Report from Iraq: Strategic Dynamics in Play


2014-06-13 by Robbin Laird

As the Middle East moves further from an Arab Spring congenial to Western interests, the tinderbox returns.

In the tinder box, one rarely gets to choose the folks one likes; one has to work with whomever one can to achieve one’s strategic interests.

It is not about likeability; it is about strategic success.

When there was the chance to negotiate an agreement with the Iraqis to leave a residual force able to execute air strikes working with Iraqi forces, the difficulties with the Malki government, based largely on how unlikeable this chap truly is, meant that no status of forces agreement was reached.

What could have been done is not a termination to the mission but a significant transition in the mission where the air component of power could evolve in Iraq under US and/or Western influence.

(We wrote a series in 2010, which looked at the prospects of Iraq withdrawal and considered the options, and those articles can be found at the end of this article.)

This was not done, so when the moment came when the insurgents (who are even more unlikeable) started ripping through Iraqi forces, there was no ready set way to strike the insurgents.

One could note that the French in Mali used air strikes without hesitation when going after the insurgents in order to restore enough order on the ground to help the Mali government.

When using airpower, time is of the essence to ensure effectiveness; waiting until the insurgents have grabbed the centers of power makes it a full blown operation or nothing.

Iraqi Developments

One of our colleagues provided this report received earlier this week from an American in Iraq about the situation seen from is vantage point in the country.

The last two days I got stuck on the main road between Kirkuk and Baghdad due to car bombs and gun fights in Kirkuk province.

I had no choice but to come back to Erbil last night. As of yesterday, Mosul province is under total control of Sunni armed group called Daish

Over 50 thousand (4 divisions) of Iraqi army and IP forces that were in charge of protecting and defending Mosul province, threw their guns and changes their uniforms with civilian clothes and ran away from fighting Daish forces that entered Mosul city yesterday.

Now, Daish armed forces are fighting to take over big cites in Salaheldin, Kurkik and Diyala provinces.

PM Maliki asked the Parliament to prove his request for “emergency law” all over Iraq as of tomorrow.

Yesterday, Jabar Yawar the minister of Peshmerga in Kurdistan called all 13 peshmerga brigades to report to their posts of duty. Peshmerga forces surrounded Kurdistan provinces to prevent any attacks.

Iraqis in general are hoping and calling for the immediate present of American soldiers in Iraq because they lost trust and hope in IA & IP forces. Iraqis are blaming President Obama for pulling American soldiers from Iraq and leaving Iraqis under the mercy of Iran, Turkey and Saudi Arabia and the armed groups they support.

It is a big bloody mess….

According to a recent New York Times report, the Iraqi government had earlier requested from the White House airpower support.

As the threat from Sunni militants in western Iraq escalated last month, Prime Minister Nuri Kamal al-Maliki secretly asked the Obama administration to consider carrying out airstrikes against extremist staging areas, according to Iraqi and American officials.

But Iraq’s appeals for a military response have so far been rebuffed by the White House, which has been reluctant to open a new chapter in a conflict that President Obama has insisted was over when the United States withdrew the last of its forces from Iraq in 2011.

Iraq is Not a Solitary Issue

Not only could airpower make a difference, Iraq is part of the Tinder Box.

Rather than the piecemeal, one issue at a time Middle East policy being followed by the West, it is crucial to think about the region as a whole.

And please stop the PLO versus Israeli interpretation of what is going on. That is so 20th century!

Western governments are following an a la carte policy in the Middle East policy, pursuing whatever is the easiest and lowest hanging issue; for dealing with hard issues takes time effort, and money and creates cultural tensions.

Ostriches, not Eagles seem to be resident in the Middle East, at least from the Western side.

Turkey is facing Syria and Iran; Iraq is facing Iran and Syria, the Egyptians are being affected by Muslim fundamentalist threats (yes they are a military government but….) and the Israelis are dealing with chaos.

It would be interesting to know if the White House consulted Turkey with regard to Iraq because spill over from either Syria or Iraq is an Article V contingency for NATO.

This means that the Crimean seizure and Iraqi implosions are indirectly affecting NATO’s direct defense and security interests, even before we get to a broader policy question of Middle Eastern developments.

The Direct Impact on Afghanistan

And then there is the DIRECT impact on Afghanistan.

The benediction to the Afghan withdrawal has had a giant question mark over it.

I doubt telling the Afghans that our withdrawal will end up just like Iraq falls into the domain of policy reassurance.

Earlier this year, we argued for shaping a transition not a termination policy for Afghanistan, which would highlight airpower transition.

The events in Iraq have only reinforced our perspective that such a transition is indispensable.

We published our argument in the journal Joint Force’s quarterly in January 2014 and we underscored the following:

In the debate over the acquisition of the light-attack aircraft for Afghan forces, a key opportunity to shape a 21st-century option may be missed. A light-attack aircraft such as the Embraer Air Super Tucano, when combined with several other rugged air assets capable of being maintained in a variety of partner nations, could not only form a core capability crucial to the defense of the partnership nation, but also provide a solid baseline capability for a long-term working relationship with the United States or its allies.

The value of a counterinsurgency (COIN) aircraft versus a more advanced fighter can be lost when the issue is 21st-century higher end warfare. A rugged aircraft such as the Super Tucano can operate for longer periods at considerably less cost than advanced fighters. It can be configured with command and control (C2) and intelligence, surveillance, and reconnaissance (ISR) capabilities and links and can dialogue with forces on the ground.

Colonel Bill Buckey, USMC (Ret.), the deputy commander of the North Atlantic Treaty Organization (NATO) Airbase at Kandahar in 2009, explains:

One of the things that the special operations forces, who started the idea of the whole Imminent Fury piece, wanted was the ability to have a partner in that light attack platform; a TAC-A [tactical air commander–airborne] or supporting arms coordinator that would be above them in the air and who, if things got ugly, could then marshal in other aircraft. The guys sitting at Creech [Air Force Base, Nevada] can’t do that. . . . The individual in the backseat of the aircraft is the one that’s going to be communicating to these jets who are still 30 minutes away—15 minutes away, an hour away—and giving them the target brief and the whole situational awareness piece of what’s going on while they ingress, which is something that your guy at Creech is not going to be able to do. . . . But now that’s the tactical piece. The operational piece is back to the whole COIN environment.

Again, [perhaps what] you’re trying to do in a COIN environment is drive your cost of doing business down as close as you can to the level of the other guy; right now, UAVs[unmanned aerial vehicles] ain’t cheap. . . . You’ve got a tremendous logistics piece; you’ve got the sophisticated communications infrastructure required to fly them. You’ve got the whole piece back in [the continental United States] in order to operate them. Your cost of doing business is huge and you also have reliability issues. The accident rates are not great with UAVs right now. . . . And in terms of that ability to act as FAC-A [forward air controller–airborne], that’s something that you just can’t get with a UAV.

Even though the acquisition of such aircraft for U.S. forces is not on the table, their use by partners is already prevalent in many parts of the world.

Partnerships with allies flying such aircraft provide interesting possibilities.

This is not just an abstraction but has been demonstrated by 12th U.S. Air Force working with the Dominican Republic air force. The 12th provides ISR support to other nations’ combat air capabilities. U.S. Southern Command (USSOUTHCOM) and the Dominican Republic air force have combined—with USSOUTHCOM providing an ISR input and the Dominican Republic flying the Super Tucano—the same planes that will be used by the Afghans.

This remarkable and replicable success is made possible by U.S. “hi” ISR technology in partnership with the Dominican Republic “lo” technology, the Super Tucano.

The opportunity to further evolve such a model of cooperation is being forged in the period of transition in Afghanistan. The Air Force, NATO, and other allies have been working for many years to shape an unheralded airpower transition. The core idea has been to provide the Afghans with an integrated air force that can provide for their needs and be robust and easy to maintain, and then partner with this air force.

That would allow the United States and its allies to leave a force behind that could provide mobile ground forces supported by correlated ground assets. This sound Western force package would then be able to work effectively with the core Afghan air force as well. A real transition could be forged, one still able to engage in effective combat against the Taliban.

The broad trajectory of change for the Afghan air force has been to move from a Russian-equipped force in disrepair to shaping a mixed fleet of aircraft able to support the various missions that the Afghans need: transport, ground support, counterinsurgency, inverse synthetic aperture radar (ISAR), and strike. The core fleet of aging Mi-35s and AN-32s will be replaced by a mixed fleet, along with capabilities to replace the battlefield lift provided by the Chinook heavy-lift helicopter.

Shaping the right fleet is crucial to shaping an effective training mission. Putting a reliable and rugged and easily maintainable lift aircraft with the Super Tucano and the Mi-17 fleet along with Cessna trainers is the core force for the Afghan air force going forward. Interviews with American and French military operators in Afghanistan have hit hard on a key theme: airpower is central to today’s operations, and there is a clear need to arm the Afghan allies with a functional capability along the same lines. The Afghan military population has come to appreciate air support as a key element of future success and security (in particular, a Medevac ability being part of any operation).

As Major General Glenn Walters, USMC, commented when he returned from Afghanistan:

Our role will be to support the Afghan security forces. You’re going to have to support those guys, and they’re going to be much more distributed. You’re not going to have the battalions out there that you support people on the FABs [forward air bases] have. It’s going to have to be from a central location. And the QRF [quick reaction force] is going to have to be good, and it’s going to have to be there quickly. In the end, we have to be able to prove to the Afghan security forces that if something happens, this platoon is good enough until we get someone in there. . . . If you ever need more than a platoon’s worth of trigger pullers in a district center, the V-22s [Osprey tilt-rotor aircraft] is how you’re going to get there quickly and decisively enough to matter. . . . The Afghan National Army and Afghan Security Forces understand, from their perspective, how important air is. We have made them big consumers. They know that the air is there for them; they’ll go out and operate. I’ve had more than one brigade commander tell me that if it wasn’t for the medevac, [if] it wasn’t for the resupply, and if it wasn’t for the aviation fires, he didn’t think he could get the battalions out operating like they do. Because they’ve learned that if they get hurt, we’ll fix them. They know if they run out of bullets, we’ll get them bullets. And if they’re hungry or thirsty, we’ll get them food and water. . . . 

As the U.S. looks forward to work with allies worldwide in the years to come on COIN and related operations, the U.S. will not be bringing the entire gamut of capability to the party. Working with allies in current and projected financial conditions requires a new formula: the U.S. supports allies who can fend for themselves, up to a point.

Western powers are facing the endgame in Afghanistan. If the Afghans as a nation are going to work together to shape a COIN and defense strategy, airpower is a crucial lynchpin. Working together with an air-enabled Afghan force, Washington could continue to influence the necessary outcomes in the war against terror and at the same time pull out most of its troops. That would be a war-winning formula the Army might want to consider for its global future.

Is it Worse to be an Enemy than an Ally of the United States in an Unpopular War?

Beyond the crucial policy issues of American credibility as an ally, there are moral issues as well.

With Iraq and Afghanistan in quick succession perhaps demonstrating that working with US and Western forces is a ticket to death than to stability in one’s country, the lesson will be learned for the period ahead and have broader consequences for US policy.

On the heals of NSA determining who is friend or ally, coupled with yet another failure to anticipate a crisis, the performance in reinforcing allies in “stability operations” will become part of the threat environment facing the United States.

Ed Timperlake wrote some time ago about his fears with regard to moral abandonment based on his own experience during the Vietnamese War.

Since we are getting ready to drawdown in Iraq and to leave Afghanistan, what about those villagers and people in enclaves that trust us?  A MEU is a 9/11 force in readiness that can make sure that we can demonstrate that we have not forgotten the Vietnam result or the Cambodian Holocaust.

Insertion of an offshore MEU to defend a village or evacuate threatened allies to safe havens is a lasting debt.  And this obligation becomes part of our staying power in a region, which will remain central to the U.S. even after significant removal of ground forces.  The MEU allows us to have available a combat blocking force on the ground as an enemy begins to mass and concentrate forces and have a lift as necessary to relocate them to safe havens.

A MEU backed by a Carrier Battle Group (CBG) can easily bring enough firepower and Marines on the ground and lift so innocents are not massacred.  This debt of honor backed by an ever ready Navy/Marines afloat and AF Air Power on station can and should last as a key element of the regional calculation.

The next Congress should view a strong and agile military power projection force of a MEU, CBG and expeditionary USAF assets as a legacy force for good.  U.S. power projection in the Gulf can and will save lives and demonstrate the presence of tools to support friendly forces and elements in the region.

If not, we would see once gain an old cliché coming into play: even worse than being America’s enemy is being our ally in an unpopular war.

And as Mike Wynne commented in 2010 as part of our Iraq 2012 series:

Already, the thinking part of Iraq is asking the US: ‘Don’t put Iraq in the rear view mirror’. 

Since they really mean watch over us, as we have in the past, this has implications to our aging and shrinking Air and Naval deterrent capability.

With our seeming blindness to deterrent capability while we pursue ‘balance and the current war we are in’ could prove costly in the multi-polar era we are entering.

One continues to hope for ‘Peace in our time’, but what we have seen work for the past peaceful period, is ‘Speak softly; but carry a Big Stick’.

For the Iraq 2012 series published in 2010 see the following: