In August 2014, U.S. President Barack Obama launched air strikes in Iraq against the self-proclaimed Islamic State. This decision ran counter to his presidential campaign in 2007, when he promised that if elected, he would withdraw U.S. troops and disengage from Iraq. It also contradicted his policy of not directly intervening in Iraq or Syria without approval of the U.S. Congress or a UN Security Council mandate to use force.
The aversion to strikes had remained firm despite the Islamic State’s emergence as a force in Syria, its occupation of Fallujah in December 2013, and its takeover of Mosul, Iraq’s second-largest city, in June 2014. However, in August, when the Islamic State’s fighters threatened the Kurdistan region, they seemingly crossed a redline.
The United States has a number of interests in Kurdistan, all of which serve to justify Obama’s retraction of the no-engagement policy. For instance, the region is a stable and trustworthy pro-U.S. ally that Washington needs in an increasingly unstable and chaotic Middle East. Many U.S. lawmakers view the region as a fledgling democratic, secular, and pro-Western friend determined to support the fight against Salafi jihadists. It is in a geostrategic area bordering Iran and Syria. It also has the potential to be a great oil-exporting entity and has given contracts to several U.S. companies, including ExxonMobil and Chevron. And Erbil, the Kurdistan region’s capital, hosts a significant number of Americans.
Yet, while the focus on Kurds has tended to be from the perspective of the United States, there is another side to the story. It is worth looking at the ultimate decision to protect the Kurds in 2014 through the lens of the Kurdistan region’s diplomacy.1 Since the 1990s, and even more so since Saddam Hussein was toppled in 2003, the leadership has pursued a comprehensive foreign policy and diplomatic campaign to add to Washington’s various justifications for protecting the Kurds of Iraq.
Diplomacy is perceived by both the political elite and the general population of Iraqi Kurdistan to be an essential tool for progress. It serves as a uniting force.
The diplomatic approach became essential for Iraq’s Kurds because of one key reality: their autonomy, and ultimately their statehood, would only emerge if they received the green light from neighboring and international states. Today, rather than acknowledge the organic emergence of new states from the remnants of failing or failed ones, international actors prefer to prop up or keep those struggling states on life support. The Kurdistan region’s leaders believed that no matter how much they endeavored to build their nascent state, or how much empirical sovereignty they acquired, without the international community, their efforts would be undermined.
The Kurdistan region’s diplomacy has been pragmatic, an approach that is based on the realization that the United States objects to the breakup of Iraq. Washington has made it clear on several occasions that it will pursue an Iraq-first policy. As such, the U.S. government will support Iraqi Kurds insofar as that support is channeled toward the betterment of Iraq. This stance shapes the Kurdistan Regional Government’s (KRG’s) diplomatic efforts.
The Kurdistan region’s leadership has constructed a narrative that diplomacy is the only way the Kurds can move away from the age-old adage “no friends but the mountains.” The Iraqi Kurds have experienced oppression and genocide at the behest of Baghdad in the past. Fuad Hussein, the chief of staff to KRG President Masoud Barzani, said in an interview that they have been subject to “internal colonization” by consecutive Arab regimes in Baghdad. As a result, they do not view international actors as colonizers. The KRG’s head of foreign relations, Falah Mustafa, told the author, “we’re tired of brothers, what we want are friends,” referring to his Arab Iraqi brothers. International actors are perceived by the leadership as well as society to be a lifeline in the face of a hostile central government in Baghdad.
The Kurds’ diplomatic efforts are extensive. The Kurdistan Regional Government’s main website is usually composed of press releases of diplomatic meetings and international conferences that involve its leadership and diplomats. This is in contrast to other government websites, such as those of the president of the United States and the government of the United Kingdom, that primarily feature domestic issues. An interviewee with inside knowledge of the KRG confided to the author that the KRG has spent millions of dollars on diplomacy, more than it has spent in any other area of operation. This includes, for example, training its diplomats on protocol and etiquette as well as diplomatic communications.
Internal voices in opposition to the KRG deliberately avoid criticizing the government’s activities in the area of foreign relations. The Movement for Change, led by Nawshirwan Mustafa, emerged in 2009 as a reaction to the perceived corruption among government officials. The movement wants to transform governance in Erbil, but Mustafa made it clear in a diplomatic cable that his focus is on internal KRG governance and administration, not foreign relations. A former UK consul general to Kirkuk said in an interview that Kurds “will complain about corruption, but in front of a threat to the state, they will never complain.”
Becoming a Local Partner in an Uncertain Iraq
For the most part, diplomacy is used to avoid antagonizing international supporters wary of irredentism. Part of this is to reassure them that the Kurdistan region is not focused on securing a future state. Although the prospect of seeking independence and self-determination is sometimes raised by President Barzani, it is primarily used as a negotiating tool to maintain his domestic legitimacy and to induce concessions from the opposition. Diplomats endeavor to reassure Washington that their agenda is not necessarily secessionist and, more critically, that it is in fact aimed at preventing the breakup of Iraq. According to a U.S. diplomatic cable, Barzani told then U.S. defense secretary Robert Gates that the KRG and the United States both desire a stable and unified Iraq. Similarly, KRG Interior Minister Karim Sinjari told a U.S. political adviser that “nearly all” Kurds understand their best hope for a brighter future is to be included as part of Iraq and not in an independent state.
Rather than antagonize Washington, the leadership has preferred to compromise and reap the benefits of increased trust. To show good faith, the KRG leadership has made compromises in its relationship with Baghdad.
In 2009, when the United States required consensus among political actors in the central government to push through an election law that was needed for the upcoming national elections, the Iraqi Kurd leaders, who were threatening to boycott the law because they were unhappy with the parliamentary seat allocation, eventually agreed to give up some of their seats in an effort to please the anxious American leadership. Falah Mustafa told American officials in Erbil that the compromise was worth it because it facilitated a stronger relationship with the U.S. president; building trust with Washington for future commitments guided this decision.
Similarly, the Iraqi Kurd elite compromised on elements of Article 140 of the Iraqi constitution that calls for a referendum to decide whether the Iraqi province of Kirkuk should be annexed to the KRG. Although the deadline for the referendum was technically 2007, the Kurdish leadership, under pressure from Turkey and the United States, ultimately agreed to delay the vote to maintain relations with Ankara and Washington, which did not want the referendum to happen at that time. It has still not taken place. The KRG’s relations with Ankara and Washington have greatly improved following these decisions.
Iraqi Kurd diplomats have also positioned themselves as the only reliable actors within Iraq that can pursue the interests of foreign capitals. The leadership continues to stress to Washington that the central government in Baghdad is untrustworthy and incompetent. Kurdish leaders openly present themselves to be the only actors in Iraq who are committed to the constitution, and they attempt to delegitimize Arab Iraqi parties. During the reign of former Iraqi prime minister Nouri al-Maliki, diplomats even drew comparisons between Maliki and Saddam Hussein. They juxtapose the Kurdistan region’s forward progress in human rights and democratization with Baghdad’s ineffectiveness on these issues to argue that they are natural partners for Washington. Following the Islamic State’s takeover of Mosul, Fuad Hussein went to Washington and stated in a talk that “people abroad are asking us to lead the political process in Baghdad because there is a lack of leadership.”
The leaders explain the KRG’s strength as a local partner by using its national parliamentary seats, which become important during every election cycle, to portray themselves as kingmakers in Baghdad. Following the 2010 parliamentary election in Iraq, it became clear that U.S. Vice President Joe Biden, who Obama had put in charge of the Iraq desk, was eager to maintain order, even if it meant keeping Maliki in power despite the fact that his coalition did not take home the most seats in that election.2 Barzani objected to many of Maliki’s policies, particularly those regarding the oil sector, but he eventually agreed to support the candidate and, according to officials present at the negotiations, framed part of this decision as a show of good faith to Biden and the United States. The region’s diplomats have in this way used their seats in parliament to help further Washington’s interests, with an eye to enhancing relations.
The local-partner policy extends to the security sector as well. Since the Islamic State’s swift advance in Mosul and the collapse of the Iraqi Security Forces (ISF), which fled despite outnumbering the attackers, the leadership has consistently argued in Washington that its military, the peshmerga, is the only reliable fighting force in Iraq. Fuad Hussein told an American audience in Washington in the summer of 2014 that “80 percent of the Iraq army has collapsed.” The diplomats remind their U.S. counterparts that no American soldiers were killed in the Kurdistan region following the 2003 war. After the ISF collapse, the Iraqi Kurd leadership regularly mentioned to leaders in Washington the difference in input versus output between Erbil and Baghdad. The United States spent $25 billion and built 109 brigades for Baghdad’s ISF and only $95 million and eight brigades for the KRG’s peshmerga.
Washington has begun to appreciate the role of the peshmerga. In a Senate hearing on Iraq and Syria, U.S. Senator Joni Ernst stated her support for the peshmerga, saying that “they’re willing to fight. In close combat. And it is truly unmatched by any other group in that region.” Senator John McCain, moreover, has been leading an “arm the peshmerga” campaign.
More critically, in the battle of Kobane in September 2014, the United States gave the green light for the Iraqi Kurd peshmerga, rather than any local Kurdish forces, to move into Syria to defend the city against the Islamic State. In doing this, the United States acknowledged the legitimacy of the peshmerga, not just as a superior force, but as an army that could carry out operations in another state.
Masoud Barzani has persistently called for the establishment of a U.S. base in the Kurdistan region. His team has used the geostrategic importance of the region vis-à-vis Baghdad and Tehran as well as a rift in trust between the United States and Turkey (which did not support Washington in the 2003 war) to invite a prolonged presence. They recently welcomed the establishment of a midterm U.S. base in the KRG area of Harir. This increased cooperation and the fight against the Islamic State have enhanced the Kurdistan region’s relationship with the Pentagon.
Finding Local Partners in Washington
A critical KRG policy has been to build trust and develop strong relations with U.S. lawmakers. Qubad Talabani, who was a KRG representative to the United States, once told the author that he envisioned replicating the Israel lobby. Iraqi Kurds regularly interact with influential political circles in Washington. In 2008, KRG representatives worked to establish a bipartisan Kurdish-American Congressional Caucus, led by then Democratic congressman Lincoln Davis and Republican Congressman Joe Wilson. By 2010, the caucus consisted of 18 Republican and 23 Democratic congresspeople. The Kurdistan region’s leaders also contracted the lobbying firm Patton Boggs to support their efforts. They spend over $1 million per year on such lobbying efforts in Washington.
The region’s leadership has been able to build trust with strategic individuals in the U.S. Congress who can speak on the KRG’s behalf. In 2011, Congress approved the establishment of a U.S. consulate in Erbil. Congressman Dana Rohrabacher, who is a member of the Kurdish-American Congressional Caucus, told Congress during the debates over the consulate that “the Kurds over the years have had a history of being an oppressed people. Thus they are natural allies of the United States, our country, who has a tradition of supporting oppressed peoples.” Several other influential lawmakers have expressed their support for the Kurds in Iraq. U.S. Senator Ernst told a Senate hearing on Iraq and Syria that “Iraqi Kurds have proven to be reliable partners by supporting U.S. interests every time that we have sought their appearance—their assistance.” U.S. Senator Rand Paul is even prepared to make this part of his presidential campaign.
The Kurdistan region’s leadership also relies on outreach to the public to strengthen relations with Washington. The aim is to affect the policies in foreign capitals of the United States and other democratic states by building strong relationships with the public, who can then lobby their government.
A preferred tactic is to use the U.S. media to communicate with the public. After 2003, for instance, the region’s leadership decided to air expensive “thank you” advertisements on primetime U.S. television networks. These commercials included scenes in which Iraqi Kurds thanked the United States for freeing them from the dictatorship of Saddam Hussein.
Senior Iraqi Kurd officials also write opinion pieces in major U.S. newspapers. Prime Minister Nechirvan Barzani wrote a piece in the Wall Street Journal in October 2007 in which he justified the KRG’s oil ambitions and attempted to limit any potential anxieties about these ambitions coming from Baghdad-leaning officials in the United States.
A more indirect strategy is to seek to have Iraqi Kurdistan featured in U.S. media outlets. The leadership openly invites documentary makers to Erbil, and Qubad Talabani invited executives from Hollywood’s Sony and Miramax Studios to the KRG to show them the region’s magnificent landscapes and to raise Hollywood’s interest in the Kurdish struggle. Journalist Thomas Friedman was invited to give the commencement address at the American University of Iraq-Sulaimani. While he was there, an aide to former KRG prime minister Barham Salih confirmed that the Iraqi Kurd leadership made sure to showcase the best of the region. Subsequently, Friedman wrote a piece in the New York Times titled “Iraq’s Best Hope” in which he described the Kurdistan region as “an island of decency in a still-roiling sea.”
The editorial boards of several U.S. newspapers have come out in support Iraq’s Kurds. In February 2014, the Washington Post’s editorial board published an article in defense of Masoud Barzani, who was at the time protesting the State Department’s continued designation of his Kurdistan Democratic Party as a tier 3 terrorist organization. The Wall Street Journal, in August 2014, published an editorial that said “our long-time allies in northern Iraq deserve U.S. military support.”
The region’s diplomacy prioritizes academic engagements as well. Diplomats often give lectures and talks at think tanks, academic institutions, and public organizations.
Another policy has been to attract key U.S. officials who were already working on Iraq with financial incentives. Zalmay Khalilzad, shortly after his tenure as the U.S. ambassador to Iraq, became an adviser to the Iraqi Kurd leadership. He then set up a company to advise multinational corporations investing in the Kurdistan region. Jay Garner, who was the director of the U.S. Office of Reconstruction and Humanitarian Assistance for Iraq, also became financially involved in the region after leaving his job as the Pentagon’s top figure in Iraq. And Ali Khedery, who had previously served in Baghdad with the U.S. Department of State as an adviser to five U.S. ambassadors and three generals, eventually left the State Department and joined ExxonMobil, where he was part of the team that moved ExxonMobil to the Kurdistan region. For Falah Mustafa, head of foreign relations, having influential Americans invested in the region is another part of public diplomacy insofar as former ambassadors or generals may still carry weight in Washington and can thus speak on behalf of the KRG.
After Obama’s decision to launch air strikes against the Islamic State, the KRG’s Falah Mustafa said in an interview, “On that day in August, we knew that we were finally not alone, that we had won their hearts and minds. . . . We were now a player.”
The Kurdistan region seems to be in a fortunate position: it is a relatively stable enclave amid a chaotic region. More critically, its security is backed by the United States and much of the international community.
There are clear geostrategic reasons why Washington and other states are keen to protect the region. Most analysis has focused on these reasons and given little agency to the region’s leaders, who as representatives of an unrecognized state have less room to maneuver and are at the behest of stronger regional and international players. To these authors, the KRG’s situation can almost be chalked up to being in the right place at the right time.
While all this may be true, the region’s diplomats have, to some extent, influenced their own fate. They have done so by pursuing a pragmatic foreign policy and becoming a household name in foreign capitals like Washington, DC, to ensure that the old “no friends but the mountains” maxim is less likely to raise its ugly head in the future.
1 Unless otherwise noted, analysis of the Kurdistan region’s perspective is based on interviews with and observations of the Iraqi Kurd elite from 2010 to 2015.
2 According to Emma Sky, who advised the U.S. government in Iraq, Biden even made reference to how Al Gore had won the 2000 U.S. election but did not pursue his case for the sake of stability. Emma Sky, The Unravelling: High Hopes and Missed Opportunities in Iraq (London: Atlantic Books, 2015), 338.