Playing Jenga with Iraq's Air Force

As the US nears withdrawal, the extent of future Iraqi control over the skies will be crucial for the region's stability.

With less than four months to go before the US withdraws combat troops from Iraq, the security capabilities of the Iraqi security forces have been put under increasing scrutiny following a spate of bomb attacks.

The US withdrawal from Iraq is based on the principle that Iraqi forces can take on "the assumption of full security responsibility". Yet in reality the capability of these forces is deeply mixed. The US withdrawal is akin to a game of Jenga, with military support being carefully removed plank by plank while (hopefully) ensuring that the Iraqi government doesn't collapse.

One of the major security planks to be transferred is the present US sovereignty of the sky. This is an extremely tricky area. If an unstable and divided Iraqi government is given too much power there will be deep concerns as to how its air power might be used. On the other hand, emasculating the new Iraq would allow regional states more opportunities to interfere.

Control of the air has been a vital cog in the US occupation of Iraq. The recent Wikilinks video was a reminder of the devastation that US gunships can unleash, while the killing of two senior al-Qaida leaders was only possible due to the rapid transiting of troops to the target by helicopter.

One of the tools of the "surge" was a series of air balloons, filled to the brim with surveillance equipment which were able to direct urban operations. Far above, US fighter-bombers have been on constant standby ready to wipe out any insurgents caught in the open. Meanwhile, the rollout of unmanned drones such as the Reaper and the Predator has given the US an effective standoff tool for maintaining its aerial sovereignty over the country.

By the end of August most of this support will be withdrawn and the skies of Iraq will be a very different place. The new Iraqi air force is symbolic of the US desire to create a relationship of strategic dependency where they are perceived to have left an Iraq that can secure itself yet without posing a danger to its neighbours. When the US invaded Iraq, much of Saddam Hussein's air force had either been flown out of the country or buried in the deserts. Today, as Iraqi air force commander Anwer Hamad Amen Ahmed recently explained: "We are still far from an air force's full potential. We will need the US long after 2011."

Yet the US faces an almost impossible challenge to balance Iraq's need to defend itself and avoid giving it an offensive potential that could be misused. There is, of course, a precedent for this. In 1920 the British relied upon what Toby Dodge refers to as "the despotic power of airplanes" as a means for imposing its control over Iraq. In 1988 the Iraqi air force dropped chemical weapons on the Kurds in Halabja, while in 1991 Iraqi helicopter gunships played a crucial role in suppressing the Shi'a uprising of the time.

There is a clear danger in supplying state-of-the-art warplanes to a nascent Iraqi government, which Amnesty International accused this month of running secret torture prisons.

A recent Rand report noted that "the future character of the Iraqi air force is a critical political issue affecting Arab-Kurdish relations". Yet the Iraqi government is looking at a mass investment into airpower. This includes plans to purchase 96 F-16s by 2020, and this week the Financial Times reported talks about buying £1bn-worth of Hawk trainer aircraft from BAE Systems. This despite the revelation from British Lieutenant General Barney White-Spunner at the Chilcot Inquiry that during Operation Charge of the Knights the Iraqi government requested air strikes that were not seen to have "been thoroughly enough vetted, and which could have caused considerable civilian casualties".

The likelihood is that the US will look to use current and future security arrangements to maintain an umbilical cord of influence in Iraq, with the largest US embassy in the world acting as a hub. Article 9 section 4 of the status of forces agreement says that "Iraq may request from the United States forces temporary support for the Iraqi authorities in the mission of surveillance and control of Iraqi airspace". This, and talk within the strategic framework agreement about "co-operation" may see Iraq mirror the situation in Pakistan, where US drones fly freely while the Pakistani military continues to receive large amounts of US bilateral aid.

While continued US influence over Iraq may be seen as anathema to many, restrictions on the Iraqi government's air capabilities would be in the interests of the whole country and help to keep the Iraqi Jenga tower intact.