Abandoning the Kurds
Our long-time allies in northern Iraq deserve U.S. military support.
Updated Aug. 4, 2014 9:12 p.m. ET
Another day, another Middle Eastern defeat. On Sunday the Islamic State in Iraq and al-Sham, or ISIS, ousted Kurdish forces from three towns in northern Iraq and laid siege to the country’s largest dam. The question now is whether the Obama Administration will abandon our long-time Kurdish allies as they battle the jihadist army.
Earlier this summer ISIS routed the Iraqi army in Mosul, and its success against the Kurdish peshmerga militia is another ominous turn. Kurdistan has been an island of relative peace and prosperity in Iraq that was thought to be beyond the Islamist reach. But ISIS is gaining strength the longer it is unchallenged, and the oil city of Kirkuk that is defended by the peshmerga is a tempting future target. An Islamist caliphate with oil revenues is a scary prospect.
The U.S. protected the Kurds from Saddam Hussein for a decade with a no-fly zone after the first Gulf War. And after Saddam fell in 2003, the Kurds invited the U.S. to set up a permanent military base in their territory.
Washington had planned to equip the peshmerga directly as recently as 2010, but it deferred to Iraqi Prime Minister Nouri al-Maliki, a Shiite who has pursued the disastrous strategy of starving the non-Shiite parts of Iraq. Since President Obama withdrew all U.S. forces in 2011, the U.S. has provided more than $1 billion a year in military aid and sold $10 billion in hardware to Baghdad. But the Kurds have seen little of it. The Baghdad government has also denied the Kurds their share of oil revenues, so the Kurds have sought to export oil themselves, which the U.S. has also tried to block.
A Kurdish Peshmerga soldier takes position in Qara Tabbah town, Diyala province, eastern Iraq, July 15. European Pressphoto Agency
As ISIS charged toward Baghdad, Kurdish leaders last month sent a delegation to Washington to seek military assistance. The peshmerga are known for their professionalism and courage, but they need ammunition and artillery, better rifles, tanks, transportation vehicles and body armor. Obama Administration officials brushed them off, claiming American aid was tantamount to a green light to Kurdish independence and Iraq’s breakup.
This is the kind of crack strategic logic this Administration is famous for. Iraq is already on the verge of breaking up, and letting ISIS overrun the Kurds wouldn’t make it easier to keep together. If a unified Iraq is going to be saved, it will have to be done with the help of the Kurds. Vice President Joe Biden famously advocated the partition of Iraq into three countries, but the way to keep it together is with a loose federalism that gives the Kurdish, Sunni and Shiite regions considerable autonomy.
The U.S. has helped Taiwan defend itself for decades without endorsing independence. Providing military aid would give the U.S. more leverage with the Kurds to keep them in a confederated Iraq if that is still possible. Fuad Masum, a Kurd, was elected Iraq’s president last month. U.S. military aid for Kurdistan could even be tied to the region’s continued commitment to a single Iraq.
Another Administration excuse is that it’s waiting for a new government to form in Baghdad without Mr. Maliki and doesn’t want to become “Maliki’s air force.” But that doesn’t apply to Kurdistan. The aircraft and drones already in Iraq and the region could by tomorrow provide air support to the peshmerga.
On Monday Mr. Maliki himself ordered his forces to provide air support for Kurdish fighters. Even Turkey, which worries about Kurdish nationalism because of its own Kurdish minority, wants to help the Iraqi Kurds keep their freedom and defeat ISIS.
The Kurdish predicament raises the larger question of America’s commitment to Iraq and our friends around the world. President Obama has sent some 800 military advisers and troops and Apache helicopters to Baghdad. But the Administration has been paralyzed about what to do with them. We’re told the U.S. is doing little or nothing to keep U.S. contractors in Iraq to complete the airfield at Balad or keep training Iraqis, despite daily pleas from Iraqi generals. Iran and Russia are filling the void.
Mr. Obama may be loath to re-enter the fray in the Iraq because it means admitting that he really didn’t end the war. But abandoning the Kurds after our recent alliance would send the message to the world that this Administration lacks the fortitude to support its friends. Leaving the Kurds alone to battle our common enemy in the jihadist ISIS army would do incalculable damage to America’s interests and reputation.