A Critical Turning Point in Washington's Partnership With Iraqi Kurds

Ed. note: The authors of this piece served on Columbia University’s Task Force, State-Building in Iraqi Kurdistan.


Largely unnoticed by U.S. media, security cooperation between the United States and the Kurdistan Regional Government (KRG) is dramatically expanding. More than military assistance, however, Iraqi Kurds need budgetary assistance to stabilize their administration and political support to realize their national aspirations.  

Events are moving quickly. Last week, a memorandum of understanding on military cooperation between the KRG and the United States was signed in Erbil, the capital of the Kurdistan region. The signing was followed today with an announcement of a visit to Kurdistan by General Joseph Votel, the head of the United States Central Command and the highest ranking officer to visit the KRG. President Masound Barzani recently met a  Defense Department delegation headed by Elissa Slotkin, Acting Assistant Secretary of Defense for International Security Affairs.

These visits, agreements reached, and recent U.S. commitments to provide direct military aid and financing of $415 million is further evidence of the importance of the Kurds and their Peshmerga fighting forces in the fight against ISIS, and potentially the coming battle for Mosul.

The KRG has been requesting heavy and offensive weapons since ISIS attacked the Kurdistan region in 2014. A little more than a year ag—on June 16, 2015—a majority of the U.S. Senate voted to support directly arming the Kurds as an amendment to the Defense Authorization Act co-sponsored by Senators Barbara Boxer and Joni Ernst. Sixty votes were needed to overcome White House opposition and the measure failed.

A year later the Obama administration has adjusted its approach. It finally realized the critical importance of expanding its train and equip activities in support of Kurdish peshmerga. Both the Republican and Democrat Party platforms need to endorse this position.

Peshmerga have sacrificed in service of U.S. interests. According to a recent article in Newsweek, nearly 1,400 peshmerga have been killed and 7,500 wounded fighting ISIS since August 2014. They are our “boots on the ground.” It is well past time that the Kurds get the respect and support they need and deserve.

The U.S. must urgently clarify the nature and extent of military aid. Moreover, the broader US-KRG relationship needs clarification.

The KRG is providing for more than 1 million refugees and IDPs on its territory. It is also bearing the cost of fighting ISIS. Beyond the $415 million already pledged, the KRG needs additional and consistent budgetary support.

The KRG also deserves political support. The Kurds are the largest population in the world without a country of their own. There are at least 40 million Kurds today living in Iraq, Iran, Turkey and Syria. Kurdish national rights have been promised many times by the international community, and often denied, cruelly and with great loss of life. The 1920 Treaty of Sevres pledged a referendum, but commitments were never fulfilled.

Iraqi Kurds want Baghdad to implement the 2005 Iraqi constitution, which commits to decentralization and autonomy for Kurdistan. Baghdad has failed to act on its constitutional commitments, pushing the Kurds toward independence.

Baghdad is deeply dysfunctional. It can barely manage to contain the spiral of sectarian violence, no less clear, hold and build on territories occupied by ISIS. A suicide attack the other week tragically killed more than 300 people.

Barzani has promised a referendum on independence. If Baghdad is unable or unwilling to fulfil its constitutional commitments to the Kurds, the U.S. should not stand in the way as Kurds take steps to assert their national aspirations.

Partnership must go beyond military measures. The KRG needs money and political support, as conditions in Iraq deteriorate. Supporting the Kurds is in America’s national interest. It also provides an opportunity to rights the wrongs of history.  

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