On March 19, 2003, U.S. ground forces crossed the concertina wire in Kuwait that marks Iraq’s southern border, beginning one of America’s most controversial wars. On December 17, 2011, at 11:30 p.m. Eastern Standard Time, the last military convoys rolled off Iraqi soil, back to Kuwait. This time, a U.S. Air Force Predator drone loitered overhead, bearing witness.
This is what a U.S. withdrawal looks like to a robotic plane in the sky. An orderly, blue-tinged column of trucks — 125 of them, according to the U.S. Air Force — moves along a stretch of road. The Predator doesn’t see any of the accomplishments or the sacrifice that U.S. troops achieved, endured and earned in Iraq for the past nine years. Nor does it see the suffering, the bitterness and the loss.
But it does record a minor success. The Predator video feed does not show chaos at the border. There is no insurgent assault seeking to chase the U.S. military out. Nor is there a panicked helicopter flight from an embassy rooftop. Instead, as the final trucks calmly cross into Kuwait, the Predator watches border guards shut a gate, providing a sense of finality.
It may not be so final. The U.S. leaves behind a massive embassy in Iraq guarded by up to 5,500 armed security contractors. Little is known about that hired army — when, for instance, it can open fire on Iraqis to protect U.S. diplomats — but it amounts to a privatized residual U.S. force. And in addition to Iraq’s lingering political problems, the country is still a battleground for competing U.S. and Iranian interests. Still, Pentagon Press Secretary George Little tweeted on Sunday morning that Defense Secretary Leon Panetta has “approved the order officially ending the Iraq war: EXORD 1003 Victor, Mod 9.”
And the Predators? They won’t exactly leave Iraq after the pullout. On Friday, Panetta secured Baghdad’s approval to allow the drones to fly — unarmed — over northern Iraq from Turkey’s Incirlik air base. They’ll be spying for Kurdish terrorists.
Beyond that, after December 31, when the pullout must legally be complete, drones — armed and otherwise — will be in reserve at the U.S.’ constellation of bases near Iraq in Persian Gulf states.
“Any operation of any aircraft of any type into the sovereign airspace over Iraq after that date would need to comply with Iraqi laws and policies,” Capt. Melissa Milner, chief spokeswoman for the U.S. Air Force in the Middle East, told Danger Room in October. “We are not aware of any special arrangements or exceptions for any aircraft, and are not aware of any ongoing discussions with [the Iraqi defense ministry] on the matter.”