More on Making Sense of What’s Happening in Northern Iraq

I asked for you input last night about the seeming disconnect between what we’d been led to believe about ISIS and the Kurdish Peshmerga and what we’ve seen unfold on the ground over the last few days. As usual, you’ve come through. A few basic points come through. ISIS either had or has absorbed since its move into Iraq (probably both) elements of the Saddam-era Iraqi Army. That means more experience with and ability to absorb and use heavy weaponry and armor than I’d suggested. It also brings the sort of tactical and command and control experience you get from time in a regular army.

At the same time, not only are the Peshmerga lightly armed and not that numerous – basically a citizen militia built around a core of elite fighters – but we’re also seeing the difference between what is in essence a guerrilla army and something expected to operate as a national army, defending borders at all points. Finally, while trying not to rosy-eyed, the Peshmerga’s defeats do look more like tactical withdrawals than the sort of routes experienced by the Iraqi National Army several weeks ago.

TPM Reader GK picks up on a few of these points …

I’ve worked throughout the region since just after the 1st 1st Gulf War (aka Tanker War) and with the Kurdish communities in the US. I don’t think that the Peshmerga have gotten worse. It’s just that US gov’t expectations have gotten too high. And it really all just comes down to resources. First, Peshmerga armaments don’t even come close the level of those recently captured or bought by the IS. Second, there aren’t enough Peshmerga to defend the incredibly long border they’ve been told to defend. Therefore, the IS has far greater mobility to poke and probe their thin defenses. Finally, the stalled Iraq-Kurdish negotiations for selling Kurdish oil, including the recent seizure of an oil tanker off the coast of Texas, means there is little money for beefing up the Peshmerga.

This last point is fascinating and brings up some wild contradictions in our current policy. As I noted here in June, the Kurds have now secured the physical ability to export oil on their own account, physically bypassing the rest of the Iraqi state. It’s one thing to physical get the product out to sea on a tanker and another to find someone to buy it. And so far we’ve taken the side of the Iraqi central government and used are great clout to prevent the sale. Two weeks ago, a US Court ordered US Marshals to seize a $100 million shipment of Kurdish oil off the coast of Galveston if it were brought into port.

We’re not crazy for doing that. Allowing the Kurds to sell on their own oil from the territory they control in Iraq eviscerates the economic underpinnings of a unified Iraqi state. But it still leaves us in the odd position of debating funding an arming the Iraqi Kurds while simultaneously preventing them from doing so themselves.

Here are more thoughts from TPM Reader RW

Josh, here’s my own take, based on no inside information but simply on watching all of this carefully for years: What has happened *has* somewhat scrambled the official picture of the order of things in Iraq. But maybe not quite as much as it might seem on first blush. Perhaps the fighting capabilities of the peshmerga have been a bit exaggerated — but only a bit. They are, after all, basically just a capable light-infantry force. They are motivated and disciplined and reasonably numerous but they don’t have much armor or artillery (as I understand it) and they have no air power of their own. They asked for help from Baghdad but it didn’t come. It seems that they got surprised by the effectiveness of the sudden ISIS probes, realized that they were outgunned and had been outmaneuvered, and had to pull back and re-group to protect Erbil and the Kurdish heartland. They were positioned out along the edge of Kurdistan and the ISIS attacks revealed that they were overextended. Notice that it is mainly Christians and Yazidis who have been displaced so far in the most recent fighting. They didn’t break and run like the Iraqi Army had, but they retreated and yielded their positions.

The ISIS forces not only got a lot of the Iraqi Army’s good arms and equipment when they took Mosul, but they are probably being helped out and led on the battlefield by some Sunni Iraqi Army veterans, including some officers who served in the Republican Guard under Saddam (and thus had the best equipment, men and training) and have combat experience dating back to the Iran-Iraq War. These guys are military pros who know what to do with tanks and artillery. And the ISIS fighters turn out to be the ones with the high morale AND recent combat experience hard-won in Syria. (I gather that one ISIS tactical advantage is night-vision equipment, which the peshmerga don’t have).

This may start to balance out naturally as the peshmerga consolidate and shorten their lines of supply and communication and the battle moves into their homeland. And some of it can be altered fairly quickly by a robust American and Turkish (how ironic) effort to resupply the peshmerga (e.g., ammunition) and, with a little more time, providing heavier arms and better equipment and training — something we were probably already starting to arrange with the advisors we put back in a few weeks ago. I do think the U.S. air strikes that we have already started will probably give the Kurds some immediate breathing room and will help to tip the balance their way a bit as we take out some ISIS artillery and tanks. We’ll see what happens over the next week or two, but I wouldn’t be surprised to see the picture stabilize.

So the peshmerga aren’t quite the superstar fighters we imagined, and ISIS turns out to be more than a rag-tag force just flying high on passages from the Koran. And we’re not quite out of Iraq yet, and probably won’t be out of Iraq before the end of Obama’s presidency (unless things really go bad in a hurry). This is going to take at least months, and probably years.