I had no idea who the Kurds were until April 6, 1991.
At that time I was the Deputy Operations officer at the U.S. European Command. As the Gulf War wound down, we were alerted to an ongoing brutal massacre that Saddam was conducting of Iraqis in the northern provinces of Iraq.
We were ordered to immediately deploy to the region and provide support and protection for those victims of his wrath who had defied his tyranny. These were the Kurds.
I was to spend the next seven months on Operation Provide Comfort and learn a great deal about these tough, proud and resilient people who tenaciously fought for their freedom.
In those months in southern Turkey and northern Iraq, I became fascinated in who these people were — their history, their culture and their character. They fought for centuries to preserve their identity, despite attempts by the shifting powers in the region to swallow them up. What immediately impressed those of us involved in this mission was not only how grateful they were for our intervention on their behalf, but also how much they wanted to do for themselves. From their tough-as-nails fighters, the Peshmerga, to those who wanted to be part of constructing the temporary camps. In today’s environment, where we question allies’ willingness to burden share and assume equal risk, we have never had to question that when it comes to the Kurds.
The region and the people that we protected in Operation Provide Comfort have proven themselves to be dedicated allies. They have taken on the challenges of terrorism and fought bravely against great odds. They have paid a steep price for their commitment to arms and never wavered in the face of the horrors perpetrated by the likes of ISIS and others who have wished to destroy them and their culture. All they asked for was the arms and support necessary to defend themselves and defeat the forces threatening them and the region. Even as the vicious fighting continued over the years, they built a vibrant and democratic society in the area we committed to protecting in 1991.
The Kurds are a model for all persecuted peoples of this region. As evil forces such as ISIS are rolled back and defeated, it is clear that a thriving and prosperous Kurdish society can grow based on our shared values. The fighting will eventually draw down and there is worry about what comes next in the troubled and devastated area that remains.
The Kurds provide an excellent example of what can be. By supporting them and investing in their continued development, we can help create a model for stability.
• Retired U.S. Marine Corps Gen. Anthony C. Zinni is a former Commander in Chief of the U.S. Central Command and former Special envoy for the Middle East in the George W. Bush administration.
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