The first pickup laid down suppressive fire with its .50-caliber heavy machine gun; the other pickup—called a “technical” in the many places such makeshift combat vehicles are found—then advanced to the next fold in the sand, braked hard and took up the thundering cadence with its own weapon. The first technical used that suppression to resume its advance, and the two vehicles continued their alternating progress down a football field-length of Iraqi desert.
The principles of fire and movement were developed by German stormtroopers in World War I, yet were new to these Kurdish Peshmerga fighters, recently trained by Western Special Forces. The multinational observers clapped after the demonstration, held near Mosul Dam during the war with the Islamic State group.
This article about the Christrian militias in northern Iraq first appeared in the Winter 2018 issue of Providence‘s print edition. To read the original in a PDF format, click here. To receive a complete copy of future issues as soon as they are published, subscribe for only $28 a year.
Religious and ethnic minorities live a precarious existence during civil wars. In a war between the incumbent state and an insurgent challenger, minority group leaders may pick one side over the other. However, if they choose the loser they will be open to charges of collaboration and become vulnerable targets of vengeance. On the other hand, if the minority chooses to stay out of the fight altogether, the failure to mobilize may itself leave them defenseless. Moreover, some civil wars and insurgencies are more complicated than others. Multiple actors fighting or competing for control of the state make things even more complicated, especially if minority groups themselves fragment into multiple factions.
The popular blog John Q. Public caricatures every development in the Air Force as causing impending doom for the service’s pilot retention crisis: One article describes “the worst decision in [the Air Force’s] institutional history,” while another narrates “the exact day the tailspin started”, leaving readers unsure whether it’s tongue-in-cheek or histrionic.
The pilot retention crisis has also been the subject of insightful commentary and in-depth studies, citing root causes ranging from competition with civilian airlines to cultural shifts. While all of these explanations are valid, some are probably more pertinent than others. If everything is a huge problem, it’s hard to triage — to separate what’s merely annoying from what’s truly defeating the morale of the aircrew. Now the Air Force needs to determine where to operate to save the patient.
How can we study modern warfare through the lens of culture? Different armies fought in different ways for reasons that don’t look very rational without considering cultural context. The ritualized tribal warfare of twentieth-century New Guinea looks more like middle school dodgeball than battle to us, but it probably would have been very familiar to the Mycenaean Greeks of the Iliad. When different cultural systems collide, the results can be devastating to one side until it adapts: in the initial Mongol invasion of Japan in 1274 the samurai challenged the invaders to single combat, only to discover with disastrous results that the Mongols did not share their idea of what a battle was supposed to be. And this isn’t just a topic for military historians. Understanding how culture bounds the way we (and our enemies) think about warfare will help to ensure we’re on the winning side in future conflicts; better to be the marauding Mongols than the stupefied samurai, looking for a divine wind to save them from their lack of cross-cultural understanding.
The Army Field Manual 3-24, Counterinsurgency, provided a much-needed course change for American forces in Iraq and Afghanistan by focusing the attention of commanders on factors that are not traditionally the concern of the American military. While many commanders had already recognized that conventional tactics were ill-matched to dealing with insurgencies and had adapted accordingly, others were still fighting the insurgents on an ad hoc and counterproductive manner in 2006. The “Neo-Classical” framework that underpins the FM 3-24, however, is based on political science about the revolutionary insurgencies of the Cold War. This “classical” school of Cold War–era counterinsurgency focused on defeating communist and anti-colonial insurgencies by strengthening weak governments that are seen by a critical mass of people in the host nation as illegitimate.
In line with Maj. Jon Bate’s exhortation to get the military and social scientists back together, it is useful to look at the political theory that underlies the FM 3-24. Why are people fighting in the first place? What’s the deeper problem that we, the counterinsurgents, have to solve? Is the problem really the same as it was during the Cold War? I argue that, in many situations, the COIN framework might not be sufficiently complete or appropriate to the ethnically based intrastate conflicts that have been prevalent since the end of the Cold War, in which case a different approach is needed.
How well can a Kurd do a jumping jack? It might sound facetious, but the jumping jack is actually a good yardstick for how disciplined a group of soldiers are—a relatively simple physical exercise that pretty much anybody can be trained to perform, but which requires some modicum of motivation and uniformity: if you aren’t motivated enough to do jumping jacks in cadence, you probably aren’t motivated enough to brave enemy fire. Compare the struggles of the Afghan police to do jumping jacks against any American unit and the value of the jumping jack test is evident. On a recent trip to the Kurdistan Regional Government (KRG) in northern Iraq I had the opportunity to observe training at two separate locations, one just outside of Erbil and a second near the Mosul Dam. While their jumping jacks weren’t perfect, they were pretty good, and corresponded to how they conducted themselves on the front lines.
In the West, there has been a recent wave of fretting about the United States’ alleged inability to train foreign militaries; one attempt to address this has been the establishment of new “Advise and Assist” brigades. Most veterans of Iraq and Afghanistan have some horror stories about their host nation counterparts: for example, during my time in Sangin, Afghanistan, an Afghan National Civil Order Police unit rotated into our AO and replaced an Afghan National Army unit. On their first night, the new unit got jumpy and, sensing a threat that was not there, opened fire with a “death blossom” on our village. The next day they asked us for RPGs so that they would feel safer, a request that seemed unwise for us to grant. With the Iraqi Security Forces currently testing their American training on the streets of Mosul, it seems like a good time to ask what makes partner militaries effective, and how we can facilitate that.
If Assad wanted to know what would provoke Donald Trump to attack him directly, fifty-nine Tomahawk missiles gave the answer on April 6. Two days earlier, the town of Khan Sheikhoun southwest of Idlib was hit by a deadly nerve agent, likely sarin gas, killing over eighty civilians. This was the same nerve agent that Syrian armed forces used in a rebel-held area near Damascus in 2013, which triggered President Obama’s famous red line.
While Russia insists the attack was a false flag operation, several factors indicate that the regime was behind the recent attack, despite their ostensible disarmament. First, US officials announced that American intelligence agencies tracked Syrian aircraft leaving Sharyat airfield to Khan Sheikhoun and back around the time of the chemical attack. Second, after the chemical attack itself, aircraft struck a medical building and a makeshift hospital where the victims were being taken. Third, while ISIS has used chemical weapons, they have been restricted to chlorine and mustard gas, rather than the more advanced sarin gas that appears to have been used recently. Finally, embattled Syrian President Bashar al-Assad has been accused of using other chemical weapons since allegedly handing over his chemical weapon stockpile in 2013, but none of the attacks have been as deadly or garnered as much international attention as the one last Tuesday.