Center for Strategic Communication

By Patricia Lee Sharpe 

Some news stories have legs.  Some don’t.   Sometimes when the latter happens, the non-interest is deserved.  But sometimes the disinterest is very hard to understand.  Here’s a headline that appeared late last month: “U.S. Weighs Training Iraqis To Call in American Air Strikes in ISIS Fight.”  Why did such a possibility set off no viral alarm?  Given the possible consequences, it should have.

The argument in favor of using Iraqi spotters to direct American airmen is rooted in efficiency. These days, with no American troops on the ground in Iraq, it’s hard to identify and destroy  ISIS targets before they melt away, especially in fast-moving urban combat situations.  As a result, Bagdad believes that American assistance isn’t as effective as it should be.  Reaction time is too long.  Also it’s well known that Americans find it difficult to differentiate between innocuous civilian activities and similar-looking moves by the enemy.  Using Iraqi spotters to direct U.S. air resources to appropriate targets might save innocent Iraqi lives.

No one disputes the Big Problem here: how to stop the ISIS juggernaut.  The Proposed Solution, however, creates more problems than it solves.   

Evidently not everyone is Washington is happy with this idea.  It’s been suggested that back up drones could be employed to evaluate the spotters’ suggestions before the American air force does any damage.  This might interfere with efficiency, of course: back and forth messaging, image analysis, etc.  

However, the mere hint of benefit from verifying the importance of the proposed target with U.S. eyes as well as Iraqi spotters leads logically to the conclusion that delegating the spotting function is a fundamentally bad idea.  Consider, in this light, the complexity of the conflict in Iraq and the degree to which American interests may not always coincide with those cherished by various actors within the current government in Iraq.  In short: whose ox is likely to be gored here?

In this context, it might be worthwhile to recall some unsavory U.S. experiences in Afghanistan, where a web of intersecting and countervailing loyalties involving families, tribes and sects made cooperation and coordination very difficult to achieve and sustain, although one thing was always certain: no Afghan’s primary loyalty was to U.S. objectives as such.  Another thing: the political always has a personal element, but the two overlap more completely in Afghanistan than, for example, in the U.S.   As a result, many innocent men ended up in Guantanamo for many miserable years, not because they were dedicated Taliban or Al Qaeada fighters, but only because someone had a personal grievance and was willing to sell them out to the Americans.  

Can we be any more certain that Iraqi spotters will be free of sectarian or tribal biases in providing targets for American war planes?  I doubt it.  There’s little about Iraqi governance or military organization that gives me confidence in the moral incorruptibility of military or civilian decision-makers.  

In short, if the U.S. is going to deliver lethal force, the task of identifying those who will die should not be delegated to those who do not necessarily share our values or objectives.