When will the U.S. send drones to Iraq? The question won’t go away


An MQ-1 Predator drone soars over a desert landscape in this undated photograph released by the U.S. Air Force. REUTERS/U.S. Air Force/Lt Col Leslie Pratt/Handout

The metastasizing security crisis in Iraq is shaking up an old argument in Washington: Instead of taking criticism for using aerial drones to target perceived terrorist threats, the White House is now taking tough questions about why it hasn’t approved their usage in Iraq to help fight a powerful offshoot of al-Qaeda.

Iraq’s desire for armed drones like the Predator and Reaper emerged clearly in May. Prime Minister Nouri al-Maliki’s requested them himself in a May 11 meeting with U.S. diplomats and Gen. Lloyd J. Austin III, the head of U.S. Central Command, which oversees military operations in the Middle East, the New York Times reported Thursday.

Maliki reportedly indicated then that he was prepared to allow the United States to carry out strikes using warplanes or drones. Neither occurred, however, and jihadist fighters with the Islamic State of Iraq and Syria have continued to capture new ground since, especially in the cities of Mosul and Tikrit and surrounding areas this week.

U.S. officials, speaking on condition of anonymity, said the the United States is now considering sending drones to Iraq. President Obama, who was asked at a news conference about the possible use of drones in Iraq, and said that his administration is examining its options and already has provided additional military equipment and intelligence to the Iraqi military.

He acknowledged that the downward spiral in Iraq this week shows the country needs more help.

“My team is working around the clock to identify how we can provide the most effective assistance to them,” Obama said. “I don’t rule out anything, because we do have a stake in making sure that these jihadists are not getting a permanent foothold in either Iraq or Syria, for that matter.”

But Obama also pointed out the complicated nature of politics in Iraq, and said that the lack of trust between Sunni and Shiite leaders there accounts for some of the weaknesses of the central government and military.

“This should be also a wake-up call for the Iraqi government,” he said. “There has to be a political component to this so that Sunni and Shia who care about building a functioning state that can bring about security and prosperity to all people inside of Iraq come together and work diligently against these extremists. And that is going to require concessions on the part of both Shia and Sunni that we haven’t seen so far.”

Obama added that “we’re not going to be able to be everywhere all the time,” and is still interested in establishing a counterterrorism fund that will allow the United States to provide assistance to partner countries “without sending U.S. troops to play Whac-a-Mole wherever there ends up being a problem in a particular country.”

That is unlikely to appease everyone. In one example, retired Army Lt. Gen. James Dubik advocated providing more air power to Iraq now to make sure it can stop ISIS’s offensive.

“What is needed is a coordinated air and ground action consisting of both a heavy dose of precisely applied firepower and a sufficiently executed ground defensive,” Dubik said in an opinion piece published by The Washington Post. “The Iraqis are incapable of such action alone. The firepower will have to be delivered by United States and allied aircraft augmented by Iraqi assets.”

Dubik, who commanded U.S. troops in Iraq in 2007 and 2008, also advocated sending U.S. military advisers to Iraq to coordinate air support and create capable Iraqi military units.

“The advisory and support effort must be substantial enough to help the Iraqis conduct an initial defense and then plan and prepare a series of counter-offensive campaigns to regain lost areas,” he said. “This will be a multi-year effort, but it cannot become a second surge.”

Dan Lamothe covers national security for The Washington Post and anchors its military blog, Checkpoint.
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Dan Lamothe | June 12