One of the less attractive characteristics of the Anglo-Saxon powers is their post-war habit of betraying third world allies, whether they are Vietnamese Montagnards, Afghan interpreters or belong to one of several less well-known minorities that have paid a grim price for trusting Britain or America to reward their loyalty.
The Kurds of Iraq are the latest to find themselves in the position of under-appreciated and betrayed allies.
Grateful for the US-British-French no-fly-zone that kept Saddam’s forces out of Kurdistan after the 1991 Gulf War, the Kurds have long been the most pro-American and pro-British ethnic group in the entire region. They were enormously helpful to the Coalition before and during the invasion of Iraq and defeat of the Saddam regime in 2003.
Iraqi Kurdistan could then have asserted its independence, kept control of historically Kurdish (but partially ethnically cleansed) Kirkuk and done little or nothing to help the authorities in Baghdad fight the Sunni insurgency and Shia militia violence that spread through Iraq from 2004.
Instead, as any allied commander who is worth his salt will tell you, Kurdish battalions were invaluable to Coalition efforts. Not only were they good at counter-terrorist operations, they were also reliable and trustworthy, qualities all too rare among Iraqi Security Forces especially in the early years.
Nevertheless, even at the height of the war, and even though they often fought side by side Coalition forces in Baghdad and elsewhere, the Kurds received minimal military assistance from the Coalition.
When America pulled its troops out of Iraq in 2011, after Prime Minister Malik and President Obama failed to find common ground on a Status of Forces Agreement, you might have expected the US and its allies to cultivate the Kurdish Regional Government (KRG).
After all, Kurdistan was then, as it had been during the fighting, and continues to be today, much more stable, peaceful and economically vibrant than the rest of Iraq. And unlike the Maliki government it was not falling under the malign influence of Iran.
Instead, the US government has consistently backed the Baghdad government in its worst behaviour to the Kurds.
Under the Iraqi constitution, oil and mineral resources can be extracted and sold by the regions as long as the proceeds are shared with the rest of the country. But Baghdad has refused to pay the KRG the 17 percent of revenues that it committed to (it never paid more than 11 percent and stopped paying altogether in January. Baghdad also never ponied for the salaries for Kurdish troops.). It has also tried to stop Iraqi Kurdistan from selling oil and gas to Turkey and elsewhere.
Amazingly the US State Department has joined with Baghdad in trying to stop foreign buyers from taking Kurdish oil and gas, with the US government actually threatening legal action against anyone trying to buy it in the United States.
The KRG could be forgiven for resenting this American economic warfare on behalf of the corrupt and incompetent and Iranian-leaning Maliki regime, especially given that Iraqi Kurdistan has to feed and house 750,000 refugees from Syria and at least 250,000 displaced people form other parts of Iraq.
And the F-16’s promised by Washington to the Iraqi Air Force have rightly been seen as a potential threat by the Kurds who have vivid memories of bombardment by Saddam’s jet fighters.
The bizarre American approach to the US’s most reliable allies has three roots.
The first is the fact that the US government and in particular the State Department, prefers strong unitary states with only one center of power and set of leaders to talk to. The second is more emotional: after putting so much effort, blood and treasure into rebuilding and defending Iraq after the overthrow of Saddam it feels right to back the central government even if the complaints and claims of the Kurds are valid.
Finally, the fact that the Kurds unquestionably did gain from the overthrow of the Baathist regime makes them unattractive to people in or out of the Obama administration who opposed the war or who saw George W Bush as the devil incarnate.
Thanks to ISIS and the collapse and retreat of the Iraqi Army from Northern Iraq, the Iraqi Kurds are now in a much stronger position political politically than at any time since 2003. (It helps that Turkey is not only no longer trying to undermine the Kurdish Regional Government; it has become a regional friend and economic partner of the fledgling state.)
But in terms of security the Iraqi Kurds are in greater danger than they have been at any time since the overthrow of Saddam Hussein.
Between 2003 and 2011 they had to be on their guard against the threat presented by Arab Iraq’s various insurgents and militias. But they had powerful allies in the form of Coalition forces and an Iraqi army that was being mentored and guided by the Coalition. And they were able by and large to keep terrorists out and down. Now they are effectively alone as they confront the ISIS Caliphate along a 1000km border.
There have already been deadly clashes with ISIS in places where the Pershmerga – the Kurdish armed forces – have taken over cities abandoned by the Iraqi army. And the Pershmerga have not always come out on top.
ISIS front line forces may not be that numerous but they are experienced, well-trained operators, thanks to years of fighting in both the Iraqi insurgency and the Syrian civil war. They also have a significant advantage over the Peshmerga in that they now have, thanks to the sudden flight of the Iraqi army, an impressive arsenal of modern weaponry, much of it US-supplied.
That includes at least 1500 armoured Humvees and MRAPs, 52 modern 155mm howitzers, a number of M1 tanks and even helicopters
The vehicles may not be easy to keep running over time without spare parts or the expertise of foreign contractors. But ISIS, like its predecessor al Qaeda in Iraq, includes in its ranks plenty of former Iraqi army soldiers who know how to use artillery and other heavy weapons.
The Peshmerga lack heavy weaponry and aircraft, and all their recent experience has been fighting small numbers of insurgents and terrorists rather than an actual army. Among the supplies the Kurds need is electronic jamming equipment to combat IEDs. They have requested some from Britain. However, the UK, like the US, has so far refused to send defence equipment to the KRG unless end-user certificates are supplied for them by the central government in Baghdad. This the Maliki government refuses to do.
If we help the Kurds, it will protect an oasis of stability and democracy and tolerance. And it will cement a natural friendship that could be of enormous strategic benefit to both the West and Kurdistan. (After all it is only 400 or so miles from Kurdistan to both Tehran and Tiblisi.)
If we don’t, Iraqi Kurdistan will have to look elsewhere, most likely to Teheran or perhaps Moscow. Or that oasis could be overwhelmed by the violence and chaos that is spreading outward from Syria.
Neither would be good outcomes; both are easily avoidable. It’s up to Downing Street and the White House to do the right thing.