In Fight Against ISIS, Kurds Turn to Allies on K Street
Lobbyists advocate bypassing Baghdad and shipping arms directly to Peshmerga forces
On Sept. 16, at a catered event in the Rayburn House Office Building on Capitol Hill, the de facto ambassador of the quasi-independent Kurdish state in northern Iraq gave to an audience of congressional staffers, Kurdish-American businesspeople, and a few journalists copies of a new Kurdistan Tour Guide, intended to promote travel to the region and its hospitality industry.
The speakers included both co-chairs of the Kurdish American Congressional Caucus, Reps. Marsha Blackburn (R-Tenn.) and Jared Polis (D-Colo.); former National Security Advisor Gen. James Jones, the CEO of the U.S.-Kurdistan Business Council; and the tour guide’s editor, Douglas Layton.
Bayan Sami Abdul Rahman, the Kurdistan Regional Government’s representative to the United States, walked the audience through a list of the dark times that had come to Iraq, the threat posed by the Islamic State, the flood of refugees — almost two million, she said — and the brave Peshmerga fighting them.
Tourism aside, the same sophisticated lobbying operation that had assembled the congressional caucus and the business council were also engaged in another assignment: getting the Barack Obama administration to reverse course and send arms to their Peshmerga forces directly, rather than through the Shiite-dominated central government in Baghdad.
Filings made under the Foreign Agents Registration Act show that the Kurds and other foreign governments are willing to open their coffers to enlist K Street in their efforts to excite what they see as vital foreign policy goals. Saudi Arabia disclosed spending $4.36 million on lobbyists through the end of August this year, up from $2.1 million for the same period a year ago, as it tries to bolster its strategic relationship with the United States. Qatar boosted its spending to $1.35 million from $427,000 over the same period, focusing on outreach to non-governmental organizations and think tanks.
And in Washington, where K Street plays a role in everything from economic development to securing arms deals, Kurdistan’s sophisticated lobbying operation was also called upon to push for more arms for the Kurds.
“Given the instability and uncertainty in the Middle East, foreign governments know anything their ambassadors hear will probably be carefully filtered,” Lee Drutman, a senior fellow in New America’s political reform program who studies lobbying, told Foreign Policy. “What a Washington insider hears in his networks will be different than what an ambassador hears.”
The Kurdistan Regional Government (KRG) has spent $291,000 on three firms, disclosures filed in 2015 show, and has signed a contract with a fourth that could be paid as much as $200,000 through the end of this year. The money comes on top of the goodwill the group has built by maintaining close ties to many lawmakers, including those who attend events at the KRG’s ornate quasi-embassy in one of Washington’s toniest neighborhoods.
The Kurds are marshaling those resources to persuade the White House to drop the existing U.S. policy of sending weapons only to Baghdad, which is then charged with distributing to the Kurds and other militias. The Kurds have quarreled with a succession of Iraqi prime ministers over how to divide the country’s oil riches and the degree of autonomy that should he accorded to their self-ruled region.
Since the Islamic State launched its sweeping offensive across Iraq in 2014, getting weapons quickly from the United States has been at the top of the agenda of the Kurdish lobby. The United States launched airstrikes last year to bolster the beleaguered Kurdish forces trying to prevent the militants from moving on Irbil, the capital of the semiautonomous Kurdish region.
While the Kurds have specific requests for medium to heavy arms, including vehicles, munitions, and the guns to deliver them, what they want most of all is the ability to deal directly with the Pentagon and the U.S.-led coalition for the supplies.
Washington has balked, instead insisting that all American weaponry earmarked for Iraq go through the central government in Baghdad. A Pentagon official reiterated that U.S. “policy remains that all arms transfers must be coordinated via the sovereign central government of Iraq.”
That policy also applies to the Kurdish forces, who have managed to reclaim some territory from the Islamic State and to prevent the group from conquering more of their lands.
To keep policymakers apprised of their progress on the battlefield, the KRG has a sophisticated network of lobbyists, which has included former congressional staffers, members, government officials, and political strategists. Its U.S. liaison office, which functions as an embassy for the semiautonomous region, is located in a historic building near Dupont Circle. Purchased for $3.1 million in 2007, it regularly hosts events that draw lawmakers, administration officials, and journalists.
The liaison office, organized as a nonprofit corporation, had a $1.6 million budget in 2013, the most recent year for which filings are available. It’s also registered as a foreign agent of the KRG, and lobbies government officials and members of Congress. Additionally, Kurdistan’s government has four firms under contract — lobby shops BGR Government Affairs and Greenberg Traurig; public relations powerhouse Qorvis Communications; and Dentons, an international law firm.
“The American government is huge,” Karwan Zebari, director of diplomatic and political affairs for the liaison office, told FP. “Many nations and missions depend on the private sector in Washington to help with navigating the complexities and the vastness of it.”
Navigating that vast and complex bureaucracy requires the right personnel. When one of its lobbyists, David Tafuri, left Squire Patton Boggs for Dentons, Kurdistan hired Dentons to retain his expertise. Tafuri did a 16-month stint as the rule of law coordinator for Iraq for the State Department until October 2007. An international lawyer, he also served as a foreign policy advisor to Barack Obama’s 2008 campaign.
Tafuri’s work for the Kurds has focused more on economic development matters — he helped launch a U.S. Chamber of Commerce initiative to spur investment in Iraq and the U.S.-Kurdistan Business Council, whose members are companies doing business in Kurdistan — but he has also taken up the case for arming Kurdistan, including in a 2014 opinion piece he wrote for the Wall Street Journal. The tagline identified him as legal counsel to the Kurdish Regional Government.
“ISIS is not going to go away any time soon, but the Kurdistan region has made progress in defending and securing their thousand kilometer border with ISIS,” Tafuri told FP from the London office of Dentons, after returning from a trip to Kurdistan. While there, he visited the front lines, and questioned the adequacy of U.S. military aid to the Peshmerga in a series of tweets, illustrated with photos of their soldiers lacking armor and equipment. “They can certainly use additional help from the U.S.-led coalition.”
Pete Hoekstra, a former Republican member of Congress who served as chairman of the House Intelligence Committee, lobbied for the Kurds from November 2014 until he left Greenberg Traurig last August, and marveled at how committed the K Street pros were to the cause. “Sometimes you look at a team that a client has assembled and you think they’re there to get paid,” Hoekstra told FP. “The Kurdish Regional Government team wanted to be there.”
Of course, Kurdistan’s lobbyists also get paid. Dentons’ contract with the Kurdish regional government is for $20,000 a month. Greenberg Traurig disclosed $65,000 worth of payments over six months in its most recent disclosure with the Justice Department, while BGR Government Affairs got $150,000.
On behalf of the Kurds, Hoekstra had dozens of contacts with the offices of his former colleagues pushing support for the Kurds. “The message was simple. The Kurds are taking casualties and ISIS is better armed, using American equipment they stole from the Iraqi government,” he said.
The United States says that it is providing sufficient aid to the Kurds. A Pentagon official ticked off some of the items — 40 mine-resistant troop carriers, 56 million rounds of ammunition for small arms to heavy machine guns, 56,000 anti-tank rounds for the Kurds. U.S.-led coalition commanders assess what weapons or hardware are needed by the various forces, whether it’s the Iraqi army, the Peshmerga, or Sunni tribesmen, and then provide that support through the Iraqi government.
In some cases, the equipment might be shipped directly to the Kurds — as long as the Iraqi government has given approval. For example, 25 mine-resistant vehicles were flown directly to Irbil in the Kurdish region in January this year — at the request of the central Iraqi government.
Kurdistan says it needs more. “As it stands now,” Zebari told FP, “ISIL continues to operate more superior machinery and military equipment that they had captured from the Iraqi Security Forces and Syrian regime, which are more sophisticated, more effective and certainly a lot heavier than what the Kurdish Peshmerga forces have available to them.”
“It’s extremely frustrating,” Hoekstra said. “You have an administration that’s propping up Baghdad instead of doing what they should do — training and arming the Kurds and the Sunnis.”
Even so, the Peshmerga forces have done well. So well, in fact, that Kurdistan’s lobby is turning its attention back to luring businesses. “The Kurdistan region continues to be a place with significant opportunities particularly for North American and European companies because the Kurdistan region very much wants to promote investment,” Tafuri told FP.
Zebari was even more effusive. “A good part of our attention was on degrading and destroying ISIL, kicking them out of our territory for which we have,” he said of the battles in 2014. “However, Kurdistan remains safe, secure, prospering, and open for business.
“Within the past couple of weeks,” he added, “we launched the first ever Kurdistan Tour Guide to attract not only businesses to Kurdistan, but tourists as well.”