Will Trump implement his own policy toward Kurds?

The Trump administration, like its predecessor, saw Iraq, including the Kurds, in terms of the war to defeat the Islamic State (IS.)

WASHINGTON DC, United States (Kurdistan24) – “The Kurds are great people.  They’re incredible fighters,” President Donald Trump said on Thursday, following the NATO summit in Brussels.

“They’re wonderful, warm, intelligent — allies, in many cases,” he continued, replying to a question from Kurdistan 24’s Barzan Hassan.

“I believe they’re great people,” Trump affirmed.

Kurds and their friends were delighted at the President’s words, which brought back memory of Trump on the campaign trail when he also spoke warmly of the Kurds.

“We should be arming the Kurdish [troops.] They’ve proven to be the best fighters. They’ve proven to be the most loyal to us,” he said.

“They have great heart. We should be working with them much more than we are,” Trump said in Nashville.

After Trump won, Kurds looked forward to his presidency. “Trump Fish” restaurant opened in Dohuk, because, as the owner told Kurdistan 24, “[Trump] has expressed support for the Peshmerga forces in the presidential election campaign.”

Trump’s first (and short-lived) National Security Adviser, Michael Flynn, was sympathetic to the Kurds. So, too, was the man who replaced him, H.R. McMaster, who worked with the Peshmerga during Operation Iraqi Freedom (OIF.)

So when the US did virtually nothing to stop the Iraqi assault on Kirkuk in October 2017, Kurdish anger at US inaction was accompanied by a deeply-felt sense of betrayal.

What went wrong?

The Trump administration, like its predecessor, saw Iraq, including the Kurds, in terms of the war to defeat the Islamic State (IS.) It did not think much about what would follow. It assumed the past was the future. So Iraq was not a high priority—say, on the level of North Korea or Iran.

The question of the future of Iraq was left to the bureaucracies, which are, typically, creatures of habit. They continued with their Obama-era thinking. That included accommodating Iran’s growing influence in Iraq, not recognizing it as a problem, even not acknowledging basic facts—like the clear evidence of the central role played by Iran and its proxy forces among Iraq’s Shia militias in the assault on Kirkuk.

As Trump’s tough new stance against Iran emerged, they failed to address the contradiction between confronting Iran pretty much everywhere on the planet but accommodating it in Iraq.

Michael Pregent, a Fellow at the Hudson Institute, who advised Gen. David Petraeus and Gen. Raymond Odierno during OIF, suggested that Trump was not thinking strategically about “the significance of Kurdistan.”

Trump “limits his praise to the bravery of the Peshmerga,” as they fought IS, Pregent said, but “what he needs to understand is that the way to keep [IS] from coming back and the way to curb Iranian influence” is to recognize the Kurdistan Region “as an American ally and an American investment.”

The Kurds are an American ally because the US can work with them to restrain Iran while preventing IS’ re-emergence, and the Kurdistan Region can be an American investment because it is a success story.

“It is literally the only thing we have left in Iraq that is a shining example of what we were able to do there,” Pregent said. However, the bureaucracies are not presenting these issues to the president from this strategic perspective, and so it is not recognized.

The formulation of Iraq policy fell to the State Department, where Secretary Tillerson was a remote and disengaged figure, focused on priority issues, like North Korea, and on reorganizing the State Department, a prolonged process, which left important positions unfilled.

Into that vacuum stepped Brett McGurk, a lawyer, with limited knowledge and experience of the Middle East. McGurk, whom Barack Obama had made Special Presidential Envoy to the coalition to defeat IS in November 2015, after Gen. John Allen stepped down from that position.

Originally, Trump intended to replace McGurk with Lt. Gen. H.R. McMaster, whose stature and experience was comparable to Allen’s. But when Michael Flynn was obliged to resign as National Security Adviser, McMaster was tapped to replace Flynn, and McGurk kept his position.

In the absence of an Assistant Secretary of State for Near East Affairs, McGurk assumed the role of US arbiter of Iraq’s future. Three major setbacks followed.

The first was the Iranian-orchestrated assault on Kirkuk. McGurk did not inform the White House of Tehran’s role, perhaps, because he, himself, was unaware of it.

The second was the re-emergence of IS in Kirkuk and other disputed territories.

The third was Iraq’s May 12 elections. America’s man in Iraq—Haider al-Abadi—finished third, behind the mercurial Shia cleric, Muqtada al-Sadr, and Hadi al-Amiri, head of the Popular Mobilization Forces, the most powerful of which, including his own, are backed by Iran.

How is Washington dealing with this? The US-led military coalition has responded to the deteriorating security situation by increasing coordination with the Peshmerga; emphasizing its continuing support for the Kurdish forces; and promoting talks to restore security coordination between the Kurdistan Region and Iraq.

In addition, senior US officials now publicly acknowledge that Iran’s influence in Iraq is a real problem. Secretary of State Mike Pompeo regularly speaks of the challenge posed by the Iranian-backed Shia militias.

Most dramatically, perhaps, the State Department recently revealed that Iran is running terrorist training camps in Iraq. It identified the Bahraini Al-Ashtar Brigades as one group receiving such training, but it would be little surprise if there were not more. 

Iranian “Terror Training Camps” graphic. (Photo:  Counter-Terrorism Bureau, State Department)
Iranian “Terror Training Camps” graphic. (Photo: Counter-Terrorism Bureau, State Department)

Of course, this does not explain how the US will address the challenge of Iran’s malign role in Iraq, but acknowledging the problem is, at least, a start.

And it raises the question: given that this is the nature of the Iraqi government, why insist that the people whom Trump describes—“great people” and “incredible fighters” and “most loyal to us”—must remain subject to this modern-day Babylonian yoke?

Editing by Nadia Riva