Of interest, the formation of the Tigris Operational Command and the claim of forming 2 Kurdish Operational Commands in response as justification for the confrontation is pure propaganda. Establishing corps-level commands has been ongoing since the Surge and both sides require these command elements whether they are fighting each other or not. They or something like them have been projected as planned for over 5 years. For a casus belli, this is really flimsy.
In 2003, the Kurds had a dominate position but, the US did not want a divided Iraq – policy was to rebuild Iraq to remain the natural geographical roadblock for Iran. This correlation of forces has not remained static. The Iraqi Army has re-grown to 14 divisions since then while the Peshmerga was already at peak strength in 2003 and has reduced to 10-11 division-equivalents since then for budget reasons. This didn’t matter as neither could push while foreign forces prevented operations. The withdraw of US forces last year was the first opportunity for Iraq and the Kurdish Regional Government to consider the military option to settle the disputed territories.
One problem with all analysis is that both sides do not have experience in conventional war. The majority of both forces are too young to have participated in anything other than internal security. Nor have they had sufficient training in conventional war. Conventional war is not the same as COIN and neither side knows how their troops will react to high intensity conflict.
While the straight numbers of Kurdish and Iraqi forces indicate an Iraqi advantage – the basic numbers are not the whole story. While Kurdish forces can be concentrated in a confrontation with Iraq – Iraqi forces are still heavily tied down performing internal security. This is a Kurdish passing advantage as the Iraqi Federal Police is slowly taking over the lead in internal security, freeing up the Iraqi Army for other employment and training.
Iraqi Army Pros and Cons
Neither side is ready. What we are seeing from the IA is preparatory moves vice short-term conflict moves. It will be 1-2 years before the IA is ready. While neither side is currently ready, IA has more resources in the long run than KRG. The IA has effective numeric parity with the trained reorganized RGBs with its available force at this time.
That is not the full story – the IA only started training on combined arms a year ago. They are still short Artillery and will have coordination and supply issues due to lack of experience. This confrontation is not the same as counter-insurgency operations.
The IA also needs to train on new equipment. This is especially true of the 12th Division in Kirkuk – it may be politically dependable but, it is too green and only recently equipped with some armor. Only the IA 9th Armor Division is really ready for this type of fight - the rest are still shaking-down on new equipment and only started training in conventional combined arms during the last year.
While the 12th Division in Kirkuk is politically dependable - Using 12th IA Division as point is a mistake. This is the same former Strategic Infrastructure Battalions that had to be re-blued/re-greened. It is the youngest, least capable/professional div in the IA - which makes giving them armor unwise. Given the limited time, the 12th has had armor and the limited hand-me-down armor only received in the last 2 months – they are likely to be combat ineffective until they have completed a real training shakedown – probably a year.
There is a trust issue with several IA divisions in a confrontation with the KRG. Kurds serving in the IA tend to be concentrated in 2nd, 3rd, and 4th Divisions – all in disputed zones. The IA needs to shift forces in the north that they cannot trust verses the KRG to southern locations, while shifting forces the GoI can trust against the KRG to replace them. That takes time.
The IA has only limited number of forces available because most of the Army is still needed for internal security - this will change with time. As the Federal Police expands and takes over internal security in various locations, the IA will have more forces freed up for training and for deployment - this is the delay. The FP is not expanding fast enough, but this will eventually allow the IA to concentrate.
The IA also need more training time on the new equipment and needs more heavy weapons. Primarily needs Artillery verses the KRG, Artillery is the biggest shortage. Most of the other systems that the IA is short of are not essential in a fight against the KRG.
Additional time to fully set up sustainment is needed for the IA. Sustainment is an issue for both forces.
While the IA/IqAF has the air power advantage – it is insufficient to be more than a localized advantage. Given more training time and additional deliveries [especially munitions] – this will change. These may be the reasons PM Maliki is talking a deal where IA and KRG forces are partnered in the disputed zones. Prime Minister Maliki is talking joint patrols in the disputed zone - Smart move. This buys time to shift and upgrade forces. Looks like a compromise but, has the effect of pinning [corseting] most of the Regional Guards Brigades to an equal force of IA. In any KRG/GoI conflict, this would reduce the KRG flexibility - thus allowing the IA to move additional forces in and defeat the KRG in detail. Also, it would draw most of the RGBs into more favorable terrain for the IA. Again, this needs time to set up.
PM Maliki appears to want to move hard but, the IA is not ready. The limited numbers of new equipment procured haven't had enough personnel training time to be effective combined arms formations. The IA is not ready yet. 1-2 years minimum to get truly functional trained, equipped, and sustainable with the new equipment.
Then there is the International fall-out. Iraq can ill afford the likely results of even a victorious war with the KRG. The reaction would probably include an international arms embargo against Iraq - Not to mention UN peacekeepers deciding the actual border. Since Iraq has no air defense and limited heavy weapons, such a result would keep Iraq weak and its government very shaky.
Kurdish Regional Guards Pros and Cons
While the KRG is still not ready, they are in better shape vis-a-vie the IA at this time than they will be in the future. Unlike the IA, almost all of the Kurdish forces are available for a conflict. 16 of a planned 20 Regional Guards Brigades have been re-organized and trained/equipped for conventional conflict. The 2 KRG mechanized Brigades and 2 SOF Brigades are already functional although the armor is obsolete. The Zerevani has reorganized into 2 divisions and received enough Carabinarie training to be effective. The I DBE Region [Division] is also Kurdish manned and significant elements of 2nd, 3rd, and 4th IA Divisions will probably join the KRG in a fight.
The RGBs are actually matching conventional training timelines with the IA - retraining/reorganizing as many RGBs as the IA in the same timeframe. 16 of 20 RGBs have been retrained and reorganized. 4 more are starting training but, this program only started a little more than a year ago. Most of the current generation of Peshmerga [like the IA] has little or no conventional combat experience. Their problem is they have a lower final end-strength and less access to heavy weapons. The IA will surpass them in 1-2 years.
The KRG has the advantage in logistics - interior shorter lines. Without more effective air strength than they have available - the IA/IqAF has no realistic way of neutralizing this KRGs advantage. But, to maintain it, the KRG needs Turkish or Iranian backing for any resupply when they run out of ammo.
Another problem is that the Kurds have not historically demonstrated an ability to fight in the plains. All the disputed areas are in the plains. They are an infantry force that has not been able to defeat Iraqi armor advantage in the past. However, the current IA does not have so much armor this time and the KRG has been reported acquiring ATGWs that might be sufficient to neutralize that advantage for now.
From the GoI’s position this is IA/GoI political and battlefield prep for the future – it will be 1-2 years minimum before the IA is ready for a real fight. Any fight before the IA is ready, could be very iffy for the GoI. If the fight starts this year - the KRG has a good chance of winning against the IA.
From the KRG’s standpoint, this may be the last opportunity to secure the disputed zone and try for independence. The Kurds have the current force advantage but, that will not last. The KRG's current problem is Iran and Turkey – neither wants an independent Kurdistan. Without their concurrence the KRG would be fighting a loosing battle.
Both sides are operating from a questionable military position as they cannot be sure of their forces...