Celebrating Heroism on Mt. Sinjar, Preparing for What Comes Next

08/28/2014 04:54 pm ET | Updated Oct 28, 2014

During the past few weeks on Mt. Sinjar, we have seen both the worst and the best of what humanity can do.

On August 3, militants aligned with the Islamic State (IS) seized the town of Sinjar and several others nearby, where members of Iraq's Yazidi minority dwelt. Under threat of execution, some of them fled across the border into Turkey or Iraqi Kurdistan, but tens of thousands found themselves trapped on the mountainside. On the same day, the United Nations Assistance Mission in Iraq sounded the alarm, declaring that the displaced Yazidis were "in urgent need of basic items including food, water and medicine."

Just four days later, President Barack Obama authorized a humanitarian airlift to Mt. Sinjar, as well as airstrikes to break the siege on the mountain and halt the advance of IS toward Iraqi Kurdistan. The first airdrops of food and water arrived just hours later, with more than 114,000 meals and 35,000 gallons of water having arrived as this piece went to press.

On August 8, as airstrikes against IS positions began, the first reports emerged of Yazidis being taken down from Mt. Sinjar by Kurdish forces and moved to safety. And on August 11, the U.S. authorized the provision of military aid to the Kurdish Peshmerga forces -- an unprecedented step.

To those following the action on television or online, the lag between the first reports from Mt. Sinjar and the first deliveries of U.S. aid may have seemed immense. But having assisted refugees and displaced people for nearly 30 years, I take a different view. What the Obama administration and Kurdish forces have accomplished so far is, in fact, extraordinary and highly commendable. Aid may have arrived too late to save some lives, and that is a tragedy. But we must applaud the fact that so many were saved.

The decisive efforts to rescue the Yazidis prove that the U.S. remains the undisputed global leader in humanitarian response. They also show that when aid agencies cannot act on their own, the U.S. military can provide critical logistical support.

U.S. officials now say it will be "far less likely" that larger-scale evacuations will be needed on Mt. Sinjar, as many Yazidis have managed to move into neighboring villages, Iraqi Kurdistan, and transit camps inside Syria. Even so, this crisis is not over. As long as IS threatens the Yazidis with systematic destruction, these people will not be able to return to their homes. The authorities in Iraqi Kurdistan will also face further pressure -- from IS, and from the displaced Iraqis and Syrian refugees who continue to stress their communities and resources.

The U.S., its allies, and Kurdish authorities must therefore prepare for a longer-term humanitarian response. The first step should be meeting the Yazidis' most pressing need: shelter. Camps may be necessary, but it may also be possible -- and preferable -- to house the Yazidis in the towns and villages of Kurdistan. Whichever approach is taken, shelter assistance must be provided quickly and cover as many households as possible.

Second, the U.S. and other governments should support the Kurdistan Regional Government (KRG) as it hosts the Yazidis and the 600,000 other displaced Iraqis and Syrians already on its territory. Over the past three years, the KRG has built camps and provided aid with virtually no help from Iraq's central government. And as the region's displaced population has grown, classrooms and clinics have been overwhelmed, unemployment has risen, and public funds have dried up.

For years, Western governments have avoided directly assisting the KRG, so as not to be seen encouraging Kurdish secession. But the facts on the ground have changed decisively. The U.S. and European nations have already begun providing weapons and other support to Peshmerga forces, the KRG's de facto army -- they should help pay for water pumps and medical supplies as well.

Third and finally, we must remember that this latest Iraq crisis comes at a time of virtually unprecedented, global humanitarian need. The UN and aid agencies have spent their rainy day funds, and we cannot ask them to reshuffle money from one emergency to pay for another. The U.S. continues to lead the world in humanitarian assistance, but it's time for other governments -- especially in Europe, Asia, and the Middle East -- to put forward new funding.

I am hopeful that years from now, the American people will be proud of what was achieved on Mt. Sinjar. But the U.S. and its partners cannot celebrate just yet: there's still much work to be done.