WHO REMEMBERS PROVIDE COMFORT?
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.  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. 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 , 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.  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. 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