Amid tensions with Iran and challenges facing U.S. foreign policy in the Middle East, the Kurdistan autonomous region of northern Iraq stands out as a reliable partner that is increasingly vital for U.S. national security interests. It has a successful record of working with the U.S.-led coalition to defeat ISIS and serves as a bulwark against extremist groups and Iranian influence.
However, the Kurdistan Regional Government (KRG) is imperiled if it is ignored in U.S. strategic goals in Iraq and neighboring states. Since September 2017, when the region held an independence referendum, there have been concerns in the KRG capital of Erbil that U.S. support is lacking at crucial moments. For example, after the referendum, which Washington opposed, Iranian-supported militias exploited the absence of U.S. policy to prod Baghdad into an attack on Kirkuk. Kurdish Peshmerga who had held the city and defended it from ISIS were pushed aside, souring relations between Erbil and Baghdad, and giving Iran a victory in Iraq as its political allies celebrated.
When the dust settled, the new reality on the ground was another step forward for an Iranian land bridge to Lebanon that stretches through Iraq and Syria.
Iraq is a complicated country and the U.S. role there today is primarily aimed at defeating ISIS remnants. Over a multi-day visit this month, we saw firsthand how Kurdish Peshmerga are securing areas against an ISIS resurgence and working closely with the U.S., as well as coordinating with the Iraqi Security Forces. The KRG's forces say they need more support, including arms and a consistent budget. The Ministry of Peshmerga in Erbil says Baghdad should fulfill its obligations under Iraq's constitution and finance the Peshmerga. This includes basic resources such as salaries and proper barracks.
Washington can play a role here because it has helped train, advise and equip the Peshmerga under various programs. A strong Peshmerga strengthen the stability of northern Iraq.
Understanding the wider challenges and benefits of this stability means understanding the position of the KRG. Smaller than the state of West Virginia, with a population similar to Massachusetts, the KRG is very different than the Kurdish region of eastern Syria, where the U.S. also has important interests today.
The KRG in northern Iraq is a high-functioning autonomous region with two international airports and safe, large cities that are growing in economic importance in Iraq. Investments in infrastructure enable the region to outpace other areas of the country, such as Basra.
The Kurdish suffering under Saddam Hussein's regime began a long process of allying with the U.S. during the 1990s and through the 2003 invasion. Because it shares a border with Turkey, a U.S. ally, the Kurdistan region has proved to be a significant economic, military and political corridor for Washington's multi-decade involvement in Iraq.
The U.S. also should admire the Kurdistan region as a positive contribution to the diversity and cultural revival of Iraq after the ISIS war. The KRG's minister of transport, Ano Jawhar Abdulmaseeh Abdoka, a member of the Christian minority, believes the region gives Christians and other minorities a place to thrive. The region is now home to the majority of Iraq's minority Christian population, Abdulmaseeh says.
Hundreds of thousands of Yazidis also sought shelter in the KRG when fleeing ISIS. Many still live in displaced persons camps that dot the landscape. A visit to camp found the residents still living in tents that haven't been changed since 2015. This is another place the U.S. can play a role, partnering to support minority groups in an area where they have sought safety from religious extremism.
During the current tensions with Iran, it is essential to foresee the Kurdistan region as a way to stymie Iranian regime threats. U.S. forces in Iraq have been threatened in recent months by Iranian-backed political parties in Baghdad and also by Shi'ite militias, many affiliated with the Popular Mobilization Forces that are an official part of Iraq's security forces. This puts Washington in the unenviable position of working with the Iraqi army while guarding against possible threats from other Iraqi paramilitary forces.
Iraq is encumbered by these Shiite militias and their backers in Iran's Islamic Revolutionary Guard Corps (IRGC), making Kurdistan's sovereignty and military independence even more crucial for American security interests in the future.
When President Trump decided to withdraw from Syria in December 2018, he indicated that Iraq would be used to "watch Iran." With Iran's growing control of the Iraqi government and military — evidenced by pro-Iranian parties performing well in elections and the role of Iranian-backed paramilitaries — Kurdistan acts as a fortification to prevent Iranian control of northern Iraq.
Support for Erbil doesn't undermine the U.S. relationship with Baghdad.
Direct engagement between Washington and Erbil doesn't undermine the U.S. relationship with Baghdad. It can balance those voices in the rest of Iraq that are critical of the U.S., encouraging Baghdad to do more to foster relations with the U.S., while ensuring the Kurdistan region gets its share of the resources needed to help stabilize part of Iraq.
Seth Frantzman, a writing fellow at the Middle East Forum, is the author of After ISIS: America, Iran and the Struggle for the Middle East (2019), op-ed editor of The Jerusalem Post, and founder of the Middle East Center for Reporting and Analysis. Eric R. Mandel is director of the Middle East Political and Information Network.