The Kurds, longtime U.S. ally and the undisputed main effort in the war against ISIS, are running low on battlefield supplies.
“In the past four to five months we have not received a single shipment of military supplies from the USA, not small arms ammunition, which we desperately need, not counter-IED equipment and not medium or heavy anti-tank weapons. We’ve repeatedly asked for Javelins, in particular, and received nothing from the USA,” says a senior source in the Kurdistan Regional Government (KRG) in Iraq.
The Javelins are especially effective, shoulder-fired antitank missiles. During the opening days of Operation Iraqi Freedom, for example, a U.S. Special Forces team fired 19 of them in one fight and killed 17 Iraqi armored vehicles, all at well over 2000 meters. Javelins can certainly put a similar hurting on ISIS vehicles.
But to do so, we will have to summon the political courage to send them to the Kurdish peshmerga, humanity’s most trusted ground force opposing ISIS. That is unless the Russians don’t send their Kornet anti-tank missiles to them, first. Don’t laugh. Mr. Putin is likely already trying.
Kurdish BasNews reported Mikhael Bogdanov, the Middle East envoy for the Russian president, visited the Kurdish capitol of Irbil on Oct. 4 with an offer of Russian support to the peshmerga and to the KRG. Given the Kurds’ urgent military needs, as well as the staggering humanitarian needs of the 1.8M refugees fleeing to them from ISIS, it should be no surprise the Kurds are receptive. They have to be. As expressed in a statement released Oct. 4 by the Kurdistan Region Presidency, “The Kurdistan Region is grateful to any country or side that is prepared to assist the Peshmerga in the fight against ISIS, and it would welcome Russian assistance.”
This is not to say the Kurds are unhappy with the U.S. assistance they have already received, they just need more of it. A lot more. A source in the KRG stated, “We are especially happy with the American intelligence support, but unfortunately our needs extend far beyond that.”
Still, and despite their critical shortages, the peshmerga have been steadily seizing terrain from ISIS to a degree unmatched by any other group on the ground. In the first week of October alone, their offensive southwest of Kirkuk cleared another 54 square miles. They can’t continue doing so, however, without their being resupplied, and until that point, they will incur higher numbers of casualties in the process.
Which is why the U.S. reluctance to resupply the peshmerga is baffling. To put things in perspective, these Kurds are the same Kurds who helped us eradicate Ansar al Islam, the al Qaeda ally, from the important seam between Iran and the Kurdish region of Iraq in 2003. They helped us seize Mosul from Saddam Hussein that same year, and they helped seize Kirkuk from him, not once, but twice. And had they run away in the face of ISIS, as did the Iraqi Army from Mosul last year, Kirkuk today would be part of the Islamic State.
But if Russia were to fill these Kurdish needs, and not the United States, why should it matter to us? Because our timidity has already ceded the southern 60 percent of Iraq to the near total influence of Iran, Russia’s longtime ally in the Persian Gulf, and our ceding the Kurdish north to their combined influence, too, makes no geostrategic sense. The first rule of building an effective alliance is not to lose the allies you already have. If Mr. Putin has anything to say about it, we could very well lose the Kurds.
Great Powers become great, in key part, by consistently acting in their own best interest. In fact, acting in one’s best interest is the foundation of rational behavior. When that means seizing the initiative, as history frequently demonstrates, great nations do so without hesitation and without apology.
There will be no apology needed should we choose to openly expand our relationship with Irbil, the Kurdish capitol. We can begin with an immediate U.S. shipment of small arms ammunition, Javelins, counter-IED gear and humanitarian supplies directly to Irbil, the Kurdish capitol, but we must have the spine to do so over the objections of those who demand we send everything to Baghdad. To date our tethering of peshmerga logistics to the whim of the Iraqi Army in Baghdad has been an unmitigated failure. Very little is delivered into the hands of the Kurds, and the vast bulk claimed by the Iraqi Army has been lost on the battlefield.
Irbil will enthusiastically welcome this change in U.S. policy, and we should, too, but Moscow, Tehran, Damascus and Baghdad will not. That should tell us something.
• Ernie Audino, Brig. Gen., U.S. Army (Ret,) served a year as combat adviser embedded inside a Kurdish peshmerga brigade in Iraq. He is the only U.S. Army general to have done so.