1991 - Operation Provide Comfort and Northern Watch


In March of 1991, after the United States and coalition allies forcibly removed Iraqi forces from Kuwait in Operation Desert Storm, thousands of ethnic Kurds in northern Iraq revolted against dictator Saddam Hussein's rule. Iraqi forces had brutally suppressed earlier Kurdish revolts and had even used chemical weapons in doing so. When Iraqi forces subdued the 1991 uprising, more than one million Kurdish refugees fled to Iran and Turkey. In addition, hundreds of thousands of additional Kurds remained along the border of Iraq and Turkey, where thousands died due to a lack of food, water, clothing, blankets, shelter, and medical supplies. This humanitarian crisis spurred the United Nations Security Council to authorize relief efforts on April 3, 1991. In response, the United States organized a task force and launched Operation Provide Comfort, under the command of U.S. Air Force Maj. Gen. James L. Jamerson. Operating primarily from Incirlik Air Base, Turkey, USAF C-130s began relief airdrops on April 7, delivering as many as 600 pallets of supplies per day, although those airdrops were not as effective as hoped. In addition to the airdrops, USAF C-5s and C-141s flew thousands of tons of cargo from the United States to Turkey. By mid-July 1991, the USAF had transported over 7,000 tons of relief supplies. On April 17, realizing that the refugees simply could not stay where they were, the United States expanded the scope of Provide Comfort and added ground forces to protect them. U.S. Army Lt. Gen. John M. Shalikashvili took command of the Provide Comfort combined task force and built temporary refugee camps for the Kurds. Additionally, the task force established a safe zone, using ground and air forces, in northern Iraq to allow the Kurds to return to their homes.

Ground forces began a slow withdrawal from the safe zone by mid-July, and soon the zone was enforced strictly by airpower. From that point, all commanders of the task force were USAF general officers, although coalition partners contributed to the operation. Over time, the Provide Comfort mission evolved, adding fighter aircraft to perform reconnaissance, retaliate if Iraqi forces attacked the Kurds, and enforce a no-fly zone against Iraqi aircraft. The no-fly zone extended from the 36-degree north latitude line to the Turkish and Iranian borders. The only aerial victory during Operation Provide Comfort occurred on January 17, 1993, when F-16 pilot Lt. Craig D. Stevenson shot down an Iraqi MiG-23. United States and coalition aircraft also targeted Iraqi anti-aircraft and radar sites in northern and southern Iraq, striking five times that year. In a friendly-fire incident on April 14, 1994, two USAF F-15 fighters accidentally shot down two U.S. Army UH-60 Blackhawk helicopters, killing 26 people. The fighters mistakenly identified the helicopters as hostile and, without receiving any contrary information from the helicopters or an airborne E-3 Airborne Warning and Control System aircraft, shot them down.

While Saddam Hussein rarely challenged the U.S. and coalition aircraft, the no-fly zone remained in effect, and in 1996 President William J. Clinton expanded the northern no-fly zone from 36 to 33 degrees north. During this same period, the U.S. Air Force completed Operation Pacific Haven, moving nearly 7,000 Kurdish refugees to Andersen Air Force Base, Guam. Those refugees would eventually find new homes in the United States.

On January 1, 1997, Operation Provide Comfort transitioned to Operation Northern Watch, because the main focus of the mission had long since become the enforcement of the no-fly zone rather than relief. Additionally, Operation Northern Watch complemented the no-fly zone in southern Iraq known as Southern Watch. Operation Northern Watch continued for more than a month after the start of Operation Iraqi Freedom, the invasion of Iraq in March of 2003, and officially ended on May 1, 2003.

A number of lessons learned emerged from Operation Provide Comfort. For example, the dangers of fratricide revealed the necessity for better command and control; the Department of Defense recognized the need for more precise airdrops as well as the necessity to drop relevant and appropriate materiel to the refugees; and planners needed to develop a clear exit strategy based on the change in mission. Still, the operations saved the lives of thousands of Kurdish refugees and kept Saddam Hussein from operating at will in Northern Iraq. Operation Provide Comfort also set a precedent for establishing no-fly zones elsewhere.

Capt Gregory Ball, USAFR, PhD

For more information see: 

Crisis in Iraq: Operation Provide Comfort," by Daniel L. Haulman in: Short of War: Major USAF Contingency Operations 1947-1997,  an Air Force History and Museums Program publication.