I have just returned from a fact-finding mission to northern Iraq, one of many I have made over the past decade. And while the Kurdish Regional Government (KRG) appears to have landed on its feet after the long battle with ISIS, new battles loom on the horizon.
Kurdish Peshmerga commanders and political leaders I spoke with are convinced that they will be drawn into a confrontation, perhaps by the end of summer, with the Iranian-backed Shiite militias known as the Popular Mobilization Forces (PMF).
An estimated 100,000 of these Iraqi Shia irregular troops now occupy Assyrian Christian towns and villages surrounding Mosul, as well as parts of Kurdistan, and are attempting to create a land bridge with Syria to link up with the forces of Syrian President Assad.
Should they succeed, it would spell the end of a relatively free Kurdish self-governing region in northern Iraq, a mass exodus of Middle-East Christians, and the death of an independent Iraq. It could also mean the end of pro-Western forces in northern Syria that are opposed to Assad, including the Syrian Kurdish enclave now governed by the Democratic Union Party of Syria, the YPD.
The Iranian regime is spending huge amounts of money to buy friends and allies throughout Iraq. When they find a potential ally, a terrorist, or someone offering to make trouble for their enemies, they spend liberally to support them. Iran’s Quds Force of Maj. Gen. Qassem Suleymani, is not accountable to government bean-counters, as we are.
Turkey is also vying for influence, and since January has been the sole market for the half-million barrels of oil produced every day in Kirkuk, under KRG control. Turkey now has 18 military bases in Iraqi Kurdistan, which opponents to KRG President Massoud Barzani believe are aimed at suppressing potential dissent as well as attacking Kurdish dissident groups.
The best way to counter Iranian and Turkish efforts to control the KRG and Iraq is to expand U.S. engagement on the ground.
“We don’t want a second American withdrawal,” a senior Peshmerga leader told me. “The last time you left, ISIS came. America has to stay!”
The Kurds are asking for a significant U.S. commitment to help them build a national army and national guard, putting an end to the party militias that have split the KRG into two rival zones.
The U.S.-backed “Peshmerga of the Future” program will slowly build capability over five years. But given the coming fight likely with the Iranian-backed Shiite militias, U.S. aid must be accelerated.
Over lunch at a conference in Suleymania last weekend, the first minister of the unified peshmerga forces, General Kamal Mufti, who is now 87, urged the United States to expand its existing base at Erbil International Airport into a full-scale Air Force Base. “The U.S. should replace Incirlik with Erbil,” he said.
I found overwhelming support among political and military leaders for U.S. military bases in Iraqi Kurdistan as a means not just of fighting ISIS and other terrorist groups, but of stabilizing the KRG and helping the politicians to enact meaningful reforms.
Critics might call such engagement “nation-building.” And in some ways, it is. But rather than force unwilling partners onto the dance floor, as we did for many years in Iraq, we have eager partners in Kurdistan who, for all their faults, aspire to create a secular, democratic society governed by law.
I am not suggesting that we fight the Kurds’ battles for them or that we substitute ourselves for a dysfunctional Iraqi state. But a stronger U.S. military presence in Iraqi Kurdistan would serve our national interest by countering both Turkey and Iran, predatory states seeking to dominate the region, monopolize its oil, and extinguish the democratic aspirations of its people.
EDITORS NOTE: This column originally appeared in The Hill.