Little noticed among the disturbing tableau of images coming out of Iraq in recent weeks is a changing of the guard evident at the Baghdad International Airport (BIAP). As the crisis has deepened, U.S. contractors, U.S. Embassy personnel and most of the U.S. service members from the embassy’s Office of Security Cooperation have abandoned the threatened capital. The exodus has coincided with Russian contractors and support personnel pouring into BIAP to help launch the 25 Russian SU-25 warplanes that Moscow is rushing to Iraq in its hour of need.
Thus in June U.S. contractors employed by Bell Helicopter, Beechcraft and General Dynamics Land Systems have all pulled their support personnel out of Iraq, depriving Iraqis of maintenance and repair for their U.S.-manufactured Bell ARH-407 armed reconnaissance helicopters, Beechcraft T-6 military trainer aircraft and M-1 tanks. Given the deteriorating security situation, a knowledgeable source says that virtually all U.S. contractor personnel have left Iraq.
“When the crisis worsened U.S. corporate leadership made a decision to pull all their guys out of Iraq, and the U.S. government took a hands-off approach that left those decisions up to each company,” said the U.S. source in Baghdad. “We’re discovering that U.S. companies in this crisis don’t have a high tolerance for risk. Unfortunately, the Russians are much more tolerant of risk.”
Making matters worse, that Iraqi arsenal notably does not yet include a single one of the 34 F-16 fighters that Iraq has had on order since 2010; nor the 24 Apache helicopter gunships on order that were held up by Congress until last January and still have not flown; nor the 24 Beechcraft AT-6 Texan II armed turboprop planes that the State Department approved for sale to Iraq back in May.
The retreat of U.S. contractor and embassy personnel, and failure to follow through in a timely fashion on U.S. promises of military equipment for Iraq, is feeding a widespread narrative of declining American influence and commitment to the Middle East. The perceived power vacuum as the U.S. military presence wanes has been noted by adversaries and allies alike.
The perception of a U.S. retreat from the region was reinforced by the Obama administration’s failure to follow through on promised military strikes against Bashar Assad’s regime in Syria after it used chemical weapons last year, emboldening Assad’s security forces and badly demoralizing the more moderate Syrian rebel factions. Those secular Syrian rebel groups last week threatened to lay down their weapons altogether if more military equipment and support was not forthcoming.
Against U.S. wishes, Massoud Barzani, the president of the autonomous Kurdish region in northern Iraq, declared that he will soon hold a referendum on Kurdish independence, reportedly with a green light from NATO ally Turkey. Saudi Arabia has repeatedly distanced itself from Washington in disagreements over U.S. nuclear talks with Iran, inaction in Syria and opposition to the military coup in Egypt. Critics say a pattern is developing of once staunch allies going their own way out of frustration with U.S. inaction.
Meanwhile, U.S. tentativeness before and during the Iraq crisis is in marked contrast to the approach of Russia and Iran, which rapidly sent military advisers and support personnel to bolster the regime of Iraqi Prime Minister Nouri al-Maliki. The first of the SU-25s began arriving in Baghdad aboard Russian military transports last week. Speaking to the BBC, Al-Maliki complained that if Iraqi Security Forces had the necessary airpower represented by the F-16s, they could have turned back the juggernaut offensive launched by the Islamist militants of the Islamic State of Iraq and the Levant (ISIL, also known as ISIS) and allies among the Sunni tribes.
“I’ll be frank and say that we were deluded when we signed the contract” for F-16s with the United States, Maliki told the BBC. Russia and Belarus had quickly agreed to sell Baghdad the SU-25s, which the Iraq Air Force flew for decades during Saddam Hussein’s reign, and to deploy the needed support personnel. “God willing, within one week, this [SU-25] force will be effective and will destroy the terrorist dens,” said Maliki.
The problem is indicative, sources say, of a U.S. Foreign Military Sales (FMS) program that is overly bureaucratic, unresponsive and vulnerable to political stonewalling. Requests must be approved by both the secretaries of state and defense, and then sent to the Congressional armed services, foreign affairs and appropriations committees, which carefully review the projects. The relevant U.S. ambassador and U.S. military commander for that region must also personally sign off on any proposed sale. Approved recipients of U.S. military equipment under the FMS program must then complete a training course on human rights and humanitarian law, which includes seminars on respect for human rights and civilian authority, rules against torture and gender violence, and laws pertaining to international armed conflict and internal armed conflict.
Even under ideal circumstances that process results in Department of Defense target delivery times of 18 months, and six months when the equipment is needed to meet “surge” requirements in a crisis, according to an April report by the Congressional Research Service. “There have been multiple causes for delays, not all of which can be remedied,” the CRS report concluded. “Delivering defense articles and services to U.S. representatives in multiple partner nations, with national customs and import processes, presents unique challenges.”
The entire system is so fraught with bureaucratic and political obstacles that even when foreign governments like Iraq desperately want to buy American military equipment, which greatly increases U.S. influence with them as partners, they often find the process too slow and complicated.
“What’s happening with the crisis in Iraq today is shining a spotlight on what’s wrong more generally with the U.S. FMS program,” said a former senior U.S. defense official. “And with the Russians and Iranians now pouring into Baghdad to come to Iraq’s rescue, we see U.S. contractors and officers attached to the U.S. Embassy’s Office of Security Cooperation evacuating, creating the perception that the United States will not be there when you need us. Given all that we have invested in Iraq in U.S. blood and treasure, I find that really sad and frustrating.”
In recent days, the Obama administration has deployed additional troops to Iraq to defend the U.S. Embassy and the airport, including U.S.-crewed Apache gunships. Administration officials last week have also informed lawmakers that they want to sell an additional 4,000 precision-guided Hellfire missiles to Iraq. Once the Pentagon’s Defense Security Cooperation Agency submits a formal notice of the proposed sale, Congress will have 30 days to approve or block it. Let’s hope the government in Baghdad will still be standing when the decision is finally made.