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On October 16, 2017, Baghdad dispatched troops to the oil-rich city of Kirkuk with the goal of retaking it from Iraq’s Kurds, who had plans of creating an independent state in the northern part of the country. Not only did Iraq’s security forces, trained and equipped by Washington, assault a crucial U.S. ally in the fight against the Islamic State (also known as ISIS), they did it with the help of Qassim Suleimani, Tehran’s top operative in the Middle East, who reveled in seeing Iraqi militias under his control use American Abrams tanks and Humvees in pursuit of their mission.
This wasn’t the first time that something had gone terribly wrong in U.S. security assistance to Middle Eastern partners. In Syria, the United States spent four years and burned through more than a billion dollars trying to create a rebel force that would be able to rein in the influence of the country’s jihadists. The result was nothing short of disastrous. A minuscule number of Syrians ultimately made it through several U.S. training programs, and many who had received military support from Washington made a devil’s bargain with Al Qaeda and to the terrorist group.
Frustration in Washington with U.S. military assistance to Middle Eastern partners has been noticeably on the rise, and Iraq and Syria only tell part of the story. In public and closed hearings on Capitol Hill, members of Congress have more assertively voiced their concerns to Defense and State Department officials about human-rights problems, and American weapons’ misuse or seizure by terrorists. In June 2017, almost half the Senate voted against delivering precision-guided munitions to Saudi Arabia (worth $500 million) for its war in Yemen. A month later, President Donald Trump terminated what was left of the CIA’s program to support Syrian rebels and expressed interest in slashing several countries’ foreign military financing (FMF) programs and turning parts of them into loans. Secretary of State Rex Tillerson cut almost $96 million in military and economic aid to Egypt, while withholding another $195 million in FMF.