Post-Mosul Iraq is no place for negotiators wearing loafers and pin-striped suits. It’s a place of dusty boots and bare-knuckle competition, where results on the ground are a function of muscle and not of eloquence. It’s a place where Tehran applauds Washington’s polite adherence to a One-Iraq policy, even while substantial Iranian combat power flows insidiously into Iraq to effect a functional annexation of the lion’s share of Iraqi terrain. While Washington urges everyone in Iraq to just get along, they don’t, and they never have. Continued American supplication is pointless.
Here’s the practical reality: Baghdad has become Tehran West. It’s the capital of a regime whose ministries are overwhelmingly headed by Shia interests aligned with their co-religionists in Tehran, and it is supported by an Iraqi Army that is 75 percent Shia and augmented by Iran’s proxy force of 110,000 Shia militiamen inside Iraq. Tehran dominates over 60 percent of Iraq. It’s in Tehran’s interest to next dominate Iraq’s Kurdish region. It’s in our interest to prevent it.
Here’s why we must: A strong Kurdistan, independent of Baghdad’s chronic dysfunction and Tehran’s malevolent influence, materially advances five important American interests.
The destruction of ISIS — will not happen without the Kurds. Their leading role in the destruction of ISIS as an organization cannot be reasonably disputed. The Kurds stopped, held and rolled back ISIS, and then waited two years while the Iraqi Army re-cocked after running away in 2014. Kurdish forces then isolated Mosul as the necessary precondition to its recent liberation by a revitalized Iraqi Army, albeit one infused with Iranian muscle. Meanwhile, Syrian Kurds lead the operation to seize Raqqa, the ISIS capital. ISIS simply will not be destroyed and kept that way without the Kurds.
The defeat of the jihadi ideology of ISIS — will not happen without moderate Sunni voices. Destruction of a jihadi army is one thing, and the defeat of jihadi ideology is another. The two are related, of course, but the first is a relatively short-term kinetic effort, and the second is not. Victory against both is in U.S. interest, but the U.S. will not have a leading role in the second. That is the province for moderate Sunni voices, among those the Kurds. The Kurdish persistent resistance to extreme Islam is well-known and has been since the first outside Islamist groups began concerted proselytizing into portions of Kurdistan as early as 1952. Sixty-five years later and the black flag of ISIS still doesn’t fly over Kurdish soil.
Re-establishing a balance of power in the Gulf — means checking Iranian power, not accommodating it. The recent liberation of Mosul is an important victory, but we must also be honest about a resulting condition — Iran used its sizable proxy participation in that operation to add terrain to the dominant position it gained in the Gulf after the withdrawal of U.S. troops from Iraq in 2012. Iran now strives to control Kurdish soil between Mosul and the Syrian border to enable a physical link from Tehran to Syria’s Mediterranean shoreline and to Tehran’s Hezbollah allies in Lebanon. While Western eyes shift to Raqqa, Tehran maintains 15,000 Shia militiamen near Tal Afar to the west of Mosul, expands a new nearby airstrip, endeavors to co-opt the Yezidis in Sinjar on the Syrian border, and prepares to use the upcoming battle for Hawija, a remaining ISIS snakepit in Iraq, to insert Iranian proxies south of Kurdish-administered Kirkuk. Tehran also plans to spend $4 billion on intelligence activities inside the Kurdistan Region of Iraq (KRI). The result: Iran is consolidating on three sides of the KRI and will be in position to compel our Kurdish ally’s behavior in the future.
Promoting more democratic allies — is a key purpose of rational U.S. foreign policy. The Kurdistan Region of Iraq is an imperfect democracy, but so was ours until we figured it out. We won our independence in 1776 and then argued with each other for the next 13 years until we fully ratified the Constitution. The KRI is also trying to figure it out, but it seized the opportunity provided in 2003 by our invasion and lifted itself from the ashes of genocide to produce the most peaceful, the most stable, the most democratic and the most American-friendly region in Iraq. To date, no American has died by an enemy’s hand on Kurdish-controlled soil.
Maintaining access to energy — means keeping it in the hands of allies, not in the clutches of adversaries. Iranian proxies dominate terrain over two-thirds of Iraqi oil reserves and have recently gained positions on three sides of the remaining third, that lying beneath Kurdish soil in the north. This is no minor matter, as the combined reserves in Iraq are second largest in OPEC.
Here’s why this is particularly important: Kurdish energy reserves pumped north through Turkey have the potential to help undermine Russian energy levers on Ankara and the European Union (EU). NATO partner Turkey relies on Moscow for 35 percent of its annual oil and 60 percent of its natural gas. The Europeans are no less dependent on Russian energy, and are sufficiently concerned of the associated strategic risk that Brussels published an Energy Security Strategy in 2014 purposed primarily to diversify its energy purchases away from Moscow. But the Europeans are not the only ones dependent on Russian oil — the Russians are, too. More than 70 percent of their exports are of energy, which generates 52 percent of the Russian federal budget. Moscow’s largest energy customer, the EU, consumes a full 84 percent of Russian oil exports and 76 percent of Russian natural gas exports.
An American strategic reversal in the Middle East cannot be delivered by ISIS, but it can be driven by Tehran (and allied Moscow), displacing Washington from its interests in Iraq.
An independent Kurdistan, strengthened by resolute U.S. support, will prevent that by disrupting Tehran’s territorial ambitions. Our doing so, however, requires courage. Real World geopolitics is the domain of self-interest, and its associated calculus is one of power. That this sounds unseemly to Western ears is human, but it is also immaterial. When stakes are high, great nations make themselves greater not just by exercising remarkable restraint when patience runs thin, but by imposing their will when negotiators in loafers meet smash-mouth in dusty boots.
• Retired Army Brig. Gen. Ernie Audino, is a Senior Military Fellow at the London Center for Policy Research. He is also the only U.S. Army general to have served a year as a combat adviser embedded in a Kurdish peshmerga brigade in Iraq.