Micah Zenko

Politics, Power, and Preventive Action

Zenko covers the U.S. national security debate and offers insight on developments in international security and conflict prevention.

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Should the United States Conduct Drone Strikes for Iraq?

by Micah Zenko
April 3, 2013


Today, Qassim Abdul-Zahra and Diaa Hadid wrote a story for the Associated Press that describes growing cross-border collaboration between al-Qa’ida in Iraq (AQI) and Jabhat al-Nusrah, or al-Nusrah Front, in Syria. An Iraqi government spokesperson is quoted as describing the border area as “a nest of terrorist cells,” while an anonymous Jordanian counterterrorism official stated that the two groups were working, “with all possible means, including weapons, fighters and training.” This is not a new development. In December, the State Department claimed that the al-Nusrah Front was merely an extension of AQI, and was thus labeled a “Foreign Terrorist Organization.”

What was new in Abdul-Zahra and Hadid’s reporting was the following passage:

“Two Iraqi intelligence officials said the cooperation reflected in the attack on the wounded Syrian troops prompted the Baghdad government to request U.S. drone strikes against the fighters. They spoke on condition of anonymity because they were not authorized to discuss the subject. A U.S. official confirmed that elements within Iraq’s government had inquired about drone strikes. But the official said the United States was waiting to respond until the Iraqi leadership’s top level makes a formal request, which hasn’t happened.”

It is a positive sign that President Obama has (apparently) decided not to authorize drone strikes in Iraq, and that his administration insisted on a formal request from Baghdad before considering such a significant policy change. Intervening on behalf of another country to protect its borders is not something that the United States should rush into, even if the targeted individuals are suspected of belonging to a State Department-designated terrorist organization.

In March, the Wall Street Journal reported that the CIA had increased its covert training and support efforts to enhance Iraq’s Counterterrorism Service forces that are focused on AQI or al-Nusrah militants that threaten western Iraq. A senior Obama administration official stated: “This relationship is focused on supporting the Iraqis to deal with terrorist threats within their borders, and not about ramping up unilateral operations.” Training and advising another state’s security forces is a normal component of military to military cooperation, but conducting kinetic operations for them could quickly draw the United States into creating additional enemies out of what are domestic and regionally-focused terrorist groups. The CIA already serves as the counterterrorism air force of Yemen, and, occasionally, Pakistan. It should not further expand this chore to Iraq.

President Obama should also ask himself if the United States wants to open up a fifth front in its campaign of non-battlefield targeted killings, outside of Pakistan, Yemen, Somalia, and The Philippines. (Mark Mazzetti has reported that there was at least one U.S. drone strike in The Philippines in 2006, which attempted to kill Umar Patek. Mazzetti’s must-read book—The Way of the Knife: The CIA, a Secret Army, and a War at the Ends of the Earth—comes out next week, which could have some additional details.) In addition, the U.S. military recently began flying unarmed (so far) Predator surveillance drones from an airstrip in Niamey, Niger. Moreover, as Congress debates updating the long-defunct Authorization for the Use of Military Force resolution that it passed days after September 11, 2001, it should consider seriously what legal authorities that the president should have to respond to random requests from foreign government for drone strikes.

Post a Comment 5 Comments

  • Posted by Anna Maria Elisa

    War is never justified at ANY cost. The answer is no. When you live by the sword, you die by the sword.

    “All we are saying… Is give peace a chance.” – John Lennon

  • Posted by Maruffe S.Oliveira

    The Empire.Its been a long time I have heard America being called that way.The oppressor,the explorer,conquerer ,destroyer of the know world.The American President was once compared to the devil itself.Suspicions of America´s every move were the rule.Now,I don´t know exactly when it started to change.If it was the Arab Spring,or the way Obama relates to the public,,even am not sure the change was operated only in my own mind,who has become more aware of world issues and the determinant role the US has,but “democracy”,”freedom” ,”equality” are values America exports that I,personally,recognize and seem to have become more acnowledged and DESIRED in many places of the world.
    Look at this dramatic change.This history,Micah Zenko tells us.Instead of being recentful of American intervention,an invaded country now pledges for it.I expect all american efforts one future time deserves at least a “Thank You”.

  • Posted by kevin thomas

    Drones strikes at the behest of another country to kill people that are not a direct threat to the USA would set a very poor precedent. If the Iraqi government has enough intel to id these targets then they also know enough to kill them themselves. Unless the Shia central government doesn’t want to kill Sunni terrorists. Maybe one tribe doesn’t want to kill another because of repercussions to themselves. That is not our problem. We would be the only ones standing in front of the ICC for crimes against humanity if we do this with no direct threat to us.

  • Posted by Juan Gasparola

    Estimados, considero que el tema de drones no solo debe ser tratado por Estados Unidos sino debe haber un Tratado auspiciado por las Naciones Unidas. Es un tema muy sensible que, si bien hoy está bajo el “paragua” de ataques selectivos a dirigentes terroristas, el día de mañana el objetivo puede ser cualquiera.



  • Posted by Miguel Garrido

    You have to note the sheer charm of this Iraqi comeback. Oh please U.S., won’t you help us fight the global war on terror against the terrorists you are using to destroy Syria? We love you, just as much as you love us.
    A bit of that old wit that once helped make Baghdad a great city.
    In real world History that is, not in the lunatic version of History that is fed to these Salafi, al-Nusrah, al-Qaeda ground armies, and their terrorist Fedayeen equivalents for the Shia side.

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