Iraqi soldiers stand along a road close to their vehicle in the area of Ein Tamer, Iraq, on Jan. 6. Lawmakers from both parties on Capitol Hill claim the White House has failed to take action to stem the unrest there. (Ahmad Al-rubaye / Getty Images)
WASHINGTON — Weapon sales to Iraq have become entangled in sharply escalated political debate after al-Qaida affiliated forces regained partial control of the cities of Fallujah and Ramadi.
Aides to Senate Foreign Relations Committee Chairman Sen. Robert Menendez, D-N.J., criticized the Obama administration last week, saying it had failed to engage Congress constructively on policy decisions, delaying the sale of certain weapon systems to Iraq.
Yet concern also exists that the Iraqi government could use some weapons against civilian opposition.
Menendez and others on the Hill voiced such concerns over US plans to sell Baghdad several Apache attack helicopters. Lawmakers are concerned that the Shia-dominated government of Iraqi Prime Minister Nouri al-Maliki could use the platforms to attack Sunni civilian opposition groups in Anbar province.
Often lost in the heated debate over aid and recent US policy is the fact that the United States has already sold or donated billions worth of equipment to the Iraqi security forces. In July 2013 alone, the US announced more than $4 billion in arms sales to Iraq, including 50 Stryker infantry vehicles, helicopters, missiles, communications equipment and a proposed $750 million logistics and maintenance contract that would ensure the health of all of the equipment into the future.
In an outgoing briefing with reporters before his retirement on Jan. 8, DoD policy chief James Miller said that complex foreign military sales (FMS) take time and planning to do properly and legally.
“We always want to work more quickly, but we’ve worked to make our foreign military assistance, our foreign military sales system, work as rapidly as possible,” he said. The United States has already sold more than 300 Abrams tanks to Iraq, along with 36 F-16 fighters due to be delivered by 2018.
Iraq also boasts US-made M113 infantry carriers, Humvees, Raven and ScanEagle drones, C-130 transport planes and Cessna 208 Caravans equipped with Hellfire missiles.
Miller also pushed back at criticism over US policy in the country, noting spillover from the turmoil in Syria and political dynamics in Iraq.
“I don’t see what’s happened since our withdrawal as a failure of policy,” he said. “I see what’s going on as a continued effort to work with Iraq to strengthen Iraq’s ability to combat terrorism.”
Despite this, Sen. John McCain, R-Ariz., insists that the Iraqis “need more. They need intelligence capabilities. They need more air capabilities. They need more planning capabilities.”
Democrats, such as Senate Armed Services Committee Chairman Sen. Carl Levin of Michigan and senior Foreign Relations Committee member Sen. Ben Cardin of Maryland, say they support additional arms sales beyond shipments the White House put on a fast track last week. But they support it with strings attached.
Baghdad has “got to do a lot more in terms of bringing in the Sunni groups that want Iraq to be a country, who aren’t part of al-Qaida, who aren’t extremists,” Levin said. The United States also needs “to have assurances what those weapons would be used for and who they would be used against. I’m for additional military aid for Iraq but only when those concerns have been met.”
McCain agreed, telling Defense News that Maliki needs to “reach out to the Sunnis to try and have some kind of reconciliation.” He insisted that “if we had stayed, there would have been that reconciliation. Instead, we left, and things went to hell in a hand basket — just as I predicted.”
These criticisms don’t always sit well with members of the Obama administration.
“We have to be honest about the limits of US control over events in a sovereign country,” said Julie Smith, who was deputy national security adviser to vice president Joe Biden until June 2013.
Over the last several years, president Obama’s deputy national security adviser Tony Blinken “was actually acting more like the Iraq desk officer” though his trips to Baghdad and continuous meetings with Iraqi officials were not always publicized, she said
“In this case it was a lot of crisis management and personality management” Smith said, adding that in cases like Iraq — which harbors obvious sensitivities over US involvement in domestic affairs — “there are circumstances where quiet, behind closed doors engagement is needed, and it could be detrimental if made public knowledge.”
While members were split on whether to attach strings to additional arms shipments, they are united against inserting US combat troops to help Iraqi forces quell the instability. “I want to make sure there is enough capacity — local capacity — without Americans,” Cardin said. “I don’t want this to be just an excuse to continue American military involvement.”
While the internal Iraqi political and ethnic situation is as complicated as any since the 2003 American invasion, officials in Washington counter these congressional criticisms by highlighting all of the capabilities that are in the pipeline.
“We are continuing to accelerate our FMS deliveries and are looking to provide an additional shipment of Hellfire missiles as early as this spring,” National Security Council spokeswoman Bernadette Meehan told Defense News on Jan. 8.
The US also announced it is providing 10 more ScanEagle surveillance UAVs in the coming weeks — to complement the 10 Iraq already has — along with 48 Raven surveillance UAVs this year. “These UAVs will help the Iraqis track terrorist elements operating within the country,” Meehan said. “We also provided aerostat surveillance balloons to the government of Iraq in September 2013 and delivered three additional Bell IA-407 helicopters in December 2013, bringing the total purchased by and delivered to Iraq to 30. These are used for [reconnaissance] and surveillance to support ground forces engaged in [counterterrorism] operations,” she added.
Military hardware is one thing, however, military professionalism, competence and tactical proficiency is another.
The last time the Iraqi Army engaged an enemy in any large and sustained way was 2008, when it pushed Shia militants out of the port city of Basra — with significant US help after a disastrous start to the operation — and another fight that year with militias in Sadr City in Baghdad, also with US support.
“There probably has not been a set piece operation since,” said Michael Knights, a Lafer fellow at The Washington Institute who specializes in the security affairs of Iraq and the Arabian Gulf states.
The difference this time is that the Iraqis will not have US enablers — planners, logisticians, drones, close-air support airlift — to assist.
Due to huge social program obligations and high salaries for government ministers, “the Iraqi military is actually one of the more underfunded parts of the government,” Knights added, ticking off a litany of unresolved issues and unknowns over how the Army will conduct itself in any new large-scale operation.
The US-trained and equipped counterinsurgency force of 2008 “has lost a lot of its skills, and has started to suffer absenteeism,” that Baghdad has been unable to stem, he added. Due to the lack of maintenance on old US equipment donated when the Americans were pulling out, “the bones of this force are weary. It’s a tired force that has been fighting counterinsurgency for eight-plus years.”
Knights also cautioned that much of the training provided by US forces in the last years of US involvement focused on conventional war-fighting skills such as drilling artillery battalions and tank regiments. “Even though that stuff is important in counterinsurgency, we’ve lost the ability to support their special forces, and that’s what you really need” in Anbar today.
The Pentagon said last week that it was considering ramping up training for Iraqi Special Forces units in nearby Jordan, and the US special operations forces chief for US Central Command, Maj. Gen. Michael Nagata, reportedly visited Iraq in December to make the case for US training to Iraqi officials.
Maliki “can’t afford failure” in Anbar, Knights said. If the tribes and the Sunni politicians acting as intermediaries between them and the government in Baghdad haven’t convinced al-Qaida to abandon the city, the Army will strike.
Fighting has already been raging for weeks, with Human Rights Watch accusing the Iraqi government Jan. 9 of using “indiscriminate mortar fire in civilian neighborhoods in Anbar province.”
The Army continues to tighten the noose in Fallujah, having closed checkpoints out of the city to the east, north and south, and is has refusing to allow people or supplies into the city. ■
Zachary Fryer-Biggs contributed to this report.