Report: Kurds offered to help stop ISIS months ago -- but didn't hear back from the White House

It’s not some shadowy anonymous source from the peshmerga’s middle management who’s claiming this, do note. It’s Nechirvan Barzani, the Kurds’ prime minister. That’s the second time in four days that a major foreign official has accused Obama’s America of being a fickle, disengaged ally.

Thoughtfully considering the Kurds’ offer and declining so as not to get sucked back into Iraq would be one thing, but that’s not what happened according to Barzani. Apparently, we simply didn’t respond.

The Kurds became especially alarmed at signs that ISIS had already formed a shadow government in Mosul, weeks before initiating the carefully preplanned takeover of the city 10 days ago. According to the same Kurdish military sources it was accomplished with ease and without serious fighting after local Iraqi commanders agreed to withdraw.

The prime minister of the semi-autonomous Kurdistan region, Nechirvan Barzani, says he warned Baghdad and the United States months ago about the threat ISIS posed to Iraq and the group’s plan to launch an insurgency across Iraq. The Kurds even offered to participate in a joint military operation with Baghdad against the jihadists.

Washington didn’t respond—a claim that will fuel Republican charges that the Obama administration has been dangerously disengaged from the Middle East. Iraqi Prime Minister al-Maliki dismissed the warnings, saying everything was under control.

The Kurds’ intelligence head, Lahur Talabani, says he handed Washington and London detailed reports about the unfolding threat. The warnings “fell on deaf ears,” he says.

Those ears weren’t really deaf, though. Remember, even American intel officials were sounding alarms about ISIS last year. Obama knew the threat existed. He just declined to address it, either because he thought there was nothing the U.S. could do to stop ISIS or because he badly misjudged the Iraqi army’s willingness and ability to repel the jihadis themselves. I’ve got to believe it’s the latter; if it’s the former, that America was powerless to damage ISIS, why on earth is Kerry hinting about U.S. airstrikes now when ISIS is stronger and richer than it was before? Logically, the time to start bombing was before they became entrenched in Mosul and started eyeing Baghdad, not after.

There’s a third possibility: Maybe O knew ISIS was a major threat, thought a joint U.S./Iraqi/Kurdish operation could do something to neutralize it, but decided he wasn’t going to get involved in Iraq again unless and until the country faced an existential crisis — and even then, he’d do the bare minimum. (Says one Special Ops vet of the 300 troops being sent in, “These guys are being given an impossible mission. What are they going to do? Host a dinner party?”) His genesis as a national figure was his opposition to military action in Iraq; he’s not going to spend his last two years as president cleaning up a mess he didn’t personally make, whatever responsibility his country may have had in making it. Except that … he did help make this mess, whether he realizes it or not. Read Peter Beinart’s indictment of O for refusing to do anything over the past five years to pressure the Iraqi government to reconcile with the Sunnis and Kurds. This is a guy who swept to office in 2008 promising that he’d use diplomacy and economic levers — “smart power” — to achieve America’s goals, yet when it came time to put a little diplomatic pressure on Maliki, he passed on every opportunity.

For the Obama administration, however, tangling with Maliki meant investing time and energy in Iraq, a country it desperately wanted to pivot away from. A few months before the 2010 elections, according to Dexter Filkins in The New Yorker, “American diplomats in Iraq sent a rare dissenting cable to Washington, complaining that the U.S., with its combination of support and indifference, was encouraging Maliki’s authoritarian tendencies.”…

The decline of U.S. leverage in Iraq simply reinforced the attitude Obama had held since 2009: Let Maliki do whatever he wants so long as he keeps Iraq off the front page.

On December 12, 2011, just days before the final U.S. troops departed Iraq, Maliki visited the White House. According to Nasr, he told Obama that Vice President Tariq al-Hashimi, an Iraqiya leader and the highest-ranking Sunni in his government, supported terrorism. Maliki, argues Nasr, was testing Obama, probing to see how the U.S. would react if he began cleansing his government of Sunnis. Obama replied that it was a domestic Iraqi affair. After the meeting, Nasr claims, Maliki told aides, “See! The Americans don’t care.”

Obama even looked the other way at Iraq’s tainted election four years ago, brokering a settlement that kept Maliki in power while doing nothing to ensure that the secular Shiites who were supposed to receive cabinet posts in the deal actually got what they were promised. The next time you see him on TV wheezing that Iraq’s problems can’t be solved militarily but only through sectarian reconciliation, ask yourself why he didn’t give a wet fart about nudging Maliki on reconciliation until ISIS was at the gates of Baghdad. His disengagement made it easier for jihadis to seize Anbar province, which means we’ll be dealing with terror camps in Iraq for years to come. (Here’s a sneak preview from across the border, although there’s really no meaningful border at all anymore.) That’s what Obama’s “America is done with Iraq” policy has produced. We’re less “done” now than we were after withdrawal. Why didn’t he at least pressure Maliki to accept the Kurds’ offer of joint operations with Baghdad against ISIS when they offered?

In lieu of an exit question, read the entire Daily Beast piece on what the Kurds told Washington and London. There’s an interesting digression in there about Assad’s role in creating ISIS, even though they’re desperate to kill him and every other Shiite in Syria. Per Jamie Dettmer, Assad went easy on ISIS at first and focused his military attention on Syria’s more “moderate” rebels instead. His thinking, I guess, was that if the most insane jihadis took over Syria’s Sunni areas, the local Sunnis might conclude that rule by Assad wasn’t so bad by comparison. Or maybe Assad thought that the more ISIS succeeded, the easier it’d be for him to argue to the west that the Sunni “rebels” in Syria were really the same sort of Salafist cretins that knocked down the Twin Towers. Either way, Frankenstein’s out of the lab now.