The Landing Zone | 8.18.14
By Alan W. Dowd
as we know it appears to be disintegrating. Operating under the banner
of the Islamic State of Iraq and al-Sham—the acronyms ISIS and ISIL are
used interchangeably—a marauding army of jihadists has erased the
Iraq-Syria border, seized vast swaths of western and northern Iraq,
taken majority-Sunni cities once liberated by American blood, and
declared an Islamic caliphate in the heart of the Middle East. The ISIS
war on Iraq has claimed 7,200 civilians this year—1,700 in July alone.
by the Maliki government, many of Iraq's Sunnis have abandoned the
political process and turned to violence. Iraq's Shiites have turned to
Iran for protection. And Iraq's Kurds are quietly turning their
autonomy into de facto independence. Washington is right not to hasten
or encourage Iraq's dissolution. But if/when Iraq comes apart, the
United States should be prepared to help the freest, most stable, most
pro-American part of Iraq join the family of nations. The Kurds need
America's help—and America needs theirs.
Americans forget—many more simply don't know—that Iraq's Kurds have
been under the protective wing of American power since 1991. At the end
of the first Gulf War, as Saddam Hussein tried to strangle the
friendless Kurds into submission, President George H.W. Bush dispatched
U.S. ground forces to protect them and ordered U.S. air assets to enforce a no-fly zone over a large swath
of northern Iraq. This allowed Iraq's Kurds to live in relative safety
and begin building a semi-sovereign Kurdistan. The no-fly zone was
expanded under President Bill Clinton, and Iraq's Kurds grew more
By 2003, U.S. troops and CIA assets were working closely with Kurdish military forces—known as "peshmerga"— preparing the battlespace before Operation Iraqi Freedom, neutralizing terror bases held by Ansar al Islam early in the war, and using the Kurdish zone as a launching pad to liberate cities in the north and begin the push south.
"Task Force Viking," one of the major U.S.-Kurd operations included
U.S. and British commandoes, conventional U.S. military units and 70,000
peshmerga fighters. "When the dust settled," as Maj. Isaac Peltier
detailed in an after-action analysis,
"Task Force Viking had captured two of the largest cities in Iraq,
secured key Iraqi oilfields and caused conventional Iraqi forces to
either surrender or abandon their posts."
forward a decade. Iraq's Kurds govern themselves under the Kurdish
Regional Government (KRG). While the rest of Iraq hemorrhages, Syria
enters its fourth year of civil war and Iran remains economically
stunted by years of Western sanctions, KRG is prospering. Embracing
democratic governance and economic freedom, the KRG is studded with
"high-rises and five-star hotels," new airports, "modern, wide highways"
and new pipelines carrying oil outbound to Turkey, as The Washington
Post reports. Iraq's Kurds are launching a stock market.
And a survey conducted by the Economist Intelligence Unit rates KRG's
business environment better than that of Indonesia, Jordan, Russia and
Kurds remain the largest ethnic group in the world without a state.
Perhaps that's about to change. With Iraq beset by internal political
challenges and ripped apart by ISIS, KRG leaders are poised to hold a referendum on full-blown independence.
Iraq's independence-minded Kurds may be the best hope for holding Iraq
together. On the political front, the Iraqi parliament appointed Kurdish
politician Fuad Massoum president last month, in hopes of preserving a
loose federal state. Massoum then worked with a coalition of Shia
political parties to select a compromise replacement for Prime Minister Nouri al-Maliki, who is widely blamed for poisoning Iraq's politics.
the security front, the peshmerga is arguably the only effective Iraqi
fighting force. So it makes sense that Washington and Baghdad are
finally sharing military equipment with KRG. President Barack Obama has rushed hundreds of U.S. troops to Iraq.
Scores of them are deployed in Irbil, capital of Iraq's Kurdish region.
Following a playbook that worked in Bosnia in 1995, Kosovo in 1999 and
Afghanistan in 2001, the Pentagon is hitting enemy targets from the air,
while local forces (the peshmerga) attack by land.
Ultimately, this is not about holding Iraq together, however. It's about protecting the United States and its interests.
If you doubt this, consider that ISIS has vowed to raise its flag over the White House. ISIS leader Abu Bakr al-Baghdadi—who was
apprehended during Iraq's insurgency and detained for four years in a U.S. prison in Iraq before being released in 2009—told his American guards: "I'll see you guys in New York."
consider what U.S. defense leaders are saying. "The United States
military does consider ISIL a threat...initially to the region and our
close allies, longer term to the United States," Joint Chiefs Chairman
Gen. Martin Dempsey reports.
ISIS "sophisticated...dynamic...strong... organized" and "a threat to
every stabilized country on Earth," Defense Secretary Chuck Hagel argues the jihadist army poses an "imminent" threat to the United States.
The mess that Iraq has become—the mess Iraq has always been—explains why so many policymakers advocated
keeping a backstop contingent of U.S. forces in Iraq as an insurance
policy. Without such a stabilizing force—to keep Maliki honest, to keep
an eye on Iran, to keep a lid on jihadist relapses—the gains made during
the surge were put at risk.
the metastasizing violence of ISIS—which used the unchecked Syrian
civil war as feedstock for its rise—explains why so many policymakers
advocated sending arms and/or launching airstrikes to weaken Bashar Assad and forestall the radicalization of his opposition. As former Secretary of State Hillary Clinton recently observed,
"The failure to help build up a credible fighting force of the people
who were the originators of the protests against Assad...left a big
vacuum, which the jihadists have now filled."
caveat: Iraq is not a mess because America intervened. Rather, America
intervened because Iraq was a mess. As Gen. Ray Odierno recalls of his early-2003 arrival in Iraq, "What I underestimated when I got
there was the societal devastation that was occurring in Iraq."
of President George W. Bush cannot undo the decision to invade Iraq,
and critics of President Obama cannot undo the decision to withdraw from
Iraq. But helping the Kurds can address the challenges of the here and
now: containing and killing ISIS, salvaging America's precarious
security architecture in the Middle East, and preserving U.S. influence
in the region.
Base of Operations
2008, then-Candidate Obama proposed "a counter-terrorism force to
strike al Qaeda if it forms a base that the Iraqis cannot destroy,"
adding, "If al Qaeda is forming a base in Iraq, then we will have to act
in a way that secures the American homeland and our interests."
is, by all accounts, worse than al Qaeda, is forming not a base but a
state, and is a threat to the U.S. homeland, U.S. allies and U.S.
becomes of Iraq, KRG may be the ideal place to deploy, maintain and
operate the sort of counter-terrorism force the president envisioned in
The Landing Zone is Dowd’s monthly column on national defense and international security featured on the American Legion's website.