American airpower and Kurdish troops have been able to blunt the advance of ISIS in northern Iraq—for now. But if they’re going to continue to survive the ISIS onslaught, the Kurdish government says, they’re going to need surveillance drones and other advanced weapons from the U.S.
The CIA has already begun to supply Kurdish forces with rudimentary arms, after months of complaints that they were outgunned by ISIS, who raided stocks of American heavy weaponry when they took the city of Mosul. The Daily Beast, however, has obtained a fuller list sent to the Pentagon last week from the Kurdistan Regional Government that asks for much more advanced weapons. That list includes Javelin anti-tank missiles, integrated air defense systems, armored personnel carriers, surveillance drones, and third-generation night vision equipment.
The Pentagon has yet to respond to the Kurdish request. But the list is an indication of the rapid expansion of the multi-pronged American campaign in Iraq. On Tuesday, the U.S. military announced it would be sending 130 more U.S. military advisers to northern Iraq, bringing the total number of troops to over a thousand in country. American boots on the ground will only be a small piece of the larger effort against ISIS, however.
The U.S. is scheduling up to 100 attack, surveillance, and humanitarian airdrop missions a day over Iraq. Those flights are being carried out by drones and manned fighters, U.S. Navy and Air Force aircraft alike. But American forces are not the ones calling in those strikes, as has become commonplace in warzones throughout the world. Instead, Kurdish fighters are identifying targets for the American bombing runs, breaking with years of U.S. military practice meant to ensure that the right targets are hit—and civilians are not.
Officially, U.S. military officials declined to discuss the specifics of the American campaign. “As a matter of policy, we do not discuss tactics, techniques and procedures employed during the targeting process or airstrike missions,” said Mark Blackington, a public affairs officer for U.S. Central Command. “I can tell you that we take all necessary precautions to avoid potential civilian casualties."
However, other U.S. military officials and congressional staff members told The Daily Beast that Kurdish Peshmerga fighters have identified ISIS positions where U.S. aircraft and drones have then struck.
The Peshmerga fighters do not have the final say on what positions will be bombed, these officials say. U.S. combat aircraft have their own sensor packages that verify targets and check for potential harm to nearby civilians. But the Kurds are providing the line of sight so important to modern air wars.
“The Kurds are generally designating where the ISIS positions are, where they are coming under fire from, but U.S. aircraft are observing them and designating them themselves,” said Andrew Slater, a former special operations officer who has lived in the Kurdistan region for the past two years. “I guarantee they would be getting positive identification of what they are looking at, confirming the proximity of civilians on the battlefield, once there is confidence that this is the right target and there is not going to be a lot of damage, the U.S. aircraft drops the bomb. That is the way we do air support. American eyes from the air observe and identify targets before the bomb is dropped.”
The Kurds are making uneven progress at reversing the advances of ISIS in the last week. These Peshmerga are also the last pro-American forces in northern Iraq, particularly after the Iraqi Army collapsed in June when ISIS forces conquered Iraq’s second-largest city. If the Kurds are defeated, Obama may have to send American boots on the ground to save Iraq.
And so some long-standing policies have changed dramatically and in a hurry. Until last week, U.S. policy was to route all Kurdish arms requests through Iraq’s central government in Baghdad. While U.S. officials still say that most of the ammunition and rifles the Kurds have received were from Iraqi military stocks, the CIA is also coordinating some arms shipments to the Kurds as well.
In some ways this is very much like old times. Between 1991 and the 2003 U.S. invasion of Iraq, U.S. aircraft patrolled the Kurdistan region creating a no-fly zone to try to stop Saddam Hussein from attacking the Kurdish region in the aftermath of the Gulf War. From 2003 to 2011, when the last American combat troops left Iraq, Kurdish counter-terrorism units worked closely with American special operations forces. The most famous example of that collaboration was Operation Red Dawn, the 2003 mission to capture Saddam Hussein.
Beginning in 2010 though, the Kurdish-U.S. relationship began to sour. It started when President Obama and Vice President Biden personally asked Jalal Talabani, the Kurdish president of Iraq, to give up his post in order to accommodate Iyad Allawi, the pro-American former Iraqi prime minister whose party won the most seats that year.
The Kurds rebuffed that request. In that same year, the United States also caved in to demands from the Iraqi government to route all U.S. assistance to Kurdish forces in the Kurdistan region through the Iraqi Ministry of Defense in Baghdad.
“Through the Iraqi government the United States made commitments to the Kurds for weapons and munitions and other supplies,” said James Jeffrey, who served as the U.S. ambassador to Iraq between 2010 and 2012. “This was coordinated with the Iraqi central authorities, and the United States also at least suggested there would be more, but the specific efforts to transfer the equipment were stymied by Maliki and his loyal personnel.”
After 2011, the cooperation between the Kurdish counter-terrorism units and U.S. special operations forces ended. While the CIA maintained a station in the Kurdish region, the United States focused most of its defense assistance on the government in Baghdad.
But that is now changing. On Monday, the Associated Press reported that the United States has begun to provide much-needed ammunition and weapons to the Kurdish forces who depleted much of their stocks in fighting this month when ISIS forces turned north and began an advance on the Kurdish regional capital of Irbil.
But those supplies could be just the start, One U.S. official working closely on Iraq policy said the United States is reviewing the Kurdish request for more advanced weapons. However, this official said it was unlikely the United States would give the Kurdish military access to advanced air defense systems: “They can ask for the moon, but it does not mean they will get it.”
In the meantime, the Kurds are continuing to aid the air mission for the United States in northern Iraq. And ISIS is beginning to change its tactics, in response.
“One of the things that we have seen with the [ISIS] forces is that where they have been in the open, they are now starting to dissipate and to hide amongst the people,” Lt. Gen. William Mayville Jr., director for operations with the Joint Chiefs of Staff, told reporters on Monday. “The targeting in this is going to become more difficult.”