by Joe Shea
August 9, 2014
LET'S HELP THE KURDS - AND REDEEM OURSELVES
BRADENTON, Fla., Aug. 9, 2014 -- It was Joint Chiefs chairman Gen. Colin Powell who famously warned President George W. Bush in advance of his strikes on Saddam Hussein's forces in Baghdad that, "If you break it, you own it."
That classic antique store warning was apparently taken as little more than a rhetorical axiom of no consequence. But the consequences, as we have so painfully learned, keep on coming.
Today, with more than $2 trillion spent on a war that has lasted longer than the conflict in Vietnam and taken the lives of 4,500 U.S. servicemen and women, it is supposedly near an end.
Yet, on this 40th anniversary of the resignation of our greatest president-diplomat, Richard M. Nixon, the war we supposedly had withdrawn from has once again re-engaged American forces. Nixon, please remember, opened China's doors to U.S. trade, and negotiated the end of the Vietnam War.
President Obama has sworn that no American ground combat troops will re-enter Iraq as a result of the startling and lightning-fast advance of the forces of the Fifth Caliphate known as ISIS. But there are plenty of U.S. "advisors" on the ground, among them the super-military operational personnel of U.S. Army Special Forces.
Those of us whose memories have survived the pyschedelics of the '60s will recall that "advisors" paved our way into the 10-year war in Vietnam, dispatched first under President John F. Kennedy and then by President Lyndon Baines Johnson.
Those advisors grew eventually into a force of 600,000 U.S. troops, 50,000 of whom - including my cousin Paul Roberts and two good friends, Richard Marsh and Phil Ruminski - died there. It was a time of tears and sadness that, like the war in Iraq, never seemed to end.
As readers of this site will quickly note, we have urged the President to come to the aid of the people of Kurdistan, a semi-autonomous region of northern Iraq bordering Turkey, which has tried mightily to frustrate its national ambitions. Kurds have occupied the same territory as now since 2,400 years before Christ, and today are spread out between Syria, Iraq, Iran and Turkey.
Yet it was the Kurds, and their ferocious protectors, the pesh merga, who came to the aid of the United States in 2003 when we sought their help against Saddam Hussein.
The Kurds are a brave, resourceful, fiercely independent and peaceful, tolerant people. Today they are offering shelter to the Shiites being driven out of northern Iraq by the Sunni militants of ISIS, and to the Catholic sect known as Yazidis, whose thousands are stranded atop Mount Sinjar and surviving only with the help of humanitarian air drops by American pilots.
We are grateful that President Obama's targeted air strikes have come in support of Kurdish forces overwhelmed and outgunned by ISIS forces who have seized hundreds of millions of dollars worth of U.S. arms and equipment from fleeing regular Iraqi Army forces.
But is it the task of America, who surely "broke" Saddam's regime, to now "fix" what is left of the Iraqi government? Or should we perversely "welcome" the arrival of the Fifth Caliphate and their Sunni army as the only constituted functional government in a region that appears unable to form other ones?
It has been the intransigence of Iraqi Prime Minister Nuri al-Maliki - in refusing to admit Sunnis to his government - that has driven so deeply the wedge that now divides the two warring predominant Islamic sects, the Sunnis and Shiites.
Our diplomats and many others are trying to repair that fatal flaw in Iraq's governance, but they have been frustrated again and again by an Iraqi parliament as fractious as the Syrian rebels who produced ISIS.
We should not be adamant in the belief that Iraq is incapable of forming a representative government; it is probably a question of when, not if, they can do so. Nor can we wholly abandon al-Maliki and his fellow Shiite sectarians, who have successfully demonstrated an ability to summon tens of thousands of untrained fighters to resist the ISIS advance to Baghdad.
With U.S. air strikes coming to their aid, the battle between the two sides is likely to resolve into one of the bloodiest man-to-man battles since the days of Genghis Khan and Alexander the Great.
Knocking out artillery batteries stolen from Iraq by ISIS will leave no other option to Imam al-Baghdadi, the so-far successful leader of the Fifth Caliphate. He will have to rally wave after wave of human pawns to assault the forces sent out from Baghdad, and there will be little the United States can do beyond strikes against ISIS artillery to help.
But, by the grace of God, I believe, ISIS will have the Kurds at their back, creating the potential for a two-front conflict that I believe ISIS cannot long sustain. That is one good, sound strategic reason to aid the Kurds now; there is no guarantee that they will once again come to "our" aid in fighting ISIS, but they will be well aware that they are the next dinner on the lion's plate should Baghdad fall to the ISIS Sunnis.
Already, the Kurds and ISIS have clashed in earnest, and in doing so, the Kurds have suffered heavy losses of men, if not of territory. The Kurds still control the "oil-rich" city of Kirkuk, which has been home to a large Kurdish population since the 14th Century.
Preserving Kurdish control of Kirkuk should be one of the major strategic goals of any further U.S. involvement in Iraq, and consolidation of the three Kurd-majority states of northern Iraq, now semi-autonomous (despite a 1970 Iraqi plan that would have given it full autonomy), into a fully independent nation would not only well serve vital U.S. strategic interests but also redeem our long presence in Iraq by leaving behind us there a nation that is supportive of and actually implements some of our democratic ideals.
Significantly, President Benjamin Netanyahu of Israel has been the first Middle East leader to speak out in favor of such a resolution. Although critics say his declaration of support for the Kurds is self-serving, we welcome it warmly at face value.
As much as we want to be rid of the Iraq war and the problems that come with it, creating a free and independent Kurdistan by a relatively painless effort on its behalf will give President Obama and our fruitless U.S. Congress a claim to greatness, and even redeem the vast wealth of human and financial resources Iraq has consumed.
Few Presidents can claim they have presided over and ensured the birth of a new democratic nation; the establishment of a free Kurdistan will be an achievement that endures and illumines America's otherwise sad history in the Middle East.
Joe Shea, a former foreign correspondent for the Village Voice in Turkey, Iran, Pakistan, India and Vietnam, can be reached at email@example.com. His novel, POWER, is now available on Amazon.com.