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As tensions between Arabs and Kurds grow, and US troops prepare to leave, the race is on to broker a lasting peace.
“[The US] is going to have increasingly less leverage — which is what many of the Kurds are afraid of — because leverage is determined by boots on the ground,” said Michael Rubin, a resident scholar at the American Enterprise Institute. “We can cross our fingers and hope that we have diplomatic leverage, but … those who feel that they’re coming out the loser, always have an interest in delaying or defying knowing that we’re not going to have troops there.”
Among U.S. commanders dealing with the Arabs and Kurds in the disputed region of Diyala, there is a strong sense of optimism that the situation can be resolved or at least mitigated before American forces depart. Trying to affect even their speech with this hopeful outlook, U.S. military officers have stopped using the term “Arab-Kurd tensions” and instead refer only to “Arab-Kurd relations.”
“If we keep talking about and convincing ourselves that it will result in conflict, then eventually we’ll find ourselves there,” said U.S. Army Lt. Col. Mike Kasales, who has commanded U.S. troops in the disputed area of Diyala for nearly a year. “With current set of conditions, I can’t see the entities on the ground taking arms up to solve the problem.” If tensions are still running high as U.S. forces prepare to withdraw, there is speculation among U.S. military officials that an international peacekeeping force could be deployed to the area. However, there has been no official discussion of this as a possibility.
The U.S. has instead been working to create the means for the Arabs and the Kurds to maintain open lines of communication that will outlast their presence in the region. In particular, they have created joint command centers where Kurdish and Arab military officials work alongside one another to plan and monitor operations. Having a place where commanders from both groups can meet reduces the possibility of an accidental conflict between their military units, say U.S. military officials.
So far, U.S. military officials say they’ve seen success in reducing tensions. Col. Burt Thompson, commander of the 1st Stryker Brigade Combat Team, says that already the Iraqi security forces and Kurdish Peshmerga forces are conducting some joint patrols and they have plans to jointly man several checkpoints.
“As long as we don’t fall asleep at the switch I think we’re going to be okay,” Col. Thopmson said. “The key is if you see that some of the stressors are building, you’ve got to reduce them.”
The U.S. mission in Iraq is arriving at a point common to most modern American wars, said Rubin, where they have to accept that they will likely not leave behind a perfect situation.
“There’s always a reason to stay,” he said. “Ultimately it’s a political decision whether or not to withdraw and whether the cost of that withdraw is going to be too high.”
With the withdraw date firmly established, the U.S. has already made its decision. Now it’s a matter of trying to stabilize the situation as much as possible before the final exit of U.S. forces.