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In Iraq, shift away from Baghdad and toward Kurdistan

U.S. interests in the Middle East have remained the same regardless of who’s in the White House: prevent nuclear proliferation and the spread of terrorism, defend Israel, and of course, keep the straits open for business. The United States has two options in Iraq — continue on the same path or try to steer Baghdad away from Iran’s grip. 


But maybe there is a third option that better serves America’s and our allies’ interests. U.S. policymakers ought to cast a new strategy immediately: strengthening the autonomous Kurdistan region of Iraq.

The old strategy has failed. America has flooded Baghdad with billions of dollars in training, equipment, its economy, rooting out corruption, and “democratizing,” but where has that gotten us? The Iraqi Parliament even voted to expel U.S. troops from the country. 


Moreover, new groups have emerged and are threatening American troops without fear or consequences. To date, 4,581 American lives have been lost in Iraq alone, with a price tag of $2 trillion over the course of 17 years.


The Iraqi people have suffered as well. They are in a constant tug of war between Iran and the U.S. over their loyalty. The bitter reality for America is that Iran is Iraq’s neighbor, and they share common cultural, religious, economic, and (some can say) military interests. It would be naive of us to believe we can pull Iraq entirely away from Iran.


If, after 17 years in Iraq, our interest is to simply not leave Iraq to Iran, then we have failed. This is an “endless war” strategy. The U.S. does have options and can avoid a full withdrawal from Iraq to limit Iran’s damaging influence.


This brings me to the latter option: U.S. policymakers should strengthen Iraq's autonomous region of Kurdistan.


There are many positives to having a presence in Kurdistan. The first is that the Kurdish people embrace Americans and their forces, critical in a volatile region. Second, American investment in Iraq has not had any positive returns. This would be different in Kurdistan. Under the watchful eye of the U.S., the Kurds can become the true democratic ally we have been failing to make Iraq for almost two decades.


If left alone, the dominant parties led by the Barzanis and Talabanis, who are in control of the Kurdistan region, may fall deep into tribal disputes. Iran and Turkey will take advantage of these troubled clans. Both clans have armed political parties and control large swaths of oil and gas lands. The U.S. cannot afford to have them fall under Iran or Turkey’s control.


American leadership can shape the Kurdistan region into a unified government built on the bases of institutions and merit with proper investment. The Kurdistan region needs American aid, including the administration’s fiscal 2020 Iraq train-and-equip request of $249 million to support the Peshmerga reform efforts.


The U.S. can use the leverage it has over Kurdistan by pressuring the dominant clans to work for the aid received from American taxpayers, ensuring it serves reform efforts and not partisan policies. American diplomatic efforts must be invested in the Kurdistan region as a whole rather than emboldening the ruling clans. Any wrongdoings by KRG leadership calls for a thorough investigation, and they should be held accountable. American taxpayers' money should not go to waste here either. 


This task, difficult as it is, is more achievable in Kurdistan than the rest of Iraq. Kurdish dependence on the U.S. outweighs its dependence upon Iraq and Iran. The Kurdistan region needs the U.S. to survive. Autonomy was hard-fought by Kurds against Saddam Hussein, but it was due to the no-fly zone by the U.S. in 1991 that it became a reality.


Baghdad continues to push a policy aimed at weakening Kurdistan’s autonomy. If successful, this would be a win for Iran. The U.S. must bolster its military presence and heavy defense systems in Kurdistan. This way, it can defend its own troops and its only reliable ally in Iraq, the Kurds. The placing of a Patriot missile battery at Erbil Air Base, the capital of the Kurdistan region, is a start.


The U.S. has also begun to establish military bases in major Kurdish areas such as Slemani and Halabja — 8 miles from the Iranian border.


U.S.-Iranian tensions over Baghdad have weakened America's influence in Iraq. Iran’s long-arm strategy continues to grow; that is why the U.S. must be present where it can see tangible results.


The Kurds have the ability to be a key partner in the region and play a major role in safeguarding U.S.-Kurdistan national security interests.

By Diliman Abdulkader

Originally published at The Washington Examiner

June 2, 2020

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