joker123 KRG » Jonathan Foreman

Enemies, Allies and Kurdistan (Weekly Standard, Nov. 03, 2014)

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The Case For a Major New US Military Base

It is not clear at the time of writing if Turkey will or will not allow the United States to use the NATO air base at Incirlik for airstrikes against ISIS forces in Syria and Iraq. On October 13, national security adviser Susan Rice announced that Turkey had finally agreed to the use of the base, only to be contradicted the very next day by Turkey’s foreign minister. A subsequent press report claimed that the Turks were allowing their American allies to fly reconnaissance drones from Incirlik but no manned aircraft.

The brouhaha exemplifies a troubling downward trend in America’s ability to project power in the Middle East, a trend that goes beyond Turkey and its peculiar, complicated, sometimes hostile relationship with America. The ISIS crisis and the feebleness of the current air campaign don’t just provide evidence that only a foolish leader would preclude putting at least some “boots on the ground” in a military campaign. They also show that the countries that have long given us basing rights in the region may not be as cooperative or as trustworthy as our planners assume them to be, and that this is likely to get worse.

Given this unfortunate development, it is time for America’s planners to consider breaking with tradition and setting up new bases in countries that are likely to remain reliable allies—even if they are not yet recognized as independent states. 

Iraqi Kurdistan is just such a place (another is the Somaliland Republic, just across the Gulf of Aden from Yemen). It is not technically an independent state, as it has not seceded from the battered, unraveling republic of Iraq. But at this point that doesn’t really matter. Baghdad is hardly in a position to object to any deal between the United States and the autonomous Kurdistan Regional Government (KRG). Indeed, any hope that Iraq has of remaining a single state, federal or confederal, once ISIS has been defeated would depend on Baghdad and whoever controls it (likely a Shiite-dominated government), giving the KRG something very close to de facto independence.

Similarly, the only way Iraqi Kurdistan will feel really safe from invasion by Baghdad-controlled forces, an ISIS-Sunni alliance, a Turkey that has returned to its old anti-KRG ways, or Iran (Syria is unlikely to be a threat for a long time to come) is if there is a U.S. military presence in the country.

For both the Iraqi Kurds and the United States, then, a U.S. base in Kurd-istan—which already has airfields with long military-spec runways—would offer the United States tremendous strategic advantages.

These are all the more important in a region where U.S. influence has diminished, and in which the United States may well lose access to some of its biggest air, land, and naval bases in the medium or long term.

In the short term it obviously makes sense. There has been much talk about the need for the United States and its allies to stand up effective local forces in the war against ISIS. But the 5,000-strong Syrian rebel force that U.S. military leaders think they can stand up within a year or two is nowhere near adequate.

A proper alliance with Iraqi Kurdistan, one that includes the training and equipping of more effective Kurdish armed forces, offers perhaps the only hope of defeating ISIS without having to cooperate militarily with Iran (which would demand nuclear concessions and continue to undermine U.S. interests in Iraq) or Syria’s Assad regime (which has much American as well as Syrian and Iraqi blood on its hands).

Despite the Obama administration’s reflexive hostility to Kurdish aspirations and the official U.S. government preference for dealing only with Baghdad, the airports of Iraqi Kurdistan have reportedly become U.S. military installations as a matter of simple necessity. Some of the big air bases in Iraq proper like Balad and Taji are either too vulnerable to ISIS attack to be used by coalition aircraft or have already been captured. As for bases further south like the Rasheed base in Baghdad, the Iranian military is already using them to launch surveillance drones, and U.S. military officials are rightly nervous about the security implications of sharing an air base with, and being studied by, the Iranian Revolutionary Guard.

 But quite apart from the immediate value of Iraqi Kurdistan in the ISIS campaign, it would make sense for the United States to form a closer military partnership with the KRG. Unlike several of the countries from which we fly our aircraft or base our ships, its leaders and people are pro-American, its ruling regime is not a monarchy ripe for Arab Spring-style overthrow, it’s not trying to replace the United States as a regional hegemon, it does not sponsor Islamist terrorism, and if we did ally with it, we would be guaranteeing its freedom and security in such a way as to bind it to us by the strongest cords of self-interest and gratitude.

Currently, American military efforts in the region are dependent on Qatar, which hosts CENTCOM’s forward HQ and the huge al-Udeid air base, Kuwait, home of the Ali-al-Salem airfield, the UAE, location of the Al-Dhafra air base, and Bahrain, which is the headquarters of the U.S. Navy’s Fifth Fleet.

Qatar is said to sponsor Islamism and jihadist militancy around the world: Its financial beneficiaries have allegedly included Hamas, Egypt’s Muslim Brotherhood, Somalia’s al Shabab, the al Qaeda-allied Nusra Front in Syria, and finally the Afghan Taliban. Alleged Qatari support for ISIS has prompted the U.S. Treasury to single out the kingdom as an especially “permissive jurisdiction” for terrorist financing.

Kuwait, too, has sponsored the Muslim Brotherhood as well as more radical Islamist groupings around the world. It was revealed by WikiLeaks to have been a key transit point for al Qaeda financing.

Moreover, the Arab Spring showed that even the most stable-seeming authoritarian monarchies and dictatorships can be more vulnerable than they look. It should be clear to U.S. planners that it is risky to assume that the rulers of the Gulf States will continue in power or that they will continue to be on America’s side.

Certainly violence in Bahrain, where members of the Shiite majority protested against Sunni rulers and were brutally repressed with Saudi assistance, should have the Pentagon making plans for the day when the regime has been overthrown and neither CENTCOM nor the Navy can use the country as a base.

As for Turkey, now that it sees itself as potential top dog in a region from which America withdrew, it is unlikely ever to give us free rein at Incirlik, regardless of the destination or mission of U.S. aircraft. And even if the Erdogan government were inclined to be more cooperative in the matter of ISIS, the Turkish military has on several occasions shown itself willing to sacrifice the U.S. alliance on the altar of its anti-Kurdish obsession.

There is a strong argument that gaining a permanent U.S. base in Iraq, preferably in Kurdistan, always ought to have been a primary U.S. goal after the 2003 invasion, and not just because such a boon might have quieted those “realist” opponents of the Iraq mission who abhorred talk of fostering democratic government in the Middle East.

The United States has lost several key bases in recent years, the most significant one being the Kharshi Khanabad base in Uzbekistan (thanks to Russian pressure). At the very least, the existence of a major modern U.S.-equipped air base in Kurdistan would offer redundancy for whenever Turkey refuses permission for the use of Incirlik, or for the day when Turkey might cease being even a nominal ally.

A U.S. air base in Iraqi Kurdistan would give America the ability to influence events in the immediate region and also in the Caucasus. Just the reconnaissance capability would be transformative. After all, Sulaymaniyah is only 330 miles from Tehran and 500 miles from Damascus.

A U.S. base in Kurdistan could make all the difference to Washington’s military options when dealing with the Iranian nuclear program. The fact that airstrikes would be significantly less difficult—not to mention the potential for inserting special forces by air or land—might well have a salutary effect on Tehran and therefore make such an action less necessary and less likely.

Iraqi Kurdistan is one of the few places in the world where both the government and the population actively desire an American military presence. Indeed the KRG has been quietly lobbying for more than a decade for the United States to establish a base in its territory.

The Kurdistan Regional Government certainly has its flaws and would continue to have them even if the country asserted its independence and became a formal U.S. ally. Its key institutions are dominated by two rival clans, there are serious problems with corruption, and also periodic problems with press freedom. Still, the country is more democratic and much more religiously tolerant than most others in the region. A formal, quasi-permanent arrangement for a U.S. base in Kurd-istan could transform for the better America’s position in the region. It would also be a good thing for all the Kurds (not just those in Iraq), a good thing for Iraq, and arguably a good thing for a region that otherwise will be a proxy battleground for Iran and Turkey.

Can An Independent Kurdistan Reshape the Middle East (Newsweek Jul. 29, 2014)

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When Isis militants stormed the Iraqi city of Mosul in June, the disastrous fragility of Iraq’s armed forces was laid bare.  It also ignited a process that may lead to the setting up of the world’s first independent Kurdish state.

Since the departure of US forces from Iraq in 2011, relations between the Iraqi administration led by Nouri-al-Maliki and the autonomous Kurdistan Regional Government (KRG) have deteriorated. The Maliki administration has, according to Kurdistan’s High Representative in London, Bayan Rahman, imposed “a policy of control and punishment”.

She explains that the region’s grievances with Maliki include Baghdad’s failure to hand over the KRG’s full 17% share of the national budget (it has never paid more than 11% and has paid nothing since January 2014), its failure to pay the salaries of the Kurdistan national guard, known as the Peshmerga, and its alleged efforts to hinder Kurdistan’s oil and gas sales abroad.

What’s more, Rahman says the central government has failed to carry out its obligations under the 2005 Iraqi constitution to hold a referendum in disputed, historical Kurdish territories such as the city of Kirkuk, which the Kurds claim should be part of Kurdistan.

Rahman says that “40% of Kurdish territory lies outside the regional border unilaterally drawn by Saddam Hussein in 1991”. These areas, some of them oil-rich, were subjected to ethnic cleansing and government-ordered settlement by Arabs from other parts of Iraq. They have now fallen under Kurdish control as a result of the Iraqi Army’s retreat from Isis.

Unlike many of the minority ethnic groups that fought unsuccessfully for their own states in the late 20th century, Iraqi Kurdistan has achieved something close to independence without actually declaring it. That is not because Iraq’s Kurds don’t want formal independence.

As the former diplomat and Iraq expert Peter Galbraith says: “I’ve been going to Kurdistan for 30 years and I’ve never met a Kurd who said I’d prefer to be a citizen of Iraq than a citizen of an independent Kurdistan, and that includes the [former] President of Iraq himself.” 

Rather, it is because until now the KRG’s ­leaders have seen advantages in remaining legally linked to Iraq, and because the obstacles to independence, in particular opposition from Arab Iraq, seemed impossible to overcome.

Ever since it was first negotiated in the 1960s, Iraqi Kurdish autonomy proved hard to achieve and hold. Even when Saddam’s forces were prevented from ­ravaging Iraq’s Kurdish areas by the post-Gulf War no-fly-zone, and then by the US-led ­invasion in 2003, Iraqi Kurdistan remained under threat from Turkey. Ankara had long viewed any manifestation of Kurdish nationalism in the region as a danger to its own social cohesion and was willing to use force to neutralise it.

However, since 2009 there has been a rapprochement, to the extent that Turkish officials have signalled that they would be happy with an independent Iraqi Kurdistan.

These days it is Iran that has become an implacable opponent of Kurdish independence. Syria potentially would be another but its ruling regime is busy fighting a civil war. Iran was friendly to Iraqi Kurdistan when the latter was a source of support in the war against Saddam’s Iraq. But its sympathies have cooled as Tehran has become the dominant influence over Baghdad.

“If you look at Iranian media there is a campaign against the Kurds suggesting that the push for independence is all an Israeli plot,” declares Galbraith

In a bizarre confluence of interests, the only other country that seems equally opposed to Iraqi Kurdistan’s independence is the United States. American commitment to a unitary centralised Iraqi state has actually deepened under the Obama administration, despite Vice President Joe Biden once proposing the partitioning of Iraq into three countries.

The Kurdish nationalist movement could unite around 40 million ethnic Kurds under one banner Adam Jones

Galbraith says that the Obama administration has backed Baghdad and pressured the KRG by, among other things, “trying to stop people from buying Kurdistan’s oil, and threatening legal action against companies trying to import into the United States”.

Such economic pressure is no minor threat for a country of only six million people that has taken in some 250,000 refugees from Syria and about 750,000 refugees from other parts of Iraq. However, it’s not clear that America has much leverage over the question: after US opposition made little difference to the breakups of Yugoslavia and the Soviet Union.

Some experts, including the journalist and investor Bartle Bull, who is writing a history of Iraq, are not so sure that independence is inevitable. “Yes the KRG is a big winner of recent events and has been strengthened in its disputes with Baghdad,” he says. But if the KRG wins a referendum in Kirkuk [for that traditionally Kurdish, oil-rich region to join with Kurdistan] then its grievances with Baghdad decrease.”

Independence, with all its complications and risks, would therefore be less necessary.

Bull believes it is the “destiny” of Iraqi Kurdistan “always to be loosely, uncomfortably but definitively linked to the rest of Mesopotamia”. He suspects that the drive to independence may lose momentum if Isis is defeated and Maliki is replaced as Iraqi prime minister by a more acceptable and more able Shia politician. “Any likely new government would rule better, could not be as incompetent and sectarian and paranoid as Maliki’s, and that would make staying in Iraq that much more attractive for both Kurds and Sunnis.”

Galbraith and many other observers disagree and think Iraq “unfixable”. Gary Kent, who heads the UK’s All-Party Parliamentary Group on the Kurdistan Region of Iraq, sees it as unlikely that “Baghdad with a new leader and a new form of governance can reach out to the Sunnis and keep promises it has broken to the Kurds and defeat Isis.”

That Maliki has become more hostile to the KRG since the Mosul debacle, accusing it of being in league with Isis, makes reconciliation seem even less likely. If Kurdistan does declare its independence it may struggle for international recognition.

According to Brendan O’Leary of the University of Pennsylvania, the new state might be quickly recognised by Turkey and Israel “but it would be much better to have comprehensive recognition”. He thinks it is highly unlikely that any member of the Arab League will recognise an independent Kurdistan, so the EU and the US will be key. But EU recognition might be tricky because “Spain would almost certainly block recognition of Kurdistan given its position on Kosovo”.

In general it is rare for the international community to recognise new states unless the former ruling power recognises them first. The refusal of Somalia to recognise the breakaway Somaliland Republic, which has been independent for two decades, has meant that no other country does so. Baghdad might be equally unwilling to recognise Iraqi independence. O’Leary sees the KRG as having two other choices given the weakness of the Baghdad government. It could try to renegotiate the existing constitution with a Baghdad that it does not trust. Or it could work towards the refashioning of Iraq as a confederation of two or three sovereign states with those states having a right to secede after a specified time.

Such confederations are rare. One recent ­example was that of Serbia and Montenegro, Another was the confederation of Sudan and South Sudan but both ultimately broke up.

Whether an independent Kurdistan could flourish is another question. Not only would it have to deal with threats from Isis and the deadly chaos in Syria, but would need to defend itself from whatever state emerges in Iraq.

Even in the best of circumstances an independent Kurdistan would need to cultivate other foreign friends lest it become a kind of dependency of Ankara. The KRG has long hoped for closer alliances with the US, the UK and other Western countries, but Gulf States like the United Arab Emirates have been quicker to invest in Kurdistan. As Gulf assistance often comes with Islamist strings attached, the idea of close relationships with countries like Qatar makes some Kurds nervous. Experts disagree as to how quickly or even whether Kurdistan will declare its independence.

In any case there seems little chance of a return to the status quo ante. As the prime minister of Iraqi Kurdistan, Nechirvan Barzani has put it, “there is Iraq pre-Mosul, and Iraq post-Mosul”.

Regardless of whether Iraqi Kurdistan pursues sovereignty plus confederation, or full independence, right now it faces a more immediate ­problem. As experts who testified on Kurdistan to the British parliament recently pointed out, the KRG has a 1,000km border with the Isis Caliphate and only 50km border with Iraq.

Moreover, Isis now fields armoured vehicles and artillery pieces captured from the fleeing Iraqi Army, while Kurdish forces have little more than small arms.

As Galbraith puts it: “The ironic fact is that the US has ended up arming Isis, which is our enemy, and not the Peshmerga, who are our friends.”

Stop Messing the Kurds Around (Breitbart - London 23 July 2014)

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One of the less attractive characteristics of the Anglo-Saxon powers is their post-war habit of betraying third world allies, whether they are Vietnamese Montagnards, Afghan interpreters or belong to one of several less well-known minorities that have paid a grim price for trusting Britain or America to reward their loyalty.

The Kurds of Iraq are the latest to find themselves in the position of under-appreciated and betrayed allies.

Grateful for the US-British-French no-fly-zone that kept Saddam’s forces out of Kurdistan after the 1991 Gulf War, the Kurds have long been the most pro-American and pro-British ethnic group in the entire region. They were enormously helpful to the Coalition before and during the invasion of Iraq and defeat of the Saddam regime in 2003.

Iraqi Kurdistan could then have asserted its independence, kept control of historically Kurdish (but partially ethnically cleansed) Kirkuk and done little or nothing to help the authorities in Baghdad fight the Sunni insurgency and Shia militia violence that spread through Iraq from 2004.

Instead, as any allied commander who is worth his salt will tell you, Kurdish battalions were invaluable to Coalition efforts. Not only were they good at counter-terrorist operations, they were also reliable and trustworthy, qualities all too rare among Iraqi Security Forces especially in the early years.

Nevertheless, even at the height of the war, and even though they often fought side by side Coalition forces in Baghdad and elsewhere, the Kurds received minimal military assistance from the Coalition.  

When America pulled its troops out of Iraq in 2011, after Prime Minister Malik and President Obama failed to find common ground on a Status of Forces Agreement, you might have expected the US and its allies to cultivate the Kurdish Regional Government (KRG).

After all, Kurdistan was then, as it had been during the fighting, and continues to be today, much more stable, peaceful and economically vibrant than the rest of Iraq. And unlike the Maliki government it was not falling under the malign influence of Iran.

Instead, the US government has consistently backed the Baghdad government in its worst behaviour to the Kurds.

Under the Iraqi constitution, oil and mineral resources can be extracted and sold by the regions as long as the proceeds are shared with the rest of the country. But Baghdad has refused to pay the KRG the 17 percent of revenues that it committed to (it never paid more than 11 percent and stopped paying altogether in January. Baghdad also never ponied for the salaries for Kurdish troops.). It has also tried to stop Iraqi Kurdistan from selling oil and gas to Turkey and elsewhere.

Amazingly the US State Department has joined with Baghdad in trying to stop foreign buyers from taking Kurdish oil and gas, with the US government actually threatening legal action against anyone trying to buy it in the United States.

The KRG could be forgiven for resenting this American economic warfare on behalf of the corrupt and incompetent and Iranian-leaning Maliki regime, especially given that Iraqi Kurdistan has to feed and house 750,000 refugees from Syria and at least 250,000 displaced people form other parts of Iraq.

And the F-16’s promised by Washington to the Iraqi Air Force have rightly been seen as a potential threat by the Kurds who have vivid memories of bombardment by Saddam’s jet fighters.

The bizarre American approach to the US’s most reliable allies has three roots.

The first is the fact that the US government and in particular the State Department, prefers strong unitary states with only one center of power and set of leaders to talk to. The second is more emotional: after putting so much effort, blood and treasure into rebuilding and defending Iraq after the overthrow of Saddam it feels right to back the central government even if the complaints and claims of the Kurds are valid.

Finally, the fact that the Kurds unquestionably did gain from the overthrow of the Baathist regime makes them unattractive to people in or out of the Obama administration who opposed the war or who saw George W Bush as the devil incarnate.

Thanks to ISIS and the collapse and retreat of the Iraqi Army from Northern Iraq, the Iraqi Kurds are now in a much stronger position political politically than at any time since 2003. (It helps that Turkey is not only no longer trying to undermine the Kurdish Regional Government; it has become a regional friend and economic partner of the fledgling state.)

But in terms of security the Iraqi Kurds are in greater danger than they have been at any time since the overthrow of Saddam Hussein.

Between 2003 and 2011 they had to be on their guard against the threat presented by Arab Iraq’s various insurgents and militias. But they had powerful allies in the form of Coalition forces and an Iraqi army that was being mentored and guided by the Coalition. And they were able by and large to keep terrorists out and down. Now they are effectively alone as they confront the ISIS Caliphate along a 1000km border.

There have already been deadly clashes with ISIS in places where the Pershmerga – the Kurdish armed forces – have taken over cities abandoned by the Iraqi army. And the Pershmerga have not always come out on top.

ISIS front line forces may not be that numerous but they are experienced, well-trained operators, thanks to years of fighting in both the Iraqi insurgency and the Syrian civil war. They also have a significant advantage over the Peshmerga in that they now have, thanks to the sudden flight of the Iraqi army, an impressive arsenal of modern weaponry, much of it US-supplied.

That includes at least 1500 armoured Humvees and MRAPs, 52 modern 155mm howitzers, a number of M1 tanks and even helicopters

The vehicles may not be easy to keep running over time without spare parts or the expertise of foreign contractors. But ISIS, like its predecessor al Qaeda in Iraq, includes in its ranks plenty of former Iraqi army soldiers who know how to use artillery and other heavy weapons.

The Peshmerga lack heavy weaponry and aircraft, and all their recent experience has been fighting small numbers of insurgents and terrorists rather than an actual army. Among the supplies the Kurds need is electronic jamming equipment to combat IEDs. They have requested some from Britain. However, the UK, like the US, has so far refused to send defence equipment to the KRG unless end-user certificates are supplied for them by the central government in Baghdad. This the Maliki government refuses to do.

If we help the Kurds, it will protect an oasis of stability and democracy and tolerance. And it will cement a natural friendship that could be of enormous strategic benefit to both the West and Kurdistan. (After all it is only 400 or so miles from Kurdistan to both Tehran and Tiblisi.)

If we don’t, Iraqi Kurdistan will have to look elsewhere, most likely to Teheran or perhaps Moscow. Or that oasis could be overwhelmed by the violence and chaos that is spreading outward from Syria.

Neither would be good outcomes; both are easily avoidable. It’s up to Downing Street and the White House to do the right thing.