Any U.S. effort to uproot the Islamic State from Iraq and Syria this year will have to rely on Kurdish fighters to play a critical role.
Much of the Iraqi territory liberated from the Islamic State has been retaken by Iraqi Kurdish peshmerga fighters supported by U.S. air strikes. Without the Kurds, any offensive to retake Mosul – the large Iraqi city seized in June 2014 that is the Islamic State’s command center – would be doomed to failure.
But last week two senior Iraqi Kurdish officials came to Washington with these disturbing messages:
“We are the main force on the ground, and we have reached the stage where we can’t manage,” I was told by Fuad Hussein, chief of staff to Massoud Barzani, the president of the autonomous Kurdish Regional Government, or KRG. “We are fighting (on behalf of) many other countries. If this is an international fight, we need more financial support.”
Of course, as close U.S. allies, the Kurds are already receiving military aid from the administration, which is funneled via Baghdad. U.S. forces are training two new Kurdish brigades (down from a proposed three, according to Hussein) and U.S. planes provide critical air support to the Kurds.
But Hussein’s point is vital. The KRG is on the front line, defending almost a thousand miles of border that abut areas seized by the Islamic State. The KRG’s foreign minister, Falah Mustafa Bakir, said the war effort costs $2 billion annually.
And the KRG has taken in 1.8 million refugees and displaced persons since the 2003 Iraq war, a 30 percent increase in the population of the region. That includes hundreds of thousands of Syrians, along with hundreds of thousands more religious minorities, including Yazidis and Christians, who fled the Islamic State.
“We welcomed displaced Iraqis regardless of religion and ethnic background,” Hussein noted in an interview. This is a rarity in a region convulsed with sectarianism, but the KRG has received little economic help from Baghdad.
However, the harshest blow to the KRG’s economy has to do with oil revenues, on which the Kurdish region depends to finance its budget. A dispute between the KRG and the central government over direct Kurdish exports of oil led to Baghdad cutting off budgetary support. Because of legal wrangling, the KRG has had to sell its oil at a sharp discount.
These problems have led to an $18 billion government deficit, even as oil prices continue dropping. Last week, violent protests broke out in one Kurdish province as the government fell further behind in paying public sector salaries.
So the Kurds urgently need financial help for munitions and weapons, as well as food, clothes, boots, transportation and medicine for their fighters. “You can’t send peshmerga to Mosul on empty stomachs,” says Hussein. “We need immediate help or we are at risk of losing what we have gained so far.”
These Kurdish emissaries made another essential point in their meetings at the State Department, the White House and on Capitol Hill: If there is going to be any attempt to retake Mosul in 2016, the Kurds will need more than an increase in financial assistance. They need a comprehensive approach from Washington that, in my opinion, has been lacking so far.
“We need more equipment for the fight in Mosul,” says Bakir. “We need tanks, different artillery and rockets. We need sniper rifles, helicopters must be ready, and mobile hospitals, also.
“We will expect half a million refugees to come to Kurdistan. Who will take care of them?
“Who will run the city after liberation, paying the soldiers, treating the wounded?”
And, I would add, who will prevent revenge killing or an outburst of sectarian slaughter. (Even Kurds or Yazidi soldiers might not be immune, as Amnesty International has charged.)
“It is important to plan in advance who will do what,” says Bakir, in what I consider an essential message. “We must have a comprehensive plan.”
Moreover, the Kurds cannot, and will not, liberate Mosul by themselves.
Right now, Kurdish forces hold terrain on the east, west and north of the city, which is an ethnic stew of Sunni Arabs and many minority groups. If the Kurds moved into Sunni or minority areas from the south, the population would accuse them of seeking to seize control.
“If it is about taking Mosul, we need a partner,” Hussein insists. “We have been searching for a partner for a long time.”
It’s far from clear that Iraqi security forces are ready to play that role, despite U.S. retraining, and despite their retaking Ramadi. The best of those forces, the Iraqi Counterterrorism Service, is overstretched; if its forces leave Ramadi, the Islamic State could start moving back in.
So, as the Kurds recognize, there must be a political dimension to retaking Mosul, one that involves Sunni tribes who fear persecution at the hands of a Shite-led Iraqi government – or at the hands of the Kurds.
“We need … assurance from the government to Sunni tribes that they will play a role in this fight,” says Bakir. “Assurance that they will have a future. They have to feel that they are partners.”
So here is the checklist of essential Kurdish needs to which the administration should pay attention, a list that should garner bipartisan support:
“Is this war only a Kurdish war?” asks Hussein, “Or is it our war together?”
The answer should be clear.
Trudy Rubin’s email is firstname.lastname@example.org.