These Iraqi Fighter Pilots Are Bombing ISIS — Now Trump Has Banned Them
Muslim-ban ensnares U.S. allies
by JOSEPH TREVITHICK
On Jan. 28, 2017, Pres. Donald Trump issued an executive order banning citizens of seven Muslim-majority countries from entering the United States for 90 days — no exceptions. Poorly thought-out and badly implemented — not to mention morally reprehensible — the action quickly sparked national and international condemnation and protests.
“It is the policy of the United States to protect its citizens from foreign nationals who intend to commit terrorist attacks in the United States; and to prevent the admission of foreign nationals who intend to exploit United States immigration laws for malevolent purposes,” the order explained.
There’s just one huge problem with Trump’s plan. It actually hampers the Pentagon from effectively fighting terrorism — and helping allies to do the same, particularly with regards to Islamic State. Notably, the executive order blocks Iraqi air force pilots from training in Arizona.
“Ultimately, we fear this executive order will become a self-inflicted wound in the fight against terrorism,” Arizona senator John McCain and South Carolina senator Lindsey Graham, both Republicans, wrote in a joint statement on Jan. 29, 2017. “Our most important allies in the fight against [Islamic State] are the vast majority of Muslims who reject its apocalyptic ideology of hatred.”
But for Iraq alone, the order impacts much more beyond the pilot training. Trump’s action has the potential to screw up all sort of military aid projects — something that would only benefit Islamic State.
In December 2014, Iraqi pilots arrived in Tucson, Arizona to learn how to fly F-16 fighters. After Islamic State blitzed into Iraq in the summer of 2014, American officials decided it wasn’t safe to train in the country.
Instead, Lockheed and the U.S. Air Force delivered the planes Baghdad had bought to Tucson International Airport. There Iraqi crews would learn the ins and outs of their new aircraft before taking them home to Balad air base near Baghdad.
At that point, the deal was more than four years in the making. Starting in 2010, Iraq had developed plans for a fleet 30 single-seat F-16IQ fighters, along with six two-seat trainer versions.
Many of Baghdad’s aviators had already gone through basic pilot training, thanks the U.S. Air Force — and were eager to fly their new jets into battle.
“Soon enough we’ll be home flying them over Iraq,” a pilot identified only as Capt. Hama told U.S. Air Force reporters. “I just want to see my country like any other country, safe and the people living a nice life without the threat of being bombed or kidnapped by bad people.”
The Arizona Air National Guard’s 162nd Fighter Wing coordinated the Iraqi training program. In July 2015, Iraqi graduates finally flew four of the F-16IQs to Balad. Fewer than three months later, the jets were blasting Islamic State.
Unfortunately, since the situation in Iraq was still fragile, new pilots kept coming for to the United States to go through the training courses. As of January 2017, the Iraqi air force was still practicing in Arizona.
Under Trump’s executive order, Baghad’s pilots can’t come into the country for any reason. It doesn’t matter that Iraq owns the fighter jets sitting on the tarmac in Tucson or that its aviators have come here for two years without incident.
A three-month delay in getting more qualified pilots could be a dangerous setback, especially as Iraqi and Peshmerga forces are fighting to eject Islamic State from its de facto Iraqi capital in Mosul. And this isn’t the only program the White House’s plan might impact.
After a U.S.-led coalition ousted long-time dictator Saddam Hussein in 2003, Iraq’s new military and security forces routinely sent personnel to work with their American counterparts, share important information and otherwise coordinate future plans.
Between 2008 and 2012, the Pentagon spent more than $1.5 million to just so Iraqi troops could improve their military skills at institutions such as the Joint Special Operations University, the National Defense University, the U.S. Army War College, the Defense Institute of International Legal Studies and others, according to annual reports to Congress.
In each case, the State Department vetted these students for links to terrorism or gross human-rights abuses. The executive order would ban anyone coming from the country to the United States on these sort of exchanges.
In addition, Iraqi officers visited U.S. military bases and defense contractors to gather information that might be useful back home and finish up deals for new weapons and equipment. In 2008, one contingent toured the Army’s Red River and Anniston depots in Texas and Alabama, respectively.
The fallout from Trump’s action isn’t limited to activities in the United States — it immediately created a potentially hostile climate for American troops and civilians aiding Iraqi forces in Iraq. On Jan. 29, 2017, the members of the country’s parliament declared they were considering a retaliatory ban on U.S. citizens.
If their order was as broad as Trump’s, it might keep out intelligence analysts, civilian trainers, armed guards and other private military contractors. Even before Islamic State exploded into the country in 2014, the Pentagon relied heavily on private firms to support its own operations and efforts to aid Iraqi troops.
In October 2016, Jeppesen Sanderson, Inc. — a division of Boeing — won a contract worth more than $4 million to help upgrade Iraq’s air traffic control systems. In May 2016, Denmark brought in a mobile military radar to help keep track of all the planes flying around because the country’s own air-traffic radar coverage was so poor.
On Jan. 27, 2017, the Air Force handed Sallyport Global Holdings, Inc. another $270 million to continue supplying food, water and other “life support” services, as well as local security, for Iraqi personnel at Balad air base. If lawmakers in Baghdad passed new immigration restrictions, American nationals working on both these deals might not be able to get in.
These are just a few of the dozens of projects the Pentagon is coordinating to help Iraq beat back Islamic State. As of January 2016, more than 2,000 contractors were working directly for the U.S. military in Iraq.
Trump’s executive order has threatened to throw all that into question and provoked distrust of America’s commitment to the fight in Baghdad. If Washington’s relationship with Baghdad suffers a serious fracture, the only winners will be those countries — namely Iran and Russia — that step in to take the United State’s place of prominence.
Oh, and the terrorists themselves.