Northern Exposure: Kurdistan After the Withdrawal

A s the United States works toward a drawdown of combat forces in Iraq by this August, and a withdrawal of all troops by 2011, military commanders and diplomats are scrambling to make sure that the Iraqi government will be ready to take over. Recent discussions have focused on the real, short-term challenges of finalizing national elections and forming a new government. But these talks have often deferred or overlooked the one underlying issue that has become the elephant in the room: Kurdistan.

This may be because Kurdistan, in many ways, seems so sui generis , a world apart from the rest of Iraq. Situated in the northern part of the country and bordering Turkey, Iran, and Syria, the Kurdish region of Iraq (organized into a formal association of three provinces referred to here as “Kurdistan”) has a distinct history and topography. Kurds are considered a unique ethnic group, different from Arabs, Persians, and Turks. Spread across Arab and Persian nations alike, they number close to twenty-five million. Kurds speak their own Indo-European language, Kurdish, which is now one of two official tongues in Iraq. Parts of Kurdistan are lush, but an austere series of mountains has defined the region, supporting a nomadic culture in the past and providing sheltered areas today (the Kurdish militia known as Peshmerga used these areas to retreat and regroup during their fight against Saddam Hussein).

The shape of Kurdish territory and power has shifted over the centuries, reaching imperial heights during medieval times, sharing and contesting power in the modern era, and intermittently experiencing political marginalization, ethno-linguistic suppression, and outright oppression. At times, the Kurds seemed close to achieving statehood—as in 1920 when they unsuccessfully proposed autonomy in the Treaty of Sèvres, or in 1946 when they declared a short-lived republic inside Iran. In these and other instances, many Kurds felt that the Western powers ultimately “sold them out” in the name of Great Power politics, and this sense of betrayal still tinctures Kurdish-Western relations.


B ut since the fall of Hussein’s government, Kurdistan has seized its own destiny. Landing at the international airport in Erbil, the capital of Kurdistan, one is immediately struck by the high level of economic activity that pervades all parts of the city. New highways, high-rises, and construction cranes punctuate the city’s skyline, which now includes modern office towers and the frame of a Kempinski luxury hotel. Traffic fills the streets, which bustle with pedestrians shopping for new cell phones and imported designer clothing. The city has a large amusement park, replete with roller coasters, bumper cars, and a large Ferris wheel. A nearby go-kart racing facility—recently built by an American from Galveston, Texas—attracts a steady stream of young adventure-seekers, while the bookish crowd can take refuge in a brand-new, multi-level public library. Sulaimaniyah and Dohuk, respectively the second and third largest cities in Kurdistan, have seen a similar flurry of economic development.

In 2008, the Kurdish region was still on edge from Turkey’s incursion into the mountains of northern Iraq to combat the Kurdish Workers’ Party (PKK) terrorist group. A little more than a year later, however, the volatile situation had improved markedly: reams of merchandise streamed across the Turkish border and Turkish investors flew in daily from Istanbul. At his inauguration last summer, the Kurdish president openly praised recent developments with Turkey. And a Turkish flag literally flies over the main hotel in town, which Turkish delegations now regularly and openly visit.

As important as a favorable investment climate is, the key to this Kurdish renaissance has been military security. After the Gulf War, the United States imposed no-fly zones over northern and southern Iraq, which allowed the Kurds to begin to develop their cities with less fear of interference from Hussein’s security forces. Much of the development in northern Iraq, in fact, predates the fall of Hussein’s regime in 2003. But since then, because the region has managed to remain largely insulated from the violence that roiled the rest of the country, development in Kurdistan has far outpaced that of other parts of Iraq. Indeed, foreigners can travel around Kurdistan without personal security, for the most part safe from the suicide bombings and kidnappings that still occur in much of Iraq. Kurdish security forces—still called Peshmerga—patrol the region and have largely sealed off the border between themselves and the rest of the country, thereby minimizing the violence that seeps into their territory.

Pro-American sentiment is pervasive throughout Kurdistan. Hussein had brutalized the Kurdish people, kidnapping and torturing the family members of Peshmerga, orchestrating mass killings of fighting-aged Kurds, and infamously ordering a chemical attack on Halabja in 1988. As a result, Kurds unambiguously consider the toppling of Hussein a liberation. In one political rally just days before last summer’s Kurdish election, the son of President Massoud Barzani delivered a message of thanks to the United States and its fighting forces for their sacrifices on behalf of freedom in Iraq. It stood in marked contrast to the animosity toward U.S. efforts that other Iraqi political parties expressed around the same time.


T hese are all very welcome realities, and they are particularly remarkable given the years of brutal Baathist oppression, tragic human rights abuses, and political infighting endured by Iraqi Kurds. But even these dramatic successes cannot paper over three major challenges the north poses to establishing a level of stability in Iraq vital to American interests.

First and most worrisome is the fate of Mosul and Kirkuk. Situated on the border between the Kurdish and Arab regions of Iraq, these two cities hold not only cultural significance, but rich supplies of oil and natural gas. Article 140 of Iraq’s constitution specifies that there be “normalization and census” that “concludes with a referendum in Kirkuk and other disputed territories” by December 2007. That deadline has come and gone, but questions remain about whether Article 140 still applies and whether these “disputed territories” should be formally affiliated with the Kurdish region or Baghdad—or have some other, special status. This uncertainty, in turn, has serious consequences for revenue sharing, political representation, local governance, and the balance of power within Iraq.

In the heat of last summer’s regional elections, Kurdish politicians at times hurled angry rhetoric at Baghdad, accusing the federal government of trying to steal Kurdish land, and flaunting their revolutionary credentials as evidence they would never allow that to happen. Last month, President Barzani starkly warned that “if Article 140 is not implemented, then this will mean the demise of the constitution and Iraq itself.” Previously, the Kurdish minister of extra-regional affairs, Mohammed Issan, warned that “if another war starts here, there will be no more Iraq,” because the Kurds “can’t let our own people be subject to genocide again and be citizens of the same country again.” The central government in Baghdad, meanwhile, believes Kirkuk should be under its control. The success of Ayad Allawi’s nationalist party in Iraq’s national elections earlier this year—including its victory over Kurdish parties in the city of Kirkuk, no less—threatens to further harden Baghdad’s stance.

Some of the Kurds’ hard-line statements could be mere posturing amidst the clamor of post-election coalition building, or in anticipation of someday squarely addressing the “disputed territories.” But they also could be intended as a warning shot over Baghdad’s bow, a signal that the Kurds are unwilling to compromise on what they view as territory to which they are entitled. If that were the case, there could yet be a flare-up with Baghdad—particularly in light of the results of Iraq’s national election. There have already been close calls in Mosul and Diyala, where firefights nearly broke out between Kurdish and Arab forces due to provocative arrests and uncoordinated troop movements by Iraqi forces. While many Kurdish officials have publicly restated their preference to peaceably resolve tensions, others have expressed frustration with the years-long delays in taking a census and then a referendum in the disputed territories—and have let it be known that military action is an option. To make matters worse, Al-Qaeda in Mesopotamia has stepped up its strategy of using violence to exploit these ethnic fissures and create an atmosphere of reprisal and retaliation.

Second and similarly troubling is the growth of a potent strain of Kurdish nationalism, partly fueled by politicians regularly invoking the history of Kurdish oppression and persecution and vividly describing various Peshmerga battles to defend the Kurds against the outrages of the Iraqi government. In summer 2009, Kurdish politicians proposed a referendum on a draft Kurdish constitution—only to be dissuaded by Vice President Biden. Even if such a regional constitution is legal and well-intentioned, it is bound to provoke concerns in the national government about Kurdish separatism.

It would, of course, be unreasonable to expect the Kurds to simply forget about the past campaigns waged against them—not only by Iraq, but also by Turkey and, to some extent, Iran and Syria. But the reality is that the Kurds have fared relatively well under Iraq’s new constitution, securing substantial autonomy and amassing substantial power in parliament and national politics. And their continued emphasis on past struggles at times calls into question their commitment to overcoming the country’s troubled past and moving toward a unified Iraq. It is little wonder that many in Baghdad think the Kurds are biding their time, waiting for an opportune moment to declare independence. As one local proverb notes, “the Kurds have no friend but the mountains.”

Finally, the results of last summer’s regional elections are themselves a challenge to the political system in northern Iraq and America’s role in it. For several years, the two main Kurdish families—the Barzanis, at the helm of the Kurdish Democratic Party (KDP), and the Talabanis, at the helm of the Patriotic Union of Kurdistan (PUK)—have ruled over Iraqi Kurdistan largely unchallenged. Their two parties are principally defined by geography, familial bonds, and long-standing rivalries—rather than stark ideological differences. Last year, the two families ran together on a unified ticket, expecting another overwhelming margin of victory. And they did win, but not by as substantial a majority as they had predicted. (Most shockingly, the PUK lost the popular vote in the heart of its stronghold, Sulaimaniyah.) These results suggest disillusionment with a perceived culture of nepotism that many believe makes it difficult for local citizens to do business in Kurdistan without direct links to either of the two ruling families. And the results also present a real test of these families’ commitment to democracy. Did the Barzanis and the Talabanis embrace democracy solely on the assumption that it would not threaten their heretofore unquestioned grip on power? Or will they remain committed to democracy even if that means that they, over time, may well end up forfeiting some measure of their power, or being voted out of office entirely?


T he United States must be clear-headed and cognizant of these three issues, and aware of the Kurds’   crucial importance in the discussions and decisions about Iraq’s future. One relatively easy way to reassure the Kurds and reward them for the progress they have already made would be to open a U.S. consulate in Erbil. Kurdish leaders have not-so-subtly requested one, both because it would be useful to Kurds seeking visas for travel to the United States, and because a U.S. consulate would signal America’s friendship with and commitment to the integrity of the Kurdish region. The United States currently has a secure compound outside Erbil, and it would not be difficult to designate it a consulate. Washington might have to privately reassure Ankara that this does not mean that America endorses Kurdish separatism; but this may be a dwindling concern, given that Turkey itself has just opened an Erbil consulate.

Washington can also reward northern Iraq by further supporting Turkish trade and investment. Even though Turkey obviously has no formal voice in Iraq’s internal affairs, it backs Turkmen minority groups in the region and has a stake in how the disputed territories are resolved. The United States should work to lessen fears in Ankara that developments in northern Iraq will someday violate Turkey’s territorial integrity.

But America should also be firm in its dealings with the Kurds and make it clear that it will be difficult for the United States to fully pull out if a significant Kurdish-Arab conflict remains a realistic outcome. General Ray Odierno, the top U.S. commander in Iraq for the past few years, has wisely proposed increasing joint patrols in northern Iraq to decrease tension and the chance of an accidental skirmish. Arab and Kurdish leaders seem tentatively receptive to the idea, which is now being implemented in some areas but ought to be broadened in scope.

The United States should also increase its diplomatic engagement in northern Iraq. As Americans prepare for their long goodbye, they may be tempted to postpone or avoid the core issues affecting Kurdistan. But these problems will not go away by themselves, and it may only become more difficult for Washington to mediate or intervene as time goes on.

As the 2011 deadline approaches, U.S. Ambassador Christopher Hill should discreetly assemble Kurdish and Arab officials and other minority groups and prod all parties to make the difficult compromises that are necessary to reach enduring and fair solutions on the disputed territories. The Kurds will probably ask to resolve numerous disputed territories and the oil law with a single package deal. Some Arab officials may seek to delay talks in the hopes of placating domestic constituents or getting a better deal after the United States leaves. A variety of procedural and substantive options remain on the table. Negotiations should focus not on predetermining the ideal route or outcome, but beginning the process in earnest. Hill has his work cut out for him in getting all parties to develop a framework for addressing the issues sequentially, starting with those that are less controversial, so as to gradually build confidence. And he must make it clear that the United States is prepared to use security and economic aid as leverage to prevent any attempts to run out the clock on these talks. This can and should start today, concurrent with our other diplomatic and military efforts.

Ultimately, as with many long-standing conflicts, the fate of Iraq’s Kurds and Arabs will be decided not just by what history owes them, but also by what future compromises they are willing to undertake to make history for themselves. Over the next few years, the United States should make every effort to foster such compromise, working on the Kurds to move beyond their narrative of persecution, while pushing the Iraqi central government to understand and acknowledge what a huge national asset these courageous, enterprising, freedom-minded people can be. The result would be a more stable, secure, and prosperous Iraq—for all Iraqis.

Alexander Benard has worked at the Defense Department and the Washington Institute for Near East Policy. J. P. Schnapper-Casteras is a former fellow at Stanford University’s Center for International Securityy & Cooperation. The opinions expressed are their own.

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