Joe Reeder: Kurdistan Region is ‘red line’ for the US

Joe Reeder, former Undersecretary of the US Army, spoke to Kurdistan 24 in June 2021.
Joe Reeder, former Undersecretary of the US Army, spoke to Kurdistan 24 in June 2021.

WASHINGTON, DC (Kurdistan 24) – The Kurdistan Region is a “red line” for the United States, Joe Reeder, former Undersecretary of the Army, told Kurdistan 24 last week.

Reeder was explaining the importance that the Biden administration and the US Congress place on America’s relations with the Kurdish region. 

“It is very important that the countries in that neighborhood understand that anything that threatens the KRG [Kurdistan Regional Government] is a red line for the United States,” Reeder affirmed.


There are “tens of thousands of Kurdish-Americans living here in the United States, and you’ve got a very charismatic and well-spoken leader, Bayan al-Rahman, here in Washington, DC and, I believe, that Congress” and “the administration strongly support the Kurds,” Reeder continued, “and the Kurds have earned that respect for their bravery and for their loyalty.”

Background: How the US Came to Appreciate the Kurds

Over the past three decades—since the 1991 Gulf War, and particularly since the 2003 war with Iraq—the US has increasingly come to know, and appreciate, the Kurds of Iraq. To understand the full weight of Reeder’s remark, it is very helpful to understand the background, over the past three decades.

Those familiar with the cordial relations that exist now between Washington and Erbil might find it hard to believe how cold—even non-existent—those ties once were. 

Yet understanding that is important to understanding just what Reeder means, and why he is so right to stress that the warm ties now are the result of the Kurds’ bravery and loyalty.

Some 30 years ago, even after Saddam Hussein invaded Kuwait in August 1990, the US refused even to meet the Kurdish leadership. It was fixated on overthrowing Saddam through a coup and seemed to believe that speaking with Saddam’s Iraqi opponents would alienate the coup-makers upon whom it was counting. 

So throughout the build-up to the US counter-offensive, launched in January 1991, and throughout the war itself, there were no contacts at a policy level with the Kurds. 

At the end of February, Bush, unilaterally, called a ceasefire, and the Kurds (as well as the Shia in the south) rose in revolt. As the month passed, and Saddam slowly and brutally crushed the revolts, even using chemical weapons in the south, Bush just watched. The US had overwhelming military power in the theater, but it did nothing. 

The administration remained bent on promoting a coup in Iraq, while the military—in the person of the Chairman of the Joint Chiefs of Staff Gen. Colin Powell—worried about a “quagmire” in Iraq and wanted out as soon as possible.

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

This astonishingly cold-hearted attitude only changed after the Kurdish exodus, as millions of people fled to the borders of Turkey and Iran, fearing that Saddam would use chemical weapons against them. Their miserable plight produced a public uproar, driven by the television cameras of major US outlets, reporting from the Turkish-Iraqi border. 

The Secretary of State, James Baker, flew to Turkey to evaluate the situation—and immediately the US position was transformed. 

The US military began Operation Provide Comfort, while the ban on communications with the Iraqi opposition was lifted and US officials began speaking with the Kurds. 

The next part of the story is relatively well-known. The humanitarian operation that was part of Operation Provide Comfort soon ended, but the no-fly zone over northern Iraq, to the 32nd parallel, remained.

It “provided a golden opportunity for the people of Kurdistan,” as President Masoud Barzani, long-time leader of the Kurdistan Region and still head of the Kurdistan Democratic Party, explained on the 30th anniversary of Operation Provide Comfort. 

Read More: Masoud Barzani hails Operation Provide Comfort, even as he warns of current dangers

In the decade after the 1991 Gulf War, protected from Saddam’s brutalities by the no-fly zone, “the people of Kurdistan were able to manage their own affairs, establish institutions, hold elections, and establish a parliament and a regional government,” Barzani explained.

Following the 9/11 attacks, as President George W. Bush prepared to oust Saddam, in 2002, a CIA paramilitary team arrived in Erbil to prepare for the coming war. It found a ready, willing, and highly capable partner in the KRG and the Peshmerga.

Even so, the US still tilted strongly toward Baghdad over Erbil. It has really been two decades of experience with—and disappointment—in Baghdad that led to the current US view of the Kurdistan Region, as described by Joe Reeder.

The emergence of ISIS in 2014 proved the next major event helping to cement ties between Washington and Erbil. In the Trump administration, some senior figures knew the KRG leaders personally and expressed their appreciation of those relationships.

Notable among them was Mike Pompeo, the Director of the CIA in Donald Trump’s first two years in office, and Secretary of State in the last two years. 

As State Department Spokesperson Morgan Ortagus told Kurdistan 24 in early 2020, Pompeo “has an incredibly close relationship” with KRG Prime Minister Masrour Barzani. 

That relationship dates back to the time when Pompeo headed the CIA and Barzani led the Kurdistan Region Security Council.

Read More: ‘We work incredibly closely with the KRG;’ US State Department

Such personal relationships are even more common in the current administration, and they start at the top, with President Joe Biden, who was a long-time member of the Senate Foreign Relations Committee, before becoming Vice President in 2009.

In 2017, after Biden had left the White House, this reporter chanced to see him at a local grocery store and had the opportunity to speak with him about the Obama administration’s policy toward the Kurds.

“Masoud Barzani is a good friend of mine,” Biden said, “and I wished we could have done more for the Kurds.”

Turkey was the obstacle to doing more for the Kurds then, Biden explained. But that was the Obama administration and Biden’s administration may prove more forthcoming.

Indeed, in remarks to a KRG webinar in April marking the 30th anniversary of Operation Provide Comfort, two senior US officials—from the White House and the Pentagon—each described US ties with the KRG as a “strategic partnership.” That marked the first time Washington officially used such a term to characterize its relationship with Erbil.

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

Baghdad Needs to Honor Constitutional Obligations; Treat Kurds with Dignity and Respect

Reeder also stressed the importance of the federal government in Baghdad dealing properly with “its Kurdish citizens”—with the “same dignity and same respect and its constitutional obligations to its Kurdish people.”

Chief among those constitutional obligations now concerns the budget, “honoring what it committed to, is owed to, and needed by the KRG,” Reeder said.

Part of the problem, of course, is the economic difficulty created by the coronavirus pandemic. Yet even more deep-seated than that is the failure of the Iraqi government more generally.

One example is corruption. Iraq ranks among the worst 20 countries in that regard (160 out of 180) on Transparency International’s corruption index. 

The Biden administration recently announced a new initiative against corruption, and Washington Post columnist David Ignatius, writing in support of that effort, stated: “From what I’ve seen over the years, this gross corruption is the biggest single reason our wars in Iraq and Afghanistan went so wrong. Rather than fostering democracy, they enriched a new class of thieves.”

Citing Ignatius, Kurdistan 24 recently asked the State Department whether they intended to implement the anti-corruption initiative in Iraq. But we received no reply—not a great surprise, as US officials may well feel that there are other, more pressing issues in US relations with Baghdad.

But it does underscore one aspect of Baghdad’s record of poor governance, which goes far beyond how it treats the Kurds. 

Sunni Arabs have not fared much better than the Kurds, while the Shia south has been roiled by protests since 2019.

Iraqi elections are scheduled for October, and pro-Iranian militias have been carrying out murderous attacks against journalists and activists. A report from Human Rights Watch, published last month, warned that the Baghdad government needed to stop that violence, or it would likely have a chilling effect on the elections, distorting the vote.

Read More: Failure to hold armed groups accountable for killings will mar Iraq elections, HRW warns

Asked about that, Reeder stressed the importance of holding the vote properly. “In any democracy,” he said, “there should be the highest priority placed on honoring and executing an election in accordance with the expectations of the people.”

Of course, that is what should happen. It remains to be seen what will happen.

Mr. Reeder is a registered agent on behalf of the Kurdistan Regional Government, and additional information is on file with the U.S. Department of Justice.