Iraq is in midst of turmoil, with ISIS’s territorial gains and the Kurds’ rapid oil exports shifting the fragile country’s balance of power. Washington, DC finds itself once again in the center of the conflict with Iraq’s leaders, raising the question of whether the Obama administration should provide assistance to the country in crisis. The President has received some praise for withdrawing troops from two unpopular wars but is faced with criticism for being hesitant to send US ground troops. The reality is dark for Iraq, and there is nothing that the White House can do to save the country from the havoc ISIS has unleashed on the country.
In a classified meeting on May 11, Iraqi Prime Minister Nuri Kamal al-Maliki requested that the United States "provide Iraq with the ability to operate drones" according to the New York Times. However, Maliki also reassured that if the US are not willing to equip Iraq with unmanned aerial vehicles, he preferred that the US carry out airstrikes on their own at ISIS target areas. Five days later, Maliki urged the US to use airstrikes over a phone call with Vice President Joe Biden and submitted a written request immediately afterwards. Although President Obama initially turned down the request for airstrikes against ISIS targets, the Administration is running out of options, as they have rejected the idea of sending ground troops.
The Obama Administration has been supplying Iraq with their foreign military sales program with a total of $15 Billion in supplying the country in chaos with F-16 jets, drones, tanks, arms, and Apache attack helicopters. Baghdad has been urging the US to deliver military weapons to stabilize its country, but the Iraqi military does not seem sufficiently trained to effectively use such complex military hardware.
So, President Obama finds himself faced again with using airstrikes as the most reliable option. However, the use of drones on ISIS targets poses more risks than benefits. Drones strikes almost always results in more blowback and terrorist threats than intended. The airstrikes kill indiscriminately, leaving numerous civilians dead and destroying infrastructure.
With its covert drone warfare program in Yemen, the US has seen the al-Qaeda Arabian Peninsula (AQAP) network exponentially grow since 2002. Yemen Central Security Force commander Yahya Saleh told FRONTLINE in May 2012 that AQAP has more followers, money, guns, and territories then they did a year and a half ago. Unsurprisingly, US drone strikes created a catastrophic food crisis and displaced about 500,000 civilians, leaving AQAP with an opportunity to use the strikes as propaganda to rally more support. As south Yemeni villages are bombarded by drones, AQAP provides displaced civilians with free electricity, food and water, exponentially increasing citizens’ sympathy towards the terrorist organization. The same could be true if the US were to order airstrikes against ISIS targets in Iraq.
In order for airstrikes to be effective, the United States would require ground manpower to obtain and provide intelligence for proper targets. Unfortunately, Iraqi security forces don’t have the capability of providing targeted information. As a result, the effectiveness of drone strikes are still grim because the United States would need to send US personnel on the ground. Therefore, the US would be better off refraining from involving itself altogether lest it risk further alienating the Sunni population in north and west Iraq, which is highly perilous with the country’s injurious sectarian divisions.
On June 4, the State Department publicly announced that it provided an additional $12.8 million to international aid partners operating in Iraq, ringing up a total $136 million of humanitarian aid for the 2014 fiscal year. State Department spokeswoman Jen Psaki said in a press briefing that the aid would provide immediate relief by providing food, shelter, and medicine for over 500,000 displaced Iraqi civilians from Mosul and the surrounding areas in the Nineveh province. Although aid does have its own complications, providing humanitarian assistance to displaced civilians is necessary to ensure the removal of any opportunities for the ISIS to misconstrue US intentions and to drive up propaganda.
President Obama finds himself in yet another difficult situation where any move or strategic decision would result in faulty blowback or risk to Iraqi civilians, security forces and the United States. The White House and Iraqi intelligence are desperately scrambling to prevent ISIS from reaching and taking control of Baghdad. However, with the current security measures at play and the perilous risks involved, hope is dwindling for the future of Iraq.
Sarah Harvard is a Young Voices Advocate.