Arm the Kurds

Former Sec. of Defense Robert Gates with Masoud Barzani, President of the Kurdistan Regional Government

Former Secretary of Defense Robert Gates with Masoud Barzani, President of the Kurdistan Regional Government

For nearly 20 years, the Kurds have been a bastion of security in northern Iraq, a region scarred by violent jihad and religious extremism. Brutally persecuted by Saddam Hussein’s Ba’ath Party in the late ’80s, they were our closest allies during the Iraq War, “fought alongside” our troops, and were the invasion’s biggest success. Ten years later, they are the only thing standing between ISIS (The Islamic State of Iraq and Syria) and the modern world’s first “Islamic Caliphate.” And yet, we won’t arm them.

Since the early ’90s, Iraq’s Kurdish population has slowly moved toward a democratic system. Following Saddam Hussein’s embarrassing defeat in the Gulf War, his enemies — namely the U.S. and Britain — imposed two no-fly zones on the Iraqi Air Force, one in the north and one in the south. This gave the Kurds, located in the far north, effective autonomy, and in 1992, they elected their first government. Iraqi Kurdistan — the region’s official name — was lead by two political parties: the Kurdistan Democratic Party (KDP) and Patriotic Union of Kurdistan (PUK). Unfortunately, the system collapsed in 1994, followed by a bloody three-year civil war. The conflict’s conclusion saw the region split into two, with one half controlled by the KDP and the other by the PUK. The split did not last.

In 2005, as the Middle East devolved into chaos, Iraqi Kurdistan re-united and established a parliamentary democracy. This new system, characterized by a 111-seat regional assembly, and eventually a directly-elected president, has remained intact ever since. Today, Iraqi Kurdistan is “an oasis of stability and tolerance….

Along with positive political change, the Kurds have also fostered a strong relationship with the West. The Peshmerga, or Kurdish military forces, played an instrumental role in the 2003 invasion of Iraq, perhaps to avenge the many years of suffering inflicted on their people by the Ba’ath regime. With coalition help, the 70,000-man force crushed Ansar al-Islam, an insurgent group based in Iraqi Kurdistan, prior to the invasion, soundly defeated the Iraqi Army in the north, and helped U.S. forces locate and capture Saddam Hussein.

As a result of their political tendencies and past cooperation, the Kurds have become one of our closest allies in the Middle East, creating a liberal haven in a region defined by dictatorship and doing so of their own accord. To be clear, they are not perfect; every people has its downfalls. But their actions, at least in general, are something we should celebrate.

In short, the Kurds have built a moderate, democratic government in the midst of extremism, and it is up to us to make sure their experiment succeeds. That is why we must help the Peshmerga fight ISIS. If we don’t, genocide and destruction will follow.

Failing to aid the Kurds can only mean death. Considering their attempts to harbor refugees and protect religious minorities, including Christians, it’s not hard to imagine what ISIS will do if Iraqi Kurdistan falls. To an army that buries children alive and crucifies corpses, liquidation probably seems merciful.

Don’t be fooled: ISIS is the face of evil. It is also incredibly powerful: the group is worth $2 billion, makes an estimated $3 million in daily revenue (from oil and gas), controls between 13,000 and 35,000 square miles of territory, commands an army of more than 30,000, and, after taking the Mosul Dam last week, has the ability to kill 500,000 people without moving a muscle (see: structural deterioration).

Everything I’ve learned has lead me to one conclusion: the United States must arm the Kurds. It seems they are Iraq’s only hope in the nation’s increasingly hopeless war against a group so savage al-Qaeda disowned them.

With this in mind, I think it’s time we work with our allies in the north. I’m not a fan of airstrikes, but if the Kurds need them, so be it; arms — guns, vehicles, ammunition, and the like — should also be delivered to Iraqi Kurdistan as soon as possible.

If we will not send our own boots — and we shouldn’t — we must do whatever we can to help our friends on the ground. Failing to act is not an option. Given the chance, ISIS can and will exterminate its enemies; we cannot give it that chance.

Although past ‘arming operations’ have gone south (see: Afghanistan), the Kurds are different. They have spent the last 20 years slowly building a tolerant, liberal democracy in northern Iraq; they are trustworthy. Although I think its level of concern is too low, the Bloomberg View accurately summarizes my opinion:

There is no chance the Kurds would pass the weapons on to jihadists. Nor would they use their firepower to slaughter innocent civilians from other faiths or ethnic groups. The Peshmerga are easily the most disciplined fighting force in the region.

Of course, the al-Maliki government doesn’t want to arm the Kurds, fearing the inevitable consequence: independence. Bloomberg acknowledges that concern but says it’s worth the risk:

Maliki fears that if the Kurds are given money, tanks, body armor and other weapons, they would later use them to make a bid for independence. His fear is not unfounded; the Kurds certainly want independence. But this line of argument puts the cart before the horse. Unless the forces of the Islamic State can be rolled back, Iraq is finished as a unitary state in any case.

Arming the Kurds will inevitably cause more tension with the Iraqi government (and neighbors like Turkey, Iran, and Syria); that is a foregone conclusion. However, we need to focus on the issue at hand. ISIS won’t stop until Iraqi Kurdistan is overrun, and al-Maliki’s hapless army has fallen. I would rather take my chances with the Kurds, our moderate liberal allies, than radical Islamic extremists with millions of dollars at their disposal.

As Edmund Burke once said, “The only thing necessary for the triumph of evil is for good men to do nothing.” The Islamic State is evil, so let’s do something: give the Peshmerga the supplies they need to destroy our mutual foe. I trust the Kurds and so should you.