Abandoning our Kurdish allies is a win for our Iranian enemies

It makes no sense for a nation to treat its enemies kindly and its allies harshly. Any nation that tries this foolish approach will see its enemies grow stronger and more dangerous, and will lose its allies when it abandons them.

Yet for eight years, the Obama administration followed this upside-down policy, and received contempt and bad behavior in return from nations around the world. And now, unfortunately, the Trump administration is following this policy with Iran, by “not taking sides” to prevent the Iraqi government from using military force against our Kurdish allies.

Following a Sept. 25 vote by the Kurds in Kirkuk calling for independence from Iraq, Iraqi troops and Iranian-backed militias moved north into the Kurdish province to take control from the Kurdistan Regional Government. Iraqi troops and Shia militias seized the last district in Kirkuk on Friday from Kurdish fighters, known as the Peshmerga, after a three-hour battle.

The Kurds had controlled Kirkuk since 2014, when Iraqi troops fled the forces of the Islamic State terrorist group, also known as ISIS. While remaining part of Iraq, the Kurdish province operated with a high degree autonomy.

The Iraqi Kurdish independence referendum sparked fears that Kurds in neighboring areas of Iran, Turkey and Syria would want to seek independence as well and unite to form a new nation – an idea opposed by all the those countries and Iraq.

The Iraqi Kurds have been loyal U.S. allies in our fight against Al Qaeda and ISIS, and have fought bravely and effectively. American troops have fought and died with our Kurdish allies defending Iraq and we have spent blood and treasure trying to build reliable partners in Iraq’s Security Forces.  

But the Iraqi forces are also supported by Iran, including that nation’s Islamic Revolutionary Guard Corps, which was designated as a terrorist organization by the U.S. Treasury Department earlier this month.

And Iran is clearly an enemy of the United States, Israel and many of our Arab allies. It is a state sponsor of terrorism and an oppressor of its own people, with particularly harsh restrictions on women, homosexuals and Christians. President Trump has sharply criticized the nation’s conduct and has threatened to withdraw from the agreement designed to keep Iran from developing nuclear weapons.

It’s in America’s interest to have good and peaceful relations with and between the Kurds and the Iraqis, despite Iran’s support of Iraq. But we shouldn’t abandon our Kurdish allies to achieve this goal.

The man most responsible for the failure of the U.S. to give adequate support to the Kurds is Brett  McGurk, President Trump’s special envoy for the Global Coalition to Counter ISIS. He held the same position in the Obama administration and has been allowed to keep his job.

President Obama replaced one of our most respected military leaders – Marine Corps Gen. John Allen – with lawyer McGurk. While serving as envoy to Iraq, McGurk has presided over the Iranian takeover of what’s left of Iraq.

Shamefully, the State and Defense Departments followed McGurk’s strategy and gave tacit approval for the Iraqi government and its Iranian allies to move against our dedicated Kurdish friends.

McGurk told U.S. officials and Iraq, Turkey and Iran that he could convince the Kurds not to hold their independence referendum.  He told U.S. and Kurdish officials that he could stop Baghdad from using military force against the Kurds.  He failed on both accounts.

As President Trump has noted, Iran received $1.7 billion from the Obama administration for signing the nuclear agreement with the U.S. and other nations

“Just imagine the sight of those huge piles of money being hauled off by the Iranians waiting at the airport for the cash,” President Trump said. McGurk was one of the U.S. officials who handed over that money to the Iranians.

One of the leaders of Iranian forces backing Iraq against its Kurdish citizens is Qassem Soleimani, who commands the Revolutionary Guards Quds Force. He is a terrorist who has been killing Americans for years in Iraq and is still doing it through the Taliban in Afghanistan.  Half a world away from the NFL, Soleimani also disrespects our flag, having his forces walk on it in parades. 

Last month, the Kurds believed that being a proven ally of the United States against former Iraqi dictator Saddam Hussein, Al Qaeda and ISIS would result in America recognizing their referendum for independence from the Iraqi state.

But the hard-line that McGurk took against our Kurdish allies – warning them harshly against their peaceful independence referendum – had the effect of convincing the Iranian-backed militias and the political leadership in Baghdad that they had a green light to enter Kirkuk. In the words of former Ambassador to Iraq Ryan Crocker, this criticism “may have emboldened Baghdad to take a harsher posture than it otherwise would.” 

For the last decade, I’ve briefed Army Generals H.R. McMaster (now President Trump’s national security adviser), David Petreaus (who became CIA director) and Army Chief of Staff Ray Odierno on the strong influence of Iran’s Revolutionary Guards on Iraq’s security forces.

But for years, McGurk has been downplaying this influence.

On Oct. 1, a highly lethal roadside bomb called an explosively formed penetrator (EFP) reappeared in Iraq after six years. It killed Army Spec. Alexander Missildine and wounded another U.S. soldier. Its reappearance was a warning from Iran: the Islamic Republic is prepared to begin killing Americans again. The EFP is the signature weapon of two Revolutionary Guard-led militias in Iraq.

Scandalously, these militias receive paychecks and equipment from both the U.S.-backed Iraqi Ministry of Interior and the Revolutionary Guards Quds Force. It’s Brett McGurk’s responsibility to provide that information to the president and Congress, because it’s a violation of the Leahy Law. That law was enacted to keep U.S. funds and equipment from security forces involved in human rights violations. Qassem Soleimani is smiling.

If President Trump wants to push back against Iran he should do so in the Kurdish areas of Iraq. This is where he can stop Iran from creating its highly coveted land bridge through Iraq and from eventually controlling northern Iraq as well. Stopping Iran here would save lives, save alliances and give credibility to America’s commitment to our allies. We can do that by working with our only authentic allies in the region, the Kurds.

Our Kurdish allies need strong American support and our Iranian enemies need to know we are serious about them and serious about supporting our friends.

Michael Pregent was an embedded adviser to the Peshmerga in Mosul and an intelligence and policy adviser to Generals Petraeus and Odierno on Iranian activities in Iraq. He served 20 years as an intelligence officer in the Army and seven years with the Defense Intelligence Agency as an Iraq expert. He is currently an adjunct fellow at the Hudson Institute.