As I have highlighted previously, the United States’ recent increased security cooperation with the government of Iraq to confront the Islamic State in Iraq and Syria (ISIS) has been characterized by an astounding lack of clarity. Yesterday, there was another troubling example of contradictory statements about the missions and objectives of U.S. forces in Iraq. Pentagon spokesperson Adm. John Kirby was asked if the United States was supporting airstrikes from Iraq against ISIS in support of the Kurds. Kirby replied unequivocally: “We’re not coordinating air attacks in Iraq. We’re not.”
This claim is at odds with prior articulations of U.S. policy in Iraq. During a House Foreign Affairs Committee hearing on July 23, Brett McGurk, deputy assistant secretary for Iraq and Iran, defended the Obama administration’s responsiveness to August 2013 Iraqi requests for U.S. targeting intelligence and precision-guided-capable missiles: “We responded immediately. We set up intelligence fusion chairing centers, we helped them with the Hellfire missiles precision strikes.” McGurk later added, “The sequence was the helping the Iraqis with their Hellfire strikes, with the information, and the fusion cells we set up.”
During a Senate Foreign Relations Committee hearing on the following day, McGurk again emphasized the level of direct assistance that has been provided by the United States: “When this crisis started, the Iraqis had zero Hellfire missiles in their arsenal. We have delivered them, since this crisis began in June, hundreds of Hellfire missiles. And with our new intelligence, with the joint operations center, the Iraqis have deployed those missiles with precision and accuracy. It has made a difference.”
The apparent missions, as detailed by the Obama administration’s lead official for Iraq, are that the United States is providing both the firepower and targeting intelligence for Iraqi airstrikes against suspected ISIS militants. There might be some debate about whether this amount of support counts as “coordinating air attacks in Iraq,” or not. However, where the United States provides the weaponry and intelligence, without which an airstrike would not have occurred, then that essential and enabling role makes the United States, in large part, responsible for the outcome. This does not make them direct U.S. airstrikes, but officials and policymakers should demand that the government of Iraq be held accountable for how it uses U.S.-supplied missiles and intelligence.
On the one hand, this provides leverage and influence that the United States can attempt to use to promote more responsible and precise uses of force, a meaningful objective given that some airstrikes conducted by the government of Iraq have been both indiscriminate and against targets of doubtful military utility. On the other hand, this also makes the United States a direct party in yet another Iraqi civil war, which ties America’s credibility to defending a deeply unpopular ruling regime, or a newly-formed government should Prime Minister Nouri al-Maliki step aside. It is uncertain if this will happen, as the Maliki government is already demanding even more aid and security cooperation before any domestic political changes occur. In keeping with the tradition of thankless partners and allies who want ever more U.S. assistance before they implement domestic changes sought by Washington, leverage and influence works both ways.