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Applying the Nixon Doctrine to the Kurdish-ISIS war

By Paul Iddon 12/11/2015
Kurdish Peshmerga guarding a major road connecting Kirkuk to the Iraqi city of Tikrit. June 2014. Photo: AFP
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.



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Nam | 12/11/2015
As long as U.S. stay silent about the Turkish atrocities against the Kurds it will suffer from credibility issue. What the Turkish government is doing to the Kurds is the same as what Assad is doing to Syrians. Why is not Turkey condemned for its actions the way Assad has rightly been condemned? Erdogan of Turkey, Egypt's Morsi and Al Baghdadi of ISIS share identical jihadist ideology. Wearing a suit and a tie doesn't change anything. Turkish government is the number one sponsor of jihadi terrorism. Only a blind wont see that!
Roj | 12/11/2015
Well, Obama does have a strategy to counter ISIS terrorism. It just happened to be a lousy strategy that isn't working and is creating more mayhem. The war in Syria, Iraq and Yemen is the same war. It's the war between Shiite and Sunnis that started more than 1000 years ago. One cannot win a war without knowing what that war is all about. Unfortunately, the Kurds are victim that are caught in between the two Waring factions, with very little help from outside world. There will be no tangible outcome unless Syria, Iraq, and Yemen are negotiated as a single package. For Kurds there is opportunity but also peril. The peril may come if the West betrays Kurds in the interest of reaching agreement between Iran (Shiite camp) and GCC/Turkey (Sunni camp). With Turkey trying to instigate animosity between Iraqi and Syrian Kurds and simmering tensions in Kurdish Region the odds are against Kurds. I am not very optimistic about Kurdish unity, since the democratic standards are fast declining in Kurdish political arena. We have a president with expired mandate who refuses to step down and a dysfunctional opposition who is not much better than the ruling party. Our economy is dangerously dependent on a single resource called oil and for which we have locked ourselves with 50-year-old agreement with our adversary, Turkey. If there is a way to get out of these crisis it will certainly require a new political leadership and a new vision. The old guard has failed us miserably!
Kawa | 12/11/2015
America has no credibility. How you gonna let turkey buy Isis oil and allow it to declare war on Kurds and give erdodog the green light to bomb Kurds and directly say "we view and treat the YPG like terrorists". Really USA? Really? Obama is an embarrassment and has no idea what he's doing when it comes to Isis. He is waiting for his 14 months to expire so he can retire.
Brzoo Kurdi
Brzoo Kurdi | 12/11/2015
If Turkey stops helping Isis ,that will help the Kurd a lot , Turkey is shocked by the admiration the Kurd get from international community , especially the Kurd in Rojava .this scares the current Government in Turkey more than anything else....what is really surprising is this. Turkey does not hide their help from international community , there are more attacks from Turkey on Rojava , than on Isis ...what does it tell you ?
john | 12/11/2015
As an American, I'm disturbed by the fact that we are sending any arms at all to the region. Every time we equip an ally in the middle east, those weapons wind up in the hands of our enemies, either because they are captured or alliances shift. Sending weapons to the Kurds may help the immediate situation, but it will inevitably be a mistake in the long run. The best strategy for America is to take all actions possible to reduce American involvement in the middle east, instead of continually involving ourselves in unending, thousand-year conflicts. As for condemning the Turks, it is true that their actions have been inexcusable, but it is also true that the Kurds are not without blame in that conflict. However, Turkey is a member of NATO, and a unified NATO is far more important to American interests than anything that could be gained by denouncing Turkey. That is the way the world works. America expends an account of resources fighting in the middle east which is disproportionate to the value of the region to our global interests. It is, therefore, highly desirable to step down our involvement in the region. What this article misses is that there is no lack of strategy - the strategy is simply not designed to win a war, it's designed to leave one. It really isn't that big of a problem for America if we create a power vacuum in the middle east, at this point.
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