Given the course of events in fragmented Iraq, Americans may soon need to consider forgetting about preserving Iraq as it now exists and focus on helping our nation’s longtime allies in the region, the Kurds, establish a state of their own.
A retired general with special knowledge of the volatile region — where the barbaric Islamic State beheaded an American journalist — is among those promoting that change in the American approach to the unrest in Iraq.
Jay Garner was in charge when Americans first occupied Iraq after the fighting ended.
“I personally believe that the former Iraq is gone and will not return,” Garner recently told The Guardian, a British newspaper. “The Iraq that we knew no longer exists.”
Garner was also in charge of American-led humanitarian operations in Kurdistan following the first Gulf War, so he knows the region and its people well.
He returned last week from his latest visit to Irbil, the capital of the Kurdish region of Iraq, convinced that it is time for the United States to recalibrate its approach to the entire region.
What he saw in Irbil, he said, were “the tense conditions of hundreds of thousands of Iraqi civilians fleeing the Islamic State (ISIS) — a significant number of refugees placed upon Kurdistan’s population of about five million.”
After visiting a single neighborhood in Irbil, Doctors Without Borders found that “hundreds of displaced families have been staying at a church and its courtyard.”
Garner also met with several hundred of the Kurdish fighters known as Peshmerga as they prepared to defend Irbil against the ISIS army, which has overrun Sunni Iraq. He believes the United States needs to urgently supply the Peshmerga with “heavy machine guns, anti-tank weapons ... they need more modern RPGs [rocket propelled grenades], they need mortars and they need some light artillery, and they need mobility.”
That’s a view that, under the circumstances, will be well received by many Americans who have been horrified by the behavior of the jihadists and who have seldom had reason to sympathize with the Iraqi government in Baghdad.
American officials have said they will arm the Kurds, mostly for now with AK-47s and bullets, and drones, and jets will continue to provide some welcome air cover for the Peshmerga.
For a long time, Washington has feared that Kurds might use American help in their quest to seize territory in the Arab-controlled areas of Iraq, a development that could complicate American relations with other Arab nations in the region.
But the present conditions in Iraq raise questions about the wisdom of trying to prop up Baghdad, rather than reward the loyalty of the embattled Kurds, Garner says.
“I personally believe that the former Iraq is gone and will not return,” he said. “Shia Iraq and the Shia-led government were, and are, controlled by Iran, not the United States. If Iraq is reformed as in the past, it will again be Iran’s Iraq, not ours.”
Washington’s best hope, he continued, would be for a unitary Iraq that is a federal system of Sunnis, Kurds and Shia.
“I think Iraq is now partitioned and we ought to accept that,” he continued, but if reintegration doesn’t work “we should support an independent Kurdistan.”
Garner is not alone in his view. Even President Obama has expressed strong support for the Kurds.
“The Kurdish region is functional in the way we would like to see,” he said in a recent speech. “It is tolerant of other sects and other religions in a way that we would like to see elsewhere. So we do think it is important to make sure that space is protected.”
But there are those who disagree, including Derek Harvey, a former American military analyst with extensive knowledge of Iraq, who argues that supporting an independent Kurdistan “sounds nice, but it doesn’t work in reality.” Sectarian and governance issues remain, and Kurdish sovereignty doesn’t address the vital issues of oil, water and access to trade.
Retired Adm. William Fallon, a Navy aviator who flew missions over Iraq during the Gulf War and went on to lead Centcom in 2007, told the Tribune’s Howard Altman, “In the long run, Iraq will be much better off if they [the Kurds] are part of the solution, a total Iraqi security force.”
But Garner isn’t deterred in his views.
“What I feel terrible about is the non-action of our country,” he said, adding that had the United States armed the Kurds earlier, “those villages around Sinjar and the [Mosul] dam, neither one of them would be lost.”
Americans can’t be expected to know all the nuances and subtleties of the conflict in Iraq, but they surely can understand Garner’s sympathy for the Kurds. It’s been earned by their behavior throughout the crisis. In a region where allies can be fleeting and our enemies are savage, they have been steadfast. The possibility of a separate Kurdish nation should not be discounted.