They'd like to step into some tanks.

Photographer: Safin Hamed/AFP/Getty Images

Congress Pushes Obama to Arm Iraq's Kurds

Josh Rogin is a former Bloomberg View columnist.
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(Update: The Ernst-Boxer amendment was not adopted Tuesday afternoon after it failed the meet the 60-vote threshold for ending debate. The Senate vote was 54-45.)

The Senate is expected to vote Tuesday on whether to give the Obama administration new authority to directly arm Iraq's Kurds, even though the White House doesn’t want that power and doesn’t think there’s anything wrong with the current system, which routes the shipments through the central government.

Freshman Republican Joni Ernst and Democrat Barbara Boxer teamed up to author an amendment to the defense policy bill that would provide President Barack Obama with temporary, emergency authority to bypass the U.S. law that says all weapons must go through Baghdad first. It’s a system the Kurds have often complained is too slow and too bureaucratic as they fight to push back the Islamic State in northern Iraq. Other senators, including the Republican presidential hopefuls Lindsey Graham and Marco Rubio, have signed on to the amendment.

QuickTake Iraq's Brittle Nationhood

“These delays have had a negative impact on the Kurds' ability to defend Iraqi territory and provide security for those who have sought refuge in Iraqi Kurdistan,” Ernst said on the Senate floor.

She also pointed out that Secretary of State John Kerry blamed Congress last year in testimony to the House Foreign Affairs Committee for requiring the roundabout arms route in the first place.  “We have to send it to the Iraqi government because that’s U.S. law,” he told lawmakers. “If you want to change it, fix it, we invite you.”

House Foreign Affairs Committee Chairmen Ed Royce and Eliot Engel have a bill in their chamber similar to the Ernst-Boxer amendment. If the Senate passes the amendment Tuesday afternoon, it’s likely some version of the idea will reach the president’s desk.

The problem is that Obama has no intention of bypassing the government of Iraqi Prime Minister Haider al-Abadi, which objects to the U.S. sending weapons directly to the Peshmerga. “Our policy remains that all arms transfers must be coordinated via the sovereign central government of Iraq,” said Alistair Baskey, spokesman for the National Security Council.

For some experts and officials, that policy constitutes a betrayal of the Kurds, who have been fighting Islamic State forces along a 600-mile front for more than a year. The Kurds have received a lot of equipment from the U.S. and other coalition partners, but they are still outgunned and are running low on ammunition, mortar rounds and rockets.

“We have not kept our promise to the Kurds and we have been overly deferential to Baghdad,” said retired Lieutenant General Michael Barbero, who was responsible for the training and equipping of all Iraqi security forces from 2009 to 2011. “They look to us, they call America their big brother, and they are disappointed. The current system doesn’t reflect the reality on the ground.”

Sources with knowledge of the issue told me that the U.S. Government has provided Kurdish forces fighting the Islamic State over the past year with light and medium arms but no heavy equipment. For example, the U.S. has given the Kurds 1,000 AT4 anti-tank rockets, but they want superior Javelin missiles to stop Islamic State tanks.

The Kurds are also requesting a litany of other military items. On the non-lethal side, this includes body armor, night vision gear, advanced radio communications and bomb diffusing technology. On the deadly side, the Peshmerga want artillery, heavy machine guns, helicopters and tanks of their own.

There’s no way the U.S. would give them heavy conventional weapons such as  tanks, said Jim Jeffrey, who served as the U.S. Ambassador to Iraq from 2010 to 2012. "They have reasonable requests that aren't being met and then they have unreasonable requests that we are never going to meet. And they can't separate the two,” he said.

Still, the current system of routing all the weapons through Baghdad is inefficient needs to be tweaked, Jeffrey said. The central government often delays weapons deliveries to the Kurds by insisting on detailed inventories and inspections. The U.S. could speed the weapons to Erbil without changing the law by turning the mission covert, he said:  "It's hard to understand why we can't just find a way to get it in, either with or without Baghdad's acquiescence."

Some officials inside the Obama administration have another reason for wanting to make sure Kurds can’t bypass the Abadi government: They worry that the Kurds are simply seeking one more way to move toward an independent state. The counter-argument is that if the Kurds are left without proper defenses, they will be less able to do their part to defend the Iraqi state, which could in turn crumble.

“Defeating ISIS is critical to maintaining an inclusive and unified Iraq and Iraqi Kurds are key to that goal,” Ernst said on the Senate floor.

Obama announced last week that along with sending 450 more U.S. troops to Iraq, he was speeding the delivery of equipment “to Iraqi forces, including Peshmerga and tribal fighters, operating under Iraqi command." Peshmerga forces have never operated under Iraq command in the literal sense, nor will they ever do so.

Recognizing that fact, and then increasing and speeding up the delivery of weapons to the Kurds, seems like a no-brainer. The administration is right to insist on a unified Iraq and a policy coordinated through Baghdad. But the Islamic State is not diverting weapons needlessly for bureaucratic purposes on their way to the front lines, so neither should we.

(Updates previous version of this story.)

This column does not necessarily reflect the opinion of Bloomberg View's editorial board or Bloomberg LP, its owners and investors.

To contact the author on this story:
Josh Rogin at joshrogin@bloomberg.net

To contact the editor on this story:
Tobin Harshaw at tharshaw@bloomberg.net