Our forgotten ally

ERIL, Kurdistan — Since Islamic State extremists overran much of northern Iraq last summer, the office of Vian Rasheed Younis has been responsible for coordinating the humanitarian response for the Iraqis who have fled to the relative safety of Iraq’s autonomous Kurdistan region.

Younis, a civil engineer for the local government, and her staff of five are responsible for coordinating services among the United Nations agencies, hundreds of international NGOs and the Kurdistan Regional Government. “We’re acting as both the first and the last support for 300 organizations,” she says. “But we’ve got virtually no budget.”

They’ve done what they can, working up to 36 hours straight while trying to provide for 1.25 million displaced Iraqis (and another 250,000 Syrian refugees). Like most civil servants, her salary is months in arrears.

Younis’ predicament illustrates Kurdistan’s wider problem. She’s been at the forefront of dealing with the humanitarian cost of the Islamic State, and while every day she’s meeting with foreign delegations, she’s not getting the support she needs to do the job.

Resisting the Islamic State is bleeding the Kurdistan region dry. Meanwhile, Washington is taking for granted its most important ally in the fight.

While lauding the efforts of the peshmerga soldiers who have led the ground fighting, the Americans have largely ignored the enormous role Kurdistan is playing in sheltering Sunni Arab Iraqis who fled the Islamic State. The region can’t provide for all the Iraqis who have arrived in the last year, but more keep arriving — some driven by U.S. bombing. If this vital rear base crumbles, the war on the Islamic State becomes unwinnable.

Already Kurdistan is warning that the burden is so severe, and the assistance it is receiving from the United States so inadequate, that it is affecting the Kurds’ ability to continue fighting.

The government doesn’t even have money to pay its frontline peshmerga soldiers. The additional load on the electricity grid is creating daily blackouts that last for hours (the shortage of 1.5 megawatts is the equivalent to a medium-sized power plant). Garbage collection services, the water supply and the sewage system are all close to being overwhelmed, officials warn. Schools have been unable to open because displaced persons are living there. The economy is in recession, and poverty has more than doubled.

The population of the region has increased 28 percent, mostly in the past year. More than 40 percent of Iraq’s displaced people have been drawn to the relative safety of Kurdistan, the U.N. estimates. The World Bank warns that the region needs an additional $1.4 billion this year to maintain services. “That’s just a baseline figure,” says Younis.

As the Iraqi army and the peshmerga geared up to launch a widely anticipated offensive to retake Mosul, likely with the help of U.S. airstrikes, a new wave of fleeing Iraqis was expected. Up to 400,000 could be displaced, the Kurdistan government estimated. “That is what we are contingency planning for,” Younis says. “But we don’t have the resources for that.”

Without those resources, the Kurdistan government cannot keep fighting and cannot provide Iraqis with an alternative to living under the Islamic State, but the current focus on airstrikes misses this bigger picture.

The U.S. was instrumental in creating Kurdish autonomy when it implemented a no-fly zone across northern Iraq in 1991 to protect the Kurds from the murderous campaigns of Saddam Hussein. The Kurds welcomed the U.S. invasion in 2003 and are proud of the fact that no U.S. soldiers were ever killed here. Its government has shown many of those traits the U.S. has sought to instill in the Middle East: holding democratic elections and having a measure of accountability and responsiveness to its citizens. They are worthy of greater support.

When the Islamic State threatened to overrun the region last summer — coming within 20 miles of the capital, Irbil — the United States was quick to offer support. In addition to airstrikes, the international community provided funding to build comfortable camps for displaced Iraqis.

On the outskirts of Irbil, Hashem Camp houses 271 families, mostly from around Mosul. There is a toilet and shower for every eight families, security patrols, solar street lighting, a large generator to provide backup electricity to the tents, a primary school and education center offering vocational training, including IT and cosmetic classes. There is even a medical laboratory.

These camps were expensive to build, which also means expensive to maintain, says Peter Joshi, humanitarian adviser to the Kurdistan government. Many of the operational costs — supplying electricity and water and dealing with waste — fall on the local government. Each of the six camps around Irbil cost the district $10,000 a month in electricity alone, he says.

More importantly, the services provided at the camps are attracting more Iraqis to the region, even though the camps are full. Across the Kurdistan region, less than 20 percent of displaced persons are living in camps, according to some estimates.

In Dibaga, 25 miles south of Irbil, 751 Sunni Arab families took refuge in the village in January. Overnight, the Kurdish villagers found themselves outnumbered 3-to-1 one in their own town. Mayor Tola Khoshnaw says services were overwhelmed — the local medical clinic ran out of supplies in a single day.

Zagros Fattah, director for the capital investment budget at the Kurdistan Ministry of Planning, says the burden of caring for so many extra people is unsustainable. “Even a developed country like the U.S. wouldn’t be able to deal with this number of people,” he argues.

Support from the international community is drying up. United Nations agencies say they don’t have money to maintain their existing services. The World Food Program recently warned that unless funding is secured, 1.8 million people will lose food assistance in May.

“The international community is turning away from these people who are suffering as a result of ISIS,” Fattah says.

Part of the issue is that the international coalition against the Islamic State does not want to become bogged down in nation-building like it was after the 2003 invasion of Iraq. A senior coalition official in Baghdad, who was not authorized to speak on record, explains: “We are here at the invitation of the Iraq government for the purpose of defeating daesh,” the Arabic acronym for Islamic State.

The very existence of the Islamic State, though, points to the failure of U.S. nation-building policy to keep up with its bombing campaigns.

So far, the Pentagon says the military campaign has cost $1.83 billion since August. In terms of humanitarian aid, the U.S. has contributed just $125 million to all of Iraq in 2014 and 2015, according to the United Nations’ Financial Tracking Service.

Defeating ISIS will require more than a bombing campaign, though. “Airstrikes are important,” says Fattah, “but there are other, more effective ways they can help us, which might be cheaper.”

More money to provide for the Iraqis who have fled to the region is the main request. “We might be winning the war against ISIS in constraining them to a geographical area,” Fattah says. “But at the end of the day we are losing another war if the people who have come here as a result of ISIS are not being well-treated.”

By CAMPBELL MACDIARMID – The Dallas Morning News

Campbell MacDiarmid holds bachelor’s degrees in law and political science from the University of Otago in New Zealand and a diploma of European and international law from Université Paris X Nanterre, France. Based in the Middle East since 2012, he lives in Iraqi Kurdistan. He wrote this as part of The Dallas Morning News’ partnership with the Munk School of Global Affairs at the University of Toronto, where he was a fellow. Follow him on Twitter at @CampbellMacD.