Both the Pentagon and Larry André, Jr, the U.S. ambassador to Somalia, may like to ignore the inconvenient truth, but it should deeply trouble Congress that a force funded and trained by the United States to fight the local Al Qaeda affiliate now fights alongside them against the region’s only democracy.
By Michael Rubin
When Secretary of Defense Lloyd Austin traveled to Iraq last month, he stood alongside Iraqi Kurdish President Nechirvan Barzani but declined to meet with Nechirvan’s nephew and regional Prime Minister Masrour Barzani, with whom he last met in 2021. It was a deliberate slight; U.S. government officials say the White House has also banned Masrour from its grounds. At issue is growing concern about Masrour’s corruption, volatility, and competence. Masrour, who is a U.S. permanent resident, is also the subject of an ongoing lawsuit alleging libel and misogyny.
In response for not receiving his photo-op, Masrour had a temper tantrum. In one hot-mic incident, he apparently called the Americans “jerks.” He bristled at State Department criticism and demanded diplomats remove social media posts of an article criticizing local corruption and human rights abuses.
After a Turkish drone earlier this month fired on a convoy carrying U.S. military personnel, Syrian Kurdish military leader Gen. Mazloum Abdi, and top officials of the ruling Patriotic Union of Kurdistan (PUK) at Sulaymani Airport, Masrour’s team issued a statement essentially blaming the victims. This frustrated Washington as Abdi, PUK leader Bafil Talabani, and American officers were together to coordinate counter-Islamic State operations.
In the weeks since, Masrour has doubled down, telling both American officials and a British general that if they do not first clear flights over Iraqi Kurdistan with him, he will not guarantee the security of their aircraft. Not only do such statements antagonize Baghdad, which is responsible for Iraq’s airspace, but it also puts Masrour’s ego above successful counterterrorism.
What makes Masrour’s demands more inappropriate is that across the Trump and Biden administrations, the United States has subsidized Peshmerga salaries to the tune of nearly a quarter billion dollars annually. Rather than directly pay the Peshmerga, the U.S. government channels these funds through the Barzani-controlled Ministry of Peshmerga Affairs. Much of it disappears there: many Peshmerga, especially those who do not serve Masrour’s personal political agenda or hail from his tribe, say they have not received their salaries. It is deeply ironic that Washington continues to fund Masrour’s personal militia at a time he threatens Americans.
Nor is the Iraqi Kurdish example alone. Fighting continues to rage in eastern Somaliland, fueled in part by Danab Brigade fighters trained by the United States. Both the Pentagon and Larry André, Jr, the U.S. ambassador to Somalia, may like to ignore the inconvenient truth, but it should deeply trouble Congress that a force funded and trained by the United States to fight the local Al Qaeda affiliate now fights alongside them against the region’s only democracy.
Partnerships with foreign forces, when done right, can turn the course of a battle. Mazloum’s Syrian Democratic Forces are a case in point. Money spent cannot be a metric, nor should diplomats and military trainers ignore the local and tribal agendas that can hijack operations. If the State Department and Pentagon will not properly supervise and assess the local forces U.S. taxpayers support, it is time Congress does.
In the meantime, it is time to suspend payments to the Danab and the Peshmerga or channel them to those units that, like Somaliland’s in Africa or the Talabani faction’s in Iraqi Kurdistan, actually fight Al Qaeda and the Islamic State.
About Michael Rubin
Arab politics, Iran, Iraq, Turkey, Horn of Africa
Bio & Experience
Michael Rubin is a senior fellow at the American Enterprise Institute, where he specializes in Iran, Turkey, and the broader Middle East.
A former Pentagon official, Dr. Rubin has lived in post-revolution Iran, Yemen, and both pre-and postwar Iraq. He also spent time with the Taliban before 9/11. For more than a decade, he taught classes at sea about the Horn of Africa and Middle East conflicts, culture, and terrorism, to deployed US Navy and Marine units.
Dr. Rubin is the author, coauthor, and coeditor of several books exploring diplomacy, Iranian history, Arab culture, Kurdish studies, and Shi’ite politics, including “Seven Pillars: What Really Causes Instability in the Middle East?” (AEI Press, 2019); “Kurdistan Rising” (AEI Press, 2016); “Dancing with the Devil: The Perils of Engaging Rogue Regimes” (Encounter Books, 2014); and “Eternal Iran: Continuity and Chaos” (Palgrave, 2005).
Dr. Rubin has a Ph.D. and an MA in history from Yale University, where he also obtained a BS in biology.
- Foreign Military Studies Office: Contract Analyst, 2012–present
- Naval Postgraduate School: Senior Lecturer, 2007–21
- Middle East Quarterly: Editor, 2004–09
- Coalition Provisional Authority (Baghdad): Political Adviser, 2003–04
- Office of the Secretary of Defense: Staff Adviser, Iran and Iraq, 2002–04
- Council on Foreign Relations: International Affairs Fellow, 2002–03
- Hebrew University (Jerusalem): Fellow, The Leonard Davis Institute for International Relations, 2001–02
- Carnegie Council on Ethics and International Affairs: Fellow, 2000–01
- Universities of Sulaymani, Salahuddin, and Duhok (Iraqi Kurdistan): Visiting Lecturer, 2000–01
- Yale University: Lecturer, Department of History, 1999–2000
- Iranian Studies: Assistant Editor, 1994–97
Ph.D. and MA in history; BS in biology, Yale University
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This article originally appeared in The AEIdeas blog
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