In the spring of 1991 in the aftermath of the defeat of Iraqi military forces in the Gulf War (Desert Storm) a humanitarian crisis of immense proportions took place. Once the truce was signed by the Iraqi military representatives and the Coalition nations led by the United States the allies quickly looked to exit the region and bring their troops home to their respective nations. Saddam Hussein and the Iraqi military, however, quickly turned on the Iraqi Shias south of Baghdad and the Kurds to the north, using tanks that had not been destroyed in the war [1] and helicopter gunships that were permitted to fly according to the truce. This resulted in a huge refugee crisis that would see the implementation of Operation Provide Comfort.

Not long after the end of hostilities the Kurds, prompted by radio messages [2] by the United States and believing that Saddam Hussein’s regime was sufficiently weakened, rebelled and Peshmerga [3] fighting formations attacked Iraqi military units in the Kurdish areas of northern Iraq. The Peshmerga were initially successful in pushing the Iraqi army south towards Baghdad and out of many of the historically Kurdish areas. The success was fleeting as the Kurds had no anti-armor and air defense weapons. The U.S. and other Coalition nations did not come to the aid of the Kurds – satisfied that the objective of the Gulf War was accomplished, not wanting to get bogged down in a protracted struggle, and worried of the political power vacuum should Saddam Hussein actually be overthrown.

Kurdish Peshmerga fighters 1991

The use of terror tactics, chemical weapons, and indiscriminate bombings by the Iraqi military of the Kurdish civilian population – and memories of earlier harsh reprisals – prompted a mass exodus of in excess of a million Kurds to the Iranian and Turkish borders. Over 600,000 [4] headed towards Turkey. To some extent the Iranians were helpful to the Kurd refugees and Kurds living just across the border in Iran [5] provided some aid.

However, things were much different for the Kurds who fled to the Turkish border. Many crossed over high mountains to reach the border but found the border tightly locked down by the Turkish military. Refugees gathered in over 30 camps (some very big, some small) on mountain sides and in high mountain passes with no cold weather clothing, shelter, food, or water. It was not long before starvation, dehydration, disease, and exposure took their toll – especially among the very young and very old.

At first the world was ignorant of the humanitarian crisis but soon news agencies (CNN and others) started broadcasting daily on the suffering and deaths among the refugees with little assistance forthcoming. [6] The U.S. government ignored the situation for weeks – not wanting to get involved. However, the world media had converged on the scene and projected images around the world of the desperate situation. Leaders of European nations pressed the United States to do something. The U.S. administration was forced into action. However, once the decision to aid the Kurds was made – things moved fast.

Operation Provide Comfort was established; at first under command of a U.S. Air Force general based at Incirlik Air Base, Turkey. A No-Fly Zone over Northern Iraq was established. The first U.S. aid to reach the Kurds was airdrops of food from C-130 cargo planes. Pallets of MREs were dropped by parachute to the starving refugees. This phase lasted for a few weeks until the first ground troops could establish a forward operating base on the Turkish border.

The 10th Special Forces Group was one of the first military units on the ground. The initial SF contingent of about 100 men flew to Incerlik Air Base in western Turkey and then moved East by road to Silopi, Turkey – a border crossing town. Once there, a forward operations base and an operations center was set up by 10th Group to plan the next stage of the relief operation – food resupply by helicopter. At first CH-53s, CH-47s, and other helicopters flying from airbases at Incerlik, Diyarbakir, and Batman would land at Silopi, load up with MREs that had been trucked in from other locations, receive delivery instructions (location of camp), and head to the refugee camps to the East along the border. Later a Marine aviation unit with CH-46s was based at Silopi to support the airlift of food. The choppers would hover over the refugee camps dropping the pallets off the ramps. In the meantime airdrops of food and tent tarps by C-130s continued.

10th Special Forces Teams were inserted into the refugee camps to coordinate the food resupplies, establish administration of the camps, provide medical services, and conduct assessments of the refugees’ condition. The SF teams would establish a secure area, set up helicopter landing zones (HLZs), and provide near accurate estimates of the numbers of refugees in their respective camps. The HLZs provided a way to control the equitable and even distribution among the refugee camps population. Eventually, the entire 10th Special Forces Group would be deployed on Operation Provide Comfort with teams scattered among many refugee camps along the Turkish – Iraqi border.

The ground component of Operation Provide Comfort grew rapidly from the small contingent of Special Forces Soldiers who arrived in the middle of the night in Silopi, Turkey to a multi-national task force consisting of all services of the U.S. military plus many other nations. Although the 10th Special Forces Group commander was initially in charge of all military units in the border area it soon became apparent that one O-6 and his staff would soon get overwhelmed with the command and control requirements as more and more units from many different nations deployed to the operational area. Special Operations Command Europe (SOCEUR) had deployed forward to Incirlik bringing its commander (BG Potter) and staff to run the overall effort. However, with the influx of more and more military units and resources into the operational area, a higher ranking general officer and staff would take charge. Eventually BG Potter would command Task Force Alpha operating out of Silopi, Turkey. An additional Task Force (TF Bravo) was established just south of Silopi near the Iraqi town of Zakho. Overall command would go to LTG Shalikashvili running CTF Provide Comfort from Incerlik Air Base.

In time, non-governmental agencies (NGOs) and humanitarian aid groups stepped up providing increasing amounts of food, water, medical aid, and other services. An agreement was reached with the Iraqi’s that established a no-fly zone for Iraqi aircraft and a no-go zone for Iraqi ground units. Ground combat units of the U.S. and other nations moved into a small part of northern Iraq and established a protective enclave (in the vicinity of Zakho and areas to the east). Transit refugee camps were established to entice the refugees to leave the border camps and head south out of the mountains. While many refugees made their way to these transit camps where tents, kitchens and sanitary facilities were set up; others continued on to their homes. Reports soon filtered back to the refugees in the camps along the border that it was safe to head home. Each day the Special Forces teams reported rapidly dwindling numbers of refugees in the camps until the camps were emptied.

For the 10th Special Forces Operation Provide Comfort was over. Other military units had moved in to secure the region and provide extensive assistance to the Kurds. The immediate crisis had passed and the 10th Special Forces Group mission was complete. The SF teams were exfilled back to the forward operating base at Silopi, on to Incerlik Air Base, and finally back to their home station at Fort Devens (or Germany for those members of 1st Bn 10th SFGA). The 10th Special Forces Group, in its participation in Operation Provide Comfort, demonstrated the flexibility and capability of a Special Force group in rapidly responding to and executing a difficult mission in rough terrain, with little information, limited resources, and in a remote area.

The involvement of 10th Special Forces with the Kurds of northern Iraq would not end in June 1991 with the completion of Operation Provide Comfort. The SF group would soon return to the southern Turkey / northern Iraq region to conduct Operation Provide Comfort II (a long-term commitment). A no-fly area had been established with Coalition aircraft patrolling the skies over northern Iraq. 10th group’s role was to provide a small Combat Search and Rescue (CSAR) capability in the event of a downed aircraft. Yet again, in 2003 the 10th Special Forces Group would find itself in northern Iraq. This time linking up with Peshmerga fighters and taking on the Iraqi ground forces in northern Iraq. 10th group would continue its presence in Iraq for the next several years participating in Operation Iraqi Freedom (OIF) until late 2011.

[1] Many of the Iraqi tanks had been held in reserve far north of the Kuwaiti Theater of Operations (KTO) and others managed to escape north once the truce was signed.
[2] Pin pointing the source of the ‘call for arms’ to the Peshmerga is difficult to ascertain in an ‘open source’ environment.
[3] The armed Kurdish fighters are called ‘Peshmerga’.
[4] Estimates vary on the actual number of Kurdish refugees on the Turkish border but certainly it was well over ½ million.
[5] The Kurdish population lives in a region of the Middle East that is located in four different countries – Iraq, Iran, Turkey, and Syria.
[6] Watch a news report by Tom Brokaw of NBC aired on April 5, 1991 about the desperate situation of the Iraqi Kurds in the border refugee camps. The Provide Comfort operation, after days of world media attention, would start in early April 1991.

Rudd, Gordon W., Humanitarian Intervention: Assisting the Iraqi Kurds in Operation Provide Comfort, 1991, by Gordon W. Rudd, Department of Army, 2004. This 294-page report is the best account of Operation Provide Comfort that I know of.
Operation Provide Comfort, Wikipedia
Clary, David E., Operation Provide Comfort – – A Strategic Analysis, U.S. Air War College, April 1994.

Map of No-Fly Zone from Crisis in Iraq: Operation Provide Comfort, by Daniel L. Haulman,USAF.
Picture of refugees, Peshmerga, and map of Kurdish areas from Humanitarian Intervention: Assisting the Iraqi Kurds in Operation Provide Comfort, 1991, by Gordon W. Rudd, Department of Army, 2004, page 5.

Note: The author deployed with 10th group on the initial iteration of Provide Comfort.