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Helping the Kurds in the Recapture of Mosul

The commentary below was originally published by the Center for Strategic and International Studies (CSIS) on April 5, 2016. It was written by Mark Cancian, a former Marine Corps officer and Senior Advisor to CSIS.

The Iraqi Kurds have been the most effective fighters against ISIS and are moving into position to support the Iraqi Army’s unfolding assault on Mosul. How can the United States help the Kurds and sustain the assault on Mosul without inadvertently laying the groundwork for an Iraqi civil war or a Turkish invasion?

The Plan of Attack

Mosul is the largest city in Iraq controlled by ISIS. The Iraqi Army (IA) was supposed to recapture it last year but was diverted to the successful recapture of Ramadi in the Sunni-dominated western province of Anbar. Now the IA is focusing on Mosul, and the campaign to recapture it has begun with much fanfare.

Mosul is not a Kurdish city, so the Kurdish forces (called Peshmerga and controlled by the Kurdish Regional Government [KRG]) have a supporting role. The plan is for the Kurds to establish blocking positions on the east side of Mosul while the IA assaults the city. To keep ISIS from reinforcing the city, the Kurds may also need to put pressure on ISIS in other sections of the front.

The Kurdish Needs

Kurdish leaders and military commanders outlined their military and political needs to me during my recent visit to the region. They acknowledged that the first imperative was a political agreement about how Mosul will be governed when control is regained so that it does not spark further sectarian violence.

Without a political settlement, the recapture of Mosul might make the situation worse. Mosul is a large city of 1.8 million inhabitants (at least it was before the ISIS occupation drove thousands out) and Iraq’s second largest after Baghdad. It has an Arab majority but large minorities of Kurds, Turkmens, Shabaks, and others. When the city is retaken, there will be a great risk of friction and score settling. Even before the ISIS takeover, Mosul was never really pacified. Everyone will want control of the valuable oil fields nearby.

The great fear is that the recapture of Mosul will set loose a scramble for control among the many competing interests—central government, Kurds, Sunni tribes, Shia, Turks, Iranians—and that the resulting struggle will escalate into sectarian violence and perhaps civil war. The fear is real. That’s why a political settlement is needed before the assault even begins and facts on the ground harden negotiating positions and spark clashes. Settlement ideas are swirling. I heard some of them at the Suli Forum, a conference at the American University in Sulaimani (AUIS) and one of the few places Iraqis of all backgrounds can meet and talk. Politicians and diplomats need to move them forward.

Militarily, the political and military leaders laid out four needs. Here’s how the United States might help:

1. Military Equipment

Although the United States has provided some equipment, and is apparently preparing a new support package, it is not enough. Americans do not appreciate how under-armed the Kurds are. A typical U.S. Marine infantry battalion, for example, has 16 antitank weapons without even including external support; the Kurdish equivalent has one. Kurds also lack the ground-based fire support like mortars and artillery that U.S. infantry takes for granted. That’s why the United States deployed Marine Corps artillery to the region: to provide fire support that the Kurds don’t have. In my recent conversations with Kurdish commanders, they pointed out that because of their lack of firepower, the Kurds take a lot more casualties and must choose their objectives carefully. They complained bitterly that ISIS was better equipped than their forces because of captured equipment. U.S. airpower has been a powerful substitute for ground-based firepower, but it is expensive and cannot be everywhere.

The Kurds need antitank weapons, mine detection and clearance equipment, mortars, perhaps some artillery, and a lot of ammunition.

How can the United States be assured that these weapons will be used against ISIS and not against others? Tight control over logistics. These weapons need munitions and maintenance every day, which the United States can control if it provides its own weapons. Antitank weapons like TOW (tube launched, optically tracked, wireless guided) or Javelin are good examples. Missiles can only be obtained from the United States, and without resupply the launchers are useless. The United States should not provide former Soviet equipment, which can be resupplied from many sources.

To avoid diversion of the equipment to other forces in Iraq—about which the Kurds also complain— the United States should use transfer mechanisms it has developed that are transparent to the Iraqi central government but still get equipment directly to the Kurds.

2. Payments to the Troops

The regional government’s budget and economic crisis caused by the drop in oil prices has forced troops to go without pay. With a monthly budget shortfall of $400 million, the regional government just cannot provide the resources to fight the war. When troops aren’t paid, they lose heart and look for other ways to support their families. U.S. support should go directly to the troops so the money is not siphoned off for other government needs.

3. Basic Logistics

Including engineer support, food, and maintenance. The United States can extend its contractor logistics (called Logistics Civil Augmentation Program or “LOGCAP”) to the KRG. That frees Kurdish support troops to move onto the front lines without having to put U.S. boots on the ground.

4. Help Internally Displaced Persons (IDPs)

ISIS’s assault on Iraq has displaced an estimated 1.8 million persons. Caring for these people while they are displaced and then helping them return home costs a lot of money, which the KRG does not have . The United States and other allies have provided some help. Nongovernmental organizations have been very active. However, more needs to be done to relieve suffering, reduce political tensions, and ease pressure on the cash-strapped regional government.

Keeping Control

Arming the KRG is highly sensitive. The Iraqi central government fears that these weapons might be used in a civil war for Kurdish independence or to hold disputed territory. The Turks fear that weapons might be transferred to Kurdish guerilla forces in Turkey, the Kurdistan Workers’ Party or PKK, which the Turkish government emphatically believes is a terrorist organization . The package of support described above is therefore designed to strengthen the Kurds fight against ISIS but not alienate the central government or the Turks. The United States can cut off troop payments, logistics, humanitarian support, and munitions resupply at any time if the KRG undertakes operations with which we disapprove.

How much would all this cost? Total funding for Iraq Train and Equip in FY 2016 is $700 million, and the administration has requested about the same ($630 million) for FY 2017. That’s too low if the United States wants others to do the fighting. The Kurds alone will need half a billion dollars in each fiscal year to make a full effort.

Will the Money be Wasted?

After disappointments with building the Iraqi and Afghan armies, some commentators became pessimistic about the United States’ ability to build foreign armies. That won’t happen with the Kurds. The Kurds have shown themselves to be Iraq’s best fighters. Their leadership spent decades in the mountains fighting Saddam’s regime, and unlike the IA, they bounced back quickly when ISIS attacked in 2014.

Why the Kurds?

Some may argue that the Iraqi Army should retake Mosul alone and not involve the Kurds or others, thus avoiding these difficult political issues. That’s probably not possible. Although the retaking of Ramadi in October showed that the Iraqi Army has improved since its ignominious collapse in 2014, retaking Mosul—four times the size of Ramadi—will be a much larger challenge. Already the Iraqi Army is getting bogged down in just the preliminary attacks.

The IA will need help. If that help does not come from the Kurds, then it will come from the Iranian-backed Shia militias or from Turkish forces. Involving these outside forces will make the situation worse. The Shia militias are not under the control of the central government, have close ties to Iran, and will cause sectarian violence if they move in force out of their enclaves in Baghdad and the south.

Some Turkish troops are already in Iraq training Turkmen militia. An expanded Turkish role would create yet another sectarian militia and could, in effect, carve out a Turkish protectorate of their ethnic community in northern Iraq.

The Stakes

ISIS is the great regional threat, recapture of Mosul is the next step in its defeat, and the Kurds are willing to play a key role. But they need some help. There’s a lot at stake. If the IA fails to retake Mosul, then the whole counteroffensive against ISIS in Iraq stalls, and it is unclear whether it could ever be restarted. With failures in 2014 and 2016, the IA might be a spent force. The conflict might then devolve into a free-for-all of Sunni, Shia, Kurdish, and Turkmen militias all competing against ISIS and each other within a disintegrating Iraqi state. We can’t let that happen.

Mark Cancian is a senior adviser with the International Security Program at the Center for Strategic and International Studies in Washington, D.C. In March 2016, he spent a week in the KRG, talking with senior military and civilian leaders and visiting the front against ISIS.

[To read more visit CSIS]

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