No Better Friends: The US-Kurdistan Region Security Partnership


As the New Year approaches, the US enters a new decade, resolved to be the most important foreign actor in Iraq and continue fighting against, and hopefully, permanently defeat, the so-called Islamic State. Indeed, the Pentagon recently warned that without continuing pressure on the terrorist organization in both Iraq and Syria—an effort that could last several more years—the Islamic State is likely to reemerge as a powerful actor in these countries again.

Yet America’s position in Iraq is tenuous. Iraqi militia groups tied to Iran are attacking US personnel and facilities, while there is a rising populism in Iraq that does not want to see an open-ended US military presence there.

In light of these significant challenges to the US position in Iraq, the Kurdistan Region represents a notable exception. It is, most significantly, a safe space for US forces. They are able to launch operations against the Islamic State in both Iraq and Syria, while the Kurds of Iraq have shown themselves to be excellent local partners for US policymakers, as well as US military officers.

The close, and easy, cooperation between the US and Iraqi Kurds should not be surprising, as this relationship has been developing for almost three decades. In that time, the Kurdistan Region of Iraq (KRI) has emerged as an important staging ground for US counter-terrorism operations, while the Kurdistan Regional Government (KRG) has become an important partner in a region beset by instability.

The US-KRG Security Relationship

To be sure, there have been ebbs and flows in the US-KRG relationship, after Kurdish self-rule emerged in Iraq, following the 1991 Gulf War. But over that extended period of engagement, two key aspects of the US-KRG security partnership have become apparent. One is the American use of territory controlled by the KRG as a forward base to conduct operations in Iraq and other areas of the core Middle East. The second is joint operations conducted by the Peshmerga and US personnel for counterterrorism missions against Salafi-jihadi organizations.

In 2012, the State Department decided to operate a fully functional consulate in Erbil—as opposed to establishing one in the highly vulnerable city of Mosul (which in 2014 became the putative capital of the Islamic State’s would-be Caliphate.) That decision marked a key moment in the history of the US-KRG security relationship.

The State Department decision was strongly influenced by a resolution approved in December 2011 by the US House of Representatives (H.R. 483), which recommended that a fully functioning consulate should be established and maintained in Erbil. Without the Erbil consulate to serve as a listening post and way station following the capture of Mosul by the Islamic State in June 2014, the rapid and decisive US-led Coalition response to the terrorist organization’s sudden, spectacular advance would have been far more difficult.

Since then, US military trainers and advisors embedded with the Peshmerga in combat operations against the Islamic State have regularly come to view their partnership with these local Iraqi Kurdish units as an essential element in defeating the Islamic State and preventing its reemergence.

Indeed, the US government values its security relationship with the Iraqi Kurds so much so that it is putting serious money into its partnership with them, signing a landmark memorandum of understanding with the KRG in 2016, which has been an essential vehicle for US security assistance. Over the course of the war against the Islamic State, the US has provided over $400 million in security assistance to the KRG. It includes training, salaries for Peshmerga fighters, logistics support, and military vehicles and weapons. More than 30,000 Peshmerga fighters have been trained by the US-led Coalition.

In addition, the Trump administration has carefully increased US security assistance for the KRG. Its Fiscal Year 2020 budgetary request of $249 million for Peshmerga support represents the largest single sum earmarked specifically for the use of the KRG in the history of the relationship between the US and the Iraqi Kurds.

Challenges to the US-KRG Security Relationship

However, there remain challenges to a long-term security relationship with the KRG. The first challenge is to repair the frayed relations between the US and KRG leadership, which arose following the Kurdistan Region’s independence referendum in September 2017.

The second challenge is the "gray zone" nature of US assistance to the KRG with regard to the bilateral US relationship with the Government of Iraq (GOI) and the trilateral US-KRG-GOI relationship.

Typically, US security assistance to the KRG is provided with the consent of the GOI. When relations between the KRG and GOI are at a nadir, such as they were in the fall of 2017 after the independence referendum, US security assistance to the KRG is put on hold. That can be quite damaging, as the US provides significant aid to support Peshmerga salaries. Such disruptions in security assistance to the KRG are a feature of the tensions inherent in the trilateral US-KRG-GOI relationship and will not be easily resolved. 

Ultimately, the US-KRG security relationship is a crucial partnership for furthering American national security goals in the Middle East. While the US should be careful to calibrate its expanding partnership with the KRG in a manner that does not damage the US relationship with the GOI, there are multiple strategic and counterterrorism benefits to a careful and phased expansion of US security assistance to the KRG. The US depends on good partnerships with effective local actors to achieve its national security objectives in the region. Instability, including worsening security conditions in Iraq and the Middle East as a whole, will likely continue, as will the US need to work "By, With, and Through" local partners.

There have been few local partners who have been as dedicated to working closely with the US, as the Iraqi Kurds. The US interest in Iraqi Kurdistan will likely continue to grow, as the US provides more yearly security assistance directly to the Peshmerga forces and builds up its presence in the Kurdistan Region.

Iraqi Kurds are—and will remain for the foreseeable future—a key counter-terrorism partner for the US in Iraq and the wider Middle East. Thus, measured increases in US security assistance to the KRG further US national security priorities in this restive and volatile region.

Nicholas A. Heras is the Middle East Security Fellow at the Center for a New American Security (CNAS). His work focuses on the analysis of complex conflicts and security issues in the greater Middle East, North Africa, and the trans-Sahara regions. Heras has authored numerous reports and analyses on these issues and given presentations on these topics to multiple US government and military agencies.

The views expressed in this article are those of the author and do not necessarily reflect the position of Kurdistan 24.

Editing by Laurie Mylroie