US defense bill includes major support for Kurdish forces fighting ISIS
WASHINGTON DC (Kurdistan 24) – Last week, just before the US Congress broke for the Christmas holidays, the Senate approved the National Defense Authorization Act (NDAA), sending the bill to President Joe Biden who is expected to sign it “in the near future,” as The National Interest reported on Sunday.
The bill, supported by large bipartisan majorities in the House and Senate, includes significant funding for the Peshmerga in Iraq, as well as the Syrian Democratic Forces (SDF) in Syria for the crucial role they are playing in the fight against ISIS.
The legislation constitutes yet more tangible demonstration of the continued US commitment to fighting ISIS in Iraq and Syria, even as the US-led Coalition has announced the end of its combat mission in Iraq and the transition to an advise, assist, and enable role.
Bayan Sami Abdul Rahman, the Representative of the Kurdistan Regional Government (KRG) in Washington, hailed the bill’s passage, telling Kurdistan 24, “We appreciate that the US Congress has allocated funding to the Peshmerga and Iraqi forces in the fight against ISIS,” adding that the Kurdistan Region is “grateful” for “the bipartisan support it has in the US Congress,” as well as its “many friends in the US administration.”
The NDAA is based, in the first instance, on a spending request from the Defense Department. That request explains how much money is needed and for what purpose.
For FY 2022 (Fiscal Year 2022—Oct. 1, 2021 to Sept. 30, 2022), the Pentagon requested $345 million for the Iraqi Security Forces [ISF.] That includes funding for Iraq’s Ministry of Defense, Counter-Terrorism Service, Ministry of Interior, and the KRG’s Ministry of Peshmerga Affairs [MOPA.] Most of the money—nearly $260 million—is to be used to support the Peshmerga.
The Defense Department recognizes that Baghdad has not been providing the Peshmerga their fair share of the national budget—hence the larger sum for supporting the Kurdish forces.
“The MoPA forces in the Iraqi Kurdistan Region continue to remain an essential part of the ISF’s overall counter-ISIS operational design, providing a hard northern flank through which ISIS cannot penetrate,” the Pentagon stated in explaining the reasons for its funding request.
“In this role, Peshmerga forces are a critical part of the continued fight against ISIS and an essential component of Iraq’s internal security apparatus,” it continued.
Interestingly, the funding request includes $5 million for the Peshmerga for a Puma Unmanned Aircraft System—i.e., a military drone.
The NDAA also requires the Pentagon to produce a report that includes two key points:
1) “A comprehensive strategy and plan to train and build lasting and sustainable military capabilities of the Iraqi security forces, including the Kurdish Peshmerga” and “which may include a memorandum of understanding with the Ministry of Peshmerga Affairs in coordination with the Government of Iraq.”
2) “A plan to engage the Government of Iraq and the Kurdistan Regional Government in security sector reform and strengthen and sustainably build the capacity of Iraq’s national defense and security institutions, including the Kurdish Peshmerga.”
US support for the Peshmerga is based, above all, on their efforts, dedication, and personal sacrifices in the fight against ISIS, but the KRG mission also plays a key role in ensuring that US officials in Congress and the administration are fully aware of those contributions.
As the capital of the world’s leading power, Washington is a very busy place. It also tends to focus on other major powers, like China and Russia. Thus, the efforts and concerns of much smaller parties can easily be overlooked, and the work of the KRG mission helps to ensure that does not happen.
Over the past year, for example, the KRG mission has held some 250 meetings with Congressional officials involved in the multiple committees that cover issues of importance to the Kurdistan Region.
“The KRG representation in the United States focuses a great deal of its work on Congress,” Abdul Rahman explained to Kurdistan 24. “We know that both the executive and legislative branches control the flow of funding and US foreign policy. So we do our best to lobby and work in cooperation with both branches.”
“In both Congress and the administration, they recognize the role of the Peshmerga,” she added. “In fact, in my conversations with members of Congress of both parties, quite often they will bring up the valiance and bravery of the Peshmerga, before I even begin the conversation, and that makes me very proud and very humble.”
Abdul Rahman also explained the unending nature of the mission’s work. “While we’re pleased to see the passage of the NDAA and the amount set aside for assisting the Peshmerga and other Iraqi forces and forces in Syria against ISIS, we know that our work is not complete.”
Indeed, it is unending! However, as she stated, the KRG maintains a deep appreciation for the assistance Americans have provided in the past, for “the partnership that we have with the United States,” which “goes back 30 years, to 1991, with the launch of Operation Provide Comfort” and which “both they and we describe as a ‘strategic partnership’.”
The Pentagon requested $177 million for FY 2022 for two partner forces in Syria: the Kurdish-led Syrian Democratic Forces (SDF) and the Arab Maghawir al-Thawra (MaT, Revolutionary Commando Army), which operates in southeast Syria at the al-Tanf garrison, from where it sits astride the main highway from Baghdad to Damascus—inhibiting its use by Iran and its proxies.
For the most part, the Pentagon did not break down that request into funds for the SDF and funds for the MaT, although the SDF is, by far, the bigger force.
That sum is slightly below that for FY 2021, because, as the Pentagon explained, major combat operations concluded in July 2020, and it has transitioned to a “normalize” phase of its anti-ISIS campaign plan.
Of the $177 million, the largest amount—nearly half—is for salaries: $78 million. That is followed by “equipment”—over $13 million. It includes a wide range of material—everything from cameras, lasers, radios, and notebooks to winter jackets, socks, and underwear.
Protecting against the WMD Threat from ISIS
Notably, that money will also be used to purchase gas masks. Last week, the State Department released its 2020 report on terrorism. For the first time, it said that ISIS posed a potential chemical and biological threat. Thus, the department trained Iraqi and Kurdish personnel “to identify and neutralize” ISIS’s “potential clandestine chemical and biological weapons laboratories in Iraq.”
Last May, the UN Investigative Team to Promote Accountability for Crimes Committed by Da’esh concluded that ISIS had used chemical, and even biological agents, in Iraq, The Washington Post reported then.
“Evidence already secured indicates that [ISIS] tested biological and chemical agents and conducted experiments on prisoners as part of this program,” the Post said, explaining that ISIS had “recruited scientists and engineers—a mix of foreign experts and veterans of former Iraqi leader Saddam Hussein’s chemical weapons factories—to help them produce sulfur mustard.”
In 2015, the highly-regarded German news magazine, Der Spiegel, produced an authoritative account of ISIS’s emergence. Based on captured ISIS documents, the report was a leak from German intelligence.
ISIS was established in 2013 in Syria, amid the chaos of the civil war, by intelligence elements from Saddam Hussein’s regime, Der Spiegel explained. A year later, the terrorist group burst across the border into Iraq, threatening Baghdad, as well as Erbil.
That the former Iraqi regime lies at ISIS’s core would certainly explain its attempts to produce, and even use, chemical and biological agents.
In fact, ISIS did use chemical weapons against the Peshmerga, as The Washington Post revealed in 2019.
The story described an attack that had occurred several years before, which precipitated a Coalition-led campaign, involving Kurdish and Iraqi forces, which targeted individuals involved in ISIS’s unconventional weapons program.
The Post’s report was based on a journalist’s visit to Erbil, where he spoke with the KRG’s Counterterrorism Department, as well as US officials. He also interviewed an Iraqi detained in Erbil, who had been recruited into ISIS’s chemical program.
On Aug. 11, 2015, the Post reported, ISIS launched 50 mortar rounds at a village south of Erbil. The mortars “exploded with a soft thud and released white smoke and an oily liquid,” it said. “Within minutes, about three dozen peshmerga soldiers fell ill, complaining of nausea and burning eyes and lungs.”
SDC Welcomes NDAA
The passage of the NDAA and its funding for the SDF was welcomed by Sinam Mohammed, the Representative of the Syrian Democratic Council in Washington, which administers the Autonomous Administration of North and East Syria.
“The SDC applauds the US Congress for passing in a bipartisan way a defense bill that recognizes the critical role the SDF continues to play in partnership with the US military in fighting ISIS,” Mohammed told Kurdistan 24.
She noted that Congress had agreed to fund “in full the administration’s request to train and equip our forces in the ongoing counter-ISIS mission,” adding, “we value our security cooperation with the US government and we will continue to work to strengthen our partnership with the United States.”