Seven months ago, in an interview with the New Yorker's David Remnick, President Obama said he thought little of the threat posed by hardcore Islamic rebels in Syria. “The analogy we use around here sometimes, and I think is accurate, is, if a JV team puts on Lakers uniforms, that doesn't make them Kobe Bryant,” he said.
But having made huge gains in Iraq this summer, this JV squad is now looking nearly unbeatable. Islamic State fighters have easily repelled attempts by Iraq's basket-case central government to push them back to Syria where they began their murderous existence. What's worse, having seized American-supplied weapons from Iraqi soldiers who fled before them, Islamic State fighters are now a match and more for the disciplined but poorly-equipped Kurdish military to their north and east.
|Obama should recognize that the Kurds are the only militarily capable partner on the immediate scene and act accordingly.|
Part of the reason this is happening now is Obama's failure to reach a status-of-forces agreement with the Iraqi government before withdrawing troops prematurely in 2011. Obama was too quick to walk away, as a residual American force could have checked Shiite Prime Minister Nouri al-Maliki's savage and sectarian repression. The unbound Maliki stepped up his thuggery, undermining Iraq's internal unity and prompting many Iraqi Sunnis to welcome even the brutal Islamic State rule.
But the most immediate U.S. objective must be to stop the Islamic State's genocidal beheading of children, crucifying Christians, selling non-Muslim women into sexual slavery and mass slaughter of young men from the Iraqi army. Thousands of Iraqi Christians and members of the Yazidi religious minority — all marked for death — have fled, with many now dying in the wilderness. This horror must end.
Whatever else the U.S. government does in the conflict, it should first stop hurting those who are doing the actual fighting. Obama will be disappointed — and the genocide will continue — if he continues to place American hopes in Baghdad’s ability to get its act together.
Monday's decision by Maliki's party to deny him another term as prime minister is a step in the right direction, but it could also create false hope. Maliki has signaled he might not leave peacefully. There is no time to wait and see whether the experiment in pluralistic Iraqi democracy will pan out. Its success depends almost entirely on Kurdish guns at this point anyway.
The Kurds have largely run their own affairs and done so well for two decades. They hope to gain their independence now. No matter whether Obama wants to endorse that aspiration, he should recognize that the Kurds are the only militarily capable partner on the immediate scene and act accordingly. The United States should get as much firepower into Kurdish hands as possible and stop blocking Kurdish oil sales out of deference to Baghdad.
Obama should also heed Ryan Crocker’s warning about the lslamic State, which the former U.S. ambassador to both Iraq and Afghanistan delivered to the New York Times: “This is about America’s national security. We don’t understand real evil, organized evil, very well. This is evil incarnate.”