SULAIMANI, IRAQI KURDISTAN – For minority Kurds in Iraq and Syria who have found the presence of U.S. troops essential for their protection, watching the extraordinary images of desperate Afghans clinging to a U.S. aircraft as it took off has prompted serious questions about their future.
“Will Afghanistan’s scenario repeat in Iraq?” was the headline of two programs Tuesday on the Iraqi Kurdistan region’s top television channels, Rudaw and NRT. They were referencing the Taliban’s swift takeover of Afghanistan last week as U.S. forces withdrew from the country.
The Kurds in Iraq were able to carve out their autonomous region after the 1991 Gulf War, when the U.S. and its Western allies established a humanitarian no-fly zone in northern Iraq.
When the Islamic State group (IS) gained prominence in 2014, Kurdish fighters became the main U.S. allies on the ground, enabling the Syrian Kurds to also establish a self-proclaimed administration in northeast Syria.
In an interview with the VOA Kurdish service, Sheikh Jaafar Sheikh Mustafa, the Kurdistan region’s vice president for security affairs, wanted to assure Kurdish citizens that Iraq was unlikely to share Afghanistan’s fate because of “the big difference” between the two countries.
“We do not think the coalition forces will leave Iraq. … But if they did, Iraq’s composition is different now. We have the position of the republic’s president. We own a political fraction and have Parliament members and ministers in Iraq,” he said.
The top government positions in Iraq are divided across the country’s main factions: The Kurds hold the presidency, the prime minister is a Shiite, and the speaker of Parliament is a Sunni.
Mustafa said the power division and the Iraqi government’s recognition of Kurdish peshmerga forces make any future confrontation between the two governments unlikely in the absence of U.S. troops.
“Iraq has armed and security forces in Defense and Interior ministries. And in the Kurdistan region, we have a robust army of peshmerga who, as seen by everyone, were able to confront the most vicious force on earth, which was IS,” he said.
2014 IS attack
That assurance does not ease the worries of many Kurds, who say the quick disintegration of the Afghan army reminded them of summer 2014, when the Iraqi army melted within hours in the face of an IS attack and left its U.S.-provided weapons to the Islamist group.
Ara Ako, a resident of the Kurdistan region’s Sulaimani province, said any pullout of U.S.-led coalition forces could lead to “a chaos that Iraq is still not prepared for.”
“In Iraq, there are a lot of militias linked to regional countries outside a unified command. Also, there is still a possibility for the resurgence of IS fighters who continue their explosions and slaughtering activities,” Ako said.
Danya Osman, another Sulaimani resident, said she was mostly concerned about individual freedoms vanishing if the U.S.-backed system collapsed in Iraq.
“If it was not for peshmerga and the coalition forces, we would not have been able to confidently move around and live this way,” she said.
About 2,500 U.S. troops are in Iraq to help Iraqi forces and the peshmerga in their battle against IS.
Last month, after hosting Iraqi Prime Minister Mustafa al-Kadhimi at the White House, U.S. president Joe Biden announced he would end the U.S. combat mission in the country by the end of this year. Biden said the U.S. will continue to train and advise the Iraqi military but declined to say how many U.S. troops will stay.
Days before the meeting, Iraqi Foreign Minister Fuad Hussein told the VOA Kurdish service that his government believed American “fighting forces are not necessary in Iraq at this stage.”
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Asked if he was concerned that Iraq could face violence by IS and other militant groups proportional to the Taliban, Hussein said, “Iraq’s situation is different from Afghanistan’s.” He said IS was destroyed and that Iraqi forces needed intelligence sharing, training and equipment to deal with the group’s remnants.
The foreign minister’s comments came as a report by the United Nations sanctions monitoring team warned that IS was capable of conducting attacks in the capital, Baghdad, while also reasserting itself in the Diyala, Salah al-Din and Kirkuk provinces.
The report, released July 23 and based on member state intelligence, said: “The group has evolved into an entrenched insurgency, exploiting weaknesses in local security to find safe havens and targeting forces engaged in counter-ISIL operations.”
ISIL is another name for Islamic State group.
The report said that in Syria, where the U.S.-backed Kurds make up the nucleus of Syrian Democratic Forces (SDF), IS was also able to continue its insurgency activities and was poised to remain a problem for some time.
About 900 U.S. troops are in northeast Syria, helping SDF fight IS remnants.
While U.S. officials have not announced any changes to the mission in northeast Syria, any troop withdrawal in the region will likely expose the SDF to Turkey, which sees the Kurdish group as a terrorist organization.
‘A stab in the back’
When the Trump administration decided in 2019 to withdraw U.S. forces in the region, Turkish forces and allied Syrian militants followed with a major offensive against the SDF. Kurdish officials then called the U.S. move a “stab in the back.”
According to Nawaf Khalil, director of the Germany-based Kurdish Center for Studies, the SDF have, over the years, turned to a doctrine of self-reliance that needs to be further emphasized in preparation for any sudden U.S. withdrawal.
“The Afghan lesson must definitely be considered by the Kurds and Syrians in general,” Khalil said.
But he said it was unlikely for Washington to pull U.S. troops from Syria, because unlike Afghanistan, where nearly 20 years of conflict with the Taliban has cost the U.S. more than 2,300 deaths and billions of dollars, the United States’ involvement in Syria, which has lasted nearly seven years, has been minimal and has proven very effective in countering terrorism.
“Following the Afghanistan fiasco, the Americans might even reaffirm their involvement in Syria to assure their local and international partners that what happened in Afghanistan won’t happen in Syria,” Khalil said.
Sirwan Kajjo contributed to this report from Washington.