In 1991, President George H.W. Bush urged Iraqis to revolt against Saddam Hussein. They did so, but when Washington failed to back them they faced brutal violence from the Iraqi military. The US felt some responsibility for that, and provided air support for a no-fly zone to protect them.
In 2003, when the US invaded Iraq, the Kurds were important allies, and they began creating a de facto autonomous region in northern Iraq. In 2014, when Daesh attacked Kurdish-held areas in Iraq, the US military provided air support to the Kurds. Since then, the Kurds in northern Iraq and Syria have been essential allies in the fight against Daesh.
Despite this complicated history of protection and alliance, and a positive impression of the Kurds among many US policymakers and experts, Washington strongly opposed last month’s Kurdish referendum on independence for several reasons.
First, the US was concerned that it would divide the coalition fighting Daesh. The referendum also conflicted with long-standing US policy that Iraq should be a unified state. Some US policymakers worry that, if Iraq breaks apart, Iran will gain more influence. Washington also worried that the referendum would weaken Iraqi Prime Minister Haidar Al-Abadi before elections in spring 2018. Other concerns included risks to the Iraqi Kurds’ relations with neighboring states, and creating new difficulties in Washington’s complex relationship with NATO ally Turkey. Some in Washington also negatively viewed the referendum as a mechanism for keeping Masoud Barzani, president of the Kurdish Regional Government (KRG), in power.
However, there was also criticism of the US government’s opposition to the referendum from conservative anti-Iran hawks, moderates with a nuanced view of the region, and former military figures who have worked with the Kurds. Their critiques are based on six issues.
Respect for the Kurds and fighting Daesh: Many US military and civilian experts view the Kurds as essential allies against Daesh. The US has military assets in the KRG, and some have worked with and fought beside the Kurds on the battlefield. There is great respect for them, and a sense that the US has a responsibility toward the Kurds, given their history fighting Daesh and what many see as the US betrayal in 1991. Furthermore, some strategists fear that, if Washington does not support its best on-the-ground ally in the fight against terrorism, then it will lose trust and influence with other allies.
Lack of trust: Some US observers agree that the Kurds cannot trust Baghdad to fulfill its commitments in any negotiations, and cannot trust that the US and other allies will support them once the fight against Daesh is over. The Kurds have a long history to teach them that Baghdad will oppress them and that international powers will betray them. So why not continue to pursue their long-held national aspirations?
Unrealistic and ineffective US policy: Some argue that US policy in opposing the referendum was ineffective and counterproductive. They say there was no way Washington could convince the Kurds to cancel the referendum, especially only a few days in advance. Failure to do so undermined perceptions of US strength and influence. Some critics argued that US diplomacy was incompetent — issuing futile warnings, then effectively saying “we told you so” when the Kurds faced threats from Baghdad and neighboring states, rather than trying to calm matters down.
Official US policy was to oppose the independence referendum, but there are many dissenting American voices with powerful arguments.
Kerry Boyd Anderson
Unified Iraq? Since the 2003 invasion of Iraq, US policymakers have debated Iraq’s future; a united country, a confederation, or allowed to break up. Some argue it would be more realistic to accept that a unified, centralized Iraq is not possible, and the US should stop wasting resources in pursuit of it.
A neutral mediator: Another common critique was that Washington was picking sides by opposing the referendum. US State Department spokeswoman Heather Nauert denied this, and said the US was not taking sides but supported “a unified, democratic Iraq.” Since the referendum, Secretary of State Rex Tillerson has called for calm and non-violence on all sides, but focused criticism on the Kurds. Critics argue that the US government condemned Kurdish actions while remaining silent about Baghdad’s failure to live up to its promises to the KRG. They say Washington now cannot credibly be a fair broker in negotiations. They would have preferred that Washington remain neutral on the referendum and try to facilitate discussions between Irbil and Baghdad.
Leverage against Iran: Some critics of the Trump administration’s policy on the Kurds also argue that an independent or largely autonomous Kurdistan along Iran’s border, armed by the Kurdish peshmerga and backed by US military power, would create a problem for Iran and thus give Washington and its allies more leverage over Tehran.
US government opposition to the referendum and the debate in Washington reflect broader challenges for US policy in the Middle East. Washington wants to keep all its allies focused on annihilating Daesh, while the Kurds and other allies have additional priorities. Doubts about US credibility complicate Washington’s policy.
The US is now likely to try to renew talks between Irbil and Baghdad, but faces many challenges. Meanwhile, debate about the Kurds will continue in Washington.
• Kerry Boyd Anderson is a writer and political risk consultant with more than 14 years experience as a professional analyst of international security issues and Middle East political and business risks. Her previous positions include deputy director for advisory with Oxford Analytica and managing editor of Arms Control Today.