The Kurdistan Region is one of the only success stories to come out of the U.S.’s 2003 invasion of Iraq. Upon the collapse of Saddam Hussein’s Baathist regime, Iraqi factions came together in an attempt to form an inclusive government that would theoretically represent the entirety of country’s people. But since 2003, Kurdistan has been safe from the ever-unstable political situation in the south of Iraq.
Kurdistan is functioning. It is a place where different ethnicities, religions, sects, and nationalities live together peacefully. Kurdistan has been a safe place for foreigners working there. It stability and oil resources have attracted tourists, foreign labour, and even Arabs from the rest of Iraq.
ISIS threatens all of that. The jihadists’ advance in recent weeks imperils a potential U.S. ally, as well as one of the only tangible strategic gains of the American campaign in Iraq.
The U.S. needs new, creative thinking in approaching this challenge — perhaps something akin to what Professor John Schlinder of the United States Naval War College calls special war, an “amalgam of espionage, subversion, even forms of terrorism to attain political ends without actually going to war in any conventional sense” that requires “a degree of cunning and a willingness to accept operational risk to achieve strategic aims.”
Special war is sorely needed in a quickly disintegrating Iraq.
Arming the Kurdish Peshmerga is a good place to start and would have immediate strategic significance. Iran’s Shi’a militia proxies now control Baghdad and several key southern Shi’a population centres, and have deployed fighters in Diyala, Samarra, Tal Afar, and Tikrit.
Iran views the current crisis as “their moment” in Iraq, according to researcher Phillip Smyth, who has been tracking Iranian militia activity in Iraq for years. Iran cannot be considered a credible actor or desirable partner in Iraq. Kurdish participation is absolutely critical to combating Iranian influence, both politically and militarily.
The Peshmerga do not fear Iran’s elite Qods Force or Saberin paramilitaries, and have proven to be fierce and unrelenting fighters. In recent days, the PDK-I, the fierce and effective group governing parts of Iranian Kurdistan, declared “the whole world is afraid of Iran, and Iran is afraid of our Peshmerga.”
It is likely Iraq will splinter into three parts — and it will be necessary to make Iranian forces and radical Sunni militias like ISIS the focus of a robust campaign designed to knock both of them back on their heels and deprive them of their current tactical advantage.
Traditionally, Pentagon spokesmen have equivocated on whether the U.S. provides military assistance to the Kurds. There are already signs the CIA and Joint Special Operations Command have made preparations to dramatically increase the US footprint in Erbil. This is a positive first step.
If the Kurds are successful in holding off ISIS and establishing sovereignty it will be difficult for the Islamic State, the government in Baghdad, or their benefactors in Iran to maintain influence in the fractious nation. And unlike other American-trained uniformed forces in Iraq, Afghanistan, and Yemen, the Peshmerga are not just fierce but remarkably effective fighters.
Peshmerga bravely protect the Kurdish territories and, along with it, vital U.S. economic interests and the American consulate in Erbil. The Peshmerga received little to no assistance from the Iraqi army in their fight against ISIS. But as soon as ISIS militants started attacking the Kurdish areas, Kurds from other parts of Kurdistan came to help out.
If Islamists are able to successfully defeat Kurdish forces, the remaining Kurdish population may flee to Turkey and other neighbouring countries, including Syria. Failure of the United States to support these policies in Iraq will ensure the rapid dissipation of American influence in Baghdad, cede Kurdistan to Iran, and hand victory to the Islamic State. Worse still, any remaining Kurds, especially the Yazidi religious minority, will be left to the slaughter.
The upsides of vigorous U.S. support for Iraqs Kurds are abundant — and inaction could bring a costly moral and strategic defeat for the United States in the heart of the Middle East.
Robert Caruso served in the United States Navy as a special security officer, and has worked in the Office of the Secretary of Defence, the Bureau of Diplomatic Security at the Department of State, the office of the Special Inspector General for Afghanistan Reconstruction, and as a contractor for the Department of the Army.
Sana Karwanj is pursuing an undergraduate degree in international relations at the American University of Iraq, Sulaimani.
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