What to make of this Wall Street Journal report that, under a program launched by the Obama administration last year, the CIA has stepped up its assistance to the Iraqi Counterterrorism Service which includes Iraqi Special Operations units that were trained and mentored in the past by U.S. Special Operations forces? Iraqi forces are now working with American clandestine operatives to target al-Qaeda in Iraq and its Syrian offshoot, the al-Nusra Front.
On one level this is an implicit acknowledgement from President Obama that his decision to pull all U.S. troops out of Iraq at the end of 2011 was a mistake: Contrary to his overoptimistic claims, Iraq was not, and still is not, ready to take over its entire defense. There has been a corresponding degradation of Iraq’s capacity to fight groups such as al-Qaeda in Iraq, which helps to account for their resurgence in the past year and now their spread to Syria.
Obama claimed that the pullout was necessary because Iraqi political leaders, led by Prime Minister Nouri al-Maliki, would not countenance an American role with immunity from prosecution. Does that mean that these CIA operatives are now subject to Iraqi criminal prosecution? One doubts it. Rather, one suspects that the Iraqis have granted the CIA a secret immunity deal, although if one exists it goes unmentioned in the Journal article.
But it is hard to imagine the CIA risking its operatives in such a quasi-public role without some legal protection. If in fact the Iraqis have granted such immunity to the CIA, it suggests they probably would have been willing to grant it to a limited contingent of military personnel as well–if only Obama had not made the onerous and unnecessary demand, opposed by his own negotiating team, that any immunity deal be approved by Iraq’s parliament.
Given the inability of the U.S. military to operate in Iraq, the CIA mission sounds like a reasonable stopgap, but almost surely there is a loss of capability in relying on the CIA rather than on seasoned American military organizations which built up long-term connections with their Iraqi counterparts and had more resources and expertise to devote to counterterrorism than an organization that is primarily devoted to the collection of intelligence. The CIA can make ample use of former military personnel–and perhaps some active-duty ones as well–but it simply is not as capable in carrying out this kind of mission as the U.S. Special Operations Command or other Defense Department organizations would be. Nor can the CIA presence, which is necessarily hidden and limited, provide the same kind of political clout to influence Maliki that the presence of uniformed military personnel could provide.
This is, in essence, a second-best solution–better than nothing but not as good as keeping an American military contingent after 2011 as America’s military commanders on the ground had argued for. Does President Obama now regret, one wonders, not trying harder to secure a Status of Forces Agreement?