Dispatch

Iraqi Kurds Keep Faith in U.S. Despite Drawdown

The United States’ longtime partners in northern Iraq are watching Afghanistan go to pieces after the U.S. pullout with “wishful thinking.”

By , a broadcast journalist and writer covering the Middle East.
An interpreter speaks with Kurdish villagers.
An interpreter speaks with Kurdish villagers during a tripartite humanitarian mission involving U.S., Iraqi, and Kurdish forces in al-Hamdaniya, east of Mosul, Iraq, on June 3, 2010. Warrick Page/Getty Images

Leaving Afghanistan

ERBIL, Iraq—On the outskirts of this city, the capital of Iraq’s Kurdistan region, there is a sprawling gated community with wrought iron fences, manicured lawns, and dozens of homes that look like they belong in a U.S. suburb. Aptly called the “American Village,” the residential enclave is one of several around Erbil that pay homage to the Kurds’s allies: the British, French, and Italians, among others. But symbolic of the way the Kurds see the United States, the American Village is the fanciest and home to top Kurdish officials.

“I love America. It’s a great country,” said Mabast Zaman, a 26-year-old Iraqi Kurd who lives nearby the compound, while waiting tables at a Tex-Mex restaurant in the American Village. Like so many here, he sings the United States’ praises on cue. The question is why—and for how long.

As the United States hurries its withdrawal from Afghanistan, leaving longtime partners to fend for themselves ahead of a Taliban onslaught, and with Washington pledging to wrap up the U.S. combat mission in Iraq, some Kurds are warily watching and wondering what will become of them.

ERBIL, Iraq—On the outskirts of this city, the capital of Iraq’s Kurdistan region, there is a sprawling gated community with wrought iron fences, manicured lawns, and dozens of homes that look like they belong in a U.S. suburb. Aptly called the “American Village,” the residential enclave is one of several around Erbil that pay homage to the Kurds’s allies: the British, French, and Italians, among others. But symbolic of the way the Kurds see the United States, the American Village is the fanciest and home to top Kurdish officials.

“I love America. It’s a great country,” said Mabast Zaman, a 26-year-old Iraqi Kurd who lives nearby the compound, while waiting tables at a Tex-Mex restaurant in the American Village. Like so many here, he sings the United States’ praises on cue. The question is why—and for how long.

As the United States hurries its withdrawal from Afghanistan, leaving longtime partners to fend for themselves ahead of a Taliban onslaught, and with Washington pledging to wrap up the U.S. combat mission in Iraq, some Kurds are warily watching and wondering what will become of them.

“We are watching what’s happening in Afghanistan, but we hope that the situation in the two countries are different,” said Falah Mustafa Bakir, a senior foreign-policy advisor to Nechirvan Barzani, president of the Kurdistan Region of Iraq and the Kurds’s former point person in Washington. Bakir said the message from U.S. officials is they are committed to staying in Iraq and working with Iraqis and the Kurdistan region, but “it’s our land and we need to do the fighting.”

The Iraqi Kurds have a history of heartbreak with the United States. In the immediate aftermath of the first Gulf War, Kurds took a cue from Washington and rose up against Iraqi dictator Saddam Hussein, only to be left in the lurch by the United States. 

When the United States again invaded Iraq in 2003, the Kurds fought alongside U.S. troops and helped oust Saddam’s army from oil-rich, ethnically diverse Kirkuk, Iraq. Shortly after, at the behest of Washington, the Kurds abandoned a city they long claimed as theirs. When the Iraqi army fled the Islamic State’s advance on Kirkuk in 2014, Kurdish Peshmerga forces again moved into the city and saved it. But just weeks after the Kurdish sovereignty referendum in 2017, the Iraqi army, paired with Shiite militias, re-took the city in a matter of hours. The United States, which had warned the Kurds not to hold the referendum, said little.

“Kurdss attitudes toward the United States has almost always been based on Kurdish wishful thinking.”

Now, as the Taliban sweep across Afghanistan, Iraqi Kurdish leaders try to keep their faith in U.S. policy. Bakir recalled a long history of support from the United States, dating back to the establishment of a no-fly zone created to protect the Kurds from Saddam’s air force after the slaughter during the 1991 uprising. “Throughout our history, we had ups and downs in our relations with the United States,” Bakir said. “But certainly, in modern history from 1991, we have established strong partnerships with the United States in the mountains of Kurdistan.” As for whether the United States has the Kurds’s best interests at heart, Bakir said that’s a question better addressed to U.S. officials. 

Part of the problem is the United States has never had a policy for the Kurds—a people whose claimed homeland sprawls across northern Iraq, northern Syria, southern Turkey, and western Iran. “[The Americans] have an Iraqi policy, an Iranian policy, a Turkish policy, a Syrian policy, but they don’t have a Kurdish policy,” said Hiwa Osman, who previously was an advisor to former Iraqi President Jalal Talabani. The United States was always more interested in having friendly relations or a U.S.-friendly government in Baghdad then Iraqi Kurdish self-determination. 

“The Kurds have historically looked at the United States listening to their rhetoric about human rights and equality, about everything else, and hoped that they could benefit from this,” Osman said. “Kurds’s attitudes toward the United States has almost always been based on Kurdish wishful thinking.”

For now, Kurds are still wishing and hoping. Bakir acknowledged the counterterror mission that brought U.S. troops back to Iraq in 2014 “has not been accomplished yet,” but he believes local forces, with increased capacity and U.S. intelligence and air support, can do the job. This week, the United States transferred dozens of Humvees and cargo trucks to the Kurdish Peshmerga to increase the mobility of Kurdish fighters. 

But the Iraqi army’s virtual collapse in the face of the Islamic State in 2014 or the sight of U.S.-trained and equipped Afghan soldiers fleeing the Taliban into Tajikistan calls into question the effectiveness of U.S. efforts to outsource the fight. And the Kurds have a bigger worry than the remnants of the Islamic State: mostly pro-Iranian militias that line Kurdistan’s disputed borders. Earlier in July, an explosive-laden drone attacked the Erbil airport, which hosts U.S. troops. The United States pledged to support the Kurds, and a little-known militia claimed responsibility, but the message from increasingly powerful Iranian-allied militias is they want all U.S. troops out of Iraq. 

Iran has also made softer plays for influence. In January, a slickly produced Iranian short film portrayed Iran saving the Kurds from the Islamic State. The film portrayed then-Iraqi Kurdistan president Masoud Barzani panicking, unable to reach U.S. officials as the Islamic State approached Erbil. As he packs up his personal belongings, he conveniently finds old photos of him with Iran’s leader, Ayatollah Ali Khamenei, and top general, Qasem Soleimani, (who was killed early last year in a U.S. airstrike). In the film, Soleimani picked up the phone, and the next scene showed the Iranian general landing in Erbil with elite forces and weapons for the Kurds. The message was clear: Tehran will save you, not Washington.

Iraqi Kurdish leaders don’t need to look as far as Afghanistan to see what can happen when the United States reneges on its partners.

Bakir said the Kurds want friendly relations with all their neighbors as well as Baghdad but also knows “if there is a withdrawal of U.S. forces, there would be spheres of influence by the regional powers [that] will try to increase their influence. And this is not in the interest of Iraq.”

Iraqi Kurdish leaders don’t need to look as far as Afghanistan to see what can happen when the United States reneges on its partners. Syrian Kurds were the U.S. foot soldiers of the U.S.-led coalition against the Islamic State in Syria. They helped destroy the caliphate, but shortly after the job was done, former U.S. President Donald Trump abruptly announced U.S. troops were leaving the country, paving the way for Washington’s NATO ally Turkey to push into Kurdish-controlled territory in northern Syria. (That betrayal of the Syrian Kurds prompted then-U.S. Secretary of Defense James Mattis to resign.)

Back in the American Village, Zaman dismissed the idea that another ally could take the place of the United States. He jumped to Washington’s defense, saying it couldn’t support the Kurdish sovereignty referendum because of the lack of Kurdish political unity and inter-Kurdish rivalries. Then, though, he described his disappointment, reflecting the broader Kurdish confusion over where Washington stands. “I thought the U.S. would be the first to recognize our country,” he said.

When asked what exactly he thinks the United States has done for the Kurds, Zaman hesitated.

“The reality is they got an advantage from the Kurds, but the Kurds haven’t got any advantage from them,” he said. “The Americans are here because it’s in their interest to be here. … And this is not forever. And everybody knows that.”

Correction, July 30, 2021: A previous version of the article misstated when a chemical weapon’s attack took place in northern Iraq.

Rebecca Collard is a broadcast journalist and writer covering the Middle East.

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