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A U.S. base in Kurdistan would improve the U.S.’s strategic position in the region while guaranteeing Kurdish independence.

 The Iraqi government of Prime Minister Nouri al-Maliki is reeling from the sudden loss of key northern cities to the Islamic State of Iraq and al-Sham. Baghdad is looking increasingly to Iran and Russia for military assistance. That’s led some foreign policy gurus in Washington to call for a closer U.S. relationship with Iraq’s autonomous Kurdistan Regional Government, or KRG. It’s a good idea, but they aren’t going far enough.

The time has come for America and the West to support Kurdish independence and, simultaneously, to set up U.S. bases in Iraqi Kurdistan that would make it America’s military hub in the region.

After all, this country-in-the-making has proved to be a haven of stability, relative security and pro-American, pro-Western sentiment ever since it broke free from Saddam’s misrule. A major American air base in Kurdistan would improve the U.S.’s much-weakened strategic position in the Middle East while guaranteeing Kurdish independence.

Not long ago such an alliance would have been politically all but impossible. Regional powers were reluctant to support Kurdish independence for a variety of reasons, not least the fact that Washington was adamant in its support of a unitary Iraqi state within the borders set by colonial powers after World War I.

Since the 2003 U.S. invasion of Iraq, the U.S. has tended to disregard Kurdistan’s aspirations and even hindered the KRG’s efforts to develop and profit from the oil resources on its territory. That’s because America’s priorities have generally been to bolster the government in Baghdad, in which Washington had invested vast amounts of blood and treasure, and to maintain good relations with neighboring Turkey.

Ankara is a NATO member that was long dominated by a military establishment fanatically hostile to any manifestation of Kurdish independence anywhere in the region. These days, however, the Turkish military has lost much of its political influence, and Turkish businessmen are among the biggest investors in Iraqi Kurdistan.

Mr. Maliki’s Iraqi government, meanwhile, has effectively become a client of Iran after being largely abandoned by the Obama administration following a half-hearted attempt to make an agreement allowing for a rump force of US troops. Iranian influence is unlikely to diminish in the immediate future, whether or not Tehran’s assistance helps Baghdad stop the ISIS advance and recapture lost territory.

Kurdistan’s economic success, and the military prowess of its peshmerga troops, mean that the KRG’s strength has increased relative to Mr. Maliki’s in Baghdad. The region has enjoyed what amounts to de facto independence from Baghdad since 2003 and a great deal of autonomy since the establishment of a no-fly zone in the wake of the first Gulf War. Perhaps the most pro-American ethnic group in the entire region, and for good reason, Iraq’s Kurds were the Coalition’s most loyal and effective allies during the eight-year war there.

Early in the Iraq war, the KRG encouraged the U.S. to take advantage of the stability and security of the region. It offered air bases and R&R facilities in the mountains that could have made long troop deployments much easier to bear for U.S. forces. Both offers were turned down.

Now that hundreds of thousands of Americans in uniform are no longer being sent to fight in Iraq’s baking deserts and broiling cities, the R&R facilities aren’t needed. But given how quickly the region is changing, and given what Washington should now understand about the fragility of Arab tyrannies, America could certainly use an air base in Kurdistan.

U.S. military planners can’t assume that our alliance with Turkey won’t decline further. Nor should they assume as given Turkey’s military cooperation with NATO for missions against adversaries in places like Syria and Iran.

And it would be even more foolish for American policy makers to assume that U.S. forces will always be able to use bases in Kuwait, Qatar and Bahrain. All three countries are autocracies vulnerable to upheaval. So far, adroit use of their fantastic wealth has protected these countries’ rulers against the resentments of their subjects, but this may not always be the case.

Moreover, Kuwait and Qatar are arguably “frenemies” rather than true allies of the U.S. It’s no secret that elements within their ruling elites have long sponsored and encouraged jihadist terrorism and fundamentalism in the same way that Saudi princelings have. As for Bahrain, it is something close to an apartheid state, with a Sunni elite brutally repressing a Shiite majority. As the author Ralph Peters has famously written, in the end, “the Shah always falls.”

A new U.S. Air Force base near the Kurdish cities such as Sulaymaniyah or Erbil—both of which already boast airports with suitably long runways—would radically increase American leverage over everyone in the region, in particular Iran and Syria. Both Sulaymaniyah and Erbil are within 600 miles of Tehran.

The presence of such a base might even make it easier to deter the Iranian mullahs, since the chances of a successful U.S. strike on Iranian nuclear facilities would be that much greater. Such a move would also guarantee Kurdish independence in a very concrete way—the price likely to be demanded, quite fairly, by the Iraqi Kurds.

The Obama administration would have to be uncharacteristically bold to make such a breach with past policies and with the State Department’s traditional preference for maintaining postcolonial borders. And there is no question that deepening the U.S. military partnership with the KRG would carry risks for landlocked Kurdistan and for America. But both would be in a stronger long-term position to face an uncertain future in a chaotic region.

Mr. Foreman covered the Iraq war for the New York Post.

http://online.wsj.com/articles/the-u-s-should-guarantee-kurdish-independence-1405020652

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