Arm the Kurds, Save Iraq

In 2015, the United States appropriated $350 million in military aid to Iraqi Kurdish forces for their fight against the Islamic State. This begs the question: how much of this assistance package actually got to its destination? No one really knows. Coordination problems between the United States, the Iraqi central government, and the Kurdish Regional Government make supplying, arming, and modernizing the Kurdish fighters (the Peshmerga) almost impossible. Corruption makes matters worse. 

Just as the United States relies on the Peshmerga to hold the front lines against ISIL in Iraq, the Peshmerga rely on U.S. aid to fend off ISIL attacks.  Current policy—hobbled by the idea of “One Iraq,” miles of red tape, and a complex distribution system—isn’t working. If the United States truly wants to have an impact on the fight against ISIL, it should directly equip and organize the Kurdish Peshmerga into a nonpartisan, professional fighting force.

Despite huge American investments in the Iraqi Army, the Kurdish Peshmerga are the only reliable Western ally “on the ground” in Iraq. Considering previous Peshmerga success against ISIL, a fully supplied and trained force would undoubtedly be able to exact consequential results against ISIL in the future.  To win the fight in Iraq, the United States clearly needs a powerful, well-trained, and centralized Peshmerga.  

Moreover, a stronger Peshmerga benefits all of Iraq.  Current divisions within the Kurdish government prohibit the region from effective communication and engagement with the central Iraqi government. Restraining politicians from influencing the Kurdish army will not only help subdue infighting but also keep the Peshmerga away from direct conflict with the central government. A capable Peshmerga will stabilize the northern region of Iraq and help reinvigorate the local economy, strengthening the country as a whole.  

Most importantly, direct aid to the Peshmerga will ensure American support actually reaches its intended target. Circumventing the Iraqi government, while not ideal, prevents money and supplies from disappearing before arriving in Kurdistan.  Additionally, a unified Peshmerga will make better use of the same supplies, thus reducing the total amount of aid needed.  This policy saves money—a lot of money.

While some fear that direct aid weakens the Iraqi government and could contribute to Kurdish separatism, Kurdish independence is very unlikely any time soon.  Kurdish economic and political incentives, plus outright Iranian and Turkish opposition, make independence unviable. A direct aid strategy will strengthen the United States against ISIL without disrupting the goal of a unified and peaceful Iraq.     

To save the “One Iraq,” on which the United States has spent billions, we need to directly support, train, and equip a nonpartisan Peshmerga fighting force.  A streamlined aid policy fixing the problems that plague the Peshmerga will help win the fight against ISIL, help strengthen Iraq, and save the U.S. hundreds of millions of dollars.  If we take the necessary steps now, a strong, united Iraq free of the threat of ISIL can be the future.