20 August 2014

Of America, oil & Erbil

Shankar Roy chowdhury
Aug 19, 2014

There is a geo-strategic factor to maintain control over Kurdistan — to protect large financial investments made in the region by American oil companies, chiefly around the towns of Kirkuk and Erbil

Were the American airstrikes on the forces of the Islamic State of Iraq and Syria (ISIS) — carried out in the Kirkuk-Erbil region of Kurdistan in northern Iraq — primarily a pre-emptive intervention on humanitarian grounds to protect Kurdish refugees on the run from the pursuing forces of ISIS? Or was the primary task of the two F18 aircraft that carried out the mission, the security and protection of the oil wells and refineries in Tawke, Taq Taq and around Kirkuk, with the humanitarian spin-off for refugees an added bonus? The difference is purely academic. But whatever may have been the actual intention, US President Barack Obama’s decision to launch American airpower in a pre-emptive intervention against the ISIS advance into the Kurdistan region of Iraq dovetails neatly into both options — killing multiple birds with minimum expenditure of ammunition.
The major humanitarian catastrophe that would ensue if the panic stricken refugees from the Yazidi tribes trapped in the Sinjar Mountains of Kurdistan were to be captured by the pursuing forces of the ISIS, has to be set off against the requirement to retain American control over the Iraqi oilfields in northern Iraq.

Yazidis are considered apostates by ultra orthodox Islamists and their end at the hands of the ISIS would have been short, brutal and bloody. On the other hand, Kurdistan lies in the oil belt of Iraq and its control has always been disputed between Iran, Iraq and Turkey. This also reflects the geopolitics of the ideological divides between Shia and Sunni Islam, and the political rivalries between their respective principals Iran and Saudi Arabia. The ISIS also faces opposition from the Kurdish tribal confederacy in Iraq, whose chief Masoud Barzani has mobilised the peshmerga, the traditional Kurdish tribal levies to protect the local population against the intruders.

There is also the purely geo-strategic factor to maintain control over Kurdistan, for protection of the large financial investments made in the region by American oil companies, chiefly around the towns of Kirkuk and Erbil.

If America does decide on a military response in Kurdistan, then it will primarily use its airpower to support and facilitate the movement and control of local Kurdish ground forces, which might have been trained and supplied with weapons by American “training teams” in accordance with the established doctrines for military intervention.
Though large-scale induction of American ground forces appears an extremely remote possibility, the reported American airstrikes might indicate that such an intervention may already be in progress. In the meanwhile, no efforts should be spared to protect the hapless Yazidi refugees. They should be rescued from the savagery of the self-styled “Islamic State” which buries its victims alive (amongst other even more gross atrocities), while proclaiming itself as a Wahabi Khilafat, claiming supreme authority over the entire Muslim world.

Under Saddam Hussein, Iraq was a tolerant Islamic society, nominally Sunni, while Iran under the Ayatollahs had long become the face of militant Shia Islam. Iran and Iraq had fought a long and bitter war against each other, causing immense suffering and misery on both sides. Now, both these erstwhile adversaries face a common threat from the hard line ISIS, which is attempting to overrun the entire region and establish its ideological influence over the entire region, particularly amongst the youth. Iran might have been expected to provide some kind of an ideological firewall against the transmission of ISIS ideology eastwards to the Indian subcontinent, but it has obviously been unable to do so.
Media reports in India indicated that scattered demonstrations and posters in support of the ISIS have already occurred in the Kashmir Valley, while adherents of the ISIS in Kerala and Tamil Nadu have declared traditional Indian greetings as “un-Islamic” and have also forbidden singing of the national anthem.
From the Indian perspective, though there is no direct involvement in the Kurdistan conflict in any manner, India cannot afford to remain totally oblivious of the explosive situation building up in its near-abroad vicinity. India has firmly established itself as a secular society, which has always remained on exceptionally good terms with all the Arab countries. These countries are now threatened by the rise of the ISIS.
India must keep abreast of this new menace, always bearing in mind its overall responsibility for the welfare and safety of the substantial numbers of Indian nationals working in the Kirkuk-Erbil region.
The outer ripples of shockwaves created by the entry of the ISIS in northern Iraq are now spreading towards Afghanistan and its contiguous Central Asian states, and most important of all, towards Pakistan — which itself is a secure base for jihadi terrorism of all shades ranging from the Afghan and Punjabi Taliban of the Tehreek-e-Taliban Pakistan (TTP), to the Quetta Shura, the Haqqani Network, and the Hezb-e-Islami of the Gulbuddin Hekmatyar family. The possible end reaction of a collision between the ISIS and any of the above groups already operating from Pakistan is as yet unknown, but it is unlikely to be positive in any manner.
For India, the implications of the ISIS will be its impact on the possible course of events in the AfPak region in 2016, after the withdrawal of American troops from Afghanistan.
Meanwhile, there appears to be no other worthy alternative for India. It should accept an increased ISIS presence in Pakistan and AfPak. India must maintain increased vigilance on the activities of foreign sponsored Islamic terrorist organisations like the Lashkar-e-Tayyaba and Hizbul Mujahideen. Therefore, from the Indian perspective, the American intervention in Kurdistan against the ISIS is totally understandable and is in India’s own interest as well.

The writer is a former Chief of Army Staff and
a former member of Parliament

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