More U.S. Bases in Iraqi Kurdistan Are Inevitable
One thing has become crystal clear concerning the Trump administration’s policy toward Iraq:
The United States will remain in Iraq for a very long time, long after the fight with Daesh is fought and won by coalition forces.
To both wage a military campaign and carry out civilian-led relief and reconstruction efforts in the years afterward, the U.S. needs to occupy or build bases in areas controlled by the Kurdistan Regional Government.
That is just a reality for the success of military ground and air operations carried out by Peshmerga, Iraqi security forces, and any U.S. forces that assist them. It is also a necessity to help stabilize the areas once held by Daesh so humanitarian efforts can move forward under the protection of a military presence.
Besides, it is simply a fact of military life: Soldiers, airmen, and Marines who are in theater need bases. They need a place to return to after patrols to rest, reequip, receive medical care, eat, and perform the myriad of tasks necessary for the next tactical operation.
Upper-echelon officers, planners, administrators, doctors, nurses, crew chiefs, ground crews, cooks, and support personnel of all kinds need secured locations to provide the assistance necessary for the men and women who go “outside the wire.”
When the United States says it will be in Iraq for a long time that also means that thousands of Americans will turn parts of northern Iraq into their home away from home.
Some of the bases exist discretely such as a U.S. facility at Erbil International Airport that reportedly provides facilities and services to hundreds, perhaps thousands, of coalition personnel and Central Intelligence Agency operatives.
Others are huge and obvious. Qayyarah West Airfield, more commonly known as “Q-West,” is about 40 miles south of Mosul and serves as the headquarters for the U.S. effort to assist the Peshmerga and the Iraqi Army in their fight to liberate the city from Daesh.
Even though neither the U.S. government nor the KRG have recently made a public statement about basing arrangements, the writing is on the wall.
There is now a substantial relationship between Kurdish fighters and the U.S. military. Lt. Gen. Stephen Townsend, the commander of Combined Joint Task Force-Operation Inherent Resolve, said the fight against Daesh changed that relationship from almost nothing before 2014 to one that deserves continued U.S. commitment.
“As far as a longer-term presence, I won’t try to parse out Iraqi Kurdistan,” Townsend said by telephone during a March 23 media conference. “I’ll just say that it is my personal belief—I don’t know what our nation will decide—but it is my personal belief that we walked away from Iraq a few years ago and we’ve already seen that movie. So I would propose that we try to find a different solution. My recommendation will be that we should stay here and try to continue to work with the Iraqi security forces and the government of Iraq. And I believe there’s an appetite to do that in the broader coalition.”
On the same day, a U.S. State Department briefing made a similar point about a long-term commitment to the Kurds in northern Iraq.
“Regardless of how the numbers shake out with regard to budget, American leadership is not going to go away” despite the possibility of a “skinny” State Department budget, said Mark C. Toner, acting spokesperson for the State Department, during a press briefing.
Just a day before, during his opening remarks at an anti-ISIS security conference, Secretary of State Rex Tillerson specifically welcomed the representative from the Kurdistan Regional Government. That’s a marked difference from the Obama administration, which seemed hesitant to include a KRG representative in discussions about anti-Daesh strategy.
Recent comments from the State Department re-stated the U.S. commitment. “That will likely include task forces at the Department of Defense and here at the State Department to ensure that we are synchronizing our military and civilian efforts on a regular basis and keeping maximum pressure on this enemy globally in its territorial strongholds,” said a senior State Department official who spoke on conditions of anonymity during an April 4 media briefing – a clear reference to the joint struggle against Daesh in Mosul as well as Raqqa.
“The KRG wants the U.S. Army to stay since it provides protection against future threats,” Wladimir van Wilgenburg, a journalist who extensively covers Kurdish politics, told this column during an interview. “The KRG was always against the U.S. leaving Iraq since the U.S. was playing a balancing role in Iraq. After the U.S. left, immediately the Iraqi government under Maliki started to prosecute Sunni politicians. Most likely this relationship will continue since the Kurds are one of the most reliable allies of the West in the Middle East. And unlike many countries and ethnic groups, the Kurds are sincerely pro-Western and no Western troops were ever killed or threatened by the Kurds – although there was a friendly fire incident once, but this happens in wars.”
If the U.S. Army – or any other American branch of service, for that matter – stays to provide the KRG with protection from any future threats it will need a place for soldiers to lay their heads at night.
That means basing rights, either at existing facilities or in new locations within the area controlled by the KRG and elsewhere.
It also means that the American people will soon realize that once again the U.S. mission in Iraq has an air of permanence. Whether that is politically acceptable remains to be seen.
As for the Kurds of northern Iraq, they should be prepared to see more American flags flying over buildings that house the U.S. military as it fights against Daesh, supports Peshmerga fighters, and protects the humanitarian mission that will rebuild war-torn areas of Iraq.
Paul R. Huard is a NRT English columnist and award-winning journalist who covers military history and national security issues for daily newspapers and online publications. His work appears in the National Interest, the (Portland, Oregon, USA) Oregonian, RealClearDefense, RealClearHistory, RealClearPolitics, War Is Boring, War On The Rocks—Molotov Cocktail, We Are The Mighty, and Arc Digital. Follow him on Twitter at @paul_huard and at his website The Pen and The Sword (www.paulrhuard.com).