In Iraqi Kurdistan, the U.S. intelligence community has enjoyed a nearly two-decade-long relationship with the Zanyari, the Patriotic Union of Kurdistan’s intelligence service. Alongside its Kurdistan Democratic Party counterpart, the Asayish, the Zanyari has been at the tip of the spear in the region’s counterterrorism fight, against both the Islamic State and Iranian-backed militias.
Those days are over.
Last summer, Bafel and Qubad Talabani, the sons of late Iraqi President Jalal Talabani, staged an internal coup to oust their cousin Lahur from the PUK leadership as Zanyari chief. Their move was carefully coordinated with both the Kurdistan Democratic Party, which disliked Lahur, and with Turkey and Iran . In exchange for Iran’s blessing, Bafel and Qubad agreed to appoint Salman Amin (also known as Azhi Amin) as head of the Zanyari and Wahab Halabjay as its counterterror chief. Both were problematic appointments who had trained with Iran’s Intelligence Ministry and had cut their teeth in various Islamist and terrorist movements.
Iraqi Kurdistan sells itself as a democratic oasis. In reality, it is an increasingly dysfunctional police state. The crisis on the Belarus-Poland border reflects as much. Those risking their lives on the Belarus-Poland border are not Afghans or Syrians fleeing war but rather Kurds frustrated by the corruption and mismanagement of the Barzani and Talabani brothers.
Sulaymaniyah, the second-largest city in Iraqi Kurdistan by population, is perhaps the most liberal city in Iraq. Teenagers and 20-somethings meet in the city’s thriving cafe culture. Art galleries open monthly. Men and women mix. Families picnic in the mountains that mark the city’s eastern border. It is also home to the prestigious American University of Iraq, Sulaimani, as well as multiple public universities.
Over the past week, tens of thousands of Iraqi Kurds, initially university students but now many others, have taken to the streets to protest corruption and the suspension of entitlements. Certainly, a region that sells itself as democratic should tolerate if not welcome peaceful protests. Not so the new Zanyari. Security forces first fired tear gas and then live ammunition at the protesters.
Bafel and Qubad have also used the Zanyari to target their domestic political opponents. Bafel has gone on a rampage, using the Zanyari to roll up those who worked closely with Lahur in the past. This includes Lahur’s bodyguards Khoshnaw Waisi and Hawkar Nazim. When student protests erupted, Bafel ordered the arrest of Lahur’s secretary who was pursuing a doctorate at the university. He is charged with masterminding the protests. Such paranoia reflects detachment from reality. It also testifies to a failure to understand what happens when leaders live like royalty while defaulting on salary and student stipend payments.
What should concern the Central Intelligence Agency and Pentagon is that the Talabani brothers have also used the U.S.-funded and equipped Counter Terror Group to go door to door arresting protesters. Photos of the body of Murad Abdulrahman, arrested by Azhi Amin’s death squad, for example, show that he suffered electrocution, beating, and stab wounds after his arrest.
Nor are Kurdish leaders alone in diverting aid or repurposing U.S.-trained counterterrorism forces to serve as domestic enforcers in pursuit of dictatorship. The United States and broader international community have spent billions of dollars in Somalia, trying to build a professional military and intelligence service to combat the local al Qaeda affiliate al Shabaab and other extremist groups. Somali President Mohamed Abdullahi Mohamed, however, diverted security forces to counter or combat potential political rivals as al Shabaab flourished within sight of the Villa Somalia, Mogadishu’s White House.
Problems in both Iraqi Kurdistan and Somalia predate the current administration, but this is no excuse for inaction. If “diplomacy is back” and “the adults are in charge,” as Biden officials and their cheerleaders like to say, it is time for President Joe Biden, CIA Director William Burns, and Secretary of Defense Lloyd Austin to get their partners under control. U.S. assistance should never be an entitlement, and partnerships should be with states and systems rather than individual politicians. Not only does the diversion of counterterror assistance make the region more vulnerable to terrorism and Islamist extremism, but tolerating security partners’ use of U.S.-trained forces as death squads also undermines U.S. credibility more broadly.
This article was originally published here.