Robert Halfon is MP for Harlow, a former Conservative Party Deputy Chairman, Chair of the Education Select Committee and President of Conservative Workers and Trade Unionists.
Western withdrawal from Afghanistan has jangled nerves in allied nations. One such place is the Kurdistan Region in Iraq.
The situation in Kurdistan and Iraq is quite different from Afghanistan. American armed forces in Iraq and Kurdistan will end combat operations by the end of the year. But Iraq and America have recently agreed that 2,500 American troops will stay to assist, advise, and train.
The Americans stress the continuing importance of their strategic relationship with Iraq and are building the single biggest consulate in the world in Erbil, the capital of Kurdistan.
The UK supports a strong Kurdistan Region in Iraq and also has a sizeable diplomatic presence in Erbil. The presence of American troops and bases in the Kurdistan Region is certainly desired by its people and government. American, British, and German soldiers are providing invaluable training to the Peshmerga, and are seeking to unify it under the authority of the government rather than the two main parties – a legacy of the past.
A strong Peshmerga is ever more necessary, as the fall of Kabul to the Taliban will embolden what Tony Blair calls Radical Islam elsewhere. The Peshmerga have proved a dedicated and capable ally in resisting such extremism. They held out almost alone for several years after ISIS took Mosul, and then attacked Kurdistan in 2014. Eventually, the Peshmerga and the revived Iraqi Army dislodged Daesh from its genocidal caliphate. RAF jets were essential to this achievement.
But it is not complete. Isis is smaller, but regrouping in the gaps between the Iraqi Army and the Peshmerga. Erbil and Baghdad are building better relationships, but judicious American and British engagement can help them to do so more quickly.
Of course, we should carefully examine the experience of Afghanistan, but my great fear is that isolationism on the left and right could take root.
Friends of the Kurds can say that there are times when there’s one thing worse than a Western intervention – and that’s no Western intervention.
Not all interventions have been disastrous, let alone about imposing our values. John Major’s no-fly zone and safe haven for the Kurds in 1991 averted certain genocide, and helped the Kurds create an autonomous region that increased health, education, living standards, stability, and opportunity. Our jets saved Kurds from ISIS in the last decade.
Such interventions are the baby that should not be thrown out with the bathwater amid any isolationist backlash. They go with the grain of change desired by our partners and enable their self-defence, with urgent and direct aid in existential emergencies, and self-improvement.
The need to deploy military muscle in extremis is on the spectrum of liberal intervention, and provides the solid assurances without which other engagements are more difficult.
Our wider range of cultural, commercial, and political engagements clearly say that the fate of the Kurds remains important to the West. It also gives them the confidence and stability to further reform their institutions.
The Kurds are an ancient people, but they have only had a coherent and recognised near-state in Iraq for a generation. They have come far in that time but have much further to go. From my visits over many years, I can testify that they welcome our involvement in ventures as varied as training MPs and judges, measures to advance transparency and tackle corruption, boosting agriculture, and film, for example. I suspect many films about Afghanistan could be produced in Kurdistan.
A major imperative close to my heart is their desire to modernise their education system and encourage new thinking in a more vibrant civil society as they reduce their reliance on oil and state employment while designing new futures in technology, tourism, and light industry. One of our country’s great soft power offers in higher education. My predecessor as MP for Harlow, Bill Rammell has recently become Vice-Chancellor of one of their prestigious English language universities.
Another such university in Kurdistan has just taken in female students from Afghanistan. It illustrates the deep generosity of the people of Iraqi Kurdistan, so often exiles and refugees from injustice themselves.
Iraqi Kurdistan also continues to host nearly a million refugees and displaced people from Syria and from the areas once occupied by Isis to which they cannot yet return. That has been an enduring and willingly given duty for them.
Their respect for religious and national minorities as well as improved women’s rights powerfully defy Radical Islam. All countries act in their own national interests and not just for altruistic reasons. American and British engagement is both. The fall of Kabul highlights how much more we need Iraqi Kurds as allies and partners, and vice-versa.