Earlier this week, there was talk about a massive evacuation effort, using helicopters, transport aircraft and security forces, to remove tens of thousands of Yazidis and Christians from the mountain range. Members of the religious minority groups fled there after ISIS overran their villages in northern Iraq and began slaughtering men, women and children who refused to convert to Islam.
By some accounts, there were as many as 50,000 refugees on the mountain, with little food or water and exposed to a harsh desert environment. Removing most of them from Mount Sinjar (and into refugee camps) was expected to take weeks, with attacks from ISIS terrorists a very real threat.
But the scenario changed drastically a couple of days ago, when U.S. military special forces teams made it to the mountain and found a situation that was far less grim. As Kate Brannen and Gordon Lubold detailed in Foreign Policy:
"After inserting a small military reconnaissance team atop the mountain, Defense Secretary Chuck Hagel said late Wednesday that the situation was no longer as bad as anyone thought. There are now only about 5,000 civilians on the mountain, and they are in "better condition than previously believed," according to Hagel's statement.
For roughly 2,000 of those civilians, mostly from the minority Yazidi religious sect, Mount Sinjar is home and they do not intend to leave. Now it seems the dire situation has improved and that focus is shifting to refugee camps in Syria and Iraqi Kurdistan."
Back in Washington, a lot of people are scratching heads and pointing fingers, wondering how the U.S. intelligence community was so far off its its estimates. As retired Lieutenant General Dave Deptula, the Air Force's former ISR chief told FP:
"It's a bit of a surprise that there was that degree of uncertainty," he said.
Drone operators typically feed pictures to intelligence analysts on the ground who could use them to determine roughly how many people are in an area under surveillance -- and, in this case, how many might be leaving. Most ISR aircraft can discern between a couple of thousand people or tens of thousands of people, said Deptula, now the dean of the Mitchell Institute for Aerospace Studies in Arlington, Virginia."
"It's pretty straightforward: You survey the region that you're interested in over a period of time, then you count the number of people who are there," he said. "It's not rocket science."
According to media reports, the U.S. is currently flying at least 60 sorties a day over Iraq; many of those are conducted by various UAV platforms and virtually all have some sort of real-time intelligence collection capability. Additionally, U.S. commanders had access to reams of satellite imagery and SIGINT reporting, provided by the National Geospatial Intelligence Agency (NGA) and NSA, respectively.
So, how did the spooks get it wrong? Or did they get it wrong?
For starters, there are challenges associated with counting refugees in moutainous terrain. Seeking shelter from extreme temperatures, individuals move into caves, tents and under rocky outcroppings. So, depending on the time of day, the headcount may vary, as more refugees move into places that drones and satellites can't observe. However, that problem is somewhat mitigated by staging drone flights at various hours of the day (and night), allowing analysts to observe the refugee population around the clock.
There's also the issue of how much imagery commanders were getting and the types of products received. Electro-optical imagery from a Predator or Reaper is often described as a "soda-straw view;" good resolution, but it only covers a relatively small area. Pull back to a wider view, and you lose detail. Satellites cover a much wider area, but analysts need to zoom in on particular targets and analyze those images to provide the detail required by decision-makers. And since Mount Sinjar is actually a mountain range, you would need scores of images, electronically "stitched together" to render a comprehensive view of the refugees and their locations.
A better question might be this: did our intel systems capture the exodus from the mountain? Kurdish and Yazidi officials insist that as many as 40,000 people fled to the area to escape ISIS. In the days before U.S. SOF teams arrived, thousands of refugees apparently decided to seek other safe havens, making a 25-mile journey across the Syrian border, before crossing back into Iraq's Kurdistan region. If our drones and satellites detected that migration--and they almost certainly did--it raises another possibility: American officials deliberately withheld the information (to prevent the terrorists from launching full-scale attacks on the refugees), while highlighting the humanitarian crisis on Mount Sinjar. If that was the case, that bit of disinformation may have saved thousands of lives.
But before anyone at the White House or the Pentagon takes a victory lap, there is another issue to consider: why did thousands of refugees decide to leave the mountain and embark on a dangerous, over-land trek to a refugee camp? For most it was a matter of necessity; you can't live indefinitely on a mountain with just the clothes on your back, and the triple-digit temperatures of late summer will soon be replaced by freezing cold in the fall and winter. There were also problems with distribution of food and water dropped by USAF transports and other aircraft. Put another way: long-term survival prospects on the mountain were decidedly slim.
At the geopolitical level, the exodus was also a no-confidence vote in the U.S. and its allies. Many of the refugees had been on Mount Sinjar for days before the arrival of humanitarian aid--and the start of airstrikes against ISIS targets in the region. We may never know the number of Yazidis, Christians and Kurds who perished on their journey to the mountain, or died on its slopes. We can also surmise that many might have waited for a U.S. evacuation operation, if they felt any genuine assurance that one was on the way.
But the refugees saw how long it took the United States to respond to the crisis and knew it might be many days before everyone was evacuated. So, when our limited airstrikes rolled back ISIS, many of those on Mount Sinjar attempted to walk to safety, rather than waiting on a western helicotper or vehicle convoy. Such is the state of American credibility in the Middle East--even among those who look to us for support.
One final note: the same images that provide a refugee "head count" can also detect individuals who have died, or the graves where they are buried. Curiously, official briefings on the Mount Sinjar crisis--and resulting media coverage--have largely avoided the body count issue. Maybe they'll say the spooks missed that one, too.