Kurds—Good Guys in a Bad Neighborhood
Wherein I ask Robert Caruso about the crisis in Iraq
With American jets and drones flying top cover, Kurdish Peshmerga forces have launched counter-attacks aimed at retaking territory they lost to Islamic State militants in northern Iraq in June, July and August.
I spoke with Robert Caruso—a former U.S. Navy intelligence analyst who has worked in the Pentagon, with the Army and at the State Department—about the Kurds’ future, American strategy and Iranian schemes.
SW: The Kurds have been de-facto U.S. allies since 1991. Will current events lead to a formal alliance if Iraq splinters and a sovereign Kurdistan emerges?
RC: An “arc of instability” now stretches from Southeast Asia through Southwest Asia, the Middle East, the Horn of Africa, the Eastern Mediterranean, North Africa and the Sahel and even up into Europe. Jihadi extremists will remain a threat for the next 50 to 60 years and there is no short-term solution.
You now see why the U.S. will continue the Long War [sic] against jihadis for the foreseeable future, despite the American public’s repugnance. It may not come to more boots on the ground but look for permanent advisory missions and lots of U.S. air support. We will supply the air power to fight jihadis.
The U.S. Air Force Special Operations Command maintains assets specifically for this purpose. The 6th Special Operations Wing does nothing but train pilots and shoot stuff—they don’t even have their own ground techs.
The United States cannot let [the Kurdish capitol] Irbil fall—for two key reasons. First, the Peshmerga can keep Iranian proxies—the Iraqi army and Shiite militias—from gaining territory. But second and more important for us, Irbil is America’s only fallback point in case Baghdad falls.
The White House cannot—cannot—allow a second embassy to burn on its watch, after Benghazi. There is no other place for U.S. personnel to go if Baghdad falls and the embassy must be evacuated.
And such an evacuation can’t come by air. If U.S. planes land now in Shi’a-controlled areas, there’s no guarantee that they or their crews would be allowed to leave. Why? I’ll get to that, but it’s because Iraqi forces can no longer be trusted.
SW: What might Turkey ask for in exchange for recognizing and facilitating a sovereign Kurdistan?
RC: Turkey has little say in the matter. It’s already compromised its territorial integrity and got caught several times funneling arms and money to radical groups. Modern Turkey wouldn’t even exist but for America’s decision in 1946 to back the Turks against Communist destabilization and bring Turkey into NATO.
The Turks complain a lot about U.S. bases and influence but their burden ranks well below those of other U.S. allies such as Japan. America need not antagonize Turkey but neither should it kowtow to it.
SW: What roles might a U.S.-allied Kurdistan play in containing Iran? In containing Russia?
RC: A great many issues we have with Russia could be addressed by a U.S.-allied independent Kurdistan. We can combat Russia with sanctions and Kurdish oil. The “oil argument” for backing Iraq is laughable—most of Iraq’s oil lies under Kurdish territory.
No one’s allowed to import Iranian oil—though many do, nevertheless. It makes much more sense to bond with an ally whose oil we can import, who needs no nation-building or reconstruction. Kurdistan offers the West a staunch ally in a bad neighborhood, economic opportunity, lots of oil and a smart, energetic diaspora.
An independent Kurdistan makes so much sense—it’s dead simple, grownup logic. Only Turkey and Iran would benefit from our turning away from the Kurds. The only thing standing in the way of such an alliance is America’s sad history of dithering.
SW: How would an arc of U.S. allies—Israel, Jordan, Turkey, Kurdistan—impact Gaza, Lebanon, Syria, the Islamic State and Iran?
RC: Jordan is pivotal to U.S. efforts in the region. I mean pivotal—to U.S. power projection, humanitarian relief and regional stability. Jordan and Turkey shoulder enormous humanitarian burdens right now that otherwise would inflame an already tense region. They’re a very good ally.
Regarding Israel, I see nothing wrong with any current Israeli strategy. [We do—editor.] They’re also a very good ally regardless of the tensions that arise in our relationship with them.
Let me say more about Iran, because whether or not we think so, Iran thinks in a proxy war with America.
The ayatollahs want a greater Iran and they’re cagey about getting it. A key goal of the Qods Force of the Revolutionary Guard is to transform the Iraqi army into an Iranian proxy force that can further Iranian territorial and political ambitions.
The surge in 2006 to 2007 was actually intended to buy time for American special operations to neutralize Iranian influence. Al Qaeda turned out to be more vicious and the American efforts less forceful that expected, leaving us with the mess we face today.
Iran would invade Iraq if the Islamic State drove the Kurds out. From Iran’s perspective the Islamic State is doing some of their dirty work for them. Iran has no qualms about cooperating with Sunni extremists to further their ends, and disposing of them later. And by that I mean liquidation, as happened to Sunni militias in eastern Iraq.
Iran is enormously successful at unconventional warfare. But they may soon find themselves facing a storm even they can’t handle. The Islamic State fighters are true martyrs—they’d drive a gasoline tanker into an orphanage to score a kill. They just don’t care.
Iran faces the very real possibility of confronting three foes at once—the Kurds, the Islamic State and U.S. air power—and getting into a quagmire they can’t easily get out of. Their Shi’a proxies in Baghdad are staring at utter savagery coming at them from as close as Thousand Oaks is from downtown Los Angeles.