How a Great Power Falls Apart
Decline Is Invisible From the Inside
Having made dozens of trips to Kurdistan, and having met extensively over the last six months with top Peshmerga leadership on the front lines against Islamic State (also called ISIS), it is good to see Denise Natali acknowledge in her recent Foreign Affairs article, “Counting on the Kurds,” that the Kurdistan Regional Government (KRG) is bearing the brunt of the battle against ISIS. But certain basic facts, along with an appreciation of the realities of war, are missing from Natali’s piece. The Kurds have achieved extraordinary results, particularly in view of their grossly inadequate supply of arms and equipment.
After accepting the fundamental premise that boots on the ground to oppose ISIS are essential, and that the Kurdish Peshmerga currently serve as those boots, Natali argues against properly (and directly) training and equipping the Peshmerga because, in her view, the Kurds might misuse the weapons once ISIS is vanquished. Instead, she urges the United States to route equipment earmarked for the Kurds through Baghdad, hundreds of miles away from the battlefield.
Nowhere does Natali explain why Baghdad is more trustworthy than the KRG with these arms, and her conclusion is particularly confounding given that it was Iraqi troops—not Kurds—who, just months ago, abandoned their weapons to ISIS. Moreover, carrying Natali’s logic to its natural conclusion, if Kurds cannot be trusted with armaments because they might misuse them in the future, then even circuitously arming them or training them to face the immediate threat of ISIS would be a mistake. Perhaps recognizing the logical flaw, Natali stops short of recommending against providing any arms to the Kurds, urging instead that weapons be provided, but only through Baghdad, as if future misuse of weapons somehow could be averted or at least circumscribed if routed that way. Such an approach fails to appreciate the realities and urgent timetable of war, and would severely undermine the KRG in its efforts to defeat the immediate threat of ISIS.
Kurdistan is embroiled in a full-scale war at its borders with the most vicious force on earth. To date, ISIS has killed over 1,200 Peshmerga, and has wounded, raped, or tortured many more thousands of Kurds, both soldiers and civilians. The KRG currently hosts over 1.6 million refugees and internally displaced—a fact that Natali dismissively reduces to one sentence, pointing to Kurdish “claims” of hosting nearly two million refugees. With a total population of five million, Kurdistan’s more than 1.6 million refugees and internally displaced is an astounding number—the equivalent of 130 million in the United States.
Over 900,000 of those internally displaced in Kurdistan consist of religious and ethnic minorities, including Christians, Yezidis, Turkmen, and many other minorities. Almost a fifth of all of those displaced in Kurdistan are Sunni Arab. They have been welcomed and protected by Kurds. Surely Natali would acknowledge that the execution of war is inherently imperfect, but she may not appreciate, as thousands of Sunni Arabs flood into Kurdistan as their sanctuary of choice, that Kurds treat Sunni Arabs far better, for example, than the United States treated loyal Japanese Americans it interned during World War II. Faced with a brutal enemy that shares over 650 miles of their border, and charged with the responsibility of protecting the safety and well-being not only of their local population but also of an incredible 1.6 million-plus refugees and internally displaced, what the Kurds have accomplished in the midst of war is nothing short of remarkable.
The nascent KRG democracy, now at the end of its first decade, along with Israel, is the United States’ most reliable ally in the Middle East. ISIS represents a threat not only to Iraq but to the region and to the West. If the United States is to continue relying on the Peshmerga to serve as its boots on the ground in this battle, it is a strategic and moral imperative that Washington provide them with the necessary support they desperately need in order to defeat a common enemy.