The Complex

Sinjar Surprise: How the U.S. May Have Misjudged the Refugee Situation in Iraq

For weeks, as many as 40,000 Iraqi civilians were reportedly stranded on Mount Sinjar in northern Iraq after fleeing the brutality of the Islamic State's steady advance. They were hungry, thirsty, and exposed to extreme temperatures. The Obama administration could not avoid responding to the mounting humanitarian crisis.

As the White House planned a series of airdrops and a flurry of airstrikes to keep the Sunni militants at bay, President Barack Obama, loathe to intervene militarily in the region, seemed to use the trapped Yazidis as justification for a bombing campaign in a country from which he had proudly removed all U.S. troops in 2011.

But then came a surprise: After inserting a small military reconnaissance team atop the mountain, Defense Secretary Chuck Hagel said late Wednesday that the situation was no longer as bad as anyone thought. There are now only about 5,000 civilians on the mountain, and they are in "better condition than previously believed," according to Hagel's statement.

For roughly 2,000 of those civilians, mostly from the minority Yazidi religious sect, Mount Sinjar is home and they do not intend to leave. Now it seems the dire situation has improved and that focus is shifting to refugee camps in Syria and Iraqi Kurdistan.

The question now becomes how the Pentagon's expansive, weeklong surveillance mission over northern Iraq -- as many as 60 manned and unmanned air "sorties" per day -- apparently gave the United States government highly inaccurate information.

On Thursday, Obama said the proposed rescue mission was off, as it was no longer necessary. And the humanitarian airdrops, which began a week ago, could also wrap up. Administration officials are now mulling how they'll approach Iraq's security and humanitarian situation going forward.

Pentagon spokesman Rear Adm. John Kirby tried explaining why initial reports were so off, saying that the situation had improved greatly, mostly thanks to the U.S. military. The U.S. bombing campaign allowed thousands of the desperate civilians to descend the mountain -- as many as "thousands per night," he said Thursday.

The Pentagon stands by its initial estimate that "tens of thousands" of civilians were trapped. However, the assessment team's arrival on the mountain was crucial to understanding the scale of the crisis, Kirby said.

"It's very difficult to do nose counts from the air.... I mean, it's just an imperfect science," Kirby said.

Persistent surveillance flights do not give "perfect" situational awareness, he said. The Pentagon estimated the best it could from the air, knowing that getting a clearer picture required deploying a team, he said. That fewer Yazidis were in desperate need of help than originally thought is "a pretty good thing to be wrong about," Kirby added.

Using drones and satellite imagery, the National Geospatial-Intelligence Agency made initial refugee estimates for the United States. Getting a firm head count was impossible because the refugees were constantly moving around the mountain and entering and exiting scattered tents, putting them beyond surveillance capabilities, according to U.S. officials.

"Experts don't think [initial estimates] were inaccurate in retrospect," a U.S. official said. "It was that the situation improved more quickly than perhaps we had thought."

But air-surveillance experts say the Pentagon should have been able to estimate more accurately how many people were still on the mountain.

"It's a bit of a surprise that there was that degree of uncertainty," David Deptula, a retired Air Force three-star general who was the chief of staff for the service's Intelligence, Surveillance, and Reconnaissance headquarters, told Foreign Policy.

Drone operators typically feed pictures to intelligence analysts on the ground who could use them to determine roughly how many people are in an area under surveillance -- and, in this case, how many might be leaving. Most ISR aircraft can discern between a couple of thousand people or tens of thousands of people, said Deptula, now the dean of the Mitchell Institute for Aerospace Studies in Arlington, Virginia.

"It's pretty straightforward: You survey the region that you're interested in over a period of time, then you count the number of people who are there," he said. "It's not rocket science."

It's possible that if intelligence analysts saw the refugees fleeing the mountaintop, defense officials would not tell the public for fear of making those civilians targets. However, the Pentagon did not hint that it was aware of any migration until the reconnaissance team landed on Sinjar.

Karwan Zebari, a representative of the Kurdistan Regional Government in Washington, said upwards of 40,000 people were stranded at one point.

He said 240,000 people fled Sinjar and its surrounding towns, with roughly 200,000 finding immediate safe haven in Iraqi Kurdistan. The rest fled to Mount Sinjar, a range of peaks stretching roughly 45 miles.

Some Kurdish Peshmerga forces, who were able to repel Islamic State militants with the help of U.S. airstrikes, were among the stranded civilians.

Starting about three to four days ago, thousands of the Yazidis began finding safe passage by briefly escaping into Syria and then crossing back into Iraqi Kurdistan via the Semalka/Peshkabour border crossing. The trek is roughly 25 miles. Some families walked up to 15 hours a day to make it to safety, Zebari said.

According to the U.N. refugee agency, people are arriving in Syria weak and traumatized.

"Their feet are covered in blisters, having spent days on Mount Sinjar in searing temperatures without food, water or shelter after fleeing for their lives, then walking many hours -- in some cases days -- to find safety," according to a statement from the U.N.

Mirza Ismail, the head of the Yazidi Human Rights Organization, a network of Yazidi groups in the United States and Canada, has spoken to the decamping Yazidis by cellphone. U.S. airstrikes were crucial to keeping advancing Sunni militants at bay while his countrymen escaped, he said. "Authorizing airstrikes and sending humanitarian aid saved thousands and thousands of Yazidis."

However, Ismail disputed the statement made by Obama on Thursday that "the situation on the mountain has greatly improved," and that there were fewer stranded Yazidis than many anticipated.

"We need more help," he said, estimating that thousands of Yazidis remained stranded on Mount Sinjar -- a view bolstered by Kurdish officials who spoke with the Washington Post.  

From the moment President Barack Obama announced the mission to help save the Yazidis stranded on the mountain, his administration seemed unsure about how many people were trapped up there.

"Thousands -- perhaps tens of thousands -- are now hiding high up on the mountain, with little but the clothes on their backs," the president said Aug. 7.

Four days later, on Monday, the number remained up in the air. At the Pentagon, Lt. Gen. William Mayville said he'd seen a range of numbers. "I've seen reports of numbers in the thousands, and I've seen reports in the numbers of tens of thousands."

He added that an on-the-ground assessment would be needed before the military could recommend the next steps to be taken.

In the meantime, pressure was building for the United States to take further action and begin an evacuation mission. The U.N. estimated that 40,000 people were stranded, including 25,000 children.

On Wednesday, White House spokesman Ben Rhodes said the White House was looking at options for an evacuation mission, including using U.S. military aircraft to deploying ground troops to help establish a safety corridor.

As for how many people were still on the mountain, he also kept it vague, saying, "We believe that some number of thousands of people have been able to escape from the mountain, but not in a safe enough way and to a safe enough space that we're confident that the remaining people who are trapped there can get off."

Later that night, everything seemed to have changed. The Pentagon announced that its team had assessed that there were far fewer Yazidis on Mount Sinjar than previously feared.

The president ruled out the need for an evacuation plan.

Still, Kirby left the option open of future humanitarian airdrops if needed, and emphasized that the threat from the Islamic State was far from eliminated. "It's not like we're sitting here just breathing a sigh of relief now because everything is better -- or things look to be better on Mount Sinjar."

John Hudson and Yochi Dreazen contributed to this report.


The Complex

Obama Pledge to Keep Troops Out of Combat May Fall Flat


President Barack Obama has pledged repeatedly not to put "combat boots on the ground" in Iraq. But a growing air campaign, combined with an increasingly dire need to address the situation atop Mount Sinjar, means it will be increasingly difficult for him to keep his promise.

The Pentagon confirmed late Wednesday that about 20 U.S. special operations forces had been sent to the mountain to assess the needs of the thousands of Iraqi civilians stranded there. They are part of a group of 130 troops Obama authorized Tuesday to go into Iraq to conduct an assessment of the humanitarian crisis. Those U.S. troops, in turn, join an additional 800 service members the Pentagon has deployed to Iraq since June, bringing the total number of troops the Pentagon has announced publicly up to nearly 1,000.

The special operations forces returned to their base without incident, but their short time on the mountain could be the beginning of a new, dangerous chapter in Obama's reluctant use of the military in Iraq. The humanitarian crisis, in which Iraqi minorities and others have fled their homes to the mountain to escape the brutal advance of the Islamic State (IS), has been growing ever more dire. If a deeper humanitarian operation were to be conducted, it could put U.S. forces at risk of being attacked by the IS fighters ringing the mountain.

That prospect dimmed after Defense Secretary Chuck Hagel said the special forces assessment completed Wednesday revealed that there were fewer Iraqi civilians stranded atop the mountain than thought and that the humanitarian crisis was not as bad as feared. "Based on this assessment, the interagency has determined that an evacuation mission is far less likely," Hagel said in a statement issued late Wednesday.

But troops conducting a humanitarian mission aren't the only members of the U.S. military who could find themselves in harm's way. As the United States expands its air campaign in northern Iraq -- which included a new round of strikes Wednesday -- the Pentagon will almost certainly need to deploy American "spotters" to help guide precision munitions to their targets. Those forces would operate in areas close to IS positions, leaving them potentially vulnerable to attack.

James Dubik, a retired Army three-star general who commanded the Multi-National Security and Transition Command, responsible for training Iraqi forces, said it's hard to square the administration's words when it comes to defining the U.S. mission there without accepting that U.S. forces are in combat. "Pretty narrow splitting of hairs," he said in an email.

[This story was corrected to include Dubik's accurate title at the time.]

Pentagon officials have taken pains to say the American troops in Iraq are confined to two "Joint Operations Centers," one in Erbil and another in Baghdad, as well as being at the massive U.S. Embassy in Baghdad. Even the small group of U.S. special operations forces who did the assessment on Mount Sinjar are expected to have returned to one of those three locations.

Administration officials have been floating the idea of creating a "humanitarian corridor" to help as many as 40,000 Iraqi civilians stranded on the mountain in recent days. But the new assessment completed Wednesday indicated there were far fewer people stranded. Still, the announcement late Tuesday that the United States would deploy 130 additional troops to scope out the humanitarian crisis brought with it the possibility that U.S. forces could be used to conduct some sort of additional humanitarian mission. That could require American forces to be put near where IS forces are operating.

Each service member in Iraq is armed and receives so-called danger pay, just as American forces operating in any other war zone would. But on Wednesday, Ben Rhodes, deputy national security advisor, insisted that American forces "are not going to be in a combat role" in Iraq.

"This would be a humanitarian effort, again, to get them to a safe space," Rhodes said at a press conference on Martha's Vineyard, where Obama is on a family vacation, about a possible rescue mission. "There are a range of ways for doing that."

But it's the airstrike campaign that could force the United States to expose more American forces to combat. Central Command has announced a number of airstrikes since the bombing campaign to protect Iraqi civilians, guard American personnel, and weaken IS began last Friday. Typically, such airstrikes would require personnel on the ground to "call in" those attacks. That would require U.S. personnel to operate in areas close to those controlled by the militants.

"It would definitely give you a major increase in effectiveness and capability if you had those people positioned there," said Michael Breen, a former Army officer who is now the executive director of the Truman National Security Project and the Center for National Policy. "Given the fact that [IS] is not melting away, I think we're seeing an increasingly difficult conversation."

For the moment, Kurdish Peshmerga fighters are working as spotters for the U.S. air campaign, according to a report in the Daily Beast.

Defense officials insist that the nearly 1,000 U.S. personnel the Pentagon has publicly acknowledged are all located at the centers in Baghdad and Erbil. But additional U.S. personnel, including some U.S. special operations forces personnel, may be collecting intelligence in advance of U.S. airstrikes and passing that information on to headquarters in the region -- in effect "calling in" those airstrikes. Defense officials say that instead of using personnel on the ground, drones and other aircraft are able to be used as what's known as "forward airborne controllers."

The United States has been scrambling to bring other nations on board, not only for the humanitarian mission but also for the one to combat the Islamic State. France said Wednesday that it would begin providing arms to the Kurds, while London and Paris have begun dropping food, water, and other humanitarian goods to the refugees stranded on Mount Sinjar.

Those humanitarian flights, combined with the roughly 100 sorties that the United States is flying over Iraq each day, are leaving Iraq's airspace dangerously crowded. Most of the planes belong to the Pentagon, which is conducting roughly 60 intelligence, surveillance, and reconnaissance, or ISR, flights each day to collect data and video about the movements of militants on the ground as well as to monitor the civilians stuck on the mountain. An additional 40 flights are taking place each day to conduct humanitarian operations, aerial refueling, and airstrikes, a Pentagon official said.

A command center under the umbrella of U.S. Central Command, which has responsibility for the region, is coordinating all of those air operations from Al Udeid Airbase in Qatar, according to a Central Command spokesman. Personnel assigned there are sharing information and planning missions with a U.S.-led Joint Operation Center located in Baghdad, which is in turn sharing the information with Iraqi security forces.

"The presence of U.S. Air Force, U.K. Royal Air Force and French Air Force experts within our Combined Air and Space Operations Center enables these airdrop missions to be deconflicted as they are planned and executed," according to the spokesman.

Meanwhile, the administration's attempt to dodge the boots-on-the-ground tag isn't a surprise, as White House officials process the enormity of the problem and struggle to find ways to keep any large number of American forces out of any rescue or subsequent military operation. Breen, who left the Army in 2006 and believes fighting IS is in the nation's security interests, said the White House is sending dual messages while trying to avoid acknowledging that American military personnel are operating in a war zone.

"Attempting to convey to the American people that this is an operation that is limited in its goals and limited in its scope, unfortunately conveys something to [IS] and others in the region that is not helpful," he said.

Ahmad Al-Rubaye, AFP/Getty Images