By SETH J. FRANTZMAN
After the shock of October 16th when the Iraqi army rolled into Kirkuk and Kurdish forces withdrew in disarray, many Kurdish voices on social media have sought answers for the “betrayal.” They wonder how it is possible after years fighting ISIS shoulder-to-shoulder with Americans, and many western powers, that their friends would evaporate so quickly and leave them at the mercy of a burgeoning nationalist power in Baghdad and a gloating Tehran eager to permanently weaken and carve up the Kurdistan Regional Government. Many wonder why the US didn’t send high level diplomats to sort out the crises and encourage peaceful resolution of conflict as part of a strategy of a strong post-ISIS Iraq. One would think US policy makers would be aghast seeing US-trained Iraqi troops and US humvees used against allies.
For US policy-makers this was never a question. Of course the US would stand with Baghdad, the sovereign “unifying” Iraqi government. Any statements to the contrary would seem to support Kurdistan secession and would send the wrong message to Prime Minister Haider al-Abadi, whose government the US has invested billions of dollars in. Any deviation from full-throated support for Baghdad could drive Abadi into the arms of Iran at the most inopportune time. America is trying to sort out the post-ISIS Middle East and Iraq is key to that. Fourteen years after the 2003 invasion the US is beholden to Iraq more than at any time in history. The power relations between Baghdad and Washington have also altered. Where once the US led the way in the surge and the US controlled Iraq, helping midwife a constitution in 2005 and elections, Iraq is now weighing its choices. It is a country whose Prime Minister behaves independently and which hosts numerous pro-Iranian Shia militia leaders that have been invited to be part of the government. The US needs to convince it not to go with Tehran, but to stay close to Riyadh, and Washington has invested deeply in that relationship over the last year or more. From policy-makers eyes in Washington, Iraq is the hinge on which the Middle East will pivot.
Provoking Iran in Iraq is not the right way forward, that is why the US believes that supporting Baghdad against the Kurdistan region is the best way to fan the flames of Iraqi nationalism, which the US thinks will tone down and distract from “ethno-sectarian” division. That means that encouraging anti-Kurdish rhetoric is actually the “solution” to Iraq’s problems, because in the US view that can unite Arab Sunnis and Shia against a common enemy, and keep them from being distracted by Iran’s role.
As odd as this may seem, the US policy is to encourage Iraqi nationalism. No matter that that nationalism inevitably means anti-Kurdish sentiment. Around 160,000 Kurds have fled areas near Kirkuk and Zummar since the clashes began on October 16, but for the US that is a worthwhile sacrifice to save Iraq. After all, it is not the first mass exodus of people from the country. Largely the “saving” of Iraq since 2003 has meant the destruction of most of the country and elimination of groups that oppose the government the US helped midwife into power.
Iraqi nationalism: The US answer to Iraq
The US was close to the Nouri al-Malaki regime, even as it had concerns about Iranian influence after the surge. Let’s recall how the New York Times described Brett McGurk in 2012 when Obama nominated him as ambassador to Iraq, a nomination that he withdrew from when a small scandal erupted. “Mr. McGurk’s withdrawal was a blow to the White House as it sought to manage the next phase in Iraq’s postwar development. Since pulling out American troops in December after eight years of combat, Mr. Obama has been trying to preserve a fragile stability in Iraq amid sporadic violence and concerns about Iranian influence. The White House has been worried that Prime Minister Nuri Kamal al-Maliki might develop into another strongman.”
The US under Obama preferred Maliki. As Emma Sky notes at Foreign Affairs; “When Iraqiya, the nationalist, nonsectarian political party led by Ayad Allawi, narrowly defeated the Dawa Party, led by Nouri al-Maliki, the incumbent prime minister, the Obama administration failed to uphold the right of the winning bloc to have the first go at forming a government. Instead, it signaled its desire to keep Maliki in power, despite the stipulations of the Iraqi constitution and the objections of Iraqi politicians.”
The rest is history. Maliki’s oppressive and Shia supremacist sectarian rule helped to grow extremism. When ISIS appeared Maliki’s army disintegrated leaving 2,300 US humvees and massive ordinance to be captured by the enemy. In an odd irony the ineffective disaster that Maliki bequeathed to Iraq became a new reason for the US to step in to find new leadership it could see as the next savior. Abadi, despite being a member of Maliki’s party, has become that leader. The US hopes they can move him to form his own power base, beholden to America, even as he cleverly uses America for his own projects. Despite many voices who have warned about Iranian influence in Iraq and suggested that a breakup of the country might be better, the reality is that institutional Washington, or what some would like to call the “deep state,” cannot countenance such fanciful thinking. Washington, since the end of colonialism in the 1960s, has picked up the neo-colonial banner stepping into the breach that European countries abandoned; not in the sense of conquering other states and colonizing them, but seeking to become a global hegemony that adjudicates the world’s affairs. So some ask rightly why the US supported the breakup of Yugoslavia and an independent Kosovo, but not Kurdistan. Because one is in US interests and the other not. Henry Kissinger said “America has no permanent friends or enemies, only interests.” The concept of allies, Washington insiders and realists would say is naive, ridiculously romantic, and counter-productive to US interests.
US foreign policy is not based on US values
There is another critique of US policy in places like Iraq that asks: What about American values. Those Wilsonian values of “self-determination,” those Kennedy values of “support any friend.” Those values would dovetail more with Erbil than Baghdad (see a series of interesting tweets on this subject by Rukmini Callimaci). Baghdad bans alcohol. In Baghdad most foreign journalists and foreigners in general do not leave the Green Zone or guarded hotels for fear of kidnapping or terror. In the Kurdistan region they do. But values are also seen as naive in Washington policy circles. Of course the US pays lip-service to “democracy” and “self-determination” historically. The State Department releases its annual “religious freedom” report. But US allies in the world tend to be countries who restrict religious freedom the most. Countries buying the most weapons from the US are not exactly a whose-who of democracies. Three Gulf monarchies have topped the list in recent years; Qatar, Saudi Arabia and the United Arab Emirates. Other countries with abysmal human rights records, including countries imprisoning the most journalists, are among the US closest allies. Anyone that assumes US foreign policy would reflect American values is not only mistaken, but US foreign policy can often be counted upon to reflect the diametric opposite of US values. In short, the more a country abuses human rights and suppresses free speech and imprisons journalists, the less secular it is and the more it crushes religious freedom, the more likely it is to be a US ally. This may be a happenstance of history or a product of the Cold War. During the Cold War the US often allied with conservative monarchies or religious extremist regimes such as Pakistan, to fight against the Soviets. The reasoning was that sometimes you must ally with a bad actor to defeat an even worse actor on the world stage. Sixteen years after 9/11, two of the countries closely connected to the hijackers, including the country many of them came from, and the country that supported the regime that hosted them in Afghanistan, are two key US allies.
US officials tend to feel more secure in dictatorships because they tend to be treated better by dictators. They tend to have reliable and consistent foreign policies that don’t change much over time. They don’t ask their pesky parliaments for permission to base US troops, critical journalists don’t ask questions and there are no annoying referendums. Democracies tend to be more rude and diplomats must find their way and deal with protests and the open society. But in a dictatorship diplomats get to feel a bit like Lawrence of Arabia and it is addicting. The number of US diplomats who come back from the Gulf and end up supporting the former regime they were based in or working as lobbyists for it is quite high. The numbers who come back from democracies and do that is quite low. Dictatorships and religiously conservative countries cast an exotic spell over westerners that boring democracies do not. Westerners posted to foreign dictatorships anyway do not have to suffer the rod of the dictatorship, they aren’t a persecuted minority, they don’t have to navigate bureaucracy, or be disappeared and tortured. So for them the experience of the Green Zone style life or its equivalent is great.
Often in the war on terror, the very countries that have dabbled in supporting extremist terrorism, tend to be US allies out of the logic that only they can control the Frankenstein of extremism that they helped to create. If you want to fight the Taliban in Afghanistan, you’ve got to ally with the group that helped create it. You have to at least balance the two.
Interests, not long term
That doesn’t mean the US has not worked with plenty of groups seeking freedom over the years. From John Garang in Sudan, to Ahmed Shah Masoud, the US has worked with what would appear to be the better side of the equation of freedom against tyranny. However generally these relationships are short term and occur only when the local freedom fighters’ interests happen to dovetail with the US. The Kurdish relationship is emblematic of that. When the Kurds could be used by the US and Iran against Saddam Hussein and Iraq. However once an agreement could be found at Algiers in 1975, the US support evaporated. When Saddam launched his genocidal gas attacks on Kurds in the 1980s. Declassified documents show the US knew about and even aided Saddam in his weapons program in the 1980s. This was in the context of fighting Iran, which had taken 52 American hostages in 1979 and held them for 444 days. An article on the US role in Iraq in the 1980s notes “The US provided less conventional military equipment than British or German companies but it did allow the export of biological agents, including anthrax; vital ingredients for chemical weapons; and cluster bombs sold by a CIA front organisation in Chile, the report says.”
This is the context within which one should understand what the US is doing in Iraq today. It would seem unprecedented that after three years fighting ISIS that the US would simply remain silent as Iraqi forces, led by Shia militias, have attacked Kurdish forces. One would think that the seventy-nation coalition would express surprise and seek to intervene to stop the clashes. One would think that the US would be surprised to see its humvees and the units it trained used against Kurdish peshmerga, rather than ISIS. One would think, since the US is officially opposed to the meddling role of Iran in the region, it would notice how so much Iraq policy is influenced by Qassem Soleimani of the the Quds Force of the IRGC.
Shock about this sudden turn of events is misplaced. For the cynical and pragmatic US diplomat and their advisors it is important not to get emotional about these things. The Kurdistan region was useful in 2014-2016, but once ISIS was largely defeated, the US can revert to its one-Iraq policy rooted in Baghdad. The Kurdistan region is largely a distraction for Washington today. Its attempt to remind the US that it was once an ally and a stable and successful part of Iraq where US diplomats and officials went to support the war on ISIS, is like the nagging conscience that has to be turned off. Some US policymakers see the creation of the KRG as a historic mistake and wish that the US had not catered to it in 2005 as it eroded Iraqi “unity” and gave Kurds “false hopes” independence one day. The real goal of the US now is to remake Iraq without Sunni Arab or Kurdish politics playing much of a role. Minorities require balancing interests and fostering pluralism, it’s easier to work with Abadi and rely on one person, like the US worked with Maliki.
A recent policy proposal for the US, that has no doubt already been adapted in some form, suggests that “official U.S. statements should refer to populations in Iraq as Iraqis within particular territorial units and not as ethno-sectarian groups (Sunni, Shi’a, Kurd).” Translation: If you just pretend they don’t exist, then the “ethno-sectarian” groups will go away. For Washington, reducing the presence of Shia militias, and the tendency of Iraqi army units the US trains to fly Shia flags is not a priority. Punishing Erbil is the priority. “Pleading with and coddling Kurdish officials is not a policy and does not advance U.S. interests. If Washington seeks a stable partner in Erbil as part of Iraq, it should stop enabling bad behavior and place conditions on its support to the Kurdistan Regional Government, including institutional reform and termination of military and financial support.” Of particular interest is the likely new US policy of “supporting nationalist trends toward a civil Iraqi state.” To wean Iraq of its reliance on Iran, the US should show that its support is a “better alternative.” to Iranian militias. The Kurdistan referendum gave the US the excuse to allow the KRG to be economically weakened and partially crippled. US policymakers sometimes say this is because the KRG is riven with “corruption” and “family politics.” However the US doesn’t mind the same family politics in Qatar, or corruption in other countries and groups it works with.
Latent colonialism disorder: America’s Lawrence of Arabic complex
Now the US wants to stay in Iraq for the long term, and the Kurdistan region, in a bizarre and ironic way, is seen as the main obstacle to the US attempt to remake Iraq once more. As Glaser and Preble write at The National Interest: “If the country fractures in two, or more, that could further enhance Iranian influence in Baghdad and the rest of Shiite-dominated Iraq—something U.S. policy has consistently resisted.” To prevent Iranian influence the US wants to sell Iraqi nationalism. This is a repetition of the US policy in Iraq after the surge. “The Obama administration insisted that Maliki was an Iraqi nationalist and a friend of the United States.” In some ways the US suffers from a kind of Latent Colonization Disorder. Since the US came to the colonial game late, it feels the need to make up for what it sees as the failures of former colonizing powers like the UK and France, by using its own methods. Here we can see the tendency of the US to decide for Iraqs that they are “nationalists” and to tell them that their very authentic ethnic and religious feelings are not acceptable. Only the US can make them into “nationalists” the way the British once brought King Faisal to “unify” Iraq. If Kurds say “we are Kurdish” that is “sectarian.” If African-Americans say “we are African-American,” that identity politics is acceptable, in America. Because largely American policy consists of doing abroad the opposite of what one does at home. So if you celebrate diversity at home, you celebrate nationalism abroad.
In contrast to the knee-jerk dislike of the Kurdistan Regional Government among some policymakers and advisors, Sky notes in her Foreign Affairs piece that disputes between Iraq and the KRG should be “negotiated between Baghdad and Erbil, endorsed by neighboring countries, and recognized by the international community. Either way, the United States should support the revitalization of the UN’s efforts to determine, district by district, the border between Kurdistan and the rest of Iraq. This process should also consider granting Kirkuk special status in recognition of its diverse population, contested history, and oil wealth. No Iraqi prime minister can afford to lose Kirkuk. International mediation could help broker a compromise.”
That would be ideal, and one would think in US interests, to have a stable and peaceful Iraq. But Iran has moved faster than the US in encouraging Iraq to move on Kirkuk and Iran has used its leverage among parts of the PUK political party to create internal divisions in the KRG. It has also encouraged Iraq to press to control the entire Syrian border. It is no surprise that while Abadi was out of the country flying to Saudi Arabia, Jordan, Turkey and Iran between October 22-26, that Iranian-backed militias were continuing clashes with the Peshmerga. This wasn’t kept secret, Hadi al-Amiri and Abu Mahdi al-Muhandis were photographed on the frontlines near Zummar and Rabiah, planning the operations. Abadi outsources his Kurdistan policy to these commanders. The Interior Ministry, which is controlled by Badr, used the ERD, which has been seconded to the Federal Police during the last year of operations against ISIS in Mosul and elsewhere, as part of the forces attacking the Kurds. But for the most part this was not an Iraqi army operation, but a Hashd al-Shaabi, PMU, operation. There is no real difference, since Abadi has stressed to US Secretary of State Tillerson that the PMU is the “hope” of Iraq and the region, and an institution of the government. He has repeatedly rejected calls for it to be dissolved and “go home.” Even though the role of the militias was conceived to fight ISIS when Maliki’s army fell apart, they are likely not going home and will continue to help guide Iraq’s policy.
Amiri showed up at a “Dialogue on terrorism” event in Baghdad in fatigues on October 28. This is the real face of Iraq, the one that US policymakers want to ignore. They hope that if they can just ignore the ill-treatment of the Sunni areas and the Kurdistan region, that they can finally get Iraq to be what they want it to be. Their policy is to simply not mention minorities in Iraq, and hope that by doing so any complaints from them will go away.
Critics might say this is cynical. But insiders say this is smart and realistic. “Don’t get emotional about the Kurdish Peshmerga. Yes, they played their role, but now is the time for Iraq. Supporting Kurds only weakens Baghdad and harms Abadi. He has told us that if we want him to work with the Saudis, we must permanently weaken the Kurdish region back to 2003 levels.” Western powers agree. Just days after Iraq seized Kirkuk, reports said that Iraqi Oil Minister Jabar al-Luaibi met BP executives with the hopes of getting to work in the oil fields. British foreign policy on Iraq is likely closely tied to these kinds of interests.
The Kurdistan region has been sacrificed quickly and cleanly by western policymakers. This was a decision made in unison because for each country involved in the Kurdistan region, their interests in defeating ISIS had ended and they have no interest in fanciful ideas like “self-determination.” When Kurdish activists show photos of Iraqi vehicles with Shia sectarian flags or Ayatollah Khamenei on them, or Iranian IRGC in Iraq, or abuses of Kurds, western diplomats turn a blind-eye because they know that admitting what has happened in Iraq would force them to admit Iran has outplayed them (the US does the same in Lebanon to a different degree). They prefer to say that Iranian presence is “alleged” or “inflated” and to quietly whisper that it is “Israel” and pro-Israel commentators who are exaggerating the role of Iran (US policymakers are suspicious of the role of “neo-cons” in pushing for US wars with Iran). Al-Muhandis and Amiri are just Iraqi nationalists, they say. They think enough to guns and butter can make the “nationalists” wean themselves of Iranian influence, confronting ideology and faith with goods and services, as was done in Vietnam. No need to mention that al-Muhandis is still considered a terrorist by the US, even as it works with institutions that work with him. The US Department of State clarified that again on October 26:
QUESTION: One of the things is that Abu Mahdi al-Muhandis, the head of Kata’ib Hizballah, whom Treasury designated a terrorist in 2009 for attacking U.S. and Iraqi troops, has just opened a recruiting station in Kirkuk. Do you have a comment on that?
MS NAUERT: Yeah. So I saw that you’re – that report earlier. You’re correct; he is a terrorist. I cannot confirm that report, but I would have to say, if that report is correct, we hope his recruitment efforts fail miserably.
QUESTION: Does it bother you that he is part of the PMF and technically part of the Iraqi Government and otherwise supported by Iran, and maybe the Iraqis should take action against him?
MS NAUERT: He is a terrorist, and beyond that – I’m just not going to go beyond that, okay? It’s clear that he is a terrorist, okay?
The hope of Western policymakers is that nagging questions about what has become of the Kurdistan region, once flourishing with airports and a hub of economy and stability, hosting numerous foreigners and even a “capital of tourism” not so long ago, will eventually go away. Baghdad has sought to ban Kurdish channels Rudaw and Kurdistan 24, which would also be viewed as a welcome development in the West. The less news, the better from the Kurdistan region. The same policy has been deployed by Western media and policymakers in seeking to not report on what happens to Kurds in neighboring states.
Ramifications for Syria
The plan that has played out in Iraq, using Kurdish forces to fight ISIS, and then walking away from them once Baghdad and the Peshmerga clashed, is being watched closely in Syria among the US “allies” in the Syrian Democratic Forces (SDF). The US has emphasized that the only goal in Syria is to defeat ISIS, nothing more. The recent visit by Saudi Gulf Affairs Minister Thamer al-Sabhan with Brett McGurk, the U.S. special envoy to the coalition against Islamic State, appears to show the US is involved in something a bit more than just war in Syria. Here again it comes back to a bit of the Lawrence of Arabia complex of some westerners who want to help Syria, but only on their terms. So the US is using Saudi money in Syria, as it has tried to do the same to bring Abadi into the Saudi camp. Time and again US policy is exploited either by Saudi Arabia or Iran for their own ends. The brilliance of this is that US policymakers think they are just doing what is good for “our interests” without asking who else has interests. They don’t ask about Abadi’s visit to Tehran, in which Iranian officials told him that the US created ISIS, because Abadi is “our ally” and “our man in Baghdad.”
In Syria the US hopes it can craft some kind of new policy with the Saudis on the ground. What that policy is remains unclear, but in the long-run the chances that it will serve the interests of the SDF and YPG, who have fought alongside the US against ISIS, is slim. If the SDF and YPG are smart they will realize that what happened in northern Iraq will happen to them. Don’t get emotional, don’t ask how its possible the US can so quickly walk away from people who fought and died against a common enemy. That is US policy. The US has no friends. It has only interests.
It’s interests in northern Syria is not a secular or democratic place. Don’t talk to Americans about “but your Declaration of Independence says” and “Woodrow Wilson said” and “JFK said” and “FDR said.” Those values no longer exist in America, and if they exist they exist least in policy-making circles. Once potential groups and allies of the US understand that talking about values or saying “but we fought together” and talking about “democracy” and “secularism” and “human rights” is not the way to win American hearts and minds, the better. America has values fatigue from decades of war, from contradictions and hypocrisies. It has a cynical outlook on the world. In general it views dictatorships, monarchies and states that suppress religious freedom as stable and reliable. Democracies are chaotic. The Arab spring was chaotic. The 2004 book arguing that the US sees the world as one fought between chaos and and “functioning” countries, puts nascent democracies in the chaos court. Ideal allies are the Gulf states. Democracy is a 20th century value.
The best that America can do today is fight terrorism, which it excels at through numerous military bases and masses of special forces and drones. Anyone who thinks partnering with the US on that level translates into some kind of social partnership after or long-term values-based policy, is mistaken. The KRG partnered with America over killing ISIS. ISIS was defeated and with it went the need for the US to maintain support for the KRG.