HGOTW for November 2017

John T Kuehn's picture


John T. Kuehn


Well, me for one.   But let us review.   As the war known by the military characterization of DESERT STORM (January – March 1991) wound down the regrouped and reconstituted elements of Saddam’s defeated army and air forces began to wage an intense counterinsurgency against rebelling Shia rebels in the southern part of Iraq and Kurdish separatists in the north.  The Kurdish operations were part of an ongoing program of pacification, intimidation, and genocide that existed prior to the so-called First Gulf War and was more in the category of distraction—a way for Saddam to consolidate his teetering power inside Iraq by battling enemies at home now that he had lost against enemies abroad (twice in the previous ten years if one includes his limited war loss to Iran in the real First Gulf War).

                It was against this geopolitical-strategic background that the President G.H.W. Bush intervened with military forces in the north to aid the Kurds, who had been driven from their cities and villages into the harsh mountains of Iraq where they were suffering both hunger and cold due to a late winter.  This intervention resulted in two military operations often forgotten by Americans, if not by military historians in general--who should know better.   Although maybe it has not been forgotten by air power historians.  That is because these operations were almost entirely conducted by air power doing two things that air power advocates have often disesteemed---(1) airlift, for humanitarian relief in this case, and (2) air defense, that is a no-fly zone to protect the Kurds from Iraqi air power, especially its HIND attack helicopters and other rotary winged attack assets.

                The US humanitarian mission included all the air assets of the services, but especially long range helicopters (H-53s and H47s) and tanking aircraft.  It succeeded in feeding and sustaining the Kurds against some rather daunting logistical challenges.  It was conducted mostly by European Command forces, not Central Command (CENTCOM).

                The northern no-fly zone mentioned, NORTHERN WATCH, was similarly a European Command show and primarily belonged to the US Air Force, which used air bases in places like Turkey and Cyprus to support it.   It remained in place all the way until 2002 when it was replaced by the pre-cursor air campaign for the run up to OPERATION IRAQI FREEDOM known as SOUTHERN FOCUS. [1]   NORTHERN WATCH also pre-dated the possibly more well-known SOUTHERN WATCH no fly zone (at least to this author who flew missions for it over Iraq), which was implemented too late to help the Shia but became a sort of lever to support the United Nations Security Council Resolutions (UNSCR) imposed on Iraq in the wake of its defeat in Kuwait and that aimed to dismantle its nuclear and other weapons of mass destruction programs.  It also supported, indirectly, some of the other economic sanctions in place. In this sense it was a success, even though the UN inspectors were expelled from Iraq in 1998, which was followed by a short punitive air campaign known as DESERT FOX.

                One positive by product of PROVIDE COMFORT and NORTHERN WATCH was that in the invasion of 2003 the US found a friendly and cooperative semi-Kurdish state and military (the Peshmerga) waiting for it and which, on balance has proved beneficial in a region where the US has had more setbacks than successes—including its recent key role in defeating the conventional forces of ISIS in Syria and Iraq.

                So what?   Ah, so what indeed.  Fast forward to Senator John McCain’s 24 October 2017 New York Times editorial “I Choose the Kurds” that argues for continued support to the Kurds.[2]   McCain’s position has some problems, although he and I do have some, limited, congruence, on this issue.  Let me explain. Normally I would reject military support out of hand, but then I would be contradicting my oft-stated opinion of supporting what the Kurds have achieved continuing to employ air power—as we did in1991's PROVIDE COMFORT and with NORTHERN WATCH.. 

As a restrainer/offshore balancer [3],   I think there are more than enough boots on ground with the Peshmerga and we can train Kurdish forward air controllers (FACs) over here (hopefully we already trained sopme, we have had sixteen years for goodness sake).  So the Kurdish question lends itself to an air power solution...but, where to base the air?  I am no fan of using aircraft carrier air from the Gulf or even the eastern Mediterranean Sea (Med in Navy lingo) when land bases are more apropos. [4]  But the land options are quite limited because of national constraints by various powers (Qatar, Saudi Arabia) and/or their use unwise (e.g. Incirlik in Turkey).  It is unlikely that Turkey would let us use Incirlik to help the Kurds overly much.  Land based air support is a challenge that the US air Force has never quite solved for this region.  Thus we have to use our “airbases on the high seas” because of the limitations of land based air (unless we want to buy a new fleet of tankers tout suite).   The eastern Med is closer and better than the Persian Gulf in any case. Maybe this is the way to get the aircraft carriers permanently out from under CENTCOM's often unwise control. I digress.

                I am troubled about what we should do here.  There is something of a debt of honor we owe the Kurds, but a small one.  I think we might be able to meet it with airpower, TLAMS, and diplomacy.[5]  The US government needs to advise the Kurds not to blow what is essentially a pretty good situation by over-reaching for an autonomy they already have (like the Catalans).  To quote an M. Night Shyamalan film, “It’s a good gig, don’t blow it.”  The other problem, of course, is that of the government in Baghdad. Right now the Abadi government is preferable to the Iranian proxies of former president Nouri al Maliki—the guy who presided over Iraq when it was catastrophically defeated by ISIS in 2014.   McCain and his foreign policy advisors do not seem to understand this "wrinkle" completely, although they allude to it.  Unless McCain favors Iran dominating the area even more than it already does now—but too much overt support for Kurds, ironically, aids the Iranians.  McCain implies he is against that, too: “  A web of Iranian proxies and allies is spreading from the Levant to the Arabian Peninsula, threatening stability, freedom of navigation and the territory of our partners and allies…”   Although letting Iran increase in power is also an option.  That is a course of action that McCain has decried often and regularly and in which he is joined by the anti-Iranian secretary of offense (excuse me, defense), retired general Jim Mattis.

In all these cases there seems no requirement for any marines or US Army troops to be on the ground.

So what would you do about the Kurds?

John T. Kuehn



Good questions and good info. Basing a reliance/alliance on the Kurds seems like one solution given this brief history there.

Another thought, possibly develop a small Peshmerga AF and some local air bases for their autonomous region. Reaching an agreement with Baghdad does seem a better solution to retain their autonomy and US could lend good offices to that.
This last point is important cause just today Putin came out in favor of the current historic Treaty with Iran on nukes; nixing the present Administrations somewhat questionable idea of unilateralism for the US with that Treaty.
Kurdistan would offer US another balancing point for concerns over growth and growing Russian and Iranian influences and political/military postures. It is a thought.

Clausewitz would never, am thinking, wish to divorce politics from war in practice, seeing as his formulation was war as a set of tools for polity

I read through the HG twice but still could not find the clear statement of the problem in terms of meeting the requirement of America's interests. Debts of honor are not meaningless, but our dear leaders are not exactly cut from Homeric cloth.

Who wouldn't favor continuing our support for a de facto independent Kurdistan? And yes, they should accept de facto and not press too hard for total, recognized independence.

I remember Provide Comfort if only for the embarrassing lack of interservice coordination, which resulted in a USAF F-15 shooting down one of our own Blackhawk helicopters. Or was it two? Long ago, in a galaxy far away . . . As I recall, the fighter pilots were confused by seeing external fuel tanks on the helicopters, something always seen on Iraqi HINDs but seldom on US Army Blackhawks.

I think we owe the Kurds a little more than just a debt of honor; there is a blood debt there as well. The United States highly encouraged revolts in Iraq following DESERT STORM, and then seem surprised when Iraqis and Kurds took them at their word. Kurdistan was a comparative bastion of stability during the dark days of occupation following IRAQI FREEDOM, and the peshmerga were among the most effective fighters against ISIS when the Iraqi Army was busy throwing its weapons down and running away. It's probably a stretch to say they've died for us; but they have regularly died fighting our common enemies, and sometimes when we promised more help than we gave.

But what currency do we repay that debt in? I hate to say it, but I think somebody needs to be on the ground to help them, both in providing further training, limited combat support, and perhaps most importantly, as a moderating presence. [1] You can argue all day long about tactical and strategic errors in Iraq since 2003; but once we were there, and had worked hard to end the blood-letting through the Surge, it was insane to pull absolutely everyone out. It's not like there's no precedent for leaving US forces on the ground after the cessation of hostilities, as bases in Germany, Korea, and across the Pacific can attest. If you want to make the lessons of war stick, you need someone around to both mentor the people shattered by war, and act as a back-stop for back-sliding.

All other things aside, an independent, artificially drawn Kurdish state has two strikes against it: it would piss off all the neighbors, and be militarily indefensible should those neighbors decide to do something about it. But that whole region needs a big dose of stability and aid, and if we think that it's a strategically important area for us, we should make a temporary investment to stave off yet another forcible entry on America's part in the future. Whether those boots need to be in Kurdistan or elsewhere, they probably need to be somewhere (and, the way things are rapidly deteriorating in Saudi Arabia and Yemen, bases in Iraq may turn out to be more secure than those in the Gulf).

[1] Debunking Myths About the Kurds, Iraq, and Iran, Denise Natali, War on the Rocks (https://warontherocks.com/2017/10/debunking-myths-about-the-kurds-iraq-a...)

Some on this thread evince a desire for a sort of clarity that I find has little to do with the real world.

That said, let us boil it down to several, fundamental questions:

-First, should the semi-autonomous regime in Erbil be threatened what should the US Role be? Military (first choice in all cases for last 30 years), Diplomatic (usually never employed alone and usually in back seat to military/hammer solution), economic, informational [thus I have used the DIME], other (this is for the HG audience to take on), or combinations?

But fundamental answer is yes or no. I suspect most readers, including me will answer yes.

Excluding all the other national instruments of power except the military one (the one Americans seem to turn to the most), let us assume a primary military response is chosen for what is deemed a military threat to the Erbil regime.

Should is be all options on the table, including (gag) "boots on the ground," or all options on the table except "boots on the ground"?

Those are the questions my handgrenade poses. This does not limit readership from posing new, related ones. No rhetorical questions, please. If you know the answer, please post it, by all means.

r John T. Kuehn

My answer was a careful consideration of limited use of land-based Airpower in concert with non-military instruments of national power. If land-based air is not available, do not further stress the Navy by going with sea-based options other than perhaps TLAMs.* Although I doubt that a few TLAMs here or there would save Erbil from a concerted offensive by Erbil's enemies.

r, John T. Kuehn
*Tomahawk Land Attack Cruise Missile, range approximately 800-900 nautical miles, fired from submarines and surface ships, although there is an air delivered variant that the Air Force used to have.