The Complex

Pentagon Will Arm Kurds Directly to Fight the Islamic State

The Obama administration on Monday made clear that U.S. airstrikes against the Islamist militants sweeping toward the capital of Iraq's quasi-independent Kurdistan were meant to blunt their advance while giving the Kurds' vaunted Peshmerga fighters, who have not easily dispatched with the Sunni guerillas, time to regroup.

But as the Islamic State gains ground, the question is whether these storied Kurdish fighters are up to the task.

Another round of airstrikes in northern Iraq commenced Monday, pounding four militant checkpoints, a convoy of vehicles, and other targets near where thousands of civilians remain stranded on Sinjar Mountain. The American airstrikes, which began Friday, are helping Kurdish forces strengthen their defensive positions as they receive supplies and weapons from the central government in Baghdad, Pentagon officials said.

"I think that in the immediate areas where we have focused our strengths, we have had a very temporary effect, and we may have blunted some tactical decisions to move in those directions east to Erbil," said Lt. Gen. William Mayville, the director of operations for the Joint Chiefs of Staff at the Pentagon, in a briefing for reporters Monday. But, he said, he expected the group to "look for other things to do, to pick up and move elsewhere."

The bombing campaign aims to protect the refugees, who are mostly Yazidis, and U.S. personnel deployed in and around Erbil, the capital of the semiautonomous Kurdish north.

About 60 intelligence, surveillance, and reconnaissance aircraft are supporting the mission in northern Iraq, sending feeds to the "joint operations centers" -- one in Erbil, where more than 40 U.S. personnel are stationed, and one in Baghdad. More than 800 U.S. troops and other personnel are in Iraq collecting intelligence and advising the Iraqi forces.

"In no way do I want to suggest that we have effectively contained or that we are somehow breaking the momentum of the threat posed by" the Islamic State, Mayville said.

Defense Secretary Chuck Hagel said the Pentagon would arm the Kurds directly -- assistance they've been requesting since the Islamic State turned its sights on Kurdistan -- with AK-47s, mortars, and ammunition. Before, all assistance flowed through Baghdad's Shiite-led government. When the Sunni fighters overran the Iraqi security forces earlier this summer, the government troops abandoned much of their equipment, including U.S.-provided tanks. The Islamic State then seized it.

"The U.S. government is coordinating with the government of Iraq to help fill these [weapons] requests as quickly as possible," a State Department official said.

The Peshmerga needs all the help it can get.

Kurdish forces were long known as a superior fighting force, one that handily beat Saddam Hussein's Republican Guard and fought alongside the Iranians during the Iran-Iraq war. But they had not seen heavy fighting for more than a decade and were ill prepared to confront a "battle-hardened" enemy such as the Islamic State, said Bulent Aliriza, director of the Turkey Project at the Center for Strategic and International Studies in Washington. Furthermore, the Peshmerga didn't have the capacity to hold the long frontlines against the militant group, which stretched across the region.

"The conventional wisdom was outdated," Aliriza said of the Peshmerga's reputation as unbeatable. "We were all looking at the Peshmerga as the brave fighters of the mountain, and now we have more evidence that they've folded," he said.

Michael Knights, the Lafer fellow at the Washington Institute for Near East Policy and an expert on the military and security affairs of Iraq, dismissed the new conventional wisdom that the Peshmerga have caved.

"I wouldn't put it that way," he said. "The premise is slightly off. It's a very easy sell to report it that way. Nothing really crumbled quickly. There's been nonstop fighting ... for a number of weeks. They have been in combat with [the Islamic State] for two to three weeks. This has been a breakpoint."

For instance, from Aug. 1 to 3, the Islamic State launched an offensive in Iraq's western Nineveh province that forced the Peshmerga to retreat. At the same time, the Peshmerga was fighting the militants for the cities of Jalula and Saadiya in Diyala province -- areas that are "very difficult to defend," according to Knights, stretching forces thin.

Knights said poor leadership was partly responsible for the Peshmerga's inability to turn back the Islamic State's advance. 

"The problem is they haven't been led and deployed in the right way," he said. 

Knights noted that the Sinjar and Rabiyah areas now controlled by the Islamic State "encompass a large strip of land along the Syrian border that extends deep into ISIS-held territory. Adequately garrisoning these areas requires significant forces, but only two small Peshmerga brigades were stationed there on Aug. 1."

The Mosul Dam was lost because of poor planning, Knights claims.

"ISIS was able to develop advanced outposts on either side of the Tigris River approaching Mosul Dam and in the Christian areas east of Mosul due to the paucity of Peshmerga forces in those areas," Knights wrote in a blog post. "This is not because the [Kurdish Regional Government] has insufficient forces -- rather, Peshmerga units are over-concentrated around Kirkuk, where the two main Kurdish factions, the Kurdistan Democratic Party (KDP) and the Patriotic Union of Kurdistan (PUK), are competing for influence," Knights wrote.

The idea that they lost ground "is true from a tactical perspective," he told Foreign Policy. "But it doesn't mean they've lost the entire operation ... they have shifted into counteroffensive mode. With some U.S. support, there's a lot to build on," he added.  


The Complex

Latest Iraq Crisis May Force Obama's Hand

The White House is considering a series of airstrikes in addition to humanitarian airdrops in northern Iraq, to assist the thousands of religious minorities trapped on a mountaintop by Sunni militants storming across the surrounding valleys who have taken the ancient city of Sinjar and are threatening the Kurdish regional capital of Erbil.

White House spokesman Josh Earnest on Thursday would not confirm that military or humanitarian efforts were planned but some type of White House action seemed imminent.

"There are many problems in Iraq," Earnest said. "This one that we're talking about right now has a particularly -- is a particularly acute one in that the stakes are very high."

Pentagon officials declined to discuss specific options, saying only that the Defense Department "has been working urgently and directly" with Baghdad to coordinate Iraqi airdrops to the Yazidis, a Kurdish religious minority, and others in need.

"The Government of Iraq has initiated airdrops in the region and we are in constant communication with them on how we can help coordinate additional relief, enhance their efforts, and provide direct assistance wherever possible," a defense official said in an email.

But after meeting with his national security team Thursday morning, President Barack Obama seemed boxed into having to take some sort of action.

The situation has quickly grown dire. Humanitarian groups said earlier this week that as many as 40,000 civilians, many of whom are Yazidi, were trapped as vaunted Kurdish peshmerga forces defending the area lost ground to the Islamic State. Although the United States has supported Iraqi forces, including providing hundreds of Hellfire missiles, the peshmerga say they are poorly equipped to counter the Islamic State, previously known as ISIS.

Earnest on Thursday called the situation a humanitarian catastrophe. He also said the administration is deeply concerned about reports that several hundred girls had been abducted from the area.

Compounding the deteriorating situation is the Islamic State's capture of Iraq's largest dam, the Mosul. What that spells for civilians if, say, the militants blow it up, sending a 65-foot wall of water downriver, has been a concern since the Islamic State began its offensive across northern Iraq in the spring.

The White House continues to claim there are no military options -- only political ones. However, it feels it must make the distinction that Obama will not send "combat boots on the ground," meaning other military options are on the table. Since the crisis began, Washington has been urging Baghdad to commit to a political reconciliation with the country's Sunni majority and other groups not represented in the central government.

The White House, which has long been cautious when it comes to intervening anywhere militarily, will make a careful calculation when it comes to Iraq. But the humanitarian crisis and whatever offensive action the United States may take are two entirely different things. Humanitarian operations can be open-ended. Direct offensive action, however, won't be -- not for this administration.

"My expectation would be that they wouldn't start an offensive action that didn't have a clear end state," said Jon Alterman, a senior vice president at the Center for Strategic and International Studies in Washington.

Despite the Islamic State's brutality, the group won't go so far as to provoke a full confrontation with the U.S. military, Alterman said.

"ISIS has been pretty deliberate about what they can do and not do," he said.

The Pentagon has been conducting an ongoing assessment of Iraqi security forces and surveilling the region with manned and unmanned aircraft. Thus far, it's not clear what could result from the assessments provided by the military personnel deployed to Iraq earlier this summer by Defense Secretary Chuck Hagel, Chairman of the Joint Chiefs of Staff Gen. Martin Dempsey, and others.

"The conversations inside the interagency continue on the Iraq assessment," Pentagon Press Secretary John Kirby said on Tuesday. "Conversations continue about what the assessments say, and conversations continue about potential options moving forward, but no formal recommendations have been proffered or proposed or set forth, and certainly no decisions have been made," Kirby said.

By dispatching those advisors, the Pentagon created an expectation that the Obama administration was prepared to provide tangible assistance to Iraq.

Since then, however, the administration has sought to manage those expectations, suggesting that Obama ultimately might do little or nothing in Iraq. However, the humanitarian crisis rapidly unfolding there is a dramatic new factor -- and maybe one the White House can't ignore.

Emrah Yorulmaz/Anadolu Agency/Getty Images