Is the CIA About to Dump A Key Kurdish Ally? The Spooks Are Spooked


By Michael Rubin On 7/28/17 at 11:33 AM  NEWSWEEK – There’s a moral quandary at the core of Western human intelligence practices.Should intelligence agencies dirty their hands by working with and perhaps even paying human rights abusers and those engaged in illicit activities?Many human rights activists and progressives would say absolutely not, but the issue isn’t so cut-and-dry. While in an ideal world the CIA would not work with those with blood on their hands, often it is these very same people whom it is necessary to compromise to gain insight into decision-making and activities. The important thing for intelligence operators is not to lose sight of the forest for the trees.

In Pakistan, too, the CIA has developed a love-hate, but increasingly hate-hate, relationship with its former contacts in Pakistan’s Inter-Services Intelligence.

Now, it seems, the US intelligence community is beginning to have buyer’s remorse with regard to some of its key partners in Iraqi Kurdistan. The United States has long worked with Kurdistan Democratic Party leader Masud Barzani, who, alongside rival Jalal Talabani, controlled Iraqi Kurdistan.

Both men were nepotistic, and each appointed their sons to key administrative and security positions: Barzani placed his oldest son Masrour in charge of the security services and later installed him as chancellor of the Kurdistan Region Security Council, and Talabani placed his older son Bafil (Pavel) in charge of his party’s intelligence service.

Jalal Talabani, however, eventually forced his son into a London exile out of concern about his increasingly erratic and violent behavior. (Talabani nephew Lahur, however, continues to run a local anti-terrorism force).

Barzani, however, is far more a tribal leader and has been reticent to hold his children accountable for their actions. He has raised them to believe they are superior. He schooled them in their own private school where they learned, socialized, and interacted primarily with family members. Masrour Barzani’s erratic behavior is no secret.

Consider the following:

  • Researchers from international human rights organizations conducting prison visits in Iraqi Kurdistan say they met incarcerated persons not included on prison registers who said they were imprisoned and, in some cases, tortured by the security forces Masrour runs when they refused to offer him a percentage of their companies.
  • In 2005, Masrour’s security forces imprisoned Kamal Said Qadir after he criticized Barzani in a series of articles. He received a 30-year sentence in a trial that lasted 15 minutes. He was released, however, after international human rights groups raised his case.

From a strategic standpoint Masorur’s actions were counterproductive. Masrour’s actions amplified a relatively unknown figure and amplified his name significantly while undermining Iraqi Kurdistan’s careful branding as a democracy.

Masrour did not learn his lesson, however. Austrian authorities later reportedly arrested Masrour and his bodyguards for assault and attempted murder for an attack in Vienna, one among many.

  • Again, this has become the rule rather than an exception. After journalist Sardasht Osman lampooned Barzani family nepotism, he was kidnapped and killed. Barzani’s government blamed his death on Sunni insurgents, but the idea that they could kidnap someone in the middle of the Kurdish capital, shove him into a security force vehicle, and spirit them through security checkpoints both defies belief and also undercuts Kurdistan’s claims to be safe and secure.

Many journalists point the finger at Masrour. Extra-judicial executions are always illegal but, in this case, the decision to initiate was especially stupid because it amplified a discussion about Barzani’s corruption into the international media.

  • Corruption has become such a problem within the Kurdistan Regional Government (KRG) that even senior Kurdish officials acknowledge it. (Separately, take a look at the forthcoming Routledge Handbook of the Kurds for a chapter dedicated exclusively to detailing and exploring KRG corruption).

It is curious, therefore, that Masrour would so blatantly engage in practices which call attention to the problem.

He used a shell corporation, for example, to purchase an ostentatious mansion in what was, in 2010, the largest residential real estate purchase in the Washington, DC, area. While Masrour denied being behind the purchase, his arrogance was such that he hosted his next birthday party in the estate.

All of this, of course, is past. The US intelligence community, which worked and coordinated with Masrour by nature of his position, was long willing to overlook the allegations of human rights abuses and corruption which swirl around the Barzanis.

What has changed? Two things:

First, there is the fight against ISIS.

While Masrour Barzani is an ally in the fight against ISIS, he has been a problematic one. Before ISIS captured Mosul, there was the problem of sensitive military equipment leaking from the KRG to the ISIS insurgents. The opprobrium of journalists and academics working for KRG or Kurdistan Democratic Party outlets notwithstanding, it is an issue which former Kurdish politicians acknowledge, and about which Iraqi government officials complained to US counterparts before ISIS captured Mosul.

Following the ISIS’s rise, the willingness of some within the KRG to profit off trade with the group even while fighting them also raised eyebrows.

Finally, when Kurdish units partnered with US Special Forces, the willingness of Kurdish authorities to leak footage shocked the Pentagon. To reveal the identities of US Special Forces servicemen endangered their families. That such leaks occurred simply so the KDP could imply its endorsement by the Pentagon over other groups made matters worse.

Second, there is the September 25 referendum on Kurdish independence.

The problem with the referendum is that it appears motivated less by nationalist desire than to distract from Kurdistan’s economic problems and its democracy backslide.

In Kurdistan Rising, I sought to highlight the unresolved debates and issues surrounding Kurdish independence. Masrour has become a chief proponent for independence. Some congressional staff and leaders with whom he has met, though, came away from their meeting convinced Masrour sought independence more to be heir apparent in what will become hereditary leadership than out of sincere nationalistic concerns.

The failure — and early return — of Masoud Barzani’s delegation to Europe last month suggests these concerns are more broad-based than perhaps Masrour realizes.

Long-story short: While Masrour has relations by reason of his security portfolio with the US intelligence community dating back to Operation Iraqi Freedom (if not before), the growing baggage with which he has become associated appears increasingly to have led to some introspection and a broad rethink about specific US partnerships.

Masrour Barzani is one figure among many. And, while he does not personify a nationalist struggle for which he was largely insulated from threat or risk despite hagiographic biographies, he appears increasingly to be a flashpoint for the debate about the direction of American policy.

Intelligence and policy professionals seem increasingly to ask: If certain behavior has become commonplace now, how might it change should Kurdistan be independent?

How might it change should Masrour succeed his father?

And how might it change if even the few remaining checks-and-balances in Kurdistan are eliminated?

In short, while relations with Iraqi Kurdistan will remain warm, the question for American policymakers right now is whether the partnerships of the past may soon become the embarrassments of the future.

Michael Rubin is a resident scholar at the American Enterprise Institute. A former Pentagon official, his major research areas are the Middle East, Turkey, Iran and diplomacy.