Today, Qassim Abdul-Zahra and Diaa Hadid wrote a story for the Associated Press that describes growing cross-border collaboration between al-Qa’ida in Iraq (AQI) and Jabhat al-Nusrah, or al-Nusrah Front, in Syria. An Iraqi government spokesperson is quoted as describing the border area as “a nest of terrorist cells,” while an anonymous Jordanian counterterrorism official stated that the two groups were working, “with all possible means, including weapons, fighters and training." This is not a new development. In December, the State Department claimed that the al-Nusrah Front was merely an extension of AQI, and was thus labeled a “Foreign Terrorist Organization.”
What was new in Abdul-Zahra and Hadid’s reporting was the following passage:
"Two Iraqi intelligence officials said the cooperation reflected in the attack on the wounded Syrian troops prompted the Baghdad government to request U.S. drone strikes against the fighters. They spoke on condition of anonymity because they were not authorized to discuss the subject. A U.S. official confirmed that elements within Iraq’s government had inquired about drone strikes. But the official said the United States was waiting to respond until the Iraqi leadership’s top level makes a formal request, which hasn’t happened."
It is a positive sign that President Obama has (apparently) decided not to authorize drone strikes in Iraq, and that his administration insisted on a formal request from Baghdad before considering such a significant policy change. Intervening on behalf of another country to protect its borders is not something that the United States should rush into, even if the targeted individuals are suspected of belonging to a State Department-designated terrorist organization.
In March, the Wall Street Journal reported that the CIA had increased its covert training and support efforts to enhance Iraq’s Counterterrorism Service forces that are focused on AQI or al-Nusrah militants that threaten western Iraq. A senior Obama administration official stated: "This relationship is focused on supporting the Iraqis to deal with terrorist threats within their borders, and not about ramping up unilateral operations." Training and advising another state’s security forces is a normal component of military to military cooperation, but conducting kinetic operations for them could quickly draw the United States into creating additional enemies out of what are domestic and regionally-focused terrorist groups. The CIA already serves as the counterterrorism air force of Yemen, and, occasionally, Pakistan. It should not further expand this chore to Iraq.
President Obama should also ask himself if the United States wants to open up a fifth front in its campaign of non-battlefield targeted killings, outside of Pakistan, Yemen, Somalia, and The Philippines. (Mark Mazzetti has reported that there was at least one U.S. drone strike in The Philippines in 2006, which attempted to kill Umar Patek. Mazzetti’s must-read book—The Way of the Knife: The CIA, a Secret Army, and a War at the Ends of the Earth—comes out next week, which could have some additional details.) In addition, the U.S. military recently began flying unarmed (so far) Predator surveillance drones from an airstrip in Niamey, Niger. Moreover, as Congress debates updating the long-defunct Authorization for the Use of Military Force resolution that it passed days after September 11, 2001, it should consider seriously what legal authorities that the president should have to respond to random requests from foreign government for drone strikes.