Want to Hurt the Islamic State? Here’s How.
The Kurds have an army, and they’re willing to fight and die. So why isn't the United States sending them the weapons they need?
The Islamic State’s latest atrocities have triggered global revulsion. Beheading two utterly harmless and innocent Japanese men, Haruna Yukawa and Kenji Goto, was bad enough. Earlier this week the executioners decided they had to up the ante by putting the captured Jordanian pilot Moaz al-Kasasbeh in a cage and burning him alive. Today, they’re claiming that a 26-year-old American female hostage, Kayla Mueller, was killed by Jordanian airstrikes. Needless to say, Islamic State (IS) leaders have been eager to compound the obscenity of these killings by distributing video of them across the web.
The reaction has been predictable: outrage and indignation. President Obama describes IS as a “brutal, vicious death cult.” He’s right. But what are we going to do about it? In his confirmation hearings this week, Ashton Carter, the president’s nominee for secretary of defense, said that U.S. strategy should aim to impose a “lasting defeat” on IS. Part of this, he said, has to involve “partners on the ground.” He was talking about Jordan, a country whose people now appear unified by horror over the killing of their compatriot.
The Jordanians are a great people, and I’m sure they’ll do what they can. But it strikes me as bizarre that Carter said nothing about the people who are already waging full-blown war on the Islamic State even though they have few resources to spare: the Kurds.
Over the past few weeks, it’s the Kurds who have been responsible for the world’s only victories on the ground against IS. In January, Kurdish forces in Syria, after weeks of brutal house-to-house combat, finally pushed Islamic State out of the key border town of Kobani. And within just the past few days, Peshmerga fighters who answer to the autonomous Kurdistan Regional Government in northern Iraq appear to have regained the upper hand against IS forces who staged a surprise offensive against the key city of Kirkuk.
By all accounts, these are both significant triumphs. But they’ve come at a high price. Karwan Zebari, the Kurdish government’s spokesman in Washington, told me that some 1,000 Kurdish troops have been killed since the start of the war against IS last summer.* “The casualties were so high because many of the Peshmerga were inadequately equipped with helmets or body armor,” Zebari said. (By comparison: 4,491 United States service members have lost their lives in Iraq over the past 12 years.) In stark contrast to the timorous Iraqi Army, Kurdish officers aren’t shy about wading in: at least one of those killed in Kirkuk was a general.
Back in the summer, when the Islamic State surprised the world by rampaging across the Syrian border and capturing Mosul, the second-largest city in Iraq, the United States and other members of the anti-IS coalition immediately announced plans to bolster the Kurds by offering air support and shipments of weapons. The air support has happened, and it’s made a huge difference. The Pentagon has started a program to train Kurdish troops — though it only really got going last month. Washington is also stationing more search-and-rescue aircraft in Kurdish territory to assist the coalition’s air campaign.
But the delivery of arms has been modest, amounting to a few thousand boxes of ammunition, rifles, and rocket launchers — much of it provided by the Germans and NATO allies in Eastern Europe. Last month, when a State Department official was asked what Washington has done to support Kurdish forces on the ground, he cited a shipment of 25 MRAPs — which are heavily armored transports, not combat vehicles. Well, at least they’ll be able to drive from one place to another.
The Kurds, who know IS from long and bitter experience, are up against an enemy that is equipped with a rich arsenal of American-made weaponry — Humvees, artillery, and tanks — seized from Iraqi government troops. What the Kurds need are heavy guns, anti-tank missiles, and tanks of their own. Their soldiers are dying in the fight against Islamic State right now — even though they’re often reduced to scrounging for weapons from the dead bodies of their enemies.
It’s worth noting, by the way, that the Kurds have been among Washington’s most loyal allies in the Middle East. American forces didn’t lose a single service member in Kurdish territory during the more than eight years of the Iraq War. Kurds are overwhelmingly pro-American, and though they’re mostly Sunni Muslims they’ve been persistent foes of fanatical jihadism. To be sure, government in Kurdish Iraq has its problems, including corruption, authoritarianism, and clan divisions. For all that, President Obama would be a happy man if the rest of Iraq looked half as good as Kurdistan does.
Why has the United States been so slow to put muscle behind its promises? The answer, as always, is political: America doesn’t want to see Iraq break up into pieces, so it is reluctant to give too much power to the Kurds in the North. That’s an entirely understandable policy on the face of it. The establishment of a full-blown Kurdish state — as opposed to the autonomous region that Kurds have maintained in northern Iraq since the United States created a no-fly zone there in the aftermath of the 1991 Gulf War — could shake up the regional balance of power, and might introduce an added dose of instability to an already volatile Middle East. For this reason, the U.S. still gives Baghdad a right to veto arms shipments to the Kurds.
But let’s get real. Everyone who follows the story knows that Kurdish self-government in northern Iraq is there to stay. Baghdad is highly unlikely to ever send troops marching into that territory against Kurdish wishes, so whether the Kurds have tanks or artillery is irrelevant to the question of Iraq’s continued existence as a state. The Kurds have shown that they’re willing to forego full-blown independence as long as they have broad freedom over their own affairs and the share of Iraqi national resources that they’re entitled to. That’s a good deal for everyone — which is why, just a few weeks ago, Baghdad and Erbil signed an agreement that provided for exactly these things. And there are some indications that the two sides are cooperating better on the battlefield, which is long overdue.
The bottom line is simple: Washington can do far more to help the Kurds than it has so far. If we really want to hurt Islamic State, here’s how we can do it right now.
*Correction, Feb. 6, 2015: The article originally misstated the timeframe in which the Kurdish casualties occurred. The Peshmerga fighters died in the period since the start of the war with IS last summer, not just in recent weeks. (Return to reading.)
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