Promoted from the Ricochet Member Feed by Editors Created with Sketch. The Battle of Telskuf, the Kurds, and the Shortcomings of America’s ISIS Strategy

 

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Drowned out in the excitement over the presidential primary yesterday was the fierce battle between coalition forces and the Islamic State in northern Iraq. With total figures still uncertain, the battle claimed the lives of dozens of Kurds and one American Navy SEAL. On May 3rd, in the majority Christian city of Telskuf, north of Mosul, ISIS launched a pre-dawn assault on unsuspecting Kurdish and Assyrian forces:

Mortar rounds and artillery began hitting front lines near Telskuf, the largely Christian town, about 4 a.m., according to Kurdish officers and members of the Christian militia that hold the ground there. After bombarding the area Tuesday, militants launched a multi-pronged attack on Telskuf at about 5:30 a.m. from three or four directions, using hundreds of fighters, commanders said. Maj. Gen. Azad Jalil, a peshmerga officer, said they breached Kurdish front lines with more than 10 car bombs, also using bulldozers to push through. The peshmerga then made a “tactical retreat” to reorganize their forces, he said. ISIS militants overran the village.

The attack, spearheaded by vehicle-borne explosives (VBIEDs) and hundreds of infantry, forced the Kurdish soldiers to withdraw and temporarily cede the village to ISIS. So successful was the offensive, that jihadist fighters penetrated three miles behind Kurdish lines. The assault was halted and Telskuf recaptured after heavy airstrikes from American warplanes that afternoon, but only after Navy SEAL Charles Keating IV was killed in a direct fire engagement. At least 120 ISIS fighters perished in the fighting.

The Islamic State’s surprise attack and its (initial) overwhelming success should be sobering for American war planners. And it calls into serious question our ongoing strategy as it relates to “degrading and destroying” the Caliphate. A few things to consider:

1) ISIS Remains Incredibly Dangerous

Despite rosy assertions to the contrary, ISIS remains a potent threat on the battlefield. And while its forces have experienced losses in northern Syria and ceded territory in Sinjar and Anbar province, it nevertheless retains the ability to conduct complex attacks against its enemies and capture territory.

Consider also that, despite almost two years of airstrikes from the world’s military superpower, the Islamic State still controls a large expanse of territory and has yet to be dislodged from Mosul or its de facto capital in Raqqa, Syria.

2) Local Allies Cannot Win the War Themselves

Much has been made in the western press about the prowess of the Kurdish army, known as the Peshmerga. And while arguably more competent than their Iraqi counterparts, the Kurds simply do not have the ability to defend their lines — let alone launch offensives — without massive American support in the form of air power, advisers, and auxiliary special forces.

For all the breathless reporting and American politicians demanding we outsource the war effort to the Kurdish Regional Government, there is a great deal of cause for pessimism that such a strategy would be sufficient to evict the Islamic State from Iraq. The Peshmerga’s record since 2014 has been a mixed bag. It performed dreadfully following ISIS’s invasion of northern Iraq and simply abandoned the Yezidis of Sinjar to genocide and sexual enslavement. For all the unquestionable bravery of the thousands of Kurdish soldiers who have perished in combat with ISIS, the fact remains that the frontlines are largely unchanged since the fall of 2014. Both the Kurds and ISIS remain heavily dug-in outside of Mosul and Kirkuk, with the fighting reduced to a kind of war of attrition along hundreds of miles of trenches.

To add to the mess, the president of Iraqi Kurdistan, Massoud Barzani, is effectively a dictator in all but name, having extended his “presidency” past its constitutional mandate. Of course, in a struggle against a millennial cult like ISIS, this would not normally raise any eyebrows. But Barzani, along with the ruling Kurdish Democratic Party (PDK), has proven himself unreliable in being entrusted with direct arms shipments without strings. Last fall, he used arms ostensibly intended for fighting ISIS in order to intimidate the populace and political rivals in Erbil.

3) Political and Ethnic Rivalries Could Doom the War Effort

It is a huge error — one made consistently by lazy politicians and writers, (including yours truly) to speak of Iraqi Kurds as monolithic. A sure indicator of ignorance in the press is when one hears the call for arming and supporting “the Kurds.”

It begs the question: which Kurds? The Peshmerga are not organized along American lines with an apolitical officer corps that commands a military beholden to a constitution and a civilian commander-in-chief. Rather, Kurdish soldiers answer to the political party that controls their individual units. For comparison, imagine if the 101st Division was lead by the Republican Party and the 82nd Airborne was lead by the Democratic Party. A recipe for failure for sure, but this is how the Peshmerga is split between the ruling PDK and the opposition PUK parties.

Across the border in Syria, another Kurdish political rival fights its own separate war against ISIS. The Syrian Kurdish Democratic Union Party (PYD) holds the line just north of Raqqa, but is considered a pariah by Barzani’s government in Iraq. Complicating matters is the fact that the PYD is an offshoot of the Kurdistan Worker’s Party (PKK), a designated terrorist organization according to Turkey as well as the American State Department. But with a straight face, the United States insists that the military wing of the PYD is an invaluable ally in the war against ISIS while simultaneously stating that its parent organization is just as dangerous as the jihadists.

Less often mentioned is the degree to which religious and ethnic animosity factors into the war effort in Iraq. Many are aware of the Sunni-Shia split, but the aforementioned betrayal of the Yezidi population of Sinjar by the PDK in 2014 has had far-reaching effects. The Yezidis, who speak a dialect of Kurdish, largely consider themselves a distinct ethnic group within northwestern Iraq and resent the “kurdification” campaign over the years. But since the genocide of 2014, the distrust has only increased. And in the vicinity of Mt. Sinjar alone, there are three rival Yezidi and Kurdish militias vying for a leading role in liberating villages south of the mountain.

A similar story played itself out among Iraqi Kurdistan’s Christians during the fighting at Telskuf yesterday. In a radius of mere miles, three distinct Assyrian Christian units participated in the battle; some of which work in conjunction with the Peshmerga and some that don’t. But the Christians’ lack of access to heavy weapons forced them to withdraw after ISIS’s initial onslaught:

Brig. Gen. Bahnam Aboush, a fighter with the Christian militia based in the town and known as the Nineveh Plain Protection Units, said his men tried to hold their ground but were overwhelmed.

“We tried to fight them, but we couldn’t due our limited capabilities,” he said. “We have only some old rifles we bought from our own money.”

There is an argument to be made that, rather than supplying weapons to Baghdad or the KRG exclusively, it would be more beneficial for us to expand our support to include direct support to Iraq’s Christians and Yezidis. The Kurds simply cannot be relied upon to be the sole defenders the religious minorities in the KRG, and their track record has proven either their unwillingness or incompetence to do so. But local defense forces comprised of the same ethnic and religious makeup as those they are tasked with defending are inherently more reliable in combat.

While such a strategy would have a minimal impact on the overall effort to defeat ISIS, it would have the beneficial effect of decentralizing our top-down approach t0 containment and placing the onus of self-defense on the groups most in danger and most likely to fight to the death for their survival.

In closing, the American strategy against ISIS is in need of a serious reassessment. Optimistic hopes that the Kurds would not only repel but vanquish ISIS in Iraq were always illusory at best. But, in absence of a concerted and large-scale ground offensive by American forces, there are depressingly few options for Pentagon planners besides relying on those local forces on the ground closest to ISIS.

There are 17 comments.

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  1. Ball Diamond Ball Inactive

    The image is perplexing.

    • #1
    • May 4, 2016, at 4:08 AM PDT
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  2. genferei Member
    genferei Joined in the first year of Ricochet Ricochet Charter Member

    Ball Diamond Ball:The image is perplexing.

    See here.

    • #2
    • May 4, 2016, at 4:40 AM PDT
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  3. Ball Diamond Ball Inactive

    genferei:

    Ball Diamond Ball:The image is perplexing.

    See here.

    Thank you. No wonder I couldn’t identify the gun. And I had been wondering who would wear body armor or even a vest rig if you’re going to war with a revolver.

    • #3
    • May 4, 2016, at 5:05 AM PDT
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  4. David Knights Member

    We need to realize what Putin has already realized. We can pick a side and back them to win. We cannot however turn Iraq and Syria into functioning democracies. There are no good guys in this fight, only varying degrees of bad guys. Our choices are simple, stay out and let them kill each other until exhausted, or pick our favorite bad guy and help him win hoping that this buys us at least minimal influence with him when its over.

    • #4
    • May 4, 2016, at 5:50 AM PDT
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  5. Tom Meyer, Common Citizen Contributor

    Thank you, Bryon. That was superb.

    • #5
    • May 4, 2016, at 6:06 AM PDT
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  6. Doug Watt Moderator

    They only know how to rule and loot. They do not know to govern. Every man is Mohammed, they relive and repeat an apocalyptic vision for the world from century to century. Their G-d is detached from man and they say that He is beyond our understanding so they take G-ds place and make this world Hell.

    • #6
    • May 4, 2016, at 6:21 AM PDT
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  7. Manfred Arcane Inactive

    Byron Horatio: For all the breathless reporting and American politicians demanding we outsource the war effort to the Kurdish Regional Government, there is a great deal of cause for pessimism that such a strategy would be sufficient to evict the Islamic State from Iraq

    This confuses me. The plan has never been for Kurds to do anything along these lines that I know of. They have no interest in gaining new territory, only preserving their independence. It is the Iraqi government with Iran and US help that has the job of evicting ISIS from their territory.

    One battle does not really mean anything does it? Besides, a few more battles like this and ISIS is through. Everytime ISIS engages in battles these days it is slaughtered. In this case it gained a little land but it will lose it before long I expect.

    Whatever plan we come up with has to progressively strengthen the natural antibodies against a reappearance of ISIS. You go in and knock ISIS out with a big effort (with more US casualties), then what? Who takes over and suppresses the AQ/ISIS affiliates that percolate up?

    • #7
    • May 4, 2016, at 7:12 AM PDT
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  8. donald todd Inactive

    Doug Watt:They only know how to rule and loot. They do not know to govern. Every man is Mohammed, they relive and repeat an apocalyptic vision for the world from century to century. Their G-d is detached from man and they say that He is beyond our understanding so they take G-ds place and make this world Hell.

    I am told that there are Islamists who are taut as a highwire in their interpretation of the Quran and Islamists who are relaxed in their interpretation of the same book. Those who are relaxed are able to function with others, Jews and Christians, without finding a need to kill or enslave them. So there are people we can work with and people we cannot work with. If we divide Islamists into camps based on whether or not we can work with them, we’ll have a better idea of who to work with and who to work against.

    Noting the above, one might remember that a lot of Moslems are killed by other Moslems. The various IEDs or suicide bombers used against other Moslems are an indication of how badly the current disease affects that body which is both religious and political.

    Iran will back anyone who will advance the cause of distrust, whether Sunni or Shi’a, if it will advance the cause Iran wants to succeed.

    • #8
    • May 4, 2016, at 7:23 AM PDT
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  9. Old Bathos Moderator

    Has there ever been a time in the history of the Middle East where a period of warfare did not end with some empire in control? The Ottomans controlled sectarian violence out of imperial self-interest, as did Assad and Saddam Hussein. The notion of a bunch of small tribal groups independently co-existing in peace has no precedent.

    Prolonged American enforcement of democratic rule (as Crocker and Petreus did in Iraq) as a surrogate for that region’s need for imperial rule may have a shot at transforming the region. However, Obama forever pissed away the notion of a unified, pluralistic Iraq and has greatly contributed to the same fate for Syria.

    So if we “win” and destroy ISIS, what will remain other than a new arrangement of combatants, at least half of whom will be ideologically hostile to Western ideology in general and the USA in particular? “Defeating” ISIS without some focused endgame seems even more risky and pointless than the Bush-Cheney doctrine of nation-building in a snakepit.

    • #9
    • May 4, 2016, at 8:38 AM PDT
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  10. Ross C Member
    Ross C Joined in the first year of Ricochet Ricochet Charter Member

    This reminds me of the Korean war stalemate as described by Hackworth in his great book About Face. The US and Chinese/Korean forces late in the war were installed in defensive lines. The Chinese would from time to time overrun the US defensive lines. But because of defense in depth, the line would simply close behind the Chinese and deeper defenses would stop the invaders and eliminate them.

    This was a bad outcome for those soldiers overrun, but because the Chinese could not break through, the partially successful attack was ultimately a failure.

    I wonder if a similar dynamic might be at work here?

    • #10
    • May 4, 2016, at 9:26 AM PDT
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  11. Manfred Arcane Inactive

    Ross C:This reminds me of the Korean war stalemate as described by Hackworth in his great book About Face. The US and Chinese/Korean forces late in the war were installed in defensive lines. The Chinese would from time to time overrun the US defensive lines. But because of defense in depth, the line would simply close behind the Chinese and deeper defenses would stop the invaders and eliminate them.

    This was a bad outcome for those soldiers overrun, but because the Chinese could not break through, the partially successful attack was ultimately a failure.

    I wonder if a similar dynamic might be at work here?

    trench warfare is suicidal against American airpower. If we can fix the enemy, they are dead. It’s when ISIS goes and mixes with populace that we have problems.

    • #11
    • May 4, 2016, at 9:46 AM PDT
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  12. Brad B. Inactive
    Brad B.

    Ball Diamond Ball:

    genferei:

    Ball Diamond Ball:The image is perplexing.

    See here.

    Thank you. No wonder I couldn’t identify the gun. And I had been wondering who would wear body armor or even a vest rig if you’re going to war with a revolver.

    Most of these militias have their own social media pages on Facebook and Twitter. The self-funded units pretty much scrape the bottom of the barrel when it comes to equipment. In all the pictures, you’ll see dreadfully old AKs, 100 year old Mausers, and an eclectic selection of pistols.

    • #12
    • May 4, 2016, at 1:24 PM PDT
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  13. Brad B. Inactive
    Brad B.

    Manfred Arcane:

    Byron Horatio: For all the breathless reporting and American politicians demanding we outsource the war effort to the Kurdish Regional Government, there is a great deal of cause for pessimism that such a strategy would be sufficient to evict the Islamic State from Iraq

    This confuses me. The plan has never been for Kurds to do anything along these lines that I know of.

    It’s a mystery to me what the plan actually is, if one exists at all. But some in the press do imagine the Kurds will do just that.

    They have no interest in gaining new territory, only preserving their independence.

    I think there is room for debate on that as evidenced by the fractured relationship between the KRG and its religious minorities. And the Barzani government has made few friends among the Yezidis by staking a Kurdish claim to Sinjar a year after abandoning it.

    Besides, a few more battles like this and ISIS is through.

    I don’t necessarily disagree with you, but I’m not optimistic about that. ISIS may be losing its cannon fodder faster than it can replace it, but it may not need to. Its ability to conduct attacks like this are just a dress rehearsal for the much more difficult battle to retake Mosul.

    • #13
    • May 4, 2016, at 1:37 PM PDT
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  14. Claire Berlinski, Ed. Editor

    Byron — thanks for a well-informed and realistic assessment. It sounds as if you’ve been getting to know this situation well (to the point where you, too, want to explode at the suggestion that “the Kurds” are going to swoop in and salvage this situation). I also think that’s a good litmus test for evaluating whether a candidate has given this problem any real thought, and whether he or she is levelling with Americans about the prospects for solving it.

    • #14
    • May 5, 2016, at 12:10 AM PDT
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  15. Manfred Arcane Inactive

    Byron Horatio:

    This confuses me. The plan has never been for Kurds to do anything along these lines that I know of.

    It’s a mystery to me what the plan actually is, if one exists at all. But some in the press do imagine the Kurds will do just that.

    Try this link out for a description of the current and new planning. If you click on the map there it turns into a video lesson in the new game plan. Some excerpts:

    “The new plan calls for fighting the terror group like a conventional enemy, relying on traditional military tactics such as maneuver-style warfare and attrition. This has replaced last year’s approach, dubbed the “Iraq First Strategy,” which was widely criticized as ineffective, especially after ISIS fighters seized the city of Ramadi in May. Instead, the U.S. and its allies now intend to confront the extremist group and its force of about 30,000 fighters, targeting their strongholds and resources across Iraq and Syria simultaneously.”

    “In a secondary front, the Iraqi army will move west from Ramadi, the recently reclaimed capital of Anbar province, up the Euphrates Valley and toward the Syrian border. Another key pillar of this strategy requires cutting off the Islamic State’s primary supply line to the outside world by pressuring Turkey to seal its border with Syria.”

    • #15
    • May 5, 2016, at 4:55 AM PDT
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  16. Brad B. Inactive
    Brad B.

    Thanks, Claire. Very high praise coming from you. I’m actually moving to Iraq for a job this year, so I’ll have plenty to write about while I’m there.

    • #16
    • May 5, 2016, at 11:36 PM PDT
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  17. Claire Berlinski, Ed. Editor

    Byron Horatio:Thanks, Claire. Very high praise coming from you. I’m actually moving to Iraq for a job this year, so I’ll have plenty to write about while I’m there.

    I’ll be very eager to hear your reports from there. What will you be doing, and where will you be?

    • #17
    • May 6, 2016, at 3:40 AM PDT
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