‘Masoud Barzani is a good friend of mine’ — Kurdistan is not Afghanistan!

Joe Biden (right), then US vice-president, meets with President Masoud Barzani in Erbil, April 28, 2016. (Photo: Kurdistan Region Presidency)
Joe Biden (right), then US vice-president, meets with President Masoud Barzani in Erbil, April 28, 2016. (Photo: Kurdistan Region Presidency)

WASHINGTON DC (Kurdistan 24) – That is what Joe Biden told this reporter at a chance encounter at a local grocery store in late 2017.

Biden was no longer Vice-President, but, perhaps, he had the next presidential campaign in mind, because he was taking questions from a small group of people gathered around him. I joined them and asked about the Obama administration’s policy toward the Kurds.

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

“Why didn’t you,” I replied. “Turkey,” he responded.

It is not likely that Biden would betray a good friend, but the reasons why Kurdistan is not Afghanistan go far beyond Joe Biden’s regard for Masoud Barzani.

Kurdistan is not Afghanistan

As Masoud Barzani himself said on Sunday, “There is a big difference between Afghanistan and Kurdistan,” and “there is also a big difference between the Peshmerga and the Afghan army.”

“Most importantly,” Barzani added, “we are a nation with a will and a cause.”

Indeed, the Afghan army—built up by the US and its NATO allies over the past two decades—folded like a house of cards, surrendering in city after city to the Taliban, while the president, Ashraf Ghani, fled even before the Taliban reached Kabul.

It is inconceivable that the Kurdish leadership, and the Peshmerga, would do anything like that. Indeed, in March and April 1991, under infinitely more difficult circumstances, they stood, fought, and held their ground.

At that time, President George H. W. Bush had ended the Gulf War with Saddam Hussein in power, unilaterally calling a ceasefire on February 28. The Shi’a in the south and the Kurds in the north rose in revolt.

US miscalculations had allowed significant elements of Saddam’s Republican Guards to escape battle and survive. Saddam turned those forces against the south and then moved north to attack the Kurds. As that happened, the US watched and did nothing—despite its overwhelming military presence in the region.

The Kurds fled en masse, fearing Saddam would use chemical weapons against them. And as Saddam’s Republican Guards bore down, the Kurdish leadership, and Peshmerga, confronted them. In very difficult fighting, they disabled and blocked the tanks of the Republican Guards in the mountain passes, allowing the population to flee in safety behind them.

That is what Massoud Barzani, and his young son, Masrour, did at Korre. Further south, Jalal Talabani and his fighters did the same.

Read More: The Kurdish Exodus: 25th Anniversary

Masoud Barzani is a genuinely modest man. If he were not, he might also have said on Sunday that faced with the challenge that the Afghans faced, we would not have collapsed. Indeed, when we were put to the test, and it was much worse than what the Afghans faced, we did not.

Rather, we fought as men of honor, cognizant of our history, and committed to our people. And despite what seemed very grim odds, we succeeded, laying the basis for the Kurdistan Region, its peace and prosperity, as we know it today.

Masoud Barzani would not say that of himself, of course, but others, including this reporter, are not so constrained.

Understanding the Afghan Collapse: Corrupt Government with Less Substance than US Imagined

“The causes are very clear,” Amb. Peter Galbraith, told CNN last week. “You had a corruption that started at the top and went all the day down,”

The corruption “began with a succession of fraudulent elections: [Hamid] Karzai’s second term, Ashraf Ghani’s two terms,” Galbraith continued. “When you have corrupt power brokers stealing elections, it’s awfully hard for you, as the top man ,to do anything about corruption.”

Galbraith also held US military commanders accountable. “They said that they were fighting a counter insurgency,” and for a counterinsurgency, “you have to have a local partner.” So “they pretended” they had a local partner in the Afghan government, “because it fit their strategy,” which “was the ultimate formula for disaster,” Galbraith said.

Galbraith’s remarks closely resemble those of senior US officials to the Special Inspector General for Afghanistan Reconstruction (SIGAR.) SIGAR was established by Congress in 2008 to review US reconstruction in Afghanistan. But since the Afghan war had not really ended, SIGAR reviewed all aspects of US operations, including military and diplomatic.

Key SIGAR documents were released in December 2019, by the Washington Post. A correspondent, Craig Whitlock, obtained them through the Freedom of Information Act for his book, The Afghanistan Papers: A Secret History of the War,

Most people who spoke to SIGAR, the Post explained, did so “on the assumption that their remarks would not become public.” They are, thus, unusually candid.

Lt. Gen. Michael Flynn (US Army, Ret.) served in senior intelligence positions in Afghanistan and Iraq. He later became a controversial figure, serving briefly in 2017 as Donald Trump’s National Security Adviser. Yet his blistering remarks to SIGAR in 2015 are worth noting, as others expressed similar views.

Flynn complained, as Galbraith did, that US political and military officials regularly portrayed circumstances in Afghanistan as significantly more positive than they were.

Intelligence reporting would be negative, but “as intelligence makes its way up higher,” it gets “really watered down,” Flynn said.

“It gets politicized, because once policymakers get their hands on it, and, frankly once operational commanders get their hands on it, they put their own twist to it,” he explained.

“Operational commanders, State Department policymakers, and Department of Defense policymakers are going to be inherently rosy in their assessments,” he added. “They will be unaccepting of hard-hitting intelligence.”

In May 2007, President George W. Bush appointed Lt. Gen. Douglas Lute (US Army, Ret.) to oversee the wars in Afghanistan and Iraq. The New York Times dubbed Lute “the War Czar.”

Barack Obama retained Lute as Special Assistant and Senior Coordinator for Afghanistan and Pakistan, and Lute remained in that position, until August 2013, when he became US ambassador to NATO.

Thus, Lute had a great deal of experience. He told SIGAR, “We were devoid of a fundamental understanding of Afghanistan—we didn’t know what we were doing.”

“What are the demographics of the country? The economic drivers?,” he continued. “We’re going to do something in Afghanistan with $10 billion? Haiti is a small country in our own backyard with no extremist insurgency and we can’t develop it. And we expect to develop Afghanistan with $10 billion?”

“What are we trying to do here?,” Lute asked. “We didn’t have the foggiest notion of what we were undertaking. We never would have tolerated rosy-goal statements, if we understood, and this didn’t really start happening until Obama.”

Indeed, that was this reporter’s experience as a cultural advisor to the US military in Afghanistan and Iraq. Many analysts had little knowledge of the Middle East, but positive assessments could compensate.

One colleague wrote a paper in advance of Iraq’s 2010 elections, arguing that no matter which candidate won, including Nouri al-Maliki, it would be fine from a US perspective. Her boss was so impressed that he arranged for her to brief the Commanding General, who, in turn, may (or may not) have repeated her upbeat conclusion in dealing with his own superiors.

Of course, Maliki was not such a fine candidate. He won the 2010 elections and became prime minister, but his Shi’a sectarianism contributed to the rise of ISIS. When the Obama administration was obliged to send US forces back into Iraq, it made Maliki’s resignation a condition of US support.

“From ambassadors down to the low level, (they all say) we are doing a great job,” Flynn told SIGAR. “So if we are doing such a great job, why does it feel like we are losing?”

Indeed, a retired US intelligence official explained to Kurdistan 24 that such “happy talk’" was also “a serious problem in the Vietnam war," as he slammed "sycophantic careerists."

Biden Administration Statements: We are Staying in Iraq, Syria to Fight ISIS

Since taking office in January, the Biden administration has repeatedly affirmed its intent to keep US forces in Iraq and Syria to assist in the fight against ISIS.

Earlier this month, the US Ambassador to Iraq, Matthew Tueller, held a roundtable with journalists in Erbil. Tueller affirmed that in contrast to the US withdrawal from Afghanistan, the US is in Iraq, including the Kurdistan Region, “for the long haul.”

Read More: US Envoy: We are committed to Iraq 'for the long haul'

President Biden “understands the importance of Iraq, the importance of the US to Iraq, the importance of Iraq in the region,” Tueller told the journalists.

For the past five months, US officials, from Biden on down, have repeatedly affirmed their commitment to continuing the fight against ISIS, even as they withdraw US forces from Afghanistan.

The most authoritative such statement came from Biden himself. On July 8, he reaffirmed the US withdrawal from Afghanistan, describing al Qaida as a spent force. But he also said,“We are repositioning our resources and adapting our counterterrorism posture to meet the threats where they are now significantly higher: in South Asia, the Middle East, and Africa.”

The fight against ISIS in Iraq and Syria is central to combatting terrorism in the Middle East—one of the three regions that Biden identified as important to America’s counterterrorism effort.

Read More: Biden reaffirms commitment to fight against terrorism in Middle East as US leaves Afghanistan

This reporter has closely watched the statements of US officials on Iraq and Syria and not once did they suggest an intent to withdraw US forces from either of those two countries.

Afghanistan was strategic territory for Britain in the 19th century, because it ruled India—the “jewel” in the British imperial crown.

But Afghanistan is not strategic territory for the US today. It lies some 7,500 miles away—in Central Asia. Mountainous, rugged, and undeveloped, it is infamous as the “graveyard of empires” (including the British), while its famous mountain range—the Hindu Kush—literally means “the killer of Hindus.”

As Obama’s vice-president, Biden was centrally involved in national security matters. For the previous 12 years, he had been the top Democrat on the Senate Foreign Relations Committee, and his experience vastly exceeded Obama’s.

Already in January 2009, shortly after a fact-finding mission to Pakistan and Afghanistan, Biden concluded that the US was trying to do too much in Afghanistan. The Kabul regime was hopelessly corrupt, and it was not possible for the US to create good, stable governance—a basic objective of counter-insurgency warfare, as formulated and advocated by figures like Gen. David Petraeus.

George W. Bush appointed Bob Gates as Secretary of Defense in December 2006. Obama retained him until June 2011. Gates, thus, had considerable experience supervising the Afghan war.

US officials, including Gates, recognized that there were serious problems with the Afghan government. In September 2009, the National Security Council met to consider the request of Gen. Stanley McCrystal, the new commander of US and NATO forces in Afghanistan, for 40,000 more troops, as Bob Woodward relates in his book, Obama’s Wars.

Those present included Obama, Biden, Petraeus, then CENTCOM Commander, as well as the US ambassador to Afghanistan and other senior figures.

Gates summarized a key challenge: “how we deal with corrupt and predatory Afghan governance.” No one present, in Woodward’s recounting, objected to that characterization of America’s Afghan “partner!”

US military commanders did not disagree, but believed they could fix that problem enough to suffice, or at least work around it.

“I understand the government is a criminal syndicate,” Petraeus said, but “we need to help achieve and improve security.”

“If the government’s a criminal syndicate a year from now, how will [more] troops make a difference?,” Biden responded.

This anecdote highlights a key distinction between Afghanistan and Kurdistan. Biden’s view of Kurdistan—after finishing his term as vice-president, with all that experience behind him— was the complete opposite of his dismal view of Afghanistan.

As president, Joe Biden is America’s top decision maker in national security matters, and he said, “Masoud Barzani is a good friend of mine, and I wish we could have done more for the Kurds.”

Editing by John J. Catherine