America is on the verge of losing the one success story to come from its 2003 invasion of Iraq — Kurdistan. The blitzkrieg advance of the Islamic State across northern Iraq threatens America’s greatest friend, the Kurds.
Since 2005, I have visited the Kurdistan region both in uniform and a business suit. Nothing could have prepared me for the contrast between sweltering, violent Baghdad, and Erbil, the regional capital run by the Kurdistan Regional Government. Certainly, there were wonderful people I met in Baghdad, but there were also plenty who threw rocks at our convoys, shot at our troops and planted the insidious improvised explosive devices (IEDs).
In Erbil, there were no rocks, bullets or IEDs, only women in colorful dresses and men in the traditional pantsuit, thanking us for freeing Kurdistan. Earlier, the regional government ran American-flag-waving, “Thank you, America” ads on the Fox News Channel expressing gratitude for ridding them of the late Iraqi dictator Saddam Hussein.
Erbil in 2005 was a peaceful place, surrounded by mountains and wonderfully green. After inhaling the dust of Baghdad, I found myself in Erbil for a trade show. I was seated at a table on a lush lawn, eating and drinking away a cool summer night. The priggish bureaucrats who attempted to impose an alcohol ban among U.S. troops were told it was non-alcoholic scotch. I was privileged to sit beside a Kurdish Cabinet minister, who laughed when I inquired about the non-Islamic Johnnie Walker he was drinking. No place can be civilized without the presence of decent scotch, and there was plenty of civilization that evening. Kurdistan is civilized, which is why the Islamic State is trying to destroy it, along with capturing the oil. As goes Erbil, so goes the aspirations of a Western-oriented people on the edge of losing their homeland. It was the British who, long ago, divided the Kurds between Iraq, Iran, Syria and Turkey — another splendid decision by her majesty’s cartographer warriors. The result: misery for everyone. While the civilized world recoils at the thought of a recognized Islamic State, it should not deny the Kurds what they have earned, a free and independent Kurdistan.
Iraqi Kurdistan floats atop oil reserves, estimated in a 2013 Kurdistan Regional Government report to be 60 billion barrels. Against the wishes of the United States, which insisted Baghdad retain control of oil production and revenue, the regional government wisely chose to sign production-sharing agreements directly with companies such as Hunt Oil of Texas. Texans and Kurds are a happy match made in Erbil. Even now, with war raging, Kurdistan is exporting 120,000 barrels of crude daily via its pipeline through Turkey. The balm of commerce has soothed the old wounds of Turkish-Kurdish conflict and provided the Kurds a source of revenue.
Fast-forward a couple years to a meeting with Kurdish Prime Minister Nechirvan Barzani. I was greeted by the gracious prime minister in English and thanked as an American soldier for helping liberate Kurdistan. He explained how the regional government was using its emerging wealth to develop the region. From the appearance of his chancery and Erbil, they seemed on track to develop a lovely little country in the mountains. When last in Erbil in 2012, I could taste, touch and feel the progress. Over a German beer and American burger, I discussed the progress of Kurdistan with friends working there in power generation and construction. All agreed that while problems persist, the place is booming.
Today, the world watches as the pious soldiers of the Islamic State, when not selling Yazidi girls into sexual slavery or executing journalists, have pushed to within 25 miles of Erbil. After the organization armed itself to the teeth with the weaponry of the Iraqi army, the Obama administration seemed genuinely stunned as the Islamic State pushed into Kurdistan. Kurdish Peshmerga militia are fierce fighters, but with old AK-47 rifles and empty magazines, they are no match for U.S. weaponry in the hands of terrorists. The United States had reasoned it couldn’t arm the Kurds for risk of the weapons falling into the wrong hands.
As the noose of the Islamic State tightens, military operations to rescue journalists have failed and President Obama has golfed his stress away on Martha’s Vineyard, we have watched. Now the once-great powers of the Old World summon the resources to send emergency supplies of weapons and ammunition to the Kurds. We watch as the most powerful nation on earth, the United States of America, embarks on a final, desperate attempt to ward off disaster in the north with food drops and pinprick airstrikes.
We watch as the last ember of America’s idealistic aims in Iraq — Kurdistan — fights for its survival. The United States spent $1.7 trillion, lost 4,486 lives and, according to a 2013 inspector general report, spent $25 billion on “training, equipping and sustaining” the Iraqi military. The U.S. did not trade blood for oil. It appears America traded blood and treasure for very little, to create an Iranian client-state in the south, and an Islamic caliphate in the west and, possibly, the north.
So long as the Kurds hold out, and their cries find guilty ears in Washington, London, Berlin and Paris, there is hope. Surely, America and its European allies have the firepower to stave off disaster in Kurdistan. The question is, do they have the political will? I sincerely hope so.
Joe Graziano is a former military officer who served in Iraq and Afghanistan, and served as a consultant to the Department of Defense’s Task Force for Business and Stability Operations in Iraq and Afghanistan.