On Aug. 14, President Barack Obama said in a news conference that “we broke the siege of Mount Sinjar,” referring to the military and humanitarian aid missions to relieve the crisis facing Yezidi Kurds trapped on that mountain by Islamic State fighters.
Certainly, the efforts of U.S. aviators in attacking IS targets and delivering aid, in conjunction with the ground attacks of Kurdish Peshmerga forces, were critical in allowing most of those trapped on the mountain to find refuge in other Kurdistani-controlled areas. Yes, the siege is broken, but the job is far from done.
The civilized world still faces a daunting humanitarian problem that exists across Iraqi Kurdistan, as well as an undefeated, brutal terrorist state in the well-equipped and well-funded IS. Now is not the time to breathe a sigh of relief, but, instead, it is time to double down and get the job done.
Both the humanitarian and military problems must be addressed simultaneously, as they are both pending disasters if not taken seriously.
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On the humanitarian side, Iraqi Kurdistan is hosting more than 1.2 million refugees and internally displaced people. Many are minorities, including Christians, Yezidis, and Shabaks, who have been driven from their homes by IS at the threat of conversion or death. They are living in tent camps, parks, unfinished buildings, church sanctuaries, and in private homes. The Kurdistan Regional Government is doing its best, with United Nations’ assistance, to provide for these people. But the government also faces a budget crisis. It has received no budget payments from Baghdad since the beginning of the year and is fighting a war against IS. The KRG will have to provide shelter, food, and support for the refugees who will not be able to return to their homes as long as IS holds sway over their towns and villages.
The military situation is not much better. Although the Peshmerga have a reputation as fierce and loyal fighters – I saw them in action and they were instrumental in ensuring all of my soldiers returned home safely in 2004 – they are heavily outmatched by IS. The Peshmerga are using Soviet-era equipment captured from Saddam Hussein’s army before 2003. IS, on the other hand, has modern U.S. equipment captured from several Iraqi army divisions when they evaporated before IS in June. One can only be so brave when fighting with obsolete equipment and limited ammunition. The U.S. air strikes and pledges of military equipment are much appreciated and very much needed, but this support must be on-going, as the Peshmerga are at the tip of the spear in the civilized world’s fight against IS.
Why should the United States help defend Iraqi Kurdistan? Quite simply, it is the one part of Iraq that is a success story out of the eight years Americans toiled to bring peace and stability to Iraq.
Iraq’s Kurds accepted the challenge and thrived with limited U.S. support, while the rest of Iraq burned. It is a land of tolerance, full of religious minorities and non-Arab Muslims. If Kurdistan were to be threatened, one of the most pro-American, democratic, and secular places in the Middle East – besides Israel – would be at risk of extinction. It is in our strategic interests to ensure that the Kurds do not fail.
Let’s be clear: The KRG is not asking for a single U.S. soldier on the ground to join them in the fight. They are prepared to do that work themselves. But they do need modern equipment and training, and support from the air.
Assisting in the defense of Kurdistan should be a priority for the United States and the civilized world. That first step must then be followed up with a grand strategy that, at a minimum, should include: cutting off funding to IS; interdicting the flow of recruits to IS, especially from the West; facilitating the formation of an inclusive new Iraqi government that includes Sunni Arabs; helping Sunnis choke IS of support; and, supporting Iraqis and Syrians to take the fight to IS.
This is a fight that must be taken to IS – here and now. If not, the monsters of IS will be more than happy to export their medieval blend of terror and intolerance to the rest of the world, making al-Qaeda look like a bunch of schoolyard bullies in the process.
Harry Schute Jr. is a retired colonel who commanded a U.S. Army Reserve civil affairs battalion in Kurdistan, was chief of staff for the Coalition Provisional Authority-North, and is currently a senior security adviser to the Kurdistan Regional Government.