United States arms Kurdish forces directly
The United States government has begun to funnel weapons directly to Kurdish forces fighting Islamist militants in northern Iraq, officials said on Monday, deepening American involvement in a conflict that the Obama administration had long sought to avoid.
The decision to arm the Kurds, via a covert channel established by the CIA, was made even as Pentagon officials acknowledged that recent American airstrikes against the militants were having only a temporary deterrent effect and were unlikely to sap their will to fight.
“I in no way want to suggest that we have effectively contained, or that we are somehow breaking, the momentum of the threat,” said Army Lt. Gen. William C. Mayville Jr., the director of operations for the Joint Chiefs of Staff.
In a reflection of the administration's reluctance to fight another full-fledged war in Iraq, Mayville said there are no plans to expand the limited air campaign, which President Obama ordered last week to prevent the massacre of Iraqi minorities and to protect Unites States military and diplomatic personnel in the northern city of Irbil.
Military officials said they have conducted 17 airstrikes — including four on Monday — against fighters from the Islamic State, a terrorist group that has swept across northern Iraq in recent months and controls large parts of Syria. Mayville added, however, that the militants have responded by melting into populated areas, making it harder to target them.
“They're very well-organized,” he said. “They are very well-equipped. They coordinate their operations. And they have thus far shown the ability to attack on multiple axes. This is not insignificant.”
The Islamic State has an estimated 10,000 fighters and has routed Iraqi army units across much of the country, seizing large quantities of weapons and ammunition originally supplied to Baghdad by the American government. In recent weeks, the group has overwhelmed the semiautonomous Kurdish militia forces, surprising officials in Washington with the speed and breadth of their territorial advances.
Kurdish leaders have complained that they are outgunned and unable to mount a counteroffensive without more assistance.
American officials have tried to expedite the transfer of arms from the government in Baghdad to Kurdish fighters in the north. But that process has gone slowly, prompting Washington to open a direct pipeline to the Kurds via the CIA, according to two officials who spoke on the condition of anonymity because the spy agency has not publicly acknowledged the operation. The CIA declined to comment.
A military official said the Pentagon and the State Department are discussing other possible ways to deliver weapons to the Kurds through open channels, but they will need special legal authorization. Arms sales normally are restricted to sovereign or central governments.
A former American military official who still works closely with the Kurds described the arms pipeline as “a trickle” that has been limited to Kurdish forces in the vicinity of Irbil. “They need everything, especially heavy weapons,” the former official said.
Some military analysts said the effort to arm the Kurds and the administration's limited airstrikes were unlikely to make much of a difference in the overall campaign against Islamist insurgents in Iraq.
“At most this will move the front lines at the margins,” said Stephen Biddle, a professor at George Washington University and frequent adviser to the Pentagon. “This war is headed for a Syria-like stalemate.”
Douglas Ollivant, a former military planner in Baghdad, said the shipment of mostly small arms and ammunition to the Kurds, combined with the cover of American air power, should be enough to halt the advance of Islamic State fighters in the near-term.
The group's artillery cannons and armored vehicles — captured from the Iraqi army — should be especially vulnerable to airstrikes. “My guess is that the (insurgents) are going to lose a lot of equipment over the next couple of days,” said Ollivant, a fellow at the New America Foundation in Washington.
But analysts said it is unlikely Kurdish forces, known as the peshmerga, will be able to mount a counteroffensive or make significant gains, even with the backing of American warplanes. The events of recent weeks, they said, suggest that the Kurdish militias aren't as capable or effective as U.S. officials may have assumed.