United States to shift its military strategy in Iraq

Iraq’s air force will assume more of the “missions, duties and responsibilities” to maintain victories over ISIS.
Sunday 18/02/2018
An Iraqi pilot checks a US-made Iraqi Air Force F-16 fighter jet at the Balad Air Base, on February 13.(AP)
Changing strategy. An Iraqi pilot checks a US-made Iraqi Air Force F-16 fighter jet at the Balad Air Base, on February 13. (AP)

BALAD AIR BASE, Iraq - Now that Iraq has claimed victory over the Islamic State (ISIS) after a bloody three-and-a-half-year war, the US-led coalition is decreasing air support in the country as part of the coalition’s shrinking footprint amid a drawdown of US forces.

US and Iraqi air force commanders said the coalition will carry out fewer air strikes in support of Iraqi forces and focus more on training Iraqi airmen. Iraq’s air force will assume more of the “missions, duties and responsibilities” to maintain the country’s hard-fought victories over ISIS, a statement released by US Air Forces Central Command said.

Iraq is struggling to fund its Air Force’s $1 billion budget as the country is faced with the enormous task of rebuilding after its military victories. At a conference in Kuwait, Iraq asked the international community for $88 billion to fund post-ISIS reconstruction but was only able to raise promises for a portion of that.

“Training a fighter pilot takes years,” said US Air Force Brigadier-General Andrew Croft at a meeting with the commander of the Iraqi Air Force, General Anwar Hama Ameen. “So this is not a short-term investment, this is something for the long term.”

Until now the US Air Force was largely backing Iraq’s security forces with air strikes against ISIS targets and supporting the country’s F-16 programme. Iraqi F-16 pilots are trained in the United States and the maintenance and security of Iraq’s F-16s is largely carried out by American contractors.

The announcement from the Air Force follows the stated “shift in focus” from the US-led coalition after the Iraqi government said the United States was reducing the number of American forces in Iraq. Iraqi and coalition officials said there is yet to be an agreement on the size of the US force that will remain in the country.

The coalition will focus on “policing, border control and military capacity building,” US Army Brigadier-General Jonathan Braga said in a written statement.

“We will sustain the successful momentum and enhance the capacities of the Iraqi Security Forces in pursuing Daesh, now and in the future,” he added, using an Arabic acronym for ISIS.

Coalition air strikes proved to be decisive early in the fight against ISIS and fuelled Iraqi military victories throughout the campaign.

Before the United States began its air strikes against ISIS in August 2014, the extremists easily travelled across the vast areas — much of it open desert — under their control in Iraq and neighbouring Syria. Just weeks after overrunning Mosul, an assault by ISIS on the city of Erbil in Iraq’s Kurdish region was largely repelled by coalition air power.

In the months that followed, the extremists’ territorial gains were largely halted and over the next three years Iraqi ground forces, with close coalition air support, pushed ISIS out of towns, villages and cities across the country. Last December, Iraqi Prime Minister Haider al-Abadi declared victory over the group.

Croft said a well-trained and -equipped Iraqi Air Force could have prevented the fall of Mosul.

“If Iraq had a couple of aeroplanes and a couple of controllers, that would never have happened,” he said, referring to ISIS’s blitz across Iraq in the summer of 2014.

However, maintaining a modern air force has been prohibitively expensive for Iraq. Contracting firm Sallyport Global Holdings was awarded a $400 million contract by the US Air Force in January for base operations and security for Iraq’s F-16 programme.

By training Iraqis to maintain and secure their own equipment, Ameen said he hopes to bring down costs. “The big challenge for us right now is the budget,” he said.

Iraq continues to struggle with a budget crisis sparked by a downturn in global oil prices and years of mismanagement of natural resource revenues. The enormous cost of rebuilding thousands of homes and infrastructure destroyed in the fight against ISIS is compounding Iraq’s economic woes.

“My ambition is to make the Iraqi Air Force a strong one to defend our country and its sovereignty,” Ameen said. “Not to fight against neighbouring countries but to engage with them in military exercises.”

(The Associated Press)