation locks Iraq’s citizens in the middle of a tug of war between al-Maliki, US and al-Qaeda’s influence.
“The sit-in tents in Anbar are part of a scheme to target the political process and they want a coup against the establishment,” al-Maliki recently announced during a news conference in Karbala, speaking through half-truths. “It has been revealed that terrorists are there. It has become imperative for us to settle the matter in the next few days and we won’t allow Anbar and its people to be at the mercy of murderers.”
A security sweep titled “Revenge of Commander Mohammed” is already underway in Anbar province after a roadside bomb killed Mohammed al-Khuri, an Iraqi officer that led a bloody security sweep in April. Protest organizers fear a spillover and vow to remain at their positions, pledging to defend themselves in the face of any aggression from al-Maliki’s side.
Instead of taking aim at the destabilizing political issues at work in Iraq and reversing the favoritism shown towards al-Maliki, the US has opted for the quicker, easier solution of Hellfire missiles and reconnaissance drones. Al-Maliki may not be so foolish as to deploy these weapons against Sunni, Shia and Kurdish protesters in the streets, but they do represent another bargaining chip that Washington has tossed to him. Furthermore, the possibility that a Hellfire missile will eventually hit a civilian target is very real, and the propaganda would be devoured by al-Qaeda in Iraq.
In the process of searching for immediate solutions, the Obama administration has decided to add a new element to Iraq’s long-term problems.
James Gundun is an American political scientist and analyst of netwar. His blog, The Trench, covers the underreported areas of US foreign policy and military activity. Updates on Twitter @RealistChannel.