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Will the Kurds be this generation’s Montagnards?

By Hans Sinah

While Americans may disagree on the best policy and strategy to turn the Middle East into a region of peaceful, freedom-loving democracies dotted with McDonald’s, Ford dealerships and suburbia, if indeed that is our goal, few would agree that we are any closer to establishing peace in that region now than when we invaded Iraq in 2003. Our shifting policies and goals aside, a recent news item makes clear we may be on the brink of repeating one of our more egregious mistakes from the Vietnam war: Abandoning a people who fought courageously with American troops and against our common enemies.

Three weeks ago, the world was presented the ugly reality of Iraqi troops, along with Iranian-backed Shia paramilitary forces, using American M1A1 Abrams tanks, slaughtering Kurdish fighters. The Iraqi’s goal was to destroy the Kurdish people’s will for independence, the natural yearning of all peoples to, as the inscription on the Statue of Liberty reads, “breathe free.”

Seeing American weapons being used against the Kurdish fighters, and noting the deafening silence from Washington, the president of the semi-autonomous Kurdistan region — the only area in that warring region that has remained a beacon of stability, a bulwark against extremism in all its forms, and even a place of women’s equality, (as in Israel, Kurdish men and women fight together for their respective homelands), resigned and sadly noted that with allies like America, they may now turn towards Russia.

The Kurdish people have seen their homeland divided and dispersed throughout history, including by the powers-to-be after World War I. Despite promises by the victors of the war, the Kurds emerged from the Great War era dispersed among what is now the southern part of Turkey, the northern provinces of Iran, what at the time was a French-run sphere of Syria, and the British sphere of Mesopotamia, today’s Iraq. No one, as was normal in the heydays of post-colonialism, seemed to have asked the Kurds what they wanted. Had they been asked, the answer then, as now, would surely have been – a country.

Fast-forward to America’s entry into the region, and specifically the 2003 invasion of Iraq. We poured money, men and equipment into Iraq, sometimes in amounts and proportions that can only be viewed as staggering. In terms of monies, who can forget us sending plane-loads of cash — and I mean this literally, to Iraq: Between 2003 and 2004, during the existence of the so-called Coalition Provisional Authority, we delivered approximately (no one seems to know exactly how much) 12 to 14 billion (no, you did not read that wrong, that is billion with a “B”) of shrink-wrapped hundred dollar bills using C-130 cargo planes. The amount of cash was so great, that instead of counting it, we measured it by tonnage.

Luckily, we not only kept careful records of who we shoveled this cash upon, but we also made sure none fell into the hands of our enemies. Oh, if that had only been the case. In fact, not only was record-keeping practically non-existent, (after all, what’s a couple of billions of purported friends?), but we simply had no idea where all that money went. Some, certainly as was planned, ended up paying Iraqi civil servants to do whatever they were supposed to do, but much likely also ended up in the hands of our enemies. For one thing, eventually, $1.6 billion of that cash was found by a special inspector general in a bunker in rural Lebanon. We can only hope, but logic tells us differently, that none of that money ended up in the hands of terrorist or funded militias, arms and bombs used to kill American servicemen and women.

We do know, however — and this brings us back to our “allies,” the Iraqi army, fighting the Kurds, with American Abrams tanks, alongside their Iranian paramilitary friends —that American monies have also been sent directly to Iran. We all remember that after four Americans held hostage in Iran were released back in 2016, we co-incidentally the next week sent them a plane load, (apparently international cash transactions these days are routinely ferried around in cargo planes), of $400 million, quickly followed by another two planeloads of $1.3 billion in cash. It seems we have no problems funding the Iraqis and the Iranians, both of whom are equally intent on destroying the Kurds.

From the Kurds’ point of view, however, those cash payments to their enemies must have paled in comparison to seeing American tanks being used by Iraqi troops in that October attack. This was likely so because the Kurds have been the only reliable American ally in this never-ending war. As we fight the numerous permutations of evil – whether it be termed al-Qaeda, Isis or Daesh – the Kurds have been there for us. In fact, they were so much on our side, that as recently as last year, we embedded American Special Forces to fight alongside Kurdish fighters in Syria battling the various factions of the Islamic State. American Special Forces and Kurdish troops fighting together – there is a historical ring to this, which brings us to Vietnam.

On October 12, 1961, President Kennedy, a believer in non-conventional warfare, visited the Special Forces units at Ft. Bragg. In conjunction with his visit, and as per a directive issued at the behest of the President the month before, the Army’s special forces for the first time were officially permitted to wear distinctive green berets. Three years later, those Green Berets were fighting alongside the Montagnard people in the highlands of Vietnam. In fact, the first Medal of Honor of the Vietnam War was awarded to a Green Beret Captain for his bravery and command actions during a firefight in 1964 when a Viet Cong battalion launched a pre-dawn attack on Camp Nam Dong (about 25 miles south of Hue and 30 miles west of Da Nang.) While it appears the Nungs, another indigenous tribe fought alongside the Green Berets at Nam Dong, in the 1968 movie version of this battle — The Green Berets – the Montagnards very much fought alongside John Wayne. Similarly, throughout the early sixties, the Montagnards consistently and bravely not only gave Green Berets their support but also their lives. An estimated 200,000 Montagnards were killed during the war, many of the survivors fleeing the Communist forces after the fall of Vietnam into Cambodia, where they met similar fates at the hands of the Khmer Rouge.

The similarities here are striking. Like the Kurds, the Montagnards yearned for their own land. The French had promised them if not an autonomous land, then at least a protected area; the Northern Communists purportedly made similar promises of Highland autonomy, none coming to fruition. As the War escalated, the Montagnards threw their lot in with the American forces, and then specifically the Green Berets, only to be left behind as the war waned.

Similarly, the Kurds sought their own homeland, and when the current war started, consistently and with abandon, threw their lot with the Americans. While the special connection that developed between the Montagnards and the Green Berets in Vietnam has not arisen in the Middle East, Special Forces, as noted above, have been embedded with Kurdish fighters in Syria. And now, as in Vietnam, we are seemingly abandoning the Kurds, standing silently by as the Iraqi army, our purported allies, and the beneficiary of billions upon billions of dollars, not to mention the ultimate sacrifice of thousands of America’s best and brightest young men and women, turn their Abrams tanks inward.

In the international arena, American memory tends to run short-term. We do what is perceived to be either the best or most palpable option at the moment. Sometimes those decisions may be dictated by forces greater than we can control, sometimes they are guided by valid, well-conceived policies, and sometimes by short-term domestic political or personal desires. The world, however, tends to remember long-term. The world remembers us abandoning the Montagnards, and is taking notice to see whether we will do the same to the Kurds.

Hans Sinha is a Clinical Professor of Law at Ole Miss and a former prosecutor and public defender in New Orleans.