Last summer the US provided $415 million to help Peshmerga troops. Photo: Farzin Hassan/Rudaw
The United States' adherence to a continued One Iraq Policy has again become evident in the language of the new draft annual defense bill from the House Armed Services Committee. The bill suggests that Washington cut funds to the Kurdistan Region if it secedes from Iraq.
“The committee notes that funding to the [Kurdistan Regional Government] is to enhance Government of Iraq-KRG cooperation and support a unified effort to counter the Islamic State,” read the bill.
“Such funding should be contingent upon KRG participation in the government of a unified Iraq and on their continued good faith cooperation in the anti-ISIL campaign,” it added, using an alternative acronym for ISIS.
The war against ISIS brought an unprecedented level of cooperation between two former historic enemies, the Iraqi Army and the Peshmerga.
Even as recently as the premiership of Prime Minister Nouri al-Maliki there was a possibility that the Iraqi Army's guns would be turned against the Peshmerga. The former prime minister deployed his forces to the autonomous region's frontiers and even once went so far as telling his generals he would send his forces into Erbil after Iraq took delivery of F-16 jet fighter-bombers from the United States – which is why Kurdish President Masoud Barzani lobbied Washington against selling those jets to Baghdad at that time.
Today the guns of these two armed forces are pointed in the same direction, and at the same enemies.
President Barzani even said in his recent interview with Foreign Policy magazine that an independent Kurdistan will not only continue cooperating with Baghdad on counter-terrorism operations, but will even “increase the coordination between the Peshmerga forces and the Iraqi army.”
In other words Kurdish secession from Iraq does not necessarily mean that such cooperation between Erbil and Baghdad will cease. In fact US severing of funds to the Peshmerga could serve to undermine the effectiveness of these productive joint efforts, which is the only real success story left in the Baghdad-Erbil relationship.
Last summer the US provided $415 million to help the Peshmerga troops, who had gone for months without receiving their salaries while holding the line against Islamic State (ISIS). Propping them up as an effective ground force served Washington's interests and will continue to do so since they successfully enforce that pro-American region's security and stability.
The US-led anti-ISIS coalition also has plans to keep military trainers in the region for the next ten years to professionalize the Peshmerga. This endeavour is aimed at helping the Peshmerga effectively defend their region against non-state actors like ISIS and keeping it as a reliable regional counter-terror and defense force. Were the US government to sever funds to the KRG it would harm this productive and promising program.
ISIS's capture of Mosul and subsequent attack on Kurdistan in the summer of 2014 made clear that Erbil can never rely entirely on Baghdad for its defense. Furthermore its current status as an autonomous region, rather than a full-fledged independent state, meant there were constraints on the types of weapons it could import. Consequently, the Peshmerga remained a relatively lightly-armed force since the region could not legally purchase heavy weapons.
Barzani clearly referenced these obstacles in his op-ed piece in the Washington Post when he said were Kurdistan independent when ISIS emerged and attacked the region in 2014 “we could have financed and equipped our own troops and brought this fight to a swifter conclusion.”
Were this the case the region could also have depended less on US military aid, delivered as it was through Baghdad, since the region would have a greater responsibility in fulfilling its own defensive needs.
While this aforementioned bill hasn't yet been implemented, and might not be, it is nevertheless a stark reminder of the lengths Congress believes it should go to uphold a unified Iraq, even if that means halting funding to a stalwart ally which is still in dire straits economically.
If the Kurds opt for independence in the upcoming referendum in September, which is more likely than not, and Erbil successfully negotiates an “amicable divorce” with Baghdad, their stated plan, the slashing of existing, and future, funds from the US to that emergent nation-state would prove counterproductive.