Time for America to Ally with the Kurds

Here is the real Iraq policy the United States should pursue.

As a former State Department political officer who served in Iraq and who saw conditions dramatically improve in 2008/9 at the tail end of the “Surge,” words cannot describe my visceral reaction to the recent collapse of American policy in the region. As a military historian, I am sure that recriminations over the causes of American defeat have only just begun—but the priority of our policy makers should be to adjust our posture in the region in accordance with the material realities of this dark time in the history of American arms. The United States should thus acknowledge that the dream of a unified and multiethnic Iraq has turned into a nightmare, accept the country’s de facto partition, and throw our lot in with our only remaining effective allies in Iraq—the Kurds.

When I was in Iraq in 2009, political space existed in Iraq for a centrist government that could bridge the sectarian divide between Sunni and Shia and allow the Kurds enough autonomy to fulfill their aspirations while not destabilizing the Iraqi state. That moment has passed.

For understandable reasons, Iraq’s Shia now see an existential threat on the horizon, which threatens sites sacred to both their faith and to their lives. In the absence of an effective Iraqi state, they will turn to the only available forces capable of securing their interests—Shia militias affiliated with various political parties and more direct military aid from Iran, which has already started flowing into the country. Nevertheless, in the end, Persian military assistance and sectarian militias will fail to restore peace to the country—they will ensure that Samarra and Baghdad do not fall under direct ISIS control, but they cannot secure Baghdad in the long term against a continued stream of suicide bombers flowing in from Sunni environs to the North and West of the Iraqi capital.

Furthermore, even if the Maliki government had a serious desire to garner Sunni support, the very existence of Iranian forces in Iraq makes impossible the cultivation of moderate Sunni groups in the North and West, whose support will be needed to drive ISIS out of its newly conquered territories. The United States could coopt and cultivate moderate Sunnis during the Surge, because as non-Muslims from a far-off land, Americans have no historic stake in old and deep rivalries in the region between Sunni and Shia, Arab and Persian. A few years ago, a more broad-minded and inclusive Shia political leadership than Maliki’s could have found common ground with Iraq’s Sunnis due to their shared Arab heritage and a real sense of common Iraqi identity, but increasingly visible Iranian intervention in Iraq will alienate what few moderate Sunnis remain alive in the North and West. Even if ISIS’s violent and extremist rule eventually leads to another “Awakening” against them among Iraq’s Sunnis—a phenomena that may be occurring in Anbar as we speak—that does not mean the Sunni opponents of ISIS will accept the legitimacy of a Baghdad government so obviously dependent on Iranian support. But without external support from Baghdad, it is difficult to believe that local Sunni opponents will be able to expel the hardened and savvy fighters fielded by ISIS—at least in the short term.

Finally, even in the extraordinarily unlikely event that Shia leaders emerge who can appeal to that deep, but sometimes submerged, current of Arab nationalism that they share with Iraq’s Sunnis, the very forces that might unify Iraq’s Arabs will only sow divisions with the Kurds. When I served in Iraq in 2009, Maliki reached out to some Sunni tribes, but part of that outreach involved Maliki pushing back against Kurdish influence in disputed regions in north-central Iraq—because in a shared distaste for Kurdish autonomy, Maliki could find common ground with Sunni nationalists. Dexter Filkins has chronicled the sad story of the more sectarian course Maliki chose after the 2010 parliamentary elections.

Maliki’s own incompetence, however, has created a historic opportunity for the Kurds. The power vacuum created by the rise of ISIS and the collapse of the Iraqi Army in Northern Iraq has allowed the Kurds to assert control over the strategic city of Kirkuk and push into other mixed and disputed areas, including my former posting in Tuz Khormato, and no one should expect the Kurds to give up those gains—especially because the Kurds rightly believe that only their own military forces can protect them from the excesses of ISIS.

Could serious American military intervention revive the dream of a multiethnic and nonsectarian Iraq? Perhaps; but even if a relatively small footprint of American Special Forces backed by airpower could expel ISIS forces, only a large American military presence comparable to what entered Iraq in 2003 would provide sufficient leverage to American policy makers to broker the political compromises and bargains necessary to save the Iraqi state. Does anyone seriously believe the American people would support such a course?