Obama’s Armed Drones in Iraq Reek of Mission Creep

Why the administration’s muddy logic for intervention on behalf of a deeply unpopular central government will get America engaged in a Middle Eastern civil war.


Don’t worry if you missed it. I mean, what do you buy for the drone war that has everything? Yes, the 10-year anniversary of the CIA’s drone strike campaign in northwest Pakistan unsurprisingly passed without mention in Washington, but it has potential lessons for the unfolding deterioration of security in Iraq, as the Islamic State (formerly ISIS or ISIL) continues to seize territory, declaring an Islamic caliphate over portions of Iraq and Syria.

The CIA armed drones program was initially deployed on behalf of one mission — killing senior members of al Qaeda. But over time, the drones were repurposed for new missions for which they were not originally intended. As McClatchy’s Jonathan Landay revealed last year, in May 2007, based upon his reporting from classified CIA documents, the Pakistani Inter-Services Intelligence (ISI) requested a drone strike "against an insurgent training camp in the North Waziristan agency after a Pakistani army assault on the compound was repulsed. The Pakistani army sought the strike even though it had been told that drones wouldn’t be used to support Pakistani troops in combat." More than one former senior official from the CIA’s operations side of the house has told me that the situation presented in Landay’s reporting was not the only time that the CIA conducted strikes on behalf of Pakistani security forces.

This mission creep went even further, providing "force protection" by targeting low-level militants who posed a threat to U.S. service members deployed in Afghanistan. Indeed, of the CIA’s estimated 372 drone strikes in Pakistan, which killed some 2,800 people, a vast majority were not an effort to eliminate senior al Qaeda members who pose a threat to the U.S. homeland — which was the very reason armed drones were sent there in the first place.

The Pakistan example came to mind last week, when anonymous Pentagon officials acknowledged that the United States had deployed armed drones over the Baghdad area, reportedly flying from air bases in Kuwait. The deployment of aerial surveillance and strike capabilities in a country — at the request of the host government in this case — can be prudent in that it may improve the situational awareness of a chaotic environment, provide intelligence support for the host nation, or protect deployed U.S. diplomats and troops in and around Baghdad.

However, rarely have so many forces and military assets been deployed into an unfolding civil war with such imprecision about the ultimate goal that they are intended to accomplish. In a quote that could haunt the Obama administration, the Pentagon spokesman termed the deployment "a discrete, measured, temporary arrangement," adding "this isn’t going to be a long-term mission of the United States military." However, in addition to the 300 U.S. military and intelligence advisors that President Obama sent in June, there are roughly 1,000-1,700 additional private security contractors in Iraq, according to advisors to Prime Minister Nouri al-Maliki. Thus, U.S. armed drones could be providing force protection for up to 2,000 people over an area of hundreds of square miles.  

Sending Reaper drones to provide armed overwatch for U.S. advisors is not controversial. But it is the sustained confusion over what other missions those drones could be called upon to do that demands clarity.Without guidelines, the United States could incrementally increase its engagement in Iraq by pursuing additional missions. Consider five justifications, or lack thereof, offered in the past two weeks for America’s deployment of surveillance and strike aircraft over Iraq. 

First, before the additional U.S. personnel were sent to Iraq, in keeping with tradition, congressional members from both parties demanded the use of airpower for a number of either unspecific or plausibly unachievable military and political objectives. These included to "change the battlefield equation," "so the Iraqi Army can get itself together," only "if Iraq nears collapse," and to prevent "an Iraq with large swaths of territory under militant control." Sen. Marco Rubio (R-Fla.) went further when he stated last week: "We should cut off ISIS’s access to their command-and-control structure in Syria. And I think primarily that involves airpower." So, to be clear, Rubio is calling for the use of U.S. air power to do border control, route surveillance, air interdiction, and close air support in both Iraq and Syria. Given the shared 400-mile border, reported ISIS control of the three main border crossings, and the apparent — though predictable — unwillingness of Turkey to allow the United States to use the Incirlik Air Base for strike missions in Iraq, this is simply not achievable.

Second, President Obama has not provided any needed clarity regarding his envisioned military objectives in Iraq. At a June 19 press conference, he declared: "We’re developing more information about potential targets associated with ISIL. And going forward, we will be prepared to take targeted and precise military action, if and when we determine that the situation on the ground requires it." Unfortunately, no reporters then or since have posed the simple question to him: "What exactly would require that you take military action?" 

Third, when anonymous senior administration officials briefed the press the day after Obama’s initial announcement on Iraq, they further muddled under what circumstances the president would authorize the use of force. One official declared that this would only be "if we felt that there was a target on the ground that demanded our unique capabilities." Consider that logic for a second: It is the unique capabilities on hand, presumably armed drones, that make a person or thing targetable, rather than the inherent validity of the target itself.

Another anonymous official added: "The President is focused on a number of potential contingencies that may demand U.S. direct military action…. the threat from ISIL and the threat that it could pose not simply to Iraqi stability, but to U.S. personnel and to U.S. interests more broadly, certainly including our homeland." But that statement only widens a remit already as broad as the Grand Canyon — although protecting "interests" could mean anything within that description, there appear to be three distinct missions: counterinsurgency, force protection, and counterterrorism.

Fourth, in an interview with NPR last week, Gen. Martin Dempsey presented four different potential objectives should Obama authorize the use of force: "High-value individuals who are the leadership of ISIL. That includes, potentially, the protection of, in particular, critical infrastructure … blunting attacks by massed groups of ISIL … support[ing] the Iraqi security forces as they confront ISIL."

But in seeking to clarify matters, Dempsey only muddied them further. Who are these high-value individuals, do they presently pose a "continuing and imminent threat" to the United States so they can be included on a kill list, and how does killing them make it more likely to achieve some desired outcome in Iraq, or elsewhere? Also, "critical infrastructure" can mean anything from computer networks to highways to water systems, as well as oil terminals or pipelines. But should the U.S. military really serve as the Department of Homeland Security for Iraq by loitering armed drones above facilities that are essential for the country’s economy or government? Given the seemingly unending attacks by massed groups of ISIL, including against members of Iraq’s security forces, when would close air support be provided by the United States? And how would this be coordinated with Iraq: Would there be joint targeting with Iran and Syria — or with Russian pilots flying the just-delivered SU-25 fighter jets? And of Dempsey’s four proposed objectives, which is the priority and what is the primary reason for which the forces have been deployed?

Fifth, a senior Pentagon official noted on June 27 that the armed drones had been deployed "not only to protect our own forces, but to be prepared should the President make a decision to do something more." The official later added: "They’re also there looking for targets of opportunities. If the President decides they merit striking." But what are these opportunities, and what merits bombing them?

What the Obama administration has decided in the past two weeks is nothing short of intervening on behalf of a deeply unpopular central government engaged in a civil war. The United States has deployed armed drones over Baghdad apparently on behalf of a force protection mission for U.S. personnel, but they could also be used for any of the other — more politically sensitive and challenging — military missions that policymakers and officials have proposed. On June 19, Obama acknowledged that "we always have to guard against mission creep, so let me repeat what I’ve said in the past: American combat troops are not going to be fighting in Iraq again." But mission creep and incrementalism can happen with aerial weapons systems exclusively. The scope, intensity, and range of targets that CIA drones struck in Pakistan — especially during their peak in the first three years under President Obama — would have been unimaginable when President Bush first authorized them in 2004.

For a White House that endorses precise and discrete airpower, there is no such precision or discretion in articulating what that airpower is intended to actually accomplish. Before President Obama authorizes bombing something or someone in Iraq, he has an obligation to articulate to the American public and Congress with clarity what military missions those airstrikes are for, and what they will not be for. To date, an intelligible and unambiguous description of what those missions might be has been lacking, which is the surest path toward an unintended, gradual, and deepening U.S. military commitment in Iraq.

Micah Zenko is the co-author of Clear and Present Safety: The World Has Never Been Better and Why That Matters to Americans.

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