Gen. Votel: US must ‘never forget’ debt to Kurdish people

“We owe a lot to the Kurds in both Iraq and in Syria,” Gen. Joseph Votel said during an interview with Kurdistan 24.
US Army Gen. Joseph Votel, then-head of U.S. Central Command, testifies during a House Armed Services Committee hearing on Capitol Hill in Washington on Feb. 27, 2018. (Photo: SAUL LOEB/AFP)
US Army Gen. Joseph Votel, then-head of U.S. Central Command, testifies during a House Armed Services Committee hearing on Capitol Hill in Washington on Feb. 27, 2018. (Photo: SAUL LOEB/AFP)

WASHINGTON DC (Kurdistan 24) – “It is vitally important that the United States never forget how much we have relied on the Kurdish people” in the fight against ISIS, Gen. Joseph Votel (US Army, Retired) affirmed to Kurdistan 24.

Votel assumed command of the US Special Operations Command (USSOCOM) in August 2014 and then, two years later, of US Central Command (CENTCOM). Thus, Votel was a central figure in fighting ISIS, after the terrorist group burst out of Syria’s civil war, capturing Mosul in June 2014 and threatening both Baghdad and Erbil.

It was President Barack Obama who appointed Votel to lead USSOCOM, and he was then promoted by the Obama administration to head CENTCOM.

Joe Biden, vice-president under Obama, played a major role in formulating and executing US policy toward Iraq, including the Kurdistan Region—both in the withdrawal of US troops in 2011 and in their return three years later.

Almost certainly, Biden and Votel know each other well from that time, and the same would apply to other senior national security figures currently serving in the Biden administration, including Secretary of State Antony Blinken, National Security Adviser Jake Sullivan, and Secretary of Defense Lloyd Austin.

Most probably, some (or all) of them have consulted with Votel, as they formulate their policy toward the region. Indeed, Votel began his answer to one question in his interview with Kurdistan 24 earlier this week, “I don’t know. I haven’t specifically talked to the president about that.”

Of course, the implication in that point, which was stated in all apparent modesty, is that Votel has spoken with President Biden about other aspects of the issue!

Thus, Votel’s personal history and close ties with key figures in the current US administration make his statements all the more informed and authoritative.

We Must Never Forget what the Kurds have Done for the US

“It is vitally important that the United States never forget how much we have relied on the Kurdish people” in the fight against ISIS “to help protect our security interests in this important region,” Votel told Kurdistan 24.

“I hope that we never forget that,” he continued. “We owe a lot to the Kurds in both Iraq and in Syria.”

“We have long been partners with the Peshmerga and with the Kurds in the northern part of Iraq. They were essential to the United States,” he noted, “when we came back to Iraq in 2014.”

Indeed, already four years ago, in 2017, Votel affirmed that, even after ISIS was defeated, it would be important to keep US troops in the Kurdistan Region.

Read More: CENTCOM Commander supports continued US military presence in Kurdistan

“We could not have done what we did, without the Kurds to help us get started and get situated on the ground,” Votel told Kurdistan 24, as he recalled the US return to Iraq in 2014.

“There’s a very long relationship there, and I’m very hopeful that we will preserve that,” he said.

Votel was responding to a question which reflected a Kurdish concern that as the war against ISIS winds down, and as the US reduces its post-9/11 counter-terrorism presence elsewhere, like in Afghanistan, to focus on more traditional challenges, such as China and Russia, Kurds will be abandoned—yet again.

Votel was asked, “As you know, Kurds in Iraq and Syria have been an important ally for the US. Do you believe that in the end, the US, for its own benefit, will forget the Kurds?”

One does, indeed, hope not. In fact, two senior US officials—Brett McGurk, National Security Council Coordinator for the Middle East and North Africa, and Dana Stroul, Deputy Assistant Secretary of Defense for the Middle East—affirmed in a webinar last week, hosted by the Kurdistan Regional Government’s (KRG) Representation in Washington, that the Biden administration considered its relations with the Kurdistan Region to be a “strategic partnership”—the first time that US officials have stated so clearly the importance of the Kurdistan Region to the US.

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

Indeed, McGurk and Stroul were part of a senior US delegation that visited Erbil on Wednesday and delivered a similar message, as it affirmed that the Kurdistan Region was "an important ally of the US in the region.”

In speaking with Kurdistan 24, Votel also had high praise for America’s Kurdish partners in Syria.

“They have certainly fought very valiantly against ISIS,” he affirmed. “They were an indispensable partner for us,” and “they have suffered greatly at the hands of ISIS,” even as they are also “persecuted by their own government” in Damascus.

Votel stressed the importance of including them “in whatever political solution that we can ultimately arrive at in northern Syria.”

Of course, no such political solution is on the horizon now, and the distinct possibility exists that the current stalemate in Syria will persist for some years to come.

If that proves so, the same opportunities that emerged for the Kurdistan Region in the protracted stalemate in Iraq that followed the 1991 Gulf War would likely emerge for the Kurds of Syria, as well.

US Troops Likely Staying in Iraq

Asked if the US withdrawal from Afghanistan might signal a US withdrawal from Iraq, Votel thought it unlikely.

“I don’t know that there is any significant consideration of that right now,” he responded. “It always remains a possibility,” but “I think the United States has recognized that maintaining a partnership and having some forces on the ground in Iraq is important for our interests.”

“We’ve certainly seen what happens, when we step back from this area, as we did in 2011,” he continued, noting that the US was obliged to return to Iraq a mere three years later in order to fight ISIS.

“I don’t think anybody wants a repeat of that,” Votel continued. “I think that what the United States is trying to do is trying to make sure that we have a sustainable level of troop presence on the ground—one that protects our interests and maintains the important relationship that we want to have with the Iraqi forces and with the Iraqi government, to include the Kurds.”

“So I don’t know that there’s any immediate talk here on that, and I’m hopeful that we will continue to be a good partner to Iraq,” he stated.

In that context, Votel was also optimistic about the US Strategic Dialogue with Iraq. It began under former Secretary of State Mike Pompeo and has continued under Blinken.

Read More: Kurdistan Region welcomes outcome of third round of US-Iraq strategic dialogue

“I think there’s a very good chance for the strategic talks to be successful,” Votel said, as he reiterated, “having a good relationship with Iraq is important to US interests in the Middle East.”

Votel, thus, implicitly drew a distinction between Iraq and Afghanistan, which is extremely far from any vital US interests (a decade ago, this reporter served as a cultural advisor to the US military in Afghanistan and can testify to that.)

“Iraq has capable forces,” Votel noted, and despite repeated militia attacks—which he attributed, ultimately, to Iran—it is in the US interest “to maintain a very, very strong relationship” with Iraq “moving forward.”

That, indeed, appears to be, generally speaking, the view of the Biden administration as well.

Editing by Khrush Najari