The U.S. needs to fight Al Qaeda in Iraq

Air power could help turn the tide against al-Qaeda, but giving F-16s, Apache helicopters and surveillance drones to Iraq isn’t “air power.” Having equipment is not the same as being able to use it. The United States has accelerated the delivery of military equipment that the Iraqis had on order, but spring delivery is still likely to be too late. In the short term, U.S. officials should consider providing capability that can be employed now and in ways that would make a difference in the outcome with al-Qaeda. This means a temporary and limited use of U.S. air power — fixed and rotary-wing as well as unmanned. Such air power could be based outside of Iraq to further reduce risk.

But air power alone will not be decisive. It must be employed in conjunction with a ground offensive that includes conventional and special operations forces. This ground operation should be of Iraqi troops, but the United States would have to provide the tactical air control capability because Iraqi Security Forces do not have this ability. The air-to-ground controllers would incur the most risk. Some would have to be on the ground near the action; proximity is necessary to ensure our aircraft attack legitimate targets and limit potential collateral damage and because the situation on the ground is fluid and armed tribesmen are in urban areas among the civilian population and al-Qaeda fighters. Depending on where U.S. air power is used, other controllers could be in the air to mitigate risk.

Iraq also lacks the ability to plan a large, complex air-ground campaign. The planning assistance the Iraqis need would not require a large troop presence, but the planning cell would have to be in Iraq. It could be in Baghdad, where the planners would be relatively secure, though not risk-free.