President Obama has so far turned down Iraqi prime minister Nouri al-Maliki’s request for U.S. air strikes against the Islamic extremists taking over his country. But if Obama changes his mind, U.S. jets could be flying over Iraq in less than a day.
U.S. air bases, housing dozens of American fighters and bombers, are well within striking distance of Iraq. High-flying spy drones like the Global Hawk can just as easily fly over Iraq as Afghanistan or any other conflict zone in the region. The aircraft carrier U.S.S. George H.W. Bush is a few days’ sail away, in the North Arabian Sea. And it boasts dozens more fighters on board.
That’s why a number of retired high-ranking U.S. Air Force officers, including Lt. Gen. David Deptula, who served as the Air Force’s first deputy chief of staff for intelligence, say any strikes, if ordered, could begin almost immediately.
“If you can provide me with the appropriate intelligence we can start doing (air strikes) within 24 hours,” he told The Daily Beast. “There are a variety of means do this, whether you are talking about long-range, high-payload aircraft or smaller aircraft. With the requisite intelligence information you can start again in 24 hours.”
“No question we could strike anytime,” added a second senior retired Air Force officer, who asked not to be quoted by name. He saw no “tech or logistical” reasons why air assets couldn’t be diverted from Afghanistan to Iraq.
The Daily Beast first reported Wednesday that Maliki has been asking for months for the United States to begin launching air strikes inside his country against targets associated with the Islamic State of Iraq and the Sham (ISIS). But Obama has yet to agree to re-entering the war he has boasted on many occasions of ending in 2011.
And that includes air strikes, which some outside experts say could backfire, reinforcing the ideas that Iraq’s Shi’ite government is only looking to knock off Sunnis—or that the Americans are always coming to the rescue. Baghdad “will simply assume that we’ll take over, that we’ll do the job,” Leslie Gelb, president emeritus of the Council on Foreign Relations, wrote Thursday in The Daily Beast.
Even Sen. John McCain, who famously pushed for more American involvement in Iraq, told reporters Thursday, “I am not calling for air strikes.”
But with ISIS forces taking over Iraq’s second largest city—and threatening to take over Baghdad—that assessment may be reconsidered. Obama, for one, is hinting that he is changing his mind. On Thursday after a meeting with Australia’s prime minister, Obama told reporters that Iraq will need additional U.S. assistance against the ISIS-led insurgency. He did not get into specifics, however.
Deptula said the Air Force is ready for this kind of mission. But he also said any agreement for U.S. air strikes inside Iraq should also include basing rights for U.S. forces. At the end of 2011, U.S. diplomats failed to negotiate an extension to the Status of Forces Agreement with Iraq that would give the U.S. military access to the Iraqi bases inside the country.
“The United States should have been provided basing rights,” he said. “If we are going to assist the Maliki government it needs to be provided inside of Iraq, we should not be doing this from outside.”
But the capacity exists to do it from the outside. Deptula said—but would not specify—that the Air Force was capable of launching air strikes into Iraq from bases it uses in neighboring countries. Those bases include an airbase in Incirlik, Turkey, the hub of U.S. air operations in the 1990s that patrolled the air space of northern Iraq. After U.S. troops left Iraq in 2011, many of the drones, sensors and other surveillance and reconnaissance aircraft used in Iraqi bases were transferred to Incirlik.
Another air base that could be used for these operations is Al-Udeid, west of Doha, Qatar. Al-Udeid served as the center for the air campaigns during the height of the Iraq and Afghan wars. The base is still used for some of air missions over Afghanistan and houses B1-bombers, a long range aircraft that can deliver up to 48,000 pounds of bombs in a single sortie.
In Iraq, the idea of U.S. air-strikes is gaining popularity from unexpected sources. One of Maliki’s rivals, deputy prime minister Saleh al-Mutlaq told The Daily Beast, that he supported U.S. air strikes against ISIS targets, so long as those air strikes did not hit positions inside Mosul, Fallujah or other population centers.
But al-Mutlaq also said air strikes alone were not enough. “Yes I support some air strikes,” he said. “But the United States should also restart the political process in Iraq. If they defeat ISIS this time without any changes in the political process which has proved disastrous, this will happen again in a year or two and then the United States will have to come back.”
In 2010, the party of Iyad Allawi, a Shi’ia Iraqi who ran a non-confessional party won the most seats in the Iraqi election. But the United States stood on the side lines in the aftermath of the election and Allawi was excluded from the government that formed later that year and Maliki remained prime minister.
As U.S. soldiers left Iraq at the end of 2011, Maliki then began to consolidate his power. Iraqi courts for example issued an arrest warrant for Tariq al-Hashemi, the Sunni vice president of Iraq, forcing him to flee Baghdad at the time. Maliki’s government refused to pay the salaries of the Sunni fighters who helped defeat al Qaeda in 2007 and 2008 known as the sons of Iraq. And then in the face of largely peaceful demonstrations in western Iraq that began in December 2012, Maliki sent his army to crush the Sunni Arab protestors.
Sterling Jensen—who served as an Arabic interpreter for the U.S. Army in Anbar, Iraq during the surge and now teaches at United Arab Emirates’ National Defense College in Abu Dhabi—said the crisis caused by the ISIS insurgency will not be solved until the Maliki government addresses the demands first raised by the Sunni protestors in western Iraq.
“U.S. air strikes against ISIS would be helpful in the short-term, but potentially damaging in the mid to long term because air strikes without government overtures to Sunni Arabs, such as releasing prisoners, guarantees of repealing the de-Baathification laws and revising counter-terrorism laws, would potentially strengthen the hand of a sectarian Shiite government that stays in power by marginalizing Sunnis. U.S. air strikes should only be used if the Iraqi government shows more willingness to reconcile with the Sunni population,” he said.
Republican senators who were briefed on the crisis in Iraq Thursday also were reluctant to support U.S. air strikes in Iraq.
Asked whether he was calling for immediate airstrikes in Iraq, Republican senator, Lindsey Graham—not usually shy about proposing military force—told reporters, “I’m not the commander in chief. I’m tired of telling him what to do. It’s not really my place to tell him what to do.”
Sen. James Inhofe, the Republican ranking member on the Senate Armed Services Committee, said, “This is too early to have each one of us making our recommendations … at this point, we’re waiting to make that determination.”
McCain said he wanted Obama to consult with his top generals about what to do on Iraq before offering his own advice.
“Air strikes may be part of it, air strikes may not be part of it,” he said.
Part of the hesitance for the senators to advocate the American military jump into the fray may have been the dramatic details of their classified briefing, which involved descriptions of the vehicles and weaponry that ISIS is bringing back to Syria and the collapse of the Iraqi Army’s resolve.
“That was a surprise to everybody, to have four major divisions fold as quickly as they did, without even a fight, some of them” Sen. Joe Manchin, a Democrat, said.. That’s a concern, and why we weren’t more apprised of that, or had more knowledge of that.”