Max Boot is absolutely right that the West cannot afford to dither while the Islamic State (also known as ISIS, ISIL, or Daash) expands its territory through north-central Iraq. Should the group seize the Mosul Dam, as was prematurely reported earlier this week, it could put millions at risk. And recent Islamic State victories show not that their fighters are that good, but rather than the reputation of both the Iraqi army and the Kurdish peshmerga was and is much too inflated.
For all the lionization of the peshmerga, many of those in its ranks are there because of political patronage. Kurdish authorities have long inflated peshmerga numbers as well in order to attract greater subsidies and, perhaps in some cases, skim salaries of ghost employees. Political division also hampers the peshmerga: despite all the talk about unity, the Kurdistan Democratic Party and Patriotic Union of Kurdistan still distrust each other and act more as party militias than as a unified force.
So how should the United States respond, assuming President Obama recognizes the threat and realizes that doing nothing will only cause the Islamic State problem to metathesize? Giving weaponry to the Iraqi Kurds might sound good on paper, but might not have the effect which the United States seeks.
There’s a huge discrepancy between Kurdish statements and Iraqi Kurdish public opinion on one hand, and the actions of the Kurdish leadership on the other when it comes to the Islamic Republic of Iran. Kurds may like the United States, but Kurdish authorities recognize that Iran is their neighbor. Qods Force leader Qassem Suleimani and the Islamic Revolutionary Guard Corps (IRGC) have as much influence (if not more) over the Kurds as they do with Prime Minister Nouri al-Maliki in Baghdad and among the Shi‘ites in southern Iraq. Here, for example, is a recent report which, if accurate, suggests that the IRGC is actively intervening in Iraqi Kurdistan.
Giving weaponry to the Iraqi Kurdish government, therefore, is as replete with risks as giving weaponry to the Iraqi government: They could lose it in battle or through corruption and could share U.S.-provided intelligence with Iranian authorities, potentially exposing American capabilities or undercutting and burning American assets.
One of the reasons why Kurdish authorities have become so deferential to Iranian authorities is because the U.S. withdrawal forced Kurdish realists to accommodate Iranian interests. However, Iraqi Kurdish leader Masud Barzani has repeatedly invited American authorities to establish a base in Iraqi Kurdistan. Perhaps it’s time the White House and Pentagon take him up on his offer. Sometimes when faced with a security threat, the best option is to take matters into our own hands. Not only might a base be used to run drones or manned aircraft to combat the Islamic State and its advance in the region, but figuratively planting the flag would give Kurds reason to balance their outreach to Iran.
The biggest difference between left and right with regard to national security in the United States is that the left automatically demonizes power while the right understands that it can be used for good or bad. The Obama administration is distrustful of force projection, but sometimes projecting force is the best defense. Cutbacks or not, a base in Iraqi Kurdistan would be an important investment, one which would pay dividends far beyond its cost.