February 9, 2007
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Waiting for America

Soma - by Dr Denise Natali

Instead of waiting for the Americans to resolve the Kurdish problem, the Kurds will have to assume a more pro-active role in determining their own political survival.

When the Iraqi Study Group (ISG) issued its report in December 2006, most Kurds reacted with shock and anger at what appeared to be another “American betrayal”. After having acted as a reliable ally in the war on terror, fighting side by side with the United States military in overthrowing Saddam Hussein, and compromising Kurdish nationalism for a federalist solution, the Kurds expected to be rewarded for their political fidelity.

Instead, they were seconded to Arab and Turkish nationalist influences, leaving the Kurdistan region, once again, at the mercy of hostile regional neighbors and so-called international allies. Many now worry about the impact of the shift in American tactics in Iraq on the Kurdistan region and wonder if the Kurds will be sold out once again. Yet, the real problem for the Kurds is not their unknown fate, but rather, their ill-preparedness for it. Why are most Kurds, including the political elite, still taken by surprise by US policy decisions that impact the Kurdistan Region?

A brief overview of key American strategic choices in Iraq shows an unambiguous pattern of supporting regional neighbors and the central government over Kurdish nationalist interests. The 1975 US-brokered Algiers Agreement led to the collapse of the Kurdish revolution against the Iraqi government and mass exodus of over 250,000 Kurds to Iran. The US-supported the Baathist government and Saddam Hussein during the following decade, even after the Anfal campaign that caused the destruction of over 4,000 Kurdish villages and deaths of about 150,000 Kurds.

In 1991, after having encouraged a mass uprising against the Iraqi regime, the US abandoned the Kurds again at the hands of Saddam, resulting in another mass exodus of more than two million Kurds to the mountainous border regions. Nor has there been any real change in American policy toward Iraqi Kurds since 2003. The US mission in Iraq is not centered on protecting Kurdish autonomy, but rather, ensuring stability in the region by rooting out the seeds of terrorism and instilling democratic institutions and values.

The Bush administration’s “new way forward” has introduced tactics that involve searching and seizing foreign militants inside Iraqi territory, increasing US troop strength, and mobilizing Kurdish militia to southern and central Iraq. For the Kurdistan Region, it has led to the seizure of five Iranians working at the consulate in Erbil, increasing tensions between Iraqi Kurds and Iran, closure of the Iranian border, and Kurdish troop defections stationed in Baghdad. Indeed, the US has provided important financial, political, and security support to the Kurds, without which the Kurdistan region could not have developed or sustained its nationalist agenda over the past 15 years.

It has also refused to succumb to Turkish government pressures to postpone the Kirkuk referendum in December 2007, pushing forward the implementation of article 140 of the Iraqi constitution. For the first time in modern Iraq history, the Kurds have a real chance of legally reclaiming Kirkuk. Still, the US government continues to emphasize national reconciliation, winning the war on terror, and the nature and size of US troops. No long term guarantee of Kurdish autonomy has been made.

The Bush administration may have rejected most of the ISG recommendations, however; it continues to encourage Sunni Arab influence in the central government, giving Saudi Arabia an increasing role in Iraqi affairs. The US Congress, now dominated by opposition democrats, is highly critical of President Bush’s plan for additional US troops and is pushing for American military withdrawal from the Iraqi quagmire, while encouraging the recentralization of the Baghdad government. And even if a referendum is conducted in Kirkuk, US Secretary of State Condoleezza Rice recently affirmed that the Kurds will have no final authority over current or future oil discovered in their region.

These political decisions and trends are not a signal of American betrayal, but rather, a wake up call for the Kurds that US support is not obligatory, permanent, or unconditional. Despite the progress made in the Kurdistan Region and the Kurdish-American alliance, there is reason to believe that the US will assure Sunni Arab and/or Turkish nationalist interests over Kurdish ones. This possibility will become increasingly likely as the 2008 presidential elections approach, and the Iraq war - or ways to disengage from the country - becomes central to the election campaign.

Thus, just as the US is rethinking its policy on Iraq, so too, must the KRG renegotiate its strategies, alliance structures, and forms of leverage. The Kurdish elite must create a ‘plan B’ as an alternative path to ensuring Kurdish autonomy in the long term. This option can include strengthening ties to lobbies such as Jewish, Greek, and Armenian groups with strong influence in the US Congress, decreasing economic dependence on regional states, generating alternative sources of income, reformulating budget allocations, and lessening local populations’ dependencies on the KRG.

Certainly, the geopolitically unfavorable, landlocked, and non-sovereign nature of the Kurdistan Region requires concessions with foreign governments, regional states, and non-state actors. Still, the Kurdistan Region is far too dependent upon Baghdad and its neighbors for economic and political survival. Nearly all consumer goods and food products are imported from Turkey. Approximately 95 percent of KRG revenues are derived from the Iraqi central government, 64 percent of which are spent on public salaries in the Kurdistan Region.

Any border closure or budget cut will directly impact the daily lives of local populations, as well as the future stability, viability, and development of the Kurdistan Region. It is therefore vital that the Kurdish elite lower their expectations of what the Americans should deliver, reduce their dependency on external aid, and increase reliance on capabilities inside the Kurdistan Region.

Instead of waiting for the Americans to resolve the Kurdish problem, the Kurds will have to assume a more proactive role in determining their own political survival. If these necessary preparations are not made then local populations are likely to be taken by surprise once again, although this time they will have a lot more to lose than they did 15 years ago.

Dr. Denise Natali is an honorary fellow at the Institute for Arab and Islamic Studies, Exeter University and currently teaching at the department of politics and international relations, the University of Kurdistan-Hewler. She is the author of The Kurds and the State: Evolving National Identity in Iraq, Turkey, and Iran (Syracuse: Syracuse University Press, 2005), and The Kurdish-Quasi State: Development and Dependency in Post-Gulf War Iraq (Syracuse: Syracuse University Press, forthcoming).

Printed with permission. From Soma

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