"We don’t need Iraqis killing Iraqis,” Lt. Gen. Paul Funk, commander of the anti-ISIS coalition, said last October. He was responding to a military showdown between the central Iraqi government based in Baghdad and the Kurdistan Regional Government (KRG) based in Erbil, over the city of Kirkuk.
While Funk’s sentiments are sound, the vast majority of Kurds who live in Iraq would take issue with his word choice. They simply don’t see themselves as Iraqis.
In fact, 93 percent of Iraq’s Kurds voted in favor of independence in a September 2017 referendum. After more than two decades under the protective wing of the United States, they had steadily cut themselves loose from the basket-case government in Baghdad, built a functioning economy and political system, played a crucial role in blunting the Islamic State’s blitzkrieg into Iraq, and then partnered with international and indigenous forces to destroy ISIS inside Iraq. In short, the Kurds seemed primed in 2017 to turn their de facto independence into full-fledged statehood.
However, the government in Baghdad responded to the independence referendum by sending Iraqi troops and tanks to retake oil fields and checkpoints in the disputed city of Kirkuk. KRG troops known as “peshmerga” had occupied Kirkuk since 2014, when Iraqi government forces were unable or unwilling to stop the ISIS advance. But by the autumn of 2017, Iraqi government forces – hardened and sharpened by the war against ISIS – rapidly retook Kirkuk. It was a clear signal that Baghdad was not going to permit the Kurds to poach the oil-rich area – and was not going to allow the Kurds to leave without a fight.
Washington, which had opposed the KRG’s nonbinding independence vote, basically stood aside as Baghdad reasserted federal authority. “The United States remains committed to a united, stable, democratic and federal Iraq,” the State Department declared, adding that Washington views “the Kurdistan Regional Government as an integral component of the country.”
In the intervening months, political tensions have eased: the KRG announced a “freezing of the results of the referendum,” Baghdad has used restraint and not advanced beyond Kirkuk, KRG and Iraqi forces are partnering on counterterror operations near Kirkuk, and the two are discussing security in “an atmosphere of trust and understanding,” according to government officials. Yet before his party’s defeat at the ballot box in May, Iraqi Prime Minister Haider al-Abadi said he was determined to maintain “federal authority over national borders, oil exports and customs revenues.”
In short, hopes for full-fledged independence for Iraqi Kurdistan have been put on hold – again. However, independence remains the goal of Iraq’s Kurds, and they continue to have powerful allies in the United States.
PARTNERS It’s easy to understand why Iraq’s Kurds want to be independent. Saddam Hussein’s pogroms killed as many as 100,000 Kurds and destroyed 4,000 Kurdish villages. Saddam also used chemical weapons against the Kurds, killing 5,000 civilians in a single attack on Halabja.
“We are talking about a people who have been deported, Arabized by force, gassed and pushed into the mountains,” explains French writer-documentarian Bernard-Henri Lévy, who embedded with peshmerga forces during their campaign against ISIS.
In the post-Saddam years, Baghdad has alternately taken the Kurds for granted in times of emergency, and withheld public-sector payments, oil revenues and military equipment in times of relative calm. Add it all up, and it’s no surprise the vast majority of Iraqi Kurds have little allegiance to the Iraqi state.
Americans began to appreciate the Kurds’ plight at the end of the 1990-1991 Gulf War, when Saddam moved against the Kurds yet again. President George H.W. Bush responded by dispatching U.S. ground troops to northern Iraq to mount a massive humanitarian operation. U.S. forces rescued some 400,000 Kurds from starvation. Bush then ordered U.S. air assets to enforce a no-fly zone over a large swath of northern Iraq, which President Bill Clinton continued. This allowed Iraq’s Kurds to live in relative safety and begin building a semi-sovereign Kurdistan.
As Iraq’s Kurds grew more self-sufficient, the U.S.-Kurdish partnership deepened.
By 2003, U.S. personnel were working closely with the peshmerga – which means “one who faces death” – to execute key operations to take down Saddam’s regime. Partnering with CIA and Special Operations “liaison officers,” the peshmerga
prepared the battlespace before Operation Iraqi Freedom, neutralized bases held by Ansar al-Islam (a terror group linked to al-Qaida), helped liberate 300 villages and offered Kurdish territory as a springboard for operations southward.
PARTNERS PART II A decade later, as ISIS swept into Iraq, the United States turned again to its old friends in Iraqi Kurdistan for help against yet another common enemy.
In the first year of the fight against the Islamic State, the peshmerga was the only effective fighting force indigenous to Iraq. Coordinating closely with U.S. forces, the peshmerga proved crucial in slowing the ISIS advance, blocking it from taking territory in places like Kirkuk and ultimately defeating it in Iraq.
At the height of the ISIS advance – as Baghdad’s troops recoiled and retreated – 80,000 Kurdish troops stood up to the jihadist onslaught, holding the line against ISIS on a nearly 900-mile-long front. A European Union report puts it diplomatically: “Kurdish peshmerga fighters proved more effective than the Iraqi security forces in defending and regaining territory in northwestern Iraq.”
In 2014, some 7,500 peshmerga fighters fought their way to Mount Sinjar and rescued hundreds of trapped Yazidis. With the help of U.S. airpower, peshmerga troops then recaptured Sinjar from ISIS in 2015, saving thousands more Yazidis.
Throughout 2015 and 2016, peshmerga forces, backed by coalition airpower, cleared scores of villages and cities in northern Iraq of ISIS militants. KRG forces took part in operations to retake Tikrit, Bashiqa, Jalawla, Saadiya and Khanaqin. As the peshmerga moved through Fazliya, Lévy reported, “The instant the town was liberated, every child poured into the main street chanting ‘Long live the peshmerga!’”
RAW DEAL The peshmerga’s importance was perhaps most evident in the 2016-2017 operation aimed at liberating Mosul, the largest Iraqi city occupied by ISIS. The operation comprised an estimated 100,000 personnel drawn from the Iraqi military, Shiite militias, Western military units (by 2016, there were at least 6,500 coalition personnel from 17 nations on the ground in Iraq), and 15,000 peshmerga fighters. On the ground with the peshmerga, Lévy described how the Kurds were “responsible for breaking through ISIS’ forward lines and opening the gates to the city.”
Peshmerga soldiers are seen as honorable warriors. In fact, ISIS fighters surrendered to peshmerga forces rather than Iraqi troops or Iranian militias because the Kurds “were known to take prisoners instead of killing them,” as The New York Times reported.
The Kurds have paid a high price for their victories. Between August 2014 and July 2017, 1,745 peshmerga personnel were killed and more than 10,000 wounded in the war against ISIS. In addition, the KRG has taken in 1.8 million refugees from Syria and Iraq. These are enormous sacrifices for a population of less than 6 million.
To be sure, the Kurds would not have been able to defeat ISIS without their American partners; however, the American people – scarred and fatigued by years of war in the Middle East – weren’t willing to shoulder the sacrifices of another ground war in Iraq. So the Pentagon launched a number of efforts to build the capacity of peshmerga forces and coordinate anti-ISIS operations – the Joint Coalition Coordination Center, Kurdish Training Coordination Center, Task Force Talon – all clustered around Erbil.
The main U.S. hub of operations in the KRG is located at the Kurdistan International Airport. Although Baghdad declared victory over ISIS in 2017, the United States has continued training peshmerga troops into 2018. The Pentagon
earmarked $365 million to sustain peshmerga personnel in 2018, and published reports suggest there are as many as five U.S. bases on KRG territory today. Those bases may prove more important than ever as the new government in Baghdad, with longtime U.S. foe Moqtada al-Sadr now holding the levers of power, takes charge.
STILL STATELESS That brings us back to the KRG’s powerful allies in the United States. Calling Iraq’s Kurds “our true friends,” Sen. John McCain, R-Ariz., chairman of the Senate Armed Services Committee, argues, “If Baghdad cannot guarantee the Kurdish people in Iraq the security, freedom and opportunities they desire, and if the United States is forced to choose between Iranian-backed militias and our longstanding Kurdish partners, I choose the Kurds.”
Likewise, after the referendum, Senate Minority Leader Chuck Schumer, D-N.Y., declared, “The Kurds continue to get a raw deal and are told to wait for tomorrow .... It’s past due that the world, led by the United States, immediately back a political process to address the aspirations of the Kurds.”
In addition, executive-branch officials spanning the political spectrum, from President Barack Obama’s vice president to President Donald Trump’s national security adviser, have come to the conclusion that it’s time to stop resisting the centrifugal forces that have been pulling Iraq apart and instead move toward some sort of partition.
The KRG came to that conclusion long ago. Today, it has 13 diplomatic missions around the world – including in the United States, Britain, France, Germany, Iran and Russia – and hosts 40 foreign missions/consulates, including those nations plus Egypt, Jordan, Saudi Arabia, South Korea, Canada, Japan, Brazil, the United Nations and the European Union.
Erbil has signed oil and gas development contracts with companies from 17 countries, and the KRG has a business environment that rates better than Jordan, Egypt and Russia, according to the Economist Intelligence Unit.
Yet the Kurdish people – spread across Iraq, Syria, Turkey and Iran – remain the largest ethnic group in the world without their own state.
Even so, the KRG is not without its own internal challenges. As The Atlantic reports, militias connected with the Patriotic Union of Kurdistan (PUK), one of the KRG’s main political parties, were in charge of defending Kirkuk in 2017. Yet when they received “Abadi’s assurances that the operation would be a limited one, the PUK made a tactical withdrawal.”
Masoud Barzani, longtime KRG president and leader of the rival Kurdistan Democratic Party (KDP), resigned after the referendum and ensuing Kirkuk crisis. With deep political divisions exposed and independence put on hold, violent protests then flared across the KRG against both the Baghdad and Erbil governments.
TRENDLINES If the central government in Baghdad is now strong and organized enough to do what legitimate sovereign governments are supposed to do – maintain internal law and order, control and defend external borders, provide basic services, allocate resources equitably – that’s good for America’s interests, and it’s not necessarily bad for Iraq’s Kurds. The KRG could enjoy a high degree of autonomy and independence, while remaining part of an Iraq that is whole but loosely connected at the federal/national level. It’s unclear how a Sadr-dominated government will deal with the KRG, though Sadr is considered a strong Iraqi nationalist, which suggests he wouldn’t be open to Kurdish secession or Kurdish control over Iraq’s existing borders.
Still, the trendlines and momentum don’t point toward the KRG remaining part of Iraq, which brings us back to the question of Kurdish independence.
Partition is tricky business and should never be entered into lightly. First, it’s at odds with something we Americans deeply believe: that people can look past their superficial differences and find a way to get along, that character is more important than creed and tribe.
Second, it always looks simpler on paper than how it plays out in reality. Think of the partitions following World War I and World War II, the consequences of which we continue to deal with today: wars in Iraq and Syria, the ongoing Israel-Palestinian conflict, recurrent crises in the Balkans, the hair-trigger standoff in Korea.
Third, partition can undermine international stability. For centuries the world has been organized and governed by nation-states with clearly defined, internationally recognized borders. This has served as the foundation of international order. When we begin to erase or change those borders, there are consequences.
However, when trying to hold a state together becomes bloodier and more disruptive to international order than allowing it to break apart, the sensible course is to let that state dissolve. We may be nearing that moment in Iraq, as before in Yugoslavia. Washington is right not to hasten Iraq’s dissolution. But when/if Iraq finally comes apart – whether due to chaos or corruption in Baghdad, interference from Tehran, another ISIS-type shock or newfound unity in Erbil – the United States should be prepared to help the freest, most stable, most pro-American part of Iraq join the family of nations.
Alan W. Dowd is a senior fellow with the Sagamore Institute Center for America’s Purpose.