No one successfully ends a war without first being clear as to what he wants out of it. An unclear objective is Pig Latin for “no exit strategy,” and even a clear objective is no better when it is of a low perceived value. The moment the cost of a fight exceeds the value of the desired end state is the same moment the soon-to-be loser starts looking for a way to go home. If a war is worth fighting, it is worth winning, so if the next U.S. President decides to pursue in Iraq what he has a reputation for doing elsewhere, winning, he will need to do what his predecessor has not – clearly define our objective for the Day After Mosul and make the case that our pursuing that objective is important.
A key piece of that objective will have to be a strong, if not independent, Kurdistan.
Here’s part of the reason – the other two options, a Baghdad capable of governing effectively or a Tehran allowed to fill the vacuum, are either infeasible or not acceptable, in that order.
Look at Baghdad. Since the signing of the Sykes-Picot agreement in 1916 and the subsequent British and French mandates, poor governance in Baghdad has been the rule, not the exception. The current regime of Iraqi Prime Minister Haidar al Abadi is little different. Where it operates, it is only as a reflex to Iranian muscle. Otherwise, Baghdad is a capital chronically unable to execute the basic functions of national governance. It cannot secure its borders. It cannot provide for the internal security of its citizens. It cannot legislate consistently for recurring failure to maintain a quorum in its parliament. It cannot maintain a judiciary independent of influence from the country’s supreme Shia cleric. Nor does it function in compliance with express constitutional requirements for the disbursement of federal revenues. It is a capital of a country that is collapsing of its own weight. No reasonable indicator remains to suggest Baghdad has the potential to effectively govern the expected post-Mosul chaos.
Look at Tehran. Beginning in 2006, if not earlier, Tehran committed to a foreign policy purposed to dominate Iraq and expand Iranian influence across the co-religionist Shia Crescent leading through Syria to the Mediterranean. In 2014 Tehran quickly exploited the fatwa of Iraqi Grand Ayatollah Ali Sistani to build an army of Shia militias inside Iraq. Raised, supported and cadred by Iranian Special Forces, these are the so-called Popular Mobilization Units (PMU), and their strength has reached 110,000 men under arms. They now constrain the political freedom of maneuver of the Iraqi prime minister, and their combat power has become indispensable to the Iraqi Army. It cannot conduct major operations without them. As the Iraqi Army moves north on Mosul, so move the Shia militias – they provide 15,000 of the 40,000 fighters involved in the seizure of the city. So far the Shia militias have kept to avenues of approach plotted along the western side of Mosul, but the name they’ve chosen for their offensive, Operation We Are Returning, should chill the city’s Sunni inhabitants and provoke their Turkish brothers to the north.
We’ve tried optimism. We’ve transitioned post-invasion U.S. hard power in Iraq to an overwhelming reliance on soft power. The U.S. and others simultaneously adhered to a policy that injected, and continues to inject, billions of dollars “by, through and with Baghdad” to enable the country to stand on its own two feet and be capable of living in peace with its citizens and its neighbors. That course of action, tragically, has proven unsuitable to the task at hand. The result – Iraq has become a weakling encircled by wolves, a vacuum that operates like a sucking chest wound drawing deeply into its vital organs the malevolent vectors capable of killing it and the interests of others tied to it.
So, what’s left? An emergent Kurdistan. It’s not a perfect Kurdistan, and it’s not yet a very strong Kurdistan, but the Kurds have accomplished in the north of Iraq much of what we had hoped for the rest of the country. When in 1991 the Coalition no-fly zone pushed Saddam Hussein off their backs, the Kurds seized the opportunity and lifted themselves from the ashes of genocide. They subsequently established the most peaceful, the most democratic, the most industrious, the most moderate and Western-friendly portion of Iraq. It’s not without blemish, but it has set the example for the rest of a country and a region that is trying to kill it. We can choose to continue to ignore this reality, although our adversaries don’t, or we can get with the program and directly help Kurdistan achieve its full potential.
But our doing so will make sense only if we are first of clear mind as to what we want out of Iraq and are convinced that a strong Kurdistan helps us achieve it. These specific U.S. interests are relevant and should be indisputable:
- The destruction of ISIS as an organization
- The defeat of jihadi ideology
- The reestablishment of a balance of power in the Persian Gulf
- More democratic allies in the Gulf, not fewer
- Assured access to energy
Does a strong Kurdistan advance these interests? Yes. Here’s why:
ISIS will not be destroyed without the Kurds. The Kurdish track record has been one of consistent victory in battle against ISIS. Not perfect, but overwhelmingly effective. This is not the case with any other major group in the fight. The Kurds provide the most trusted and effective indigenous ground force in Iraq (and in Syria). They have operated as the obvious main effort against ISIS since the Iraqi Army abandoned Mosul in the face of ISIS in June 2014. When the Iraqi troops ran away, the Kurds stepped forward. With the notable exception of Sinjar at the extended, western frontier on the Syrian border with Iraq, the Kurds quickly seized and held an initial front line that ran 600 miles along ISIS-held territory. They then advanced to clear huge areas beyond that, to include reclaiming Sinjar and the seizure of blocking positions to the west, north and east of Mosul. They maintain these positions to this day and their doing so isolates Mosul, the necessary pre-condition to the current attempt by the renewed Iraqi Army to reclaim it. The Kurds can’t and won’t do it all, but they can and do keep Kurdish-controlled soil free of ISIS elements at any militarily significant level.
The defeat of jihadi ideology will be driven by moderate Sunni voices. This long-term battle will be won by the triumph of persistent moderate Islam over extreme. Victory will be a function of a corresponding debate within Sunni Islam. The United States and its Western allies will not have an effective voice in this debate, but they will play a role. It will be to enable, promote, support and defend the moderate Sunni voice. The Kurds provide a well-known and consistent part of that voice, and theirs has already proven an effective counter to the spread of jihadi ideology.
Need evidence? Look no further than the geographic boundaries of the black flag of ISIS inside Iraq. Its footprint precisely matches the areas corresponding to the country’s Sunni Arab demographic, but not to those of the Sunni Kurdish demographic. The several million Kurds in Iraq are overwhelmingly Sunni, but the appeal of jihadism amongst them has been infinitesimally small. This is nothing new. Kurds have long been overwhelmingly resistant in the face of outside Islamist groups who, since the early 1960s, have proselytized amongst Iraqi Kurds, primarily into the slender and remote Hawraman region along the Iranian border. There is a lesson here, should we want to look for it.
Reestablishing a balance of power in the Gulf means checking Iranian power, not accommodating it. Since the withdrawal of U.S. combat power from Iraq, Iran has emerged as the dominant power in the Gulf. Iranian influence now reaches across Iraq, Syria, portions of Saudi Arabia and elsewhere and provides a key motivator for much of the Sunni Arab support for ISIS. In Iraq, Tehran now enjoys functional control of Baghdad and the southern 60 percent of Iraq and is expanding its muscular reach north. Already, Iranian proxies, the Shia militias, have clashed with Kurdish peshmerga forces along the boundaries of Kurdish-controlled soil, and the tens of thousands of additional Shia fighters participating in the offensive to reclaim Mosul are seizing terrain between the city and the Syrian border. Unless checked, Tehran will soon acquire a land-bridge into northern Syria and, with Iranian combat power now surrounding the Kurdish Region of Iraq on three sides, will gain positions from which to compel Kurdish behavior in the future.
No U.S. interest is served by ignoring these territorial ambitions of Iran. The next American president can immediately begin to disrupt them, of course, but he must be willing to do something his predecessors have not – establish a permanent, large-scale U.S. military base on Kurdish soil in the north of Iraq. The Kurds have been asking for such a base for years, and the Turks will welcome it as a way to keep Iran away from its southern border.
Rational U.S. foreign policy is purposed to promote more democratic allies, not less. The Kurdish north of Iraq provides our only friendly democratic ally in the Gulf region, and with Israel it makes for one of only two in the Middle East. These are reasons enough to vigorously promote it, but those of weak knees caution against anything that might be perceived as support for Kurdish independence. They need not worry, because the real issue is not whether the next U.S. president supports Kurdish independence. It’s what he’s doing to prepare for it.
This is because Iraq is leaving Kurdistan, not the other way around. Iraq is now divided by major regional actors who have entered it in force to secure their interests, and two years ago Baghdad ceased all constitutionally required federal payments to the Kurdistan Regional Government (KRG). In the face of this, the Obama administration remains wedded to a tottering government in Baghdad incapable of functioning on behalf of its citizens. Even U.S. equipment intended for the peshmerga is sent first to Baghdad where the Shia-dominated Iraqi Ministry of Defense bars anything it does not want transferred to Kurdish hands. Under the combined costs of fighting a war and simultaneously providing shelter for the nearly two million refugees seeking safety with the Kurds, the KRG is running out of money.
The next president can change this policy, of course, and he can begin immediately in two ways. First, by authorizing the direct, U.S. equipping of the peshmerga through the Kurdish capitol of erbil, rather than through Baghdad, and second, by orchestrating an immediate increase in direct U.S. economic support to Irbil.
Maintaining access to energy means keeping it in the hands of allies, not in the clutches of adversaries. Among OPEC countries Iraq is second only to Saudi Arabia in terms of proven and potential oil reserves, but nearly two thirds of that oil lies beneath Iraqi soil currently dominated by Tehran. The remaining third lies beneath Kurdish soil, but Iranian combat power now occupies terrain on three sides of it. No Western interest is served by ignoring a condition that in the future can support Iranian throttling of Kurdish oil exports.
Here’s why this is particularly important. Kurdish energy reserves are impressive, 50 billion barrels of proven oil reserves, 80 billion of unproven reserves and nearly 10 trillion cubic meters of natural gas. They have the potential to help undermine Russian energy levers on NATO partner, Turkey, and the European Union. Turkey annually imports 35 percent of its oil and 60 percent of its natural gas from Russia. Germany and Belgium each annually imports 30 percent of their energy from Russia, the Netherlands imports 34 percent, Italy imports 28 percent and France imports 17 percent. Other European dependencies are even higher. Poland imports 91 percent of its energy from Russia, the Czech Republic imports 73 percent, Finland imports 76 percent, Lithuania imports 92 percent, Slovakia imports 98 percent, Hungary imports 86 percent, Sweden imports 46 percent and Greece imports 40 percent.
But the Europeans are not the only ones dependent on Russian oil – the Russians are, too. Energy exports comprise a full 70 percent of Russia’s annual exports and total $500 billion and 52 percent of the entire Russian federal budget. Russian energy exports to the EU account for 84 percent of all Russian oil exports and 76 percent of Russian natural gas exports.
Should President-Elect Donald Trump determine to exploit this Russian vulnerability, he might consider, in part, immediately endorsing and promoting Kurdish oil exports, something President Obama has refused to do. erbil and Ankara have already constructed a pipeline north to the Turkish port of Ceyhan on the Mediterranean. Both capitals are incentivized to keep Kurdish oil flowing, and the Europeans are motivated to diversify their energy markets.
As members of the incoming presidential administration prepare to take their seats in Washington and begin fresh reviews of U.S. strategy for Iraq, they will begin at the end, the place where American interests are served. An interesting thing about such interests, however, is that sometimes the important ones are shared by others. Perhaps the great Kurdish nationalist, Mustafa Barzani, said it best while standing on a battlefield in northern Iraq in 1962 and requesting help from the United States. Quoting the 13th Century Persian poet, Saadi, he said, “Joint interests make for the best of allies.”
Ernie Audino is a retired U.S. Army Brigadier General and a Senior Military Fellow at the London Center for Policy Research.