by Wayne White
An old military dictum still applies: no determined enemy can be stopped by air power alone. Following President Obama’s statement last night that he has authorized US air strikes in Iraq, much will depend on whether the Kurdish Peshmerga proves willing to make a stand against the forces of the Islamic State (formerly known as the Islamic State in Iraq and the Levant). Meanwhile, Washington has little choice but to remain cautious about committing itself to more than tightly focused airstrikes linked to narrow contingencies. Ironically, more extensive US air support might be made available if the Kurds show they are ready to make a strong stand.
The track record of Peshmerga fighting capabilities so far in this crisis is worrisome. After the Iraqi Army abandoned large areas all around the boundaries of the Kurdish Regional Government (KRG) over a month ago, Peshmerga units were quick to move in to fill the void, in part because most of these territories were mixed demographically, in dispute with Baghdad, and coveted by the KRG. When, however, challenged by Islamic State forces as of last weekend, the Kurds showed little desire to face off with the Sunni Arab extremist group in order to defend these areas.
Kurdish leaders argue that they lack sufficient weapons with which to face Islamic State forces. However, the Peshmerga probably outnumber the forces facing them, and most Islamic State fighters are no better equipped than the Kurds. The rugged terrain of much of Iraqi Kurdistan also provides defensive advantages. Finally, the Peshmerga do possess weapons such as heavy machine guns, rocket propelled grenades (RPG’s), light mortars, and formidable light anti-aircraft guns for use against opposing ground forces. Dug in properly using towns and mountainous terrain features as obstacles, with this array of weaponry the Peshmerga could inflict very heavy casualties on the Islamic State.
Such losses could give the Islamic State some real pause; its forces have yet to suffer high casualty rates in Iraq. Its ugly reputation has generally sufficed until now to frighten potential opponents into abandoning the field. This is what the Islamic State is counting on again to defeat the Kurds.
Furthermore, it would be very dangerous if the KRG is deluding itself into thinking US air strikes can stop the Islamic State. Without robust Kurdish resistance, the Islamic State would be capable of overrunning much of Iraqi Kurdistan, driving millions of Kurds and other refugees sheltered by them into Turkey and Iran. Aside from the obvious humanitarian disaster this would represent, billions of dollars of Kurdish real estate and infrastructure investment over the past 11 years for the creation of a prosperous new Kurdish region would fall to the Islamic State and be demolished or heavily looted.
If the Kurdish leaders and the Peshmerga do, however, muster sufficient willpower to stand their ground and confront the Islamic State, Washington might well reconsider its tightly limited aerial support role. With Kurds fiercely defending along identifiable lines, more US airpower could be usefully employed to take out the Islamic State’s heavy weaponry in a way that would level the military playing field for the Peshmerga.
Most of the heavy weapons the Islamic State is capable of putting into the fight would stand out rather starkly for American military pilots on the rolling terrain of northern Iraq. This would present the US with a real opportunity to take out large quantities of the US equipment the Islamic State captured in the wake of the Iraqi Army’s retreat some weeks ago.
The next few days will be defining: Washington will find out whether it has a partner in northern Iraq with which it can work in putting the brakes on the Islamic State’ advance on that front. So far I suspect the White House has wisely kept some cards well hidden. Nonetheless, it would be difficult to believe that if the Kurds stand their ground, give the Islamic State a bloody nose, but need help here and there to hold on, Washington would not be willing to increase the tempo of its air strikes in support of the Peshmerga.
Such a scenario also could be a lesson for Baghdad. Firm US backing for a determined KRG government and Peshmerga might provide a political boost for those Iraqi leaders pressing for what President Obama again called for last night: an inclusive Iraqi government that would provide Washington — and other governments — with a reliable partner in the struggle against the Islamic State throughout all of Iraq. Such a government inevitably would merit more additional US and international support than has been the case with the dysfunctional mess prevailing in Baghdad in recent months.
Photo: President Barack Obama meets with his national security advisors in the Situation Room of the White House, Aug. 7, 2014. Credit: Official White House photo by Pete Souza