Problems Growing in Iraq, Afghanistan

Attacks on the United States in Both Places Will Force Major Decisions

By Stephen Bryen

At least one rocket, and probably three, slammed into the US Embassy in Baghdad, Iraq reportedly injuring at least one person sitting in the embassy cafeteria at dinner time. No one has yet claimed to have done it, but the rockets, Katyushas, are in the hands of pro-Iranian militias, most likely Kataeb Hezbollah, a key part of a coalition of Sh’ia pro-Iran groups operating under Iraq’s so-called Popular Mobilization Forces or PMF. Other members include the Badr Organization, Asa’ib Ahl al-Haq, Kata’ib Sayyid al-Shuhada, Harakat Hezbollah al-Nujaba, Kata’ib al-Imam Ali and Kata’ib Jund al-Imam.

Prime Minister Nouri al-Maliki used the PMF to suppress ISIS and to attack opposition groups in Iraq. The current Iraqi prime minister (thought to be on his way out) Adil Abdul-Mahdi al-Muntafiki also works closely with the PMF. For some time, the US also worked with the PMF but was edged out by the Iranians signifying that now the PMF is decisively anti-American. Its leader, Jamal Ja’far Muhammad Ali Al Ibrahim was killed along with Qasem Soleimani on January 3rd.

In Afghanistan a highly specialized jet belonging to the US Air Force was shot down or crashed in eastern Afghanistan in the Dih Yak district , over an area under the complete control of Taliban forces. The plane, a Bombardier E-11A is a unique flying platform that provides communications services to US fighter planes operating in Afghanistan. Through its spokesperson Zabiullah Mujahid, the Taliban claimed that all the plane’s passengers, which he claimed included high-ranking CIA officers, were killed. Subsequently, the US said that five persons died in the plane’s crash, though the Pentagon declined to identify the type of plane or whether it was shot down or crashed.

The E-11A is known as a Battlefield Airborne Communications Node or BACN. The plane belongs to the 430th Expeditionary Electronic Squadron operating out of Kandahar and is the only unit in the U.S. Air Force that operates the E-11A with the BACN payload. The BACN equipped planes make it possible to have a unified datalink and voice network in the mountainous terrain encountered in Afghanistan, and in particular have enhanced the mission of the A-10’s operating there. The A-10 is a workhorse, subsonic fighter-bomber equipped with a massive 30 mm hydraulically driven seven-barrel Gatling-style autocannon that can devastate an enemy location. E-11A’s are flown at high altitudes giving them some immunity against enemy air defenses, particularly MANPADS (shoulder fired missiles).

E-11A US Air Force

The question is, if the E-11A was hit by a missile, where would the Taliban get such a missile and would a MANPADS work against the E-11A.

Iran has been the key supplier of missiles to the Taliban. The latest Iranian MANPADS is the Misagh-2. The Misagh-2 is a Chinese knock-off of a Russian MANPAD, the SA-18. They are “produced” in Iran largely from parts imported from China. The Taliban are also thought to have some US Stinger (FIM-92) MANPADS, the same that were used in the Russian-Afghanistan war. But these are old and would have needed to be refurbished to work. Between them, these types of missiles can reach an altitude of between 13,000 and 14,000 feet

Dih Yak District includes elevations over 7,000 feet above sea level. Adding that to the range of the Misagh(roughly 20,000 feet) would make the E-11A vulnerable to being shot down.

Judging from the video, which appears authentic, shows the plane burned out but mainly in one large piece. From the video it is difficult to be sure if the plane was hit by a missile or crashed. If it crashed it probably sent back information to its base or to other aircraft in the area in the form of a MAYDAY. So far at least, we don’t have information that any MAYDAY came from the aircraft.

Both Iraq and Afghanistan have become no win problems for the United States. While Iraq remains strategically significant, Afghanistan is not. Al Qaeda is no longer a factor in Afghanistan, and the Taliban operate only in that country. The US has been negotiating with the Taliban to try and work out a disengagement deal, but this shoot down –if that is what happened– throws those negotiations into the bin.

These attacks will soon force major US decisions for both countries. The betting is we will leave Afghanistan. The US will stay in Iraq, and if Trump clears the impeachment hurdles thrown at him, the US may move to replace the Iraqi government with pro-US instead of pro-Iranian leaders.