Biden administration: We have a ‘strategic partnership’ with the Kurdistan Region

Brett McGurk (left), US National Security Council Coordinator for the Middle East and North Africa, and Deputy Assistant Secretary of Defense for the Middle East Dana Stroul participate in a webinar. (Photo: Kurdistan 24)
Brett McGurk (left), US National Security Council Coordinator for the Middle East and North Africa, and Deputy Assistant Secretary of Defense for the Middle East Dana Stroul participate in a webinar. (Photo: Kurdistan 24)

WASHINGTON DC (Kurdistan24) - Two US officials—one from the White House and another from the Pentagon—made important statements last week in a webinar marking the 30th anniversary of Operation Provide Comfort—the US-led humanitarian operation that followed the ceasefire to the 1991 Gulf War.

That operation brought some two million Kurds down from the mountainous borders with Turkey and Iran, after US President George H. W. Bush ended that war with Saddam Hussein in power and then tried to turn a blind eye to the humanitarian crisis that followed.

Read More: The US Watches, as Saddam Crushes the Uprisings: 25th Anniversary

However, a US leader cannot easily do what Bush tried to do, and his callous decision was soon reversed, with astonishingly positive and enduring results. Thirty years on, senior American and Kurdish figures celebrated the anniversary of those events in a webinar hosted by the Kurdistan Regional Government (KRG) Representation in Washington.

Read More: Masoud Barzani to speak about Operation Provide Comfort’s 30th anniversary in KRG-sponsored webinar

When the two Biden administration officials spoke, they each made clear they were speaking in the name of their bosses: President Joe Biden and Secretary of Defense, Lloyd Austin. And they had a message: we see our relationship with the Kurdistan Region—people and government—as a “strategic partnership.”

The repeated articulation of that term—strategic partnership—by two currently serving US officials suggests its use was deliberate.

Indeed, both officials read from written statements, reinforcing the point: this is a message from the new US administration to the Kurdistan Region, government and people: we consider our partnership with you to be a strategic relationship that advances your interests, as well as ours.

This partnership is not tactical: something temporary and subject to change, with the winds of erratic and passing circumstances. Instead, it is strategic: overarching and long-term, developed over the past three decades.

“It all comes down to the fact that the KRG is a beachhead for the United States in the core Middle East,” is how Nicholas Heras, a Senior Analyst at Newsline Institute, explained the Biden administration’s position to Kurdistan 24.

“Erbil Airport has become a key node in the US security network in the region. The Iraqi Kurds have proven to be strong partners of the United States and especially reliable in what is becoming an increasingly hostile Iraq,” Heras continued. “Without the KRG, there would not have been a successful counter-ISIS mission, and the KRG is a core part of the US strategy to remain, even with a reduced posture, in the Middle East.”

The stance of the Biden administration—“strategic partnership”—marks a significant evolution in US policy. No prior administration has articulated that so clearly. It has essentially said: we will not use you to confront the crisis de jour and then, once it has passed, throw you under the bus, as has happened before: most recently in 2017, when Washington turned a blind eye to Baghdad’s attack on the Kurdistan Region in a military operation organized by Iran.

Yet it is one thing to articulate a policy and another to actually implement it. Two cautions should be noted.

The US has a long-standing commitment to Iraq’s territorial integrity, as well as Iraq’s sovereignty. As Washington (including the Biden administration) has repeatedly stated, US forces are in Iraq at the invitation of the Iraqi government.

that invitation is rescinded? Iran has a lot of influence in Iraq and many tools with which to pressure the Iraqi government. What if Tehran should amp up that pressure and tell Baghdad that it is time for US troops to leave, and the Iraqi government actually says that? What would become of the “strategic partnership”?

Repeated Militia Attacks on Iraqi Bases with US Personnel

A second issue concerns ongoing, even escalating, attacks on facilities where members of the US-led Coalition against ISIS are located. On April 14, Erbil International Airport was attacked by an explosive drone. US troops are based there, as they are at Baghdad International Airport, which suffered a rocket attack on Sunday.

And on Monday there was a rocket attack on Balad Air Base, 35 kilometers north of Baghdad. Although no Coalition troops are based at Balad, US contractors who help maintain Iraq’s F-16 airplanes are stationed there.

So how does the Biden administration intend to deal with these attacks?

In the last year of the Trump administration, it fixed on one way to do so, consistent with the famous motto of an early twentieth century US president, Teddy Roosevelt: speak softly and carry a big stick.

The story of how the Trump administration managed to deter militia attacks, at least until after Trump’s defeat in the November 3 presidential elections, was reported in a limited way out of Washington—above all by the highly regarded Washington Post columnist, David Ignatius. Significantly more such reports appeared in the local media.

Last September, Secretary of State Mike Pompeo spoke by telephone with Iraqi President Barham Salih and demanded that the Iraqi government stop the attacks on US targets.

Pompeo warned Salih that otherwise he would close the embassy, while US diplomatic operations continued in Erbil. In addition, he made a very serious threat against the militias.

“If our forces withdraw, and the embassy is closed in this way, we will liquidate everyone who has been proven to be involved in these acts,” Pompeo told Salih, according to local reports.

“We will not have mercy on anyone, especially Kata’ib Hizbollah and Asa’ib Ahl al-Haq,” Pompeo reportedly said, adding, “The decision to close the US embassy will have very negative repercussions on Iraq and its future.”

Read More: US warns Iraq on Iranian-backed militias

Salih then met with other senior figures in the Iraqi leadership, conveying Pompeo’s warning. That prompted the mercurial, often anti-American cleric, Muqtada al-Sadr to condemn the militia attacks, while the militias themselves were quick to announce their suspension of assaults on US targets in Iraq.

That was how the Trump administration secured a temporary halt to the attacks on US targets by Iran’s proxies in Iraq—until they resumed sporadically in mid-November.

Biden White House affirms Strategic Partnership

Speaking in the name of President Joe Biden, Brett McGurk, National Security Council Coordinator for the Middle East and North Africa, addressed the webinar’s moderator, Bayan Sami Abdul Rahman, KRG Representative in Washington.

“You have a lot of friends here in the new White House and throughout the Biden administration,” McGurk said.

“On behalf of President Biden, who has such a long and personal history with Iraq and the Kurdish people, I want to express my strong support for the enduring relationship with the Kurdistan Regional Government and my gratitude for the Kurdish and American heroes who made Operation Provide Comfort possible,” McGurk stated.

Indeed, no US President has come into office with as much experience and familiarity with the Kurds, as President Joe Biden.

In late 2017, this reporter chanced to see Biden at a local grocery store and asked about the Obama administration’s policy toward the Kurds.

“Masoud Barzani is a good friend of mine,” he replied, and “I wish we could have done more for the Kurds.”

“Why didn’t you,” I asked. “Turkey,” the former vice-president responded.

Read More: Joe Biden—‘Good Friend’ of Masoud Barzani—becomes America’s 46th President

For over thirty years, from 1973 to 2009, Biden served as a senator from Delaware, before he became Barack Obama’s vice-president, a position he held until 2017, through Obama’s two terms.

In 1997, Biden became the senior Democratic senator on the Senate Foreign Relations Committee (SFRC.) So when Democrats held the majority in the Senate, Biden was chairman of the SFRC. When Republicans held the majority, he was the committee’s ranking Democrat.

In November 2002, as Chairman of the SFRC, Biden visited Erbil, along with Chuck Hagel, then a Republican senator from Nevada and later Secretary of Defense in the Obama administration.

At that point, Washington was in the last stages of preparing for the second Gulf War, Operation Iraqi Freedom (OIF.) A CIA team, as well as US Army Special Forces, were already in the Kurdistan Region, where they had been working with the Peshmerga to eliminate a threat in the east: Ansar al-Islam

In his November 2002 visit to Erbil, Biden met with the Kurdish leadership, presumably to coordinate for the upcoming conflict, and he addressed the Kurdish parliament.

Already in May 2003—just two months after OIF began—Bush believed he had won in Iraq. That was the claim of the CENTCOM commander, Gen. Tommy Franks, who retired the next month, believing he had won astonishingly quick victories in Afghanistan and in Iraq.

Not since the Vietnam war, thirty years before, had the US fought a counter-insurgency war, and Franks reflected the Army’s inexperience. With time, it became clear that the declaration of victory had been premature.

In 2006, Biden, along with Leslie Gelb, then president emeritus of the Council on Foreign Relations, published a New York Times opinion piece. OIF was going badly, and they proposed a decentralized political system for Iraq, “giving each ethno-religious group – Kurds, Sunni Arab, and Shia Arab – room to run its own affairs, while leaving the central government in charge of common interests.”

In 2007, Biden, along with Sen. Sam Brownback (R. Kansas), who chaired the SFRC’s Middle East subcommittee, sponsored a bipartisan, non-binding Senate resolution, based on the Times article. The resolution passed overwhelmingly, by a vote of 75 to 23

Iraq’s Arabs—Sunni and Shi’a—rejected the resolution, denouncing it as tantamount to Iraq’s partition (the Sunni position has since shifted.)

The Kurds had a very different response. The KRG hailed the Senate resolution, affirming that it offered “the promise of stability and freedom from dictatorial regimes,” while “we welcome this significant resolution in support of federalism, which guarantees the survival of Iraq on the basis of voluntary union.”

A Humanitarian Mission Evolved into a Strategic Partnership

In last week’s webinar, McGurk made a crucial point, “Thirty years after [Operation Provide Comfort], what began as a humanitarian mission is now a true strategic partnership.”

It was never Washington’s intent to support the establishment of an autonomous political entity in the Kurdistan Region. Then, as now, it was committed to maintaining Iraq’s territorial integrity. Indeed, in 1991 that commitment was so strong that the White House looked only to a coup to overthrow Saddam, and it declined to support the popular uprisings that erupted in the north and the south, after Bush’s call for a ceasefire, following Gen. Norman Schwarzkopf’s celebratory February 27 press briefing, which suggested Saddam’s forces had been defeated and defanged.

That was not true, and Saddam used his Republican Guards to suppress the uprisings in the south and then in the north, precipitating the Kurdish refugee crisis.

Despite the US aim to limit Operation Provide Comfort to addressing the humanitarian crisis, there, nonetheless, arose from the debacle of those days, the longest, most enduring, self-governing Kurdish political entity in modern times—with which the White House now considers itself to be in “a true strategic partnership.”

Notably, the other administration official who addressed the webinar, Dana Stroul, Deputy Assistant Secretary of Defense for the Middle East, used similar language.

Just as McGurk made clear that he spoke on behalf of Biden, Stroul began by saying she spoke “on behalf of Secretary of Defense Lloyd Austin.”

“This is an occasion to reflect on that historic undertaking”—Operation Provide Comfort—“and what it says about the bonds between our two people, a partnership that remains strong and essential to this day,” Stroul stated,—“and just to echo what Brett said: strategic, a strategic partnership.”

Operation Provide Comfort “was the largest humanitarian operation the world had ever seen,” she explained. At its height, the US-led force that carried it out, involved over 20,000 people.

“In the first 20 days of the operation,” she continued, “US Air Force C-5’s and C-141’s—massive planes weighing hundreds of thousands of pounds—flew 75 missions across the Atlantic, transporting life saving relief supplies.”

Alliance with Peshmerga in Advance of OIF and then against ISIS

In reviewing the development of the strategic partnership between the US and the KRG, Strohl noted that US troops worked with the Peshmerga in the second Iraq war.

‘Since [Operation Provide Comfort], we have also learned firsthand what brave partners you all are,” she stated, “when everything has been on the line, and we stood up to face danger together.”

“The twelve year anniversary of Operation Provide Comfort saw Kurdish and American forces, again, fighting side by side, ultimately ending the reign of Saddam Hussein,” Strohl continued

When George W. Bush decided on overthrowing Saddam Hussein and his regime after the 9/11 attacks, the Kurdistan Region was the only part of Iraq not under the regime’s control—in fact, it was under the control of a friendly party, prepared to partner with the US against Saddam and his regime.

That is described in the memoirs of an intelligence officer, Sam Faddis, “The CIA War in Kurdistan: The Untold Story of the Northern Front in the Iraq War.”

In early 2002, Faddis was appointed to lead a CIA paramilitary team that was to enter the Kurdistan Region and prepare for the war ahead (the decision to overthrow Saddam was made much earlier than Bush publicly stated.)

Thus, although, in 1991, the US had conceived of Operation Provide Comfort as a strictly humanitarian mission, a dozen years later, it proved to have major strategic consequence.

Strohl noted that twelve years after that, on the 24th anniversary of Operation Provide Comfort, US and Peshmerga forces were, again, “fighting side by side to defeat the brutal aspirations of Daesh against whom Kurdish forces defended a nearly 650 mile front that included the very same territory US planes once circled to keep Saddam Hussein’s forces at bay.”

“Now, three decades after that operation,” she affirmed, “the bond forged between our peoples remains, and the partnership between our Armed Forces is stronger than ever.”

“Today, US and Coalition forces advise, equip, assist, and enable the Peshmerga, as they take the lead to fight against Daesh in the Iraqi Kurdistan Region,” Strohl continued. “This critical work contributes to the stability and security of Iraq, the region, and, indeed, the entire world.

History of “Strategic Partnership”

The KRG has long sought to portray its ties with the US as a strategic partnership. In 2016, Falah Mustafa, head of the KRG’s Department of Foreign Affairs, visited Washington and marked the 25th anniversary of Operation Provide Comfort.

It planted the seeds of “strong partnerships and friendships,” Mustafa told Kurdistan 24, and "the KRG looks to a strategic partnership with the US.”

Another four years passed, however, before a US official would use that phrase. In January 2020, Assistant Secretary of State for Near Eastern Affairs, David Schenker, spoke to reporters, after returning from a visit to Erbil.

“We are proud of our partnership with the Iraqi Kurds and believe it is central to achieving many of our goals in the Middle East,” Schenker said.

“Our conversations were about building on the strategic partnership we’ve had with Iraq’s Kurds going back to 1991,” Schenker continued, as he summarized his discussions with senior Kurdish officials.

Last week’s webinar, however, was the first time that senior US officials repeatedly used that term, as they characterized US relations with the Kurdistan Region as a “strategic partnership.”

The US, it seems, has come to recognize the validity of the KRG perspective. So now the question is: How will Washington implement a policy based on that perspective, particularly given the legacy of past policies and the complexity of the present situation?

Editing by John J. Catherine