Kurdish Peshmerga guarding a major road connecting Kirkuk to the Iraqi city of Tikrit. June 2014. Photo: AFP
Shortly after the beginning of U.S. military operations against the Islamic State (ISIS) President Barack Obama said he intended to model his campaign with the counter-terrorism operations the U.S. had previously conducted against the al-Qaeda in Somalia and Yemen. Hence using targeted strikes via air and drone strikes to try to “degrade and destroy” the Islamist opponents.
Obama also clearly intended to emphasis the limited use of any ground forces when he invoked those two precedents. This was primarily due to his administration’s aversion over getting embroiled in another costly Middle East war in the post-Iraq War era.
Thanks to the comparable tranquil stability of Iraqi Kurdistan, in stark contrast to most of the rest of the country, throughout that war the U.S. didn't have to deploy vast numbers of soldiers and spend vast sums to try and stabilise and secure that region. Indeed one of the few military operations to take place in Iraqi Kurdistan during that war foreshadowed the campaign against ISIS today. American jets gave close air support to Kurdish Peshmerga fighters against the Ansar al-Islam terrorists who had subjugated Kurdish villages near Halabja under their tyrannical rule. The remnants of that group have since merged with ISIS.
Similarly today it is thanks to the Iraqi, and Syrian, Kurds that the U.S. has been able to afflict ISIS with some defeats by coordinating its advanced airpower with Kurdish manpower. Both have a mutual interest in combating these terrorists. The U.S. has consequently delegated most of the responsibility to them since they are opposed to once again getting involved in a dangerous and costly ground war themselves. Such a policy reminds one of the Nixon Doctrine strategy which was devised by that U.S. administration in the latter stages of the Vietnam War.
That doctrine sought to help America's allies fight their wars but at the same time not end up fighting their wars for them. Its allies would be responsible for the bulk of their own security, especially when it came to fulfilling the necessary manpower requirements needed for their own self-defense.
The Nixon Doctrine paved the way for further military aid and arms deals to its allies in light of the greater role and responsibility those allies would be taking in defense of their territories and, in many cases, of U.S. interests worldwide. Today however, despite the fact they are taking on the immense burden of combating ISIS on the ground, the Kurds haven't been provided with much additional armaments to help them in their fight. The U.S. is reluctant to fight their war for them despite the fact that that war is against a mutual enemy. Not that the Kurds want them to nor have called upon them to.
Washington denies directly supplying the Syrian Kurds with arms (instead saying the recent air drops of arms over Northern Syria were for Arabs and Turkmen allied with those Kurds) primarily in order to placate Turkish concerns. Washington is providing Iraq’s Kurds with indirect arms shipments through Bagdad as part of its effort to uphold the One Iraq policy. But the only American weapons delivered to Erbil to date have been small arms and a handful of mine-resistant vehicles. A trifle, almost insulting, amount considering the lengthy front the Kurds have to defend against ISIS and the fact that the Kurds will, more likely than not, be expected to play key ground roles in future offensives aimed at destroying ISIS for good.
Something more like the Nixon Doctrine for the Obama administration in this war would make a lot of sense: The Kurds have demonstrated unequivocally that they are ready to commit the necessary manpower and sacrifices necessary to confront this grave and dangerous tyranny. Such a ready recognition on their part should be met by a much more imaginative and robust U.S. policy/strategy than the one we have witnessed to date.
The Nixon Doctrine anticipated a drawn-down U.S. military presence around the world and was forwarded in part to ensure that U.S. allies would be able to adequately deal with any vacuum left by such a drawdown. Obama's Middle Eastern drawdown in recent years, strikingly, lacks such a vision when it comes to ensuring America's allies have the means to shoulder the brunt of the burden when it comes to confronting those who threaten their security and possibly even their very existences'. This needs to change if Washington, through clear lack of a strategy and foresight, doesn't want to get sucked much deeper into this war itself.