In the spring of 1991, in the aftermath of the defeat of the 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. Saddam Hussein and the Iraqi military, however, quickly turned on the Iraqi Shias south of Baghdad and the Kurds to the north. They used tanks that had not been destroyed in the war (many of the Iraqi tanks had been held in reserve far north of the Kuwaiti Theater of Operations and others managed to escape north once the truce was signed) 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 by the United States and believing that Saddam Hussein’s regime was sufficiently weakened, rebelled and Peshmerga fighting formations attacked Iraqi military units in the Kurdish areas of northern Iraq. (Pinpointing the source of the “call for arms” to the Peshmerga is difficult to ascertain in an open source environment.)
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. This was because they were satisfied that the objective of the Gulf War had been accomplished, they did not want to get bogged down in a protracted struggle, and were worried of the political power vacuum should Saddam Hussein actually be overthrown.
The use of terror tactics, chemical weapons, and indiscriminate bombings by the Iraqi military on the Kurdish civilian population — and memories of earlier harsh reprisals — prompted a mass exodus of more than a million Kurds to the Iranian and Turkish borders.
To some extent, the Iranians were helpful to the Kurd refugees, and Kurds living just across the border in Iran provided some aid. (The Kurdish population lives in a region of the Middle East that spreads across four countries –- Iraq, Iran, Turkey, and Syria.)
However, things were much different for the Kurds who fled to the Turkish border. Over 600,000 Kurds headed towards Turkey (although estimates vary the number was more than half million). Many crossed over high mountains to reach the border but found it tightly locked down by the Turkish military. Refugees gathered in over 30 camps of varying size on mountainsides 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 started broadcasting daily on the suffering and deaths among the refugees who were receiving little assistance. The U.S. government, not wanting to get involved, ignored the situation for weeks.
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. And once the decision to aid the Kurds was made things moved fast.
Operation Provide Comfort was established — at first under the command of a U.S. Air Force general based at Incirlik Air Base, Turkey. A No-Fly Zone over Northern Iraq was established and the first U.S. aid to reach the Kurds was airdrops of food from C-130 cargo planes. 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 the Turkish border crossing town of Silopi. Once there, a forward operations base and an operations center were 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 Incirlik, Diyarbakir, and Batman would land at Silopi, load up with MREs that had been trucked in from other locations, receive delivery instructions 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 hovered 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 established a secure area, set up helicopter landing zones (HLZs), and provided near-accurate estimates of the numbers of refugees in their respective camps. The HLZs provided a way to control the equitable and even distribution of supplies 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 to a multi-national task force consisting of all services of the U.S. military plus those of 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 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 units and resources into the operational area, a higher ranking general officer and staff would take charge. The overall command would go to LTG Shalikashvili running CTF Provide Comfort from Incirlik Air Base. Eventually, BG Potter would command Task Force Alpha operating out of Silopi. Finally, an additional Task Force (TF Bravo) was established just south of Silopi near the Iraqi town of Zakho.
In time, non-governmental organizations (NGOs) and humanitarian aid groups stepped up and provided increasing amounts of food, water, medical aid, and other services. An agreement was reached with the Iraqis 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 since reports were soon filtering 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’s mission was complete. The SF teams were exfilled back to the forward operating base at Silopi, on to Incirlik 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 region to conduct Operation Provide Comfort II (a long-term commitment). Its role was to provide a small Combat Search and Rescue (CSAR) capability in the event of a downed Coalition aircraft. And 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. The 10th Group would continue its presence in Iraq for the next several years participating in Operation Iraqi Freedom (OIF) until late 2011.
This article was written by John Friberg, the Editor and Publisher of SOF News and originally published in 2016. He is a retired Command Chief Warrant Officer (CW5 180A) with 40 years of service in the U.S. Army Special Forces in active duty and reserve components. The author deployed with the 10th SFG on the initial iteration of Provide Comfort.