The U.S. may be scrambling to send hellfire missiles, drones and other military gear to help Iraq's worsening security situation. But it may make only a minor impact there, experts and former officials say. And at the same time, the arms shipment raises uncomfortable questions about the future U.S.-Iraq security relationship for an Obama administration still smarting from its failed efforts in 2011 to keep troops in country.
The U.S. government confirmed Thursday that it had been rushing the military equipment into Iraq in an effort to help Prime Minister Nouri al-Maliki's government's struggle against a tide of violence at the hands of al-Qaida that has killed more than 8,000 Iraqis this year -- the worst year of violence since 2008, according to U.N. figures. The Obama administration is selling to Iraq 75 Hellfire air-to-ground missiles, and this spring is expected to sell the Iraqis about 10 Scan Eagle reconnaissance drones. Administration officials confirm that the Obama administration has also given Baghdad three sensor-laden Aerostat balloons -- the large, blimp-like sensors that were commonplace around large U.S. bases in Iraq during the heights of the war there. The U.S. government has also provided three additional reconnaissance helicopters to the Iraqi military and is expected to send 48 hand-held Raven reconnaissance drones by the end of next year, according to The New York Times, which first reported the story of the new lethal assistance to Iraq. The U.S. is also selling F-16 fighter jets to the Iraqis.
With Syria, North Korea, Afghanistan and Arab Spring countries all dominating Washington's foreign policy apparatus in recent years, Iraq, for all the attention it demanded for so long, has been all but forgotten. Earlier this fall, Iraqis had pushed the U.S. to provide armed drones to them as the threat posed by al-Qaida became more and more lethal. But the U.S. said it was not interested in helping to start a drone war over Iraq again -- an effort that would require U.S. troops to man the unmanned aerial vehicles and to train Iraqis. Joseph Quinn, an instructor at West Point's Combating Terrorism Center, told Foreign Policy that the administration has no interest in getting back into Iraq after making a proud accomplishment of getting the U.S. out. "They might also be weary of what in the military we call ‘mission creep.' It starts with drones, but where does it end?"
Then last month, Prime Minister Maliki visited Washington to ask for security assistance. The shipment of the Hellfire missiles and the agreement to sell the Iraqis more materiel appears to be the result of those conversations.
The Hellfire missiles and some of the other assistance will help, but not by much, said Jim Jeffrey, a former U.S. ambassador to Iraq. "It will make a difference but the question is if it will make enough of a difference," Jeffrey, now a distinguished visiting fellow at the Washington Institute, told Foreign Policy.
The Hellfire missiles will not be mounted on fast moving, adaptable drones but to the bottom of the Cessna-like fixed wing aircraft flown by the Iraqis. Those planes fly "slow-and-low," Jeffrey notes, and are easily outmaneuvered. "It's not a helicopter and it can't hover," he said.
Jeffrey said the Iraqis had learned to hit their targets when the U.S. was actively training the Iraqi Air Force, so there's some chance the missiles could have an impact. But the Iraqis, he said, "clearly need an attack helicopter."
Jeffrey, who served in Iraq between 2010 and 2012, said the U.S. could provide attack helicopters in short order and the Iraqis would be reasonably adept at learning how to fly them effectively.
Experts agreed that news of the new lethal assistance to Iraq will raise the profile of the security issues the country faces, sending a signal to administration and to Congress about the need to take Iraq's security situation seriously.
"It does open the door for more and I would encourage the administration to deploy everything in our power," Jeffrey said. It could help foster a debate about what the U.S. should do for Iraq over the long term after the failed negotiations to secure a security agreement with the Iraqis -- leaving the country with no significant American troop presence after one of the costliest wars in modern U.S. history and nearly 4,500 fatalities of American troops.
The White House was eager to frame Iraq as a checked box, a success story, and has taken pains to defend the fact that it failed to negotiate a security agreement with the Iraqi government in 2011 and removed all American troops from the country after one of the costliest wars in modern history. Indeed, at an event hosted by Foreign Policy and the State Department earlier this month, Deputy National Security Adviser Tony Blinken dismissed the notion that there would have been any impact on security in Iraq had the U.S. been able to leave thousands of troops in the country.
"If we still had troops in Iraq today the numbers would have been very small, they would not have been engaged in combat, that would not have been their mission," Blinken told the audience. "So the idea that they could or would have done something about the violence that's going on now in Iraq seems to me to be detached from the reality of what the mission would have been had they stayed in any small number."
Veterans of the Iraq conflict have questioned Blinken's calculus. Gen. John Allen, who was credited with playing a significant role in luring Sunni sheiks back to Iraq from Jordan, thus creating what was called the Anbar Awakening that arguably led to higher security across Iraq for some years, believes even a residual force of American troops in Iraq would have prevented much of the violence.
"We weren't there long enough to provide the top cover for the solution of many of the political difficulties that might have resolved itself had we had been there for a longer period of time," he told attendees of the Foreign Policy Initiative forum in October. "So consequently, as we departed, we have seen those tectonic plates begin to grind against each other and that has created instability and the body count is going up, the bloodletting is going up."
Other analysts were not that impressed by the arms sale to remedy Iraq's worsening security situation. . Kim Kagan, president of the Institute for the Study of War, a longtime advocate of an aggressive security policy in Iraq, said she thinks the administration is continuing to confuse materiel assistance for bona fide military cooperation. "The U.S. does not seem to be imposing pressure on Prime Minister Maliki to refrain from using his security forces for political ends, such as suppressing the Sunni protest movements, the camps of which the [Iraq Security Forces] have surrounded over the past several days," she told Foreign Policy via e-mail.
"The U.S. has ignored Iraq almost completely since our forces withdrew two years ago," she said. "The United States has national interests in containing the rise of al Qaeda and sectarian conflict in Iraq and the region. It is time for serious engagement and serious policies to redress the deterioration of security in Iraq and the region that has followed that withdrawal."
Juan Cole, a Middle East analyst and professor at the University of Michigan, noted the irony that the U.S. is fighting Sunni militants in Iraq but is backing them in Syria.
"The U.S. is supporting the Shiite government of Iraq, which supports Iran and Syria, against Sunni extremists. But it is backing Sunni rebels in Syria against the Alawite Shiite government in Damascus," he wrote on his blog. He noted that some of the Iraqi radicals' "new momentum" comes from money they have received from Gulf states like Kuwait to fund their Syrian operations. And Cole argues, President Obama should veto an effort aligned to formally arm the Syrian opposition because of the lessons of the past: weapons sold to Iraqi government troops can easily end up in the hands of insurgents in corrupt governments.