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Iraq Disintegrates
Can We Count on the Kurds?

While all eyes turn to the U.S. bombardment of ISIS from the air, some experts are watching and worrying over the performance of local forces on the ground. A spate of worrying setbacks has raised serious questions about whether these forces—not the least important of which is the Kurdish peshmerga—are capable of holding off the militant group. The Daily Beast reports:

Douglas Ollivant, a former Army officer who advised Gen. David Petraeus in Iraq and served under two presidents in the National Security Council, expressed a view common among military and intelligence officers: “I think the general consensus among the American military people in country is that the Kurds just aren’t any better than any other military force in Iraq, and we shouldn’t be surprised that they’re having the same lack of success as the rest of the Iraqi army.”

That Kurdish capabilities are less substantial than many in D.C. seem to have thought is the big story behind today’s headlines of resumption of hostilities in Iraq, and the policy implications are mostly unpleasant. The stronger the Kurds, the more we could have relied on them and the less we would have had to do for them. Conversely, the choices get much uglier if the Kurds turn out to be weak—they are an important asset in a miserable place, and the U.S. doesn’t want to see them go down. Furthermore, there are good strategic reasons for doing something for the Kurds while letting Baghdad sweat over whether we’ll do the same for it.

It’s impossible to speculate from the outside looking in just how far ahead the Obama Administration has thought through its strategy going forward with this escalation in Iraq. But one thing is clear, however: this is yet one more example of Washington thinking it had solid ground to stand on, which it turns out can’t bear much weight.

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  • stefanstackhouse

    The policy elites seem to think that Iraq has to be held together at all costs. Thus, they have made helping Baghdad their priority. They have actually seen Kurdistan as more of a problem and a threat than an asset and ally, because they think that if Kurdistan goes, the whole of Iraq falls apart. Thus, they have been under-supplying Kurdistan, and instead providing abundant arms to Baghdad. Many of these were abandoned by fleeing Iraqi forces and captured by ISIS forces, which is why they are now better armed than the Kurds.

    And yet, after all these facts on the ground, we still have policy elites who are so worried about Iraq splitting up that they would rather continue withholding weaponry from the Kurds.

    Mark my words: If Kurdistan falls because we failed to provide essential weaponry when we could and when it was needed, we will end up paying a very heavy and bitter price later.

    • Corlyss

      I just don’t get the US’s attitude of slavish devotion to arbitrary colonial borders. Maps lie. A lot of post-USSR civil wars is due to the strange obsession with retaining the phony amalgamations forced on native populations and tribes that absolutely despise each other. It’s as though the effort is to keep the different tribes together in one state/former colony so when the post colonial madness ends and the sensible European patron can resume civilizing the savages. Somehow I’m skeptical that broke Europeans, that spend every spare cent on saving their own populations from the consequences of any bad decision their people can POSSIBLY make, are going to saunter back into such unpromising chaos as most post colonial chieftains have made of their so-called states. The western nations need to adopt a more realistic attitude to these phony aggregations and allow them to break up.

    • Martin W. Lewis

      Brilliant comments — spot on. My editorial on this topic covers the same ground in more detail. See

  • Laurence Levin

    We need to support Kurds. For both humanitarian reasons (how many times have they been shafted-how many innocent people are at risk) as well as strategic. We should at least give them air cover and send in special ops to help. This would be a way for us to defend against ISIS with only minimally helping Iran. Perhaps we need to get Turkey involved (they bear a lot of responsibility).
    As for Maliki’s Iraq and Iran, let them sweat.

    • Corlyss

      Turkey in its current state with its current leadership would be about as useful as udders on a bull.

      • f1b0nacc1

        Actually providing support to the Kurds might be in excellent way to remind the Turks (who I agree with you are quite literally worse than useless) that there are costs for crossing us.

        • Corlyss

          If we had any leadership in the WH I would agree with you about teaching the Turks a lesson. But we know such an action would be two things from this president: tardy and ineffectual. So I’d almost rather the US did nothing as long as Doofus is president.

  • Corlyss

    More’s to the point, can the Kurds count on us??? Our track record ain’t that inspiring. We have expended so much good will in that community, by slavish devotion to keeping the Kurds in the phony state of Iraq, and trying not to scare the Turks by fostering Kurdish independence. If I were Kurdish on the ground there, I wouldn’t trust us as far as I could see us. I’d want some definite post-conflict commitments from the US, and I’m not talking about some phony baloney mutual defense pact.

    • rheddles

      You beat me to it. They need to read up on the Montagnards.

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