It's one thing to have the U.S. symbolically ending all major combat operations in Iraq for the second time in eight years. It's an entirely other thing to watch the Americans physically rolling out of a warzone, especially after a nine-year campaign that cost the U.S. nearly $1 trillion and 4,500 lives, not to mention the lives of over 100,000 Iraqis, mainly unarmed civilians.
It's only fitting, too, that footage of a final American convoy discreetly exiting Iraq early Sunday morning comes by way of a U.S. Predator surveillance drone. That the U.S. even had an unmanned aerial vehicle loitering high above yesterday's dawn departure suggests that America’s stake in a seemingly endless Iraq conflict isn’t flat ending, but is simply phasing into something else – something with a lot more drones.
With remarkable clarity the Predator tracked “an orderly, blue-tinged column” of 125 trucks snaking over featureless desert and through a floodlit, barbed-wire security checkpoint along the Kuwaiti border. Think back to America's bombastic shock-‘n-awe entry into Iraq nine years ago, and tell me this stark, subdued withdrawal doesn’t set a new bar for “Nothing To See Here.”
The U.S. is not leaving Iraq, of course – not by a long shot.
Not only will at least 4,000 American forces post up in Kuwait "for some months," NPR reports, where they’ll serve as aids to finalizing the move and as "quick-reaction" forces. Roughly 16,000 others, mostly contractors (and Iraq already teems with contractors), will hold down the U.S. embassy in Baghdad, a doubling in size of the world's largest American Embassy. There, about 200 military personnel will guard the place and also facilitate the selling of weapons to the Iraqi government.
So the U.S.‘s drones, whether for combat or surveillance, aren’t leaving Iraq, either. If anything, the machines may come to fulfill an even bigger role now that American boots on the ground have largely been cleared.
We know that in 2000 the U.S. was operating fewer than 50 drones throughout Iraqi airspace. And while the Department of Defense has been notoriously reticent when it’s come to the covert Middle East drone war, American officials recently told the Bureau of Investigative Journalism that as of the beginning of November 2011 the DoD was flying 57 surveillance flight routes within Iraq. The officials added that unmanned aerial vehicles have clocked in nearly 790,000 combat hours in Iraq since 2009, with between 8,000 and 11,000 reconnaissance flights a year beginning 2008.
If there was any question as to how Iraqi law will accommodate American drones now that the end of the war has been tweeted, U.S. Defense Secretary Leon Panetta said Friday that Baghdad has given Washington clearance to continue cruising Predators on reconnaissance missions through northern Iraq.
Troop at Contingency Operating Base Adder, Iraq, where yesterday the last remaining American forces pulled out under the cover of darkness (Mario Tama / Pool Photo)
Just where Iraq-bound American drones will be launching from is anyone’s guess. The U.S. has its options, though, with launch capabilities at bases in Italy, the United Arab Emirates, Qatar, Uzbekistan, and Djibouti. (But forget that once secret CIA base in Pakistan.) It’s known, too, that at least four drones have been taken to neighboring Turkey. There, Predators will be flown out of a joint American-Turkish air base to monitor the PKK, a Kurdish separatist group.
How an Iraqi government and people duly lurching precariously toward something like democracy will take to a ramped up presence of U.S. drones is another question. The DoD is presently operating over 7,000 combat and surveillance drones globally. These machines are unpopular pretty much wherever they’re hanging, but we should remember just how extremely, extremely unpopular UAVs have become throughout the Iraqi region.
To date there have been over 300 drone strikes – 257 on Obama’s watch – in Iraq alone, where flying, weaponized American robots have taken out between 2,300 and 3,000 people, of which between 400 and 800 are believed to have been innocent bystanders. Between 2010 and 2015 the DoD anticipates putting over $24 billion toward cutting-edge drone systems and to beefing up existing vehicles. Presumably some of these new or refurbished machines will take to Iraqi skies.
U.S. officials play up how non-combative aerial surveillance of the volatile region has benefitted from the U.S.‘s ballooning drone armada. "The dominant use in Iraq," Major General Jeffrey Buchanan, chief spokesman for U.S. Forces in Iraq, told the Bureau last month, “has not been for providing ground attack or things like that.” It’s been more about ISR, Buchanan explained, or intelligence, surveillance and reconnaissance – to patrol miles upon miles of oil pipeline, say, that winds unattended through Iraqi desert. It’s far more “efficient and effective,” he said, to maintain vigilance along the pipeline through UAVs than to post up an assault every 200 meters, or so.
What’s more, drones can be used in concert with piloted aircraft “working directly for ground commanders.” This enables extended monitoring of pipelines or critical communication routes or borders, like that with Kuwait, whose anonymous guards will live in infamy, now, having calmly closed the gates after the last armored U.S. truck – and the old ways of war – rumbled out of Iraq and into history.
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