Fort Report: In the Wake of ISIS
In May, 2016, Navy Seal Charlie Keating was embedded with Kurdish Peshmerga forces in an area of Northern Iraq known as the Nineveh Plain. In a battle to regain control of the ancient Christian village of Teleskof, Charlie and his team were ambushed. Charlie fell to a sniper's bullet. Teleskof was liberated.
At the request of Vice President Pence, I traveled to Northern Iraq this week and stepped into the dusty alleys and streets of this village and others. Many are not aware that within this area exists a rich, centuries-old tapestry of religious pluralism. Yazidis, Christians, and the Shabak sect of Shia Islam all call the area home. ISIS targeted these communities for extermination. It was genocide.
At this point, America has given so much, lost so much in Iraq, it’s hard to understand why engagement is ongoing and necessary. Yet, as these beleaguered minorities hang on for their very survival, much is at stake. Christians in Iraq used to total 1.5 million. Now, only a few hundred thousand remain. Entire villages that thrived for over 1000 years have been decimated, as the indigenous Christian and Yazidi populations fled the ISIS advance. Approximately 400,000 Yazidis are now internally displaced persons living in tent structures in refugee camps; many are children.
Our trip included intense discussions with Iraqi religious leaders, international aid workers, displaced children, UN personnel, and US military leadership. Despite the situation’s fragility, important progress is being made. The Iraqi army who fled in the face of the ISIS advance has, with significant US training, re-gathered itself, demonstrating a will to fight. A year ago, in the Battle of Mosul, the Iraqi army suffered a large number of casualties. The fighting was ferocious and hand-to-hand. As the US military supported their advance, the Iraqis got the job done.
Multiple levels of challenge remain. The prospect of unprecedented exodus, with most never returning, is real. If this happens, Iraq will lose the possibility for a healthy pluralism. Iran will seek to expand its influence. Permanent refugee camps will dot the landscape, placing inordinate pressure on Kurdistan and the Iraqi government in Baghdad. ISIS could regenerate.
It is clear that an additional security footprint is required in the Nineveh Plain. From my perspective, a multinational training mission, in concert with the Iraq Central Government and Peshmerga forces, integrating local indigenous people, is a viable option. A new security overlay with humanitarian and development assistance, quickly applied, will create the conditions in which it is possible for these ancient communities to regenerate themselves and remain in their ancestral homelands. Importantly, the Prime Minister of Iraq shared parallel sentiments, as this is fundamentally an Iraqi problem.
Most Nebraskans are aware of our special connection to this region. Lincoln is home to the largest community of Yazidis in America, many of whom earned their citizenship as translators for US forces in Iraq. A forgotten reality is that 3500 Yazidi women remain prisoners of ISIS. In one meeting, I listened to three Yazidi women ransomed out of ISIS tell their stories. They had all been sold into sexual slavery multiple times. I made these notes to myself: “The women are sad; they sit across from me but stare into the distance; their faces are fallen—they have no joy."
The Yazidi medical doctor with them said to me: “It is really easy to rebuild a building, but really hard to rebuild a human being.”
Perhaps we can take some comfort from the village where Navy Seal Charles Keating died. In spite of threats, a renewal of Teleskof is being lead by a 36-year-old Chaldean priest, who has attracted 20 or so young people to help him. To honor Charles, they have reached out to his faith community in America--to stand together in solidarity. This, ISIS cannot destroy.