The CIA War in Kurdistan: The Untold Story of the Northern Front in the Iraq War

Reviewed by Lt Col Matthew Thrift, USAF 

In The CIA War in Kurdistan, Sam Faddis provides his first-hand account as the head of a CIA team embedded in Kurdistan leading up to the U. S. invasion of Iraq in 2003. Mr. Faddis shares his experience as the CIA team leader tasked with working with the Kurds in Northern Iraq to prepare for the planned invasion. He also provides his personal experience searching for Iraq’s suspected weapons of mass destruction. As a career CIA officer, Faddis served as an undercover case officer and eventually as the head of the CIA’s weapons of mass destruction (WMD) terrorism unit. His background made him uniquely qualified for the mission in Kurdistan. It also colors his account.

After retiring from the CIA, Faddis has worked as a national security commentator on television, radio, podcasts, and in print. He unsuccessfully ran for Congress twice. He also authored several books on intelligence reform and series of fictional thrillers based on his experience in the CIA. The CIA War in Kurdistan is his second book on his experiences in the lead up to the Invasion of Iraq, his first being Operation Hotel California (Lyons Press, 2010) with Mike Tucker. However, this book is in his words and is part of his quest to ensure the work done by the men and women on his CIA team is not forgotten in the numerous critical retrospectives focused on all that went wrong in Iraq.

The book opens with Faddis sharing several anecdotes designed to highlight the lack of understanding within the CIA and the broader U.S. government of the political, cultural, and physical environment that existed in the Turkey-Iraq border region. He effectively interweaves the necessary context for the reader to grasp why many of the U.S. leadership’s political and military decisions were ill-considered. Upon arriving in Kurdistan, he begins his mission to prepare for the 40,000 U.S. troops expected to invade Iraq from the north. With two teams of CIA officers and a few special forces soldiers, they began the task of restoring the Kurds’ faith in the U.S. to keep their promises while gathering intelligence on Iraq’s WMD program and establishing networks of contacts within Saddam Hussein’s government.

The CIA team provided intelligence showing that Iraq lacked an effective WMD program. They also secured heavy weapons for the Kurds, enabling the Kurds to be a capable offensive force in the coming conflict. Their contacts within the Hussein regime also yielded an accurate Iraqi order of battle, meeting the Pentagon’s needs. Other interactions with the Department of Defense were less synergistic. Military personnel frequently arrived in Kurdistan without knowledge of the CIA team or the information they provided and an inconsistent willingness to work with the CIA.

Faddis’s frustration with the lack of integration, support, and his superiors’ apparent inability to understand or act upon the information his team provided is palpable. This is a common sentiment in many Iraq War memoirs, but history bears out the U.S. government’s limited understanding of both pre- and post-Saddam Iraq. Faddis argues, despite these limitations, that the campaign in the north was an effective operation and contributed to the fall of the Iraqi regime. He closes the book with a chapter of lessons learned from the Iraq war. Those lessons provide valuable considerations to the joint force and interagency as it continues to address the U.S.’s strategic challenges.

Faddis’s account is not a historical record or case study on the U.S. and Kurdish integration leading up to the Iraq war. However, it adds a seasoned operator’s perspective on an overlooked part of the U.S.’s efforts to remove Saddam Hussein from power. Lessons on the importance of a coordinated interagency process abound and provide value to national security professionals.

Lt Col Matthew Thrift, USAF, is a Military Faculty member at the Joint Forces Staff College.

The CIA War in Kurdistan: The Untold Story of the Northern Front in the Iraq War (Sam Faddis, Casemate Publishers, Havertown, PA and Oxford, UK, 2020)

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