One simple strategic error enabled Isis to take northern Iraq – and we’re making it again in Afghanistan

It is not yet clear why two Iraqi army divisions entrusted with the defence of Mosul collapsed so suddenly and so abjectly two weeks ago. But a likely key factor in the astonishing success of the Isis invasion force, which apparently numbered less than 2000 men, was the failure of the US-led Coalition to provide Iraq with even a primitive air force.

If the Iraqis had had even a single squadron of Second World War-era Hurricanes or Mustangs they would have been able to stop the invasion force within a day.

The Isis fighters who came in from Syria did so by road, in pickup trucks, in a long convoy. Although some Isis trucks carried light anti-aircraft guns, their entire force was extremely vulnerable.

Now Isis and their local allies are invested in cities and able to take advantage of all the defensive opportunities offered by urban terrain. They will be difficult to dislodge.

Nouri al Maliki is a disastrous prime minister, but he told the truth last week when he said that “if we had air support, none of this would have happened.”

Unfortunately, during its seven years in Iraq the US-led Coalition decided that it would build and equip a large army, but declined to ensure that Iraq had sufficient and suitable air power to fight guerrillas and insurgents.

It was understandable for Washington to think it imprudent to give Iraq an air force that could be used to attack Kuwait, Saudi Arabia or Israel – or even to retake Iraqi Kurdistan. But why not give it the capacity to patrol its own borders and strafe columns of Toyota «technicals»?

This decision is all the more baffling given that Anglo-Saxon armed forces are more dependent on air power than any in history.

Iraqi does have a tiny air force, but it is mostly made up of small transport planes and helicopters, some of which have a limited ground attack capacity.

There is much talk about the F-16 jets promised by America that have yet to be delivered, and the handful of Russian jets that are on their way to Baghdad.

High tech aircraft were never what the Iraqi air force really needed; they were important chiefly as status symbols.

After all, F-16s are too fast (and too valuable) to use for close air support in a war against insurgents. As British and American ground troops know all too well, air forces that use supersonic jets for this task frequently kill their own people by mistake.

When the Coalition finally got around to setting up an Iraqi air force in 2008, there was talk of supplying it with one of the inexpensive modern turboprop aircraft types that are the equivalent of Second World War close air support aircraft like the RAF’s Typhoon and Mosquito.

The two main candidates were Brazil’s Embraer SuperTucano (It’s the descendant of the Pucara that made life so difficult for British Forces in the Falklands War) and a US aircraft called the Beechcraft AT-6 Texan, which is based on the T-6 trainer that the Iraqi Air Force already uses.

SuperTucanos and Texans cost a fraction of modern jet like the F-16. They are cheaper to run, easier to maintain and repair, and require much less training to fly than any helicopter, let alone a jet fighter. (They can stay aloft longer and fly faster, further and higher than any helicopter.)

Iraq actually requested 36 AT-6s back in 2008, but the deal was never made. It renewed the request this May – too late for the current conflict and the cities of Fallujah and Mosul.

Everyone’s priority was (and is) the glamorous jet fighters. Certainly Washington was keener to supply costly, profitable 36 F-16s rather than a large fleet of effective turboprops.

Given how poor Iraqi maintenance has been of its existing aircraft and aviation infrastructure, the chances of the Iraqi air force being able to use F-16s or any complicated jet effectively in any role for any length of time are minimal.

News images from Iraq make clear the bloody cost of the Coalition’s failure to give the Iraqi armed forces the one relatively inexpensive capacity that could have compensated for any likely inadequacy in its army and military culture.

The only good that might come out of this would be a change in the current policy of the Coalition in Afghanistan.

There, the US and Nato have trained infantry, but have again largely neglected to build and supply an air force.

Amazingly it is only during the last 18 months that Nato/Isaf has made a real effort to train Afghan pilots and aircrew.

Although air power is crucial in Afghanistan’s rugged terrain, the Afghan air force can hardly supply its units in the field, let alone evacuate casualties. Worse still, the US Senate recently voted to cut in half the force of SuperTucanos that America had planned to give the nascent AAF.

It is almost as if the US-led alliance actually wanted the playing field between the government and insurgents to be as even as possible.

It does not have to be the case that all the treasure, blood and equipment we have devoted to the Afghan security forces will go to waste under empty skies.

We should – and could – get simple, sturdy aircraft into the hands of the Afghan Air Force. It would not even require denuding the world’s air museums of Spitfires, Mustangs, Mosquitoes and Dakotas. And we should do it now, if we don’t want to see the Mosul debacle repeated in Kandahar and Kabul.

Jonathan Foreman covered the war in Iraq for the New York Post.

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