U.S. Middle East Policy: At Least Do No Harm
Mistake happen and foreign policy goals sometimes collide. Two U.S. policies currently colliding are support and protection of the Kurds in northern Iraq, and support for a unified Iraq.
In his WSJ opinion article “Leaving a U.S. Ally Outgunned by ISIS” David
Trafuri notes that U.S. State Department policy has blocked Iraqi Kurds from access to modern weapons, so Kurdish fighters make do with older equipment:
between Islamic State-held Mosul and the Kurdish capital, Erbil, Peshmerga forces drive unarmored pickup trucks and carry AK-47s as they face off against Islamic State, aka ISIS, fighters armed with U.S.-made tanks, armored Humvees and heavy artillery. The imbalance is replicated across the entire border of almost 650 miles that Kurds share with ISIS in Iraq.
U.S. policy to protect Iraqi Kurdish territory (beginning by enforcing a “no fly zone” when Saddam Hussein was still in power) collides with the Shia-dominated Iraqi government efforts to block both revenue from Kurdish oil exports and modern weapons. The U.S. State Department wants Iraq to have a strong central government, which collides with a more federalist policy of decentralized authority.
U.S. military advisors say “boots on the ground” are needed to defeat ISIS forces. Kurdish Peshmerga forces are already on the ground though they weapons, helmets (and maybe boots too).
The Kurdistan Regional Government estimates it has more than 150,000 soldiers in the Peshmerga forces—about five times more than the highest estimates of ISIS fighters. The Peshmerga are committed to fighting ISIS and can be the “boots on the ground” that the U.S.-led coalition wants to avoid having to deploy. Yet they are struggling against ISIS because they lack even basic tactical equipment used by modern armies. Peshmerga Brig. Gen. Hazhar Ismail recently told me that less than 5% of the Peshmerga fighters even have helmets.
So maybe it would be better for the U.S. to stop supporting a centralized (and deeply corrupt) Iraqi government, and instead to at least get out of the way of Iraqi Kurdish efforts to sell their own oil to purchase their own weapons to defend themselves and other Kurds under attack by ISIS.