Opinion: Fighting al-Qaeda in Iraq is in U.S. interests
Iraq is once again at a crisis point. Given the sacrifices the United States, coalition partners and so many Iraqis made to bring the country back from the precipice of 2006, it is more than unsettling to see a third battle of Fallujah unfolding. But rather than point fingers and assign fault for this foreseeable threat, the focus needs to be on how to best move forward.
Al-Qaeda is taking a coordinated approach to establishing what it calls the Islamic State of Iraq and the Levant. That organization and another al-Qaeda franchise, Jabhat al-Nusra, are recognized by the al-Qaeda leader Ayman al-Zawahiri. The al-Qaeda offensive operations in Syria and Iraq are related — and they’re winning. Their success in Iraq or Syria — even if success is “merely” seizing control of Anbar province in western Iraq, parts of central and northern Iraq and parts of Syria — is not in U.S. national security interests.
If the United States does not get involved, al-Qaeda is likely to win. None of our options is good. Each has risks, but doing too little also has risks.
The good news is that, militarily speaking, there is quite a range between doing too little to have any real effect and repeating the “surge.” The United States needs a nuanced, realistic approach.
Air power could help turn the tide against al-Qaeda, but giving F-16s, Apache helicopters and surveillance drones to Iraq isn’t “air power.” Having equipment is not the same as being able to use it. The United States has accelerated the delivery of military equipment that the Iraqis had on order, but spring delivery is still likely to be too late. In the short term, U.S. officials should consider providing capability that can be employed now and in ways that would make a difference in the outcome with al-Qaeda. This means a temporary and limited use of U.S. air power — fixed and rotary-wing as well as unmanned. Such air power could be based outside of Iraq to further reduce risk.