The United States’ primary focus on maintaining stability in the Kurdistan Region of Iraq (KRI) has been detrimental to the region. Channeling military aid to partisan militias has entrenched the duopoly rule of the Kurdistan Democratic Party (KDP) and the Patriotic Union of Kurdistan (PUK) while preventing meaningful democratic reforms that could bring long-term stability. Now that the parties have reignited their armed rivalry — inadvertently backed by U.S. military support — the resulting instability may squander years of U.S. investment in the KRI as a strategic ally. The U.S. should fundamentally review its policy toward the Kurdistan Regional Government (KRG) within the new strategic dialogue with Iraq to facilitate democratic and institutional reforms.
Since the U.S. led-invasion in 2003, the KRI has been an island of stability in Iraq when compared with the middle and southern provinces, which experienced years of sectarian conflict waged by insurgent groups. But this security was achieved by backing powerful militia forces under the KDP and PUK as coalition partners observing a fragile balance of political power and armed force. However, this focus on security has not translated into political stability. On the contrary, the KRI has experienced long and continuous political upheavals, with the emergence of protest parties, violent demonstrations, the breakdown of government coalitions, election rigging, economic collapse, and violent suppression of dissent.
The U.S. did not foresee a weakening of the KDP-PUK coalition or consider the implications of supporting rivals in an unsteady truce. The consistent U.S. focus on financing the security sector in the KRI has not only empowered partisan militias but neglected the consolidation of democratic norms while backing an unstable balance of partisan power that has posed a threat to the KRI as an entity. The peshmerga and other partisan KRI forces were instrumental in defeating ISIS; however, the postwar implications of continuing to arm, train, and fund such forces on the security and political dynamics in the KRI were not carefully considered. The PUK and KDP have more arms than ever before and have neither abided by the international community’s security sector reform (SSR) program nor shown the will to do so, and they have not been held accountable for their violations.
Unconditional support only fuels KDP-PUK rivalry
Although ISIS no longer poses an existential threat to the KRI, the U.S. and its allies continue to channel training and money into an increasingly volatile rivalry between the KDP and PUK. The commitment to forming “mixed peshmerga brigades” as a part of SSR was immediately rescinded by the KDP and PUK when their relations deteriorated amid the withdrawal of Kurdish forces from Kirkuk soon after the referendum on Kurdish independence in late 2017. The recent troop deployments by the KDP and PUK and their military stand-off in Zini Warte — a buffer zone since the end of the Kurdish civil war in 1998 — suggest that the unconditional support for the KRG security forces may contribute to yet another military confrontation between the two ruling parties.
There is a legitimate concern over the ongoing U.S. support for the forces and agencies of the Kurdistan Region Security Council (KRSC) and the Ministry of Interior, which were primarily established for the purpose of maintaining security and public order within the borders of the KRI. The KRSC encompasses Asayish, intelligence, and counter-terrorism forces. However, the KDP and PUK also have their own Asayish (similar to the FBI), Parastin and Zanyari (KDP and PUK intelligence, respectively), and counter-terrorism forces as well. Additionally, the KDP has formed a militarized force, called Zeravani, and, in return, the PUK has the Defense and Emergency Police, both under the Ministry of Interior. The KDP has also formed the Rojava Peshmerga, which is a part of the Zeravani forces and was involved in the battle for Mosul. The Rojava Peshmerga are a force of over 5,000 Syrian Kurds, most of whom were refugees recruited by the KDP, which uses them to exert influence in domestic politics in north-eastern Syria. These internal paramilitaries are routinely deployed to suppress critical voices and opposition movements and have become instrumental in the KDP and PUK’s efforts to “maintain public order” in the region. In fact, the U.S. and its allies did not include the aforementioned internal agencies and forces in the 2017 peshmerga reform package despite mounting tensions between the KDP and PUK security and intelligence agencies, implying that policymakers lack a detailed understanding of the region’s security sector.
While U.S. appeals to the Iraqi government to stop violence against protesters are necessary, there is also a need for the U.S. to publicly recognize KRG violence against protesters and call on it to stop its intimidation of peaceful protesters and dissidents, many of whom are detained indefinitely by Asayish or intelligence units. Reliance on the KDP and PUK as the U.S.’s “most reliable partners” and on the KRI as a safe haven for diplomats, Western journalists, and academics in Iraq should not absolve these parties of responsibility for their authoritarian governance. In a single demonstration involving several hundred civil servants in Duhok in May, the KDP arrested over one hundred peaceful demonstrators while diplomats from the U.S. and Europe said nothing. Seemingly, dissidents in the KRI have become the victims of “stability policy.”
Unconditional US support has also led to some serious miscalculations
In the meantime, the U.S.’s unconditional support for the KRI leadership has also led to serious miscalculations by the Kurdish leadership and the U.S. diplomatic corps. In 2015, the Gorran Movement, the KRI’s strongest opposition party with 24 seats, moved to pass amendments to the region’s Presidency Law to prevent former President Masoud Barzani from once again extending his term in office. An amendment to the Presidential Law that the KDP and PUK passed in 2013 to grant Barzani another two years in office explicitly provided that his term could not be extended past Aug. 19, 2015. Instead of supporting the position of the speaker of Parliament, Brett McGurk, the former special U.S. presidential envoy for the Global Coalition to Counter ISIS, attempted to convince the Gorran Movement, Kurdistan Islamic Union (KIU), Kurdistan Islamic Group (KIG), and even the PUK, which also backed the amendments, to allow Barzani to remain in office. Barzani, armed with foreign support, unlawfully blocked the speaker of Parliament from entering Erbil to vote on the resolution and dismissed Gorran ministers, including the minister of peshmerga, from the government. Parliament remained dissolved for nearly two years as a result of its “inconvenient” bid to hold Barzani accountable.
While McGurk’s support for Barzani was justified by the need to maintain stability while the U.S. partnered with the KRG to defeat ISIS, U.S. backing for Barzani led to more instability. By unilaterally extending his presidential term, Barzani created an insurmountable barrier to negotiations between Gorran and the KDP to reopen Parliament and left a governance vacuum in Sulaymaniyah for a year and three months as the Gorran governor-elect refused to swear in before the “illegitimate president.” In addition, it led to Gorran backed-protests and teachers’ strikes throughout the region, bringing educational services to a halt for months and weakening the government as the KDP filled Gorran’s posts in the cabinet with “acting” ministers. For instance, the KDP minister of education served simultaneously as the acting minister of religious affairs.
Barzani, backed by a coalition of Kurdish political parties, held a referendum on Kurdish independence while the territorial fight against ISIS was still ongoing. For more than three months, the U.S. and its allies, France and the UK, strove to convince the Kurdish leadership to delay the referendum, but failed. On Sept. 23, 2017, two days before the vote, former Secretary of State Rex Tillerson asked Barzani to delay the referendum in the interest of preserving regional stability and continuing the fight against ISIS, but Barzani rejected these concerns. Given the referendum’s inclusion of Iraqi disputed areas, the vote resulted in a military confrontation between the Iraqi government and the KRG forces. With the deployment of Iraqi forces to disputed areas to reestablish federal jurisdiction over these territories, the referendum damaged security cooperation between the U.S., federal, and regional governments. Barzani’s intransigence and his miscalculation was fueled by an expectation that the U.S. and its coalition partners would, as they had always before, support the KRG elites.
“First do no harm”
U.S. support for the KRG must continue, but its priority must be reviewed and be made conditional on the fulfillment of specific terms and benchmarks. The U.S. and other KRG allies need to abide by the “first do no harm” principle, which requires consideration that their policies do not primarily serve to entrench the KDP and PUK duopoly at the expense of the protest movement and critical civil society voices, and ensure that its support, whether political, financial, or military, is not abused by the KDP and PUK, whose rivalries for power are undermining the U.S.’s objective of stabilizing the region.
The U.S. must also re-evaluate what “stability” means in the Kurdistan Region more broadly and understand that the type of short-term “stability” provided by the KDP and PUK frustrates these interests and may even result in the loss of the KRI as a reliable partner in the longer run. Instead, U.S. policy should focus on strengthening the rule of law, good governance, accountability, and conditional security support. Such a shift will serve the long-term interests of the region and will not only stabilize the security sector, but will ensure political stability, which will guarantee the KRI as a long-term strategic partner.
To that end, the U.S., as a part of its new strategic dialogue with Iraq, should set conditions on its support for KRI forces. The significant role played by KDP-PUK forces in fighting insurgent groups and ISIS does not change the fact that they are partisan militias that have not been integrated. The U.S. and its allies can support effective reforms to integrate the peshmerga forces by establishing a fully integrated peshmerga training camp under the supervision of U.S. and coalition forces. Currently, the PUK has its own training camp in Qalacholan and the KDP in Zakho. The integrated camp can be used to train newly recruited forces, but most importantly, to retrain commanders in military discipline. The U.S. should also facilitate the establishment of a data center, which will be fundamental in collecting and digitizing employment, salary, and rank information on KDP and PUK forces. The parties currently withhold information or submit unreliable employment data on peshmerga forces, their numbers, salaries, ranks, and command structures. The lack of transparency results from the information asymmetries on both sides — neither of them trusts that if it were to disclose the size and positions of its forces, the other would be forthcoming. This security dilemma between the two parties has led to a quadrupling of the size of their forces compared to 1992, when the KRG was established. The KRG information technology department, under the supervision of the U.S. and its allies, can lead an initiative to digitize information from simple soldiers to top commanders, with the number of brigades and structure of the forces. In addition, the U.S. and its allies must find a mechanism through which to negotiate with the KDP and PUK to retire old commanders, many of whom are brigadiers, because of concerns about their allegiances and lack of professional skills, and promote commanders on the basis of skill and merit. It will not be feasible to integrate peshmerga forces under career commanders, most of whom were part of the KDP-PUK civil war in the mid-1990s.
The US should remain neutral in domestic politics
Finally, the U.S. should keep its neutrality and maintain a balance when it comes to the KRI’s domestic politics. Although the U.S. has arguably been the KRI’s most important strategic partner, its perception among ordinary people has shifted from that of a supporter of the region to a stakeholder in the political status quo. U.S. interests understandably lie in pursuing stability, but in doing so, it must hold the region’s authorities accountable for their destabilizing actions. Pressuring the Kurdish parties to allow peaceful protests, condemning the illegal detention of journalists and activists, and supporting legitimate efforts to reform the KRI will ultimately reduce the kind of instability that followed former President Barzani’s closure of Parliament and the independence referendum. Working closely with independent civil society actors and protest movements to learn about their demands and concerns for the future of the region should be a priority for the U.S. diplomatic corps. By doing so, the U.S. will ensure parties remain accountable to the people and the institutions they claim to uphold and thereby advance its own interests in stability as well.
Mera Jasm Bakr holds a BA from the American University of Iraq, Sulaiamani (AUIS), where he studied international studies. Prior to working as an independent researcher, Mera was the chief English editor at the KirkukNow media outlet, which exclusively covers the Iraqi disputed areas, and worked as a research assistant at the Institute of Regional and International studies (IRIS) at AUIS. Follow him on Twitter @MeraJBakr. The views expressed in this piece are his own.
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