ERBIL, Kurdistan Region - Military aid from France, Germany, Britain and beyond has been packed and dispatched, but it is unclear how much of it is reaching Peshmerga fighters in the frontlines of the war against the Islamic State armies.
Many commanding officers and politicians are complaining of a lack of equipment - body armor and night vision goggles, for example – as well as weapons and ammunition.
Kurdish President Massoud Barzani appealed publicly to Germany’s defence minister last month, and the increased flow of weapons into Baghdad may be a result of this campaign. But reports from frontlines across the region say weapons still are not reaching all the soldiers who need them most.
Experts and armed forces insiders say the protocol is for planes carrying military aid to touch down in Baghdad and undergo a short inspection. Then, the planes and their cargo are routed north to Erbil.
A Baghdad-based military source, whose role is to co-ordinate landings, inspections and take-offs for planes carrying aid from several Western countries, denied any bottleneck in the Iraqi capital. He called the process of getting the flights approved for travel on to Erbil “tedious but workable.”
“We've had regular flights for the last week,” he said. “As in any Middle Eastern country, it's a fairly bureaucratic process. And with the government about to change over, it's likely contributing to the difficulty.”
“I don’t know what happens after they get dropped off up north,” he added. “There were growing pains with respect to understanding the Iraqi landing approval process, but I've only had to cancel one flight because of a delay in the Iraq side.”
Not all frontline fighters say they are undersupplied. A colonel based near Kirkuk said recently that Western weapons including sniper rifles and small arms had arrived in his sector and were awaiting distribution. Heavier weapons including wire-guided missiles had arrived, he said, but those were being kept in a secure location.
“There’s going to be a special Western team to train Peshmerga in how to use them,” he said.
That team and its mission are at the heart of the Western-led support effort against militants of the Islamic State (IS/formerly ISIS).
The New York Times reported Sunday that US officials envision last month’s air strikes and aid drops as a first phase of US-led efforts, and once a new government is in place a second phase of support will begin.
That will focus on beefing up the Peshmerga, Iraqi Army fighters and possibly members of Sunni tribes with better training, better weapons and more ammunition.
That training has already begun in Kurdistan, a senior Peshmerga commander confirmed, speaking on condition of anonymity because he is not authorized to discuss program details.
He said that American and French trainers were leading a training program designed to develop a crack squad of Peshmerga fighters, similar to the British Special Forces or the American Delta Force.
The source said the program’s initial course, which began in August, would train just over 250 Peshmerga on French-made anti-aircraft weapons. Training happens in small groups, with each soldier attending a week of instruction before heading back to the frontlines.
Later this month a second course is set to begin, focusing on French-made MILAN wire-guided anti-tank rockets, again offering a week of training to around 250 Peshmerga.
The MILANs, which were on the list of weapons released by Germany, fires a rocket with extraordinary accuracy at 200 metres per second – something well beyond the capability of anything in the current Peshmerga arsenal. But it is unlikely the addition of one wire-guided weapon system will be enough to radically shift battlefield dynamics.
Michael Stephens of the Royal United Services Institute said it is clear that Kurds want more weapons than have already been sent.
“They don’t feel the current supply meets their requirements.” He said the “game changer” would be MRAPs, or armored vehicles that can withstand attacks by IS improvised bombs, and light armored vehicles which the Kurds have repeatedly asked for.
Those vehicles have yet to arrive. But with the American-led strategy still being formulated and a statement expected from President Barack Obama on Wednesday, Kurds may not have to wait long to find out what help is coming next.