With the collapse of Iraqi military forces in Mosul last week the absurdity of America’s foreign policy towards Iraq has come into focus. We’re finding that we lack the two key requirements for a successful American withdrawal, namely the commitment to co-existence of Iraq’s leadership and the competence of the American-trained Iraqi army. The president is now dealing in public with a problem that in all likelihood he has understood in private; the idea of one Iraq is a fiction.
The assumption that Iraq exists as a single country is the paradigm through which almost all American conversation about Iraq takes place. It’s the reason why ridiculous questions about who “lost” Iraq are being asked, and it’s the reason we continue to blunder in our response. The unified Iraq mirage is the justification for insane policies like the one that sent vast American military aid to the sectarian government of Nouri al-Maliki. Much of that military aid, we now find out, will be used by terrorists against us. The purveyors of conventional wisdom suggest that we respond by sending yet more weapons, or better yet, by bombing the same towns that we spent years trying to protect.
The root of our failure is Washington’s obsession with the idea of a multiethnic Iraq. A self-reinforcing clique of experts in America has decided that Sunnis, Shiites, and Kurds should cooperate with each other. The fact that they have no real interest in doing so is inconvenient and ignored. For Kurds the whole concept is ridiculous. They survived genocide at the hand of their Sunni Arab neighbors just 25 years ago. For the past decade they have cooperated with the American unity policy in Iraq, only to become targets of bombings, kidnappings, and ritual beheadings. Now they find themselves in the surreal position of having to protect thousands of these same good neighbors from their own home grown terrorist movement. If you were a Kurd, what would you think of a State Department official telling you that you lack sufficient commitment to Iraq’s unity?
I’ve been reading Kurdish media closely in recent days, and to their credit there is little gloating. They understand the hardest part is still ahead. As one friend put it, in what may be the Kurdish understatement of the year, “this may be a chance for us to improve our position.” The Iraqi army, which just last year was threatening them (nothing new there), has dissolved en masse. The Kurds responded dexterously by inviting fleeing civilians and soldiers into their territory, and by quietly seizing key points along their frontier with the Islamic State of Iraq and al-Sham (ISIS). That informal frontier is largely the same one it has always been, even as the names and acronyms of the extremists on the other side change with time.
A government that fails to protect its major cities from sectarian terror can have no legitimacy, and Kurds are right to reject any self-serving advice coming from the American government to “cooperate” with Maliki. A more creative American policy would acknowledge the reality of what the Kurds have built, which is a prosperous and peaceful nation state in the mountains of Northern Iraq. It’s a nation whose soldiers and diplomats worked amicably alongside Americans through all the darkest episodes of the Iraq wars. It’s a nation where not a single American soldier died during ten years of bloody military involvement in Iraq, despite occasional terrorist attacks.
There are several advantages to an independent Kurdistan. The most obvious is that it costs us nothing. No doubt we will have to remove a few thwarted State Department bureaucrats. But the Kurds know it’s on them to make it work. Our only task would be official recognition of the new country. An ally that we don’t have to constantly sustain with billions of dollars of bribes would be a refreshing turn in our Middle East policy. Furthermore it salvages something optimistic from the nightmare of the Iraq wars. It rights a historical wrong, which is the broken promise made to the Kurds that they would have self-determination in the aftermath of World War One.
The usual criticism of the view that Iraqis would be better off apart is that the regional neighbors would never allow it. In the case of the Kurds, that basically means Turkey. But the situation between Kurds and Turks has changed a lot in recent years. Last year a pipeline was completed that will allow Kurds to export oil directly to Turkey, bypassing Baghdad and greatly enhancing their economic independence. As one Turkish official involved in the oil deal recently put it in a Washington Post article on the topic, when it comes to Kurdish independence, Turkey “has bought that option.” No doubt many in Turkey would prefer the status quo to an independent Kurdistan, but the economic boom in Sulaimania and Erbil is evidence itself that money is trumping ideology in Turkey.
There are practical benefits as well to an independent Kurdish state. Kurdistan would provide America with one good ally, rather than a series of fake ones. The Kurds already field a tough and self-motivated defense force to counter terrorist threats from neighboring parts of Iraq, and unlike our allies in the Persian Gulf, they have been a consistent enemy of Al Qaeda in all its varied permutations. Their government would provide useful intelligence and a quiet diplomatic channel to Iran. Importantly, they would free us from the absurdity of supporting yet another Arab dictatorship. Maliki would become Iran’s problem, which is appropriate, as he is largely their creation.
The commitment of the American foreign policy establishment to the unified Iraq myth dates back to World War One agreements governing the borders of the Middle East. Our fealty to these arrangements, which never reflected reality on the ground, is one of the great mysteries of the current era. Sykes and Picot cut a deal in the dark, and a hundred years later we still act to uphold the principles of their bargain. It was never anything other than a sham, as the Iraqis themselves are now showing us each time the black flag flies. It’s time to jettison this baggage from the previous century. The Kurdish moment for independence is approaching. They will declare it when they are ready, and when they do we should welcome them as friends.