Friendly-fire reports expose weakness of Kurdish forces: experts

Details gleaned from reports indicate the peshmerga, while courageous, amount to little more than popular militia

OTTAWA – The friendly-fire death of Sgt. Andrew Doiron may have been a tragic mistake, but it serves to illustrate the shaky state of Kurdish forces and just how much additional training they need, defence experts say.

Both the Canadian military and Prime Minister Stephen Harper have gone out of their way to showcase the tenacity and bravery of peshmerga fighters, who last summer halted the advance of extremists from the Islamic State of Iraq and the Levant just outside the city of Irbil.

But details gleaned from heavily censored reports into Doiron’s March 6 death indicate the formation, while courageous, amounts to little more than a popular militia, said retired colonel George Petrolekas of the Conference of Defence Associations Institute.

“They are not ready for prime time,” Petrolekas said.

That means there will be no quick nor easy end to Canada’s training mission in Iraq, about which the Harper government has been deliberately vague in terms of the mission’s scope, accomplishments and goals.

For example, neither the Conservatives nor National Defence have clearly articulated in public just how many peshmerga brigades Canada intends to help train.

That’s very much by design, said ex-special forces commander Steve Day, formerly in command of Joint Task Force 2, Canada’s elite anti-terrorism unit.

“The cabinet is not tying itself down to a defined end state that’s going to shift,” Day said.

“I give them credit for that because I think they got so burned by Afghanistan, so burned by DND over-promising and under-delivering, that it doesn’t make any sense to put down a benchmark.”

During the Kandahar combat mission, the Conservatives were forced in 2008 by the Manley commission to set down both military and development goals in order to carry on with the increasingly bloody deployment.

Unlike the Harper government, the U.S. has been less reticent about defining expectations in Iraq.

A recent congressional report by the U.S. inspector general for overseas operations said the intent of the Pentagon and its coalition partners is to train 12 brigades in Iraq — nine Iraqi and three Kurdish peshmerga.

Both Petrolekas and Day say that means there is an expectation that Canadians will be involved in the training of anywhere between 12,000 and 18,000 fighters.

Canadian military officials recently disclosed that between 650 and 1,000 peshmerga have been trained, but experts say that despite their battle-hardened reputation, many Kurds are lacking basic soldiering skills.

Doiron, a special forces operator, was fatally shot as his unit returned to an observation post in the darkness to help the local forces better prepare their defences. Three other Canadians were wounded in the incident.

Doiron’s team had visited the outpost during the day and arranged to return that evening, but a shift change among Kurds brought in different troops who were unaware of the plan. Darkness and language barriers further complicated matters.

Petrolekas said it’s clear from the summary of the three friendly-fire investigations — two Canadian and one American — that the Kurds have only rudimentary battlefield communications and co-ordination abilities.

When passwords are not recognized, messages are not forwarded along and troops are communicating with cellphones, there’s a problem, said Day.

“It is going to be a much bigger job than we anticipated,” he said.

“We can train until the cows come home. The question is, what is the end-state and the exit strategy for the government of Canada?”

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