President must not sell out Kurdish Iraq

Knoxville News Sentinel - By Thomas P.M. Barnett

My company, Enterra Solutions, has performed development work inside northern Iraq for close to two years, proving out an economic "connect-up" model we call Development-in-a-Box. That experience leads me to believe that the Kurds' success in nation building could ultimately be their undoing when it comes to President Obama's plan to rapidly withdraw our troops.

First off, let me correct my mistake in identifying citizens of the Kurdistan Regional Government as "Kurds," because their leaders prefer the term Kurdistanis, a label they compare to Americans. Why? Kurds aren't the only people living in the KRG, they note, so let's make clear that citizenship isn't tied to ethnicity.

That logic alone tells you the KRG is worth defending.

Second, some history: America enforced a no-fly zone over northern Iraq soon after Desert Storm's conclusion. Unlike the rest of Iraq that remained under Saddam's iron grip, the Kurdistanis got a lengthy head start on nation building - an opportunity they vigorously exploited.

That success, in tandem with the KRG's disciplined militia known as the peshmerga, accounts for the almost complete lack of U.S. military casualties there since the war. You know that neocon bit about Iraqis "welcoming us with flowers" and helping us overthrow Saddam? Well, it actually happened in Kurdistan. As a result, our military hasn't stationed - or lost - troops inside the KRG since Saddam fell.

So when we talk about U.S. nation building in Iraq, we must admit there was a "good" (Kurdistan) to go along with the "bad" (Shiite south) and the "ugly" (Sunni triangle).

Third, the KRG enjoys the financial support of one of the biggest expatriate populations in the world, with substantial numbers living in neighboring Syria, Turkey and Iran - whose culture Kurdistan most resembles. In their wisdom, KRG leaders make no claim for a "greater Kurdistan" or for secession from Iraq, even as they legitimately contest control over oil-rich Kirkuk.

Instead, they believe a secure and vibrant Kurdistan vastly improves Iraq's prospects for loose federalism. The neocons ridiculed then-Sen. Joe Biden's promotion of Iraq's "soft partition," but the truth is that outcome was preordained, with the majority Shiia ruling the south and Baghdad, Sunni tribal councils once again governing their own, and the KRG in firm control of northern Iraq.

The U.S. military's surge strategy achieved success in pacifying southern Iraq primarily by acquiescing to that emergent reality and co-opting it.

But here's the rub: The Bush administration's meager efforts to create a regional security dialogue yielded little-to-no commitment to Iraq's stability from Iran, Saudi Arabia, Syria and Turkey once U.S. troops leave. Plus, we'll leave behind three armies inside Iraq: the Sunni militias, the KRG's peshmerga, and the reconstituted Iraq army - overwhelmingly controlled by Shiia.

Thus, as our troops draw down, the Obama administration will become essentially powerless to stop any future Shiite attempts to establish unitary control over the entirety of Iraq, meaning a resumed civil war is entirely possible. Moreover, if regional kingpins Iran (Shiite) and the House of Saud (Sunni) are intent in re-igniting a proxy war within Iraq's borders, Washington will be reduced to a bystander.

But there is one thing the Obama administration can do to shape this scary pathway for the better: Leave behind enough ground troops inside Kurdistan to effectively take it off the table regarding future civil strife. If we don't, we're essentially punishing the Kurdistanis for their past and current success in not constituting a sinkhole for U.S. blood and treasure.

That's immoral.

Such "trip-wire" deployments have been enormously successful in the past, including our military cooperation with South Korea since the Korean War and with Kuwait since the first Iraq War. It is a cheap and honorable commitment to make to the Kurdistanis, allowing them to continue serving as a model of economic advance and political stability to the rest of Iraq.

Thomas P.M. Barnett is a visiting scholar at the University of Tennessee's Howard Baker Center and a contributor to the Knoxville (Tenn.) News-Sentinel. E-mail him at


Top of page

January 2, 2009
Apple iTunes
Apple iTunes