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Wall Street Journal
Sunday, October 12, 2014


Leaving a U.S. Ally Outgunned by ISIS
A Kurdish official has written to Defense Secretary Hagel pleading for the U.S. to honor its promises of military aid.
by David Tafuri

In President Obama’s Sept. 11 speech about combating Islamic State jihadists, he said that America“will not get dragged into another ground war in Iraq.” But the president said that U.S. military advisers “are needed to support Iraqi and Kurdish forces with training, intelligence and equipment.”If this is the plan, little in terms of weaponry or training has reached Kurdish Peshmerga forces inIraq—and they are begging Washington to make good on its promises.

In the meantime, in the front-line town Khazar, between Islamic State-held Mosul and the Kurdish capital, Erbil, Peshmerga forces drive unarmored pickup trucks and carry AK-47s as they face off against Islamic State, aka ISIS, fighters armed with U.S.-made tanks, armored Humvees and heavy artillery. The imbalance is replicated across the entire border of almost 650 miles that Kurds share with ISIS in Iraq.

In three trips to the Kurdistan Region since ISIS invaded Iraq in early June, I have seen the situation improve as a result of U.S.-led airstrikes, but little has changed in terms of the supply of equipment and training for our Kurdish allies.

The coalition that supports the airstrikes should take immediate action to provide the Peshmerga with the offensive and defensive equipment they need to match the firepower of ISIS. Failing to do so increases the likelihood—despite President Obama’s vows not to involve U.S. forces—that America and other coalition countries, which include France, Australia and the U.K., will have to send in troops to defeat ISIS.

In a letter sent on Oct. 2 to U.S. Defense Secretary Chuck Hagel that until now has not been made public, the Kurdistan Regional Government’s Minister of Peshmerga Affairs Mustafa Sayid Qadir pleaded for help, saying that his forces still carry “outdated AK-47s, Soviet Dragunov rifles and other light arms.”

The letter, which I was given access to by the Ministry of Peshmerga Affairs, tabulated the surprisingly small amount of equipment received from international allies. In addition to AK-47s, the U.S. has provided fewer than 100 mortars and just a few hundred rocket-propelled grenades, or RPGs. The Peshmerga haven’t received a single tank or armored vehicle from coalition countries. The problem is compounded by the fact that Iraqi security forces denied the Peshmerga access to the thousands of tanks and armored vehicles the U.S. left behind for Iraq when the military pulled out in 2011. Meanwhile, ISIS fighters have commandeered U.S.-provided tanks and Humvees abandoned by Iraqi forces fleeing from battle.

The U.S. effort to arm and train Peshmerga forces is hindered by at least three factors. First, U.S. diplomats continue to follow the so-called One Iraq Policy, which considers giving direct assistance to the Kurdistan Regional Government—whether military or nonmilitary—a potential blow to Iraqi national unity. Whatever U.S. interest this policy may have served in the years before ISIS emerged, it now endangers our closest ally in Iraq and puts Peshmerga forces at a significant disadvantage in their fight against ISIS.

Second, the U.S. continues to abide by the Iraqi government’s insistence that all shipments to the Kurds stop first in Baghdad, where Iraqi officials can delay or even block the shipments from ever reaching the Kurdisstan Region.

Third, State Department regulations prevent the Kurdistan Regional Government from purchasing American-made weapons and equipment without “end-user certificates” issued by Baghdad— certificates that the Iraqi government makes extremely difficult to obtain.

The Kurdistan Regional Government estimates it has more than 150,000 soldiers in the Peshmerga forces—about five times more than the highest estimates of ISIS fighters. The Peshmerga are committed to fighting ISIS and can be the “boots on the ground” that the U.S.-led coalition wants to avoid having to deploy. Yet they are struggling against ISIS because they lack even basic tactical equipment used by modern armies. Peshmerga Brig. Gen. Hazhar Ismail recently told me that less than 5% of the Peshmerga fighters even have helmets.

The U.S. can change this situation by: (1) supplying the Kurds with heavier weapons and needed defensive equipment, in particular armored Humvees, tanks and anti-armor rockets; (2) refusing to let Baghdad delay or block such shipments; (3) changing State Department regulations to permit issuance of end-user certificates by the Kurdistan Regional Government; and, (4) transferring to the Kurds some excess U.S. military equipment (including armored vehicles) stored on U.S. bases in the region.

In his Sept. 16 testimony to Congress, Chairman of the Joint Chiefs of Staff and U.S. Army Gen. Martin Dempsey suggested that American ground troops may eventually be needed to fight ISIS. His message was met with criticism by those who oppose sending U.S. troops into combat in Iraq again. To reduce the chances of Washington having to confront that choice, the U.S. should make good on its promises and ensure that the Peshmerga are no longer outgunned by ISIS.

A PDF version is available here.
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