Springtime for Kurdistan

By PARAG KHANNA

Sometimes one entity has to die for another to be born. In the Balkans alone, the dissolution of the Ottoman Empire enabled the creation of ethnic-national territories, but it was close to a century later that the Yugoslav federation violently dissolved and Slovenia, Croatia, Bosnia and Serbia finally emerged as modern nation-states. As for the Ottoman’s eastern realm, it is said that if Arabs had drawn the maps after World War I, Iraq would never have existed anyway. But undoing British cartographic ineptitude had to wait decades for the Iraqi murder-suicide that began with Saddam Hussein’s invasion of Kuwait in 1990 and now is culminating in the current civil war precipitated by the ineptitude of Britain’s imperial successor, America. Slowly and methodically, new lines are being hardened on the region’s map, and a nation only amorphously labeled in Ottoman times is being born: Kurdistan.

Peter Galbraith, veteran ambassador and advisor to the Kurds, writes in his new book The End of Iraq that all Kurds he has dealt with want an independent state. There are two ways to see Kurdistan today: through the eyes of the older or younger generation. By necessity, the latter’s vision will prevail. So let us come to terms with one simple causal truth regarding Iraq’s future: Because 100% of Kurdistan’s youths (and 95% of citizens voting in a referendum last year) want independence, it will eventually happen. The task of the older generation is to make sure that independence is acceptable to Kurdistan’s neighbors and America without taking any longer than it has to. The Kurds, one prominent local told me, live by the saying, “If you don’t plan it, it can’t go wrong.” Without making any sudden moves, Kurdistan is emerging as a series of micro-decisions which favor the autonomy of the Kurdistan region of Iraq over deference to the central government in Baghdad. This is State-Building 101. Somewhat like Quebec or Taiwan, the Kurdistan Regional Government now has its own ministries for agriculture, development, education and investment. Only Kurdish is spoken, and only the Kurdish flag flies in Kurdistan; the Iraqi flag -- which continues to symbolize the unity of Arab tribes -- is unofficially forbidden. Politically incorrect lapel pins uniting the Kurdistan and British (and American) flags are distributed at events. The region’s top chief, Masoud Barzani, carries the title of president of the Kurdistan region. The peshmerga guerrillas have evolved into a united 100,000-man force with new military and police academies to train this voluntary Kurdish national army, yet another foundation of sovereignty creeping under the radar. These are not merely trappings of autonomy. They are habits of statehood being codified on a daily basis. Micro-sovereignty is complete; remaining for the future are Kurdistan passports, United Nations membership and a new currency (or rather to get one back, as the Kurds used their own currency for 11 years until the “Bremer dinar” and then the Iraqi dinar were reintroduced). The closer that Iraq’s Sunni-Shia rivalry edges toward state collapse, the more one is forced to wonder why the Kurds, long deserving of statehood, aren’t granted it to preserve their island of stability. Trapped between Turkish, Arab and Persian civilizations, Kurds have been abused for centuries by their neighbors. Little remains of the 3,000-year-old citadel in Erbil where Alexander the Great clashed with the Persians. The Kurdish national movement gained strength after the Ottoman partition, during which Sulaymaniah became a Kurdish administrative center, but in the inter-war period Kurds were not even recognized as a people in neighboring states (in Turkey they were considered “mountain Turks”). Today, the Middle East’s largest minority spans Turkey, Syria, Iran and Iraq, with more ethnic Kurds in Turkey (15 million to 20 million) than in all the other states combined. With Syria and Iran under international scrutiny, Turkey restrained by its EU aspirations, and Iraq crumbling by the minute, the only thing restraining the Kurds is America and the Kurds’ leverage in Iraq’s federal structure, in which they presently control the presidency and other key posts in the foreign ministry, army and other agencies. Kurdistan is able to retain the legitimacy of being part of Iraq rather than being an unrecognized Kurdish rump state and thus receive large volumes of donor assistance through Baghdad, all the while using its share of federal revenues to build self-sustaining, independent institutions Prominent calls have risen for a Bosnia-style Iraqi federation of three semiautonomous regions, most recently by U.S. Sen. Joe Biden. If a stable, federal Iraq pulls through over the next two years, national unity will have prevailed but Kurds will have achieved maximal constitutional protections, even an advantageous position together with the Shia parties. “If... .” Mention the scenario of Iraq’s self-destruction providing a fait accompli for Kurdistan’s independence, however, and watch smiles creep across Kurdish faces. After Saddam razed their villages, gassed their people and stole their livelihoods, the Kurds’ present schadenfreude and condescension toward Iraq’s plight seem natural. Baghdad is a four-letter word here. *** The history and culture of Kurdistan, situated along the eastern Taurus and central Zagros mountain ranges, date back to the Seljuk era. Kurds are an Indo-European people speaking an Indo-Iranian language. The only thing Kurds have in common with their Arab neighbors is the Sunni faith, but even here they represent the opposite extreme from the Sunnis to their south. Kurds are viscerally afraid of extremism. Within hours of my arrival in Erbil, a Kurdish government representative politely suggested I shave my week-old beard, fearing my appearance would arouse suspicion. With the exception of the Kurdistan Workers Party (PKK), which waged a guerrilla war in and against Turkey through the 1980s and 1990s, Kurdish fundamentalism has been so restrained by the authorities as to become an oxymoron. Particularly since the assassination of their deputy prime minister (and many others) in 2004 by a Yemeni extremist, Kurds are on high alert. One of the first targets for the Kurdish peshmerga upon Saddam’s ouster was the radical Islamist group Ansar al-Islam, which is now cornered and near strangulation near the Iranian border. Along the frontier with Iraq, peshmerga troops steadfastly guard against any undesired infiltration. Arabs and Arabic speakers are subjected to immediate racial profiling. Kurds are so (rightly) insecure about their national security that loyalty to the state supersedes even the family. “They are not my relatives until they are cleared at the border,” a well-educated Erbil resident told me. It is no surprise that Kurds want independence from any future Iraqi state, whether democratic or monstrous. Saddam used chemical weapons against the Kurds at Halabja in 1988, and after his defeat in the Gulf War in 1991, he completely severed all institutional, cultural and educational ties to Kurdistan. Many Kurds were barred from admission to Iraqi universities, so today many don’t even speak Arabic. The peshmerga of the PUK (Patriotic Union of Kurdistan) came down from the mountains, and their commander, Jalal Talabani, once marked for death by Saddam, began building the PUK half of post-Saddam Kurdistan and now occupies his nemesis’ office. The Kurds’ minimum demands for a highly decentralized, federal Iraqi republic will ensure that Iraq will, at best, be a very weak state, particularly if the Shia parties grant themselves the same autonomy. Iraq simply cannot have a strong center, for the main parties would then evidently prefer it not exist at all. In other words, it faces a dilemma similar to that of the Yugoslavia of the late 1980s, unwittingly on the brink of civil war. Just a cursory comparison with Iraq demonstrates the fact that sustained reconstruction is impossible without security. It’s hard to capture how un-Iraqi Kurdistan is, a realization which lends immediate, strong sympathy for the cause of Kurdish statehood. Should not the single island of stability in the region be preserved? On the same day in late March that former Iraqi Prime Minister Iyad Allawi declared that Iraq was being torn by civil war, I had tea with Abdul Kader Mustafa, editor of the popular and independent Barzan newspaper, who giddily confessed that he feels born again each day he is back in Kurdistan after three decades’ exile in the United States. The next day, at a ceremony on a former Iraqi military base marking Kurdish, American, British and Korean (South Korea’s 3,000 troops make up the regional component of coalition forces) friendship, the presence of hulking, armed-to-the-teeth American contractors could not have seemed more superfluous. There have been almost no foreign deaths in Kurdistan since the American invasion three years ago. Over dinner at a Turkish restaurant in Sulaymaniah, Iraq’s deputy minister for culture lamented that Baghdad was not safe enough to pursue any major cultural restoration. In Sulaymaniah, however, the public library has been splendidly renovated, with even a charming, Rodin-like sculpture garden in front. Large developments of modern homes are taking shape in the middle of town, with no security protection whatsoever. Because of the first Iraq war and the U.S.-patrolled no-fly zones, Kurds have had a 15-year head start over the rest of Iraq in recovering from Saddam’s reign of terror. They are aided in many ways by their non-Arab culture. Whereas Arab citizens are accustomed to rentier entitlement regimes, Kurds are rapidly becoming entrepreneurial and market-oriented. After their own brutal civil war, Kurds now practice a tolerance and nonviolent governance simply absent in any of the Arab neighbors. While churches are being destroyed elsewhere in Iraq, Kurds are building them, and in Sulaymaniah, once one-fourth populated by Jews, synagogues are reappearing as well. Built on a former Iraqi army base, the city’s Azaadi (“Freedom”) Park has a London-style Speaker’s Corner next to a memorial bearing the names of Kurds executed there by the Baathist regime in 1963. Still, Arab Iraqis are welcome to seek work there and flee the uncertainties of the rest of Iraq. There is also a certain innocence that comes with near-total isolation. The Kurds’ incredible hospitality literally brings new meaning to the term “kindness of strangers.” Yet the Kurdistan Regional Government is having a hard time disassociating itself from Iraq, of which it is still a federal unit. ATM machines are absent because foreign banks still won’t commit to long-term investments there, and foreign mobile phones can’t roam anywhere in the region. The KRG recently decided to launch a website, The Other Iraq, to showcase Kurdistan’s solid opportunities in construction, oil and gas and agriculture, and has attracted a steady but still minor flow of European and Asian companies. (Hint: The region could use a postal service.) Kurdistan, not Jordan or Lebanon, is the natural base for Western companies and contractors operating in Iraq. Kurds have at least won the battle to not be called “northern Iraq” -- which is as insulting to the Kurds as calling Scotland “northern Britain” is to the Scottish. Even Saddam Hussein recognized Kurdistan as an autonomous province in 1970, and Kurdistan is the only such entity in Iraq’s new constitution. The return of expatriates is a lead indicator of the Kurds’ success to date. Unlike brain-draining Syria, Iran and Iraq, Kurds are bringing their money and talent back home to serve the Kurdistan project. Many are conversant in German; if Kurds from Germany can do a fraction for Kurdistan what Turks from Germany have done for Turkey, Kurdistan has a bright future indeed. Other expat Kurds are concentrating on building a new American-style university in Sulaymaniah, with plans to open doors within three years and have regularly visiting American faculty. The lobby of the Erbil International Hotel (also known locally as the “Sheraton”) exudes a cosmopolitan vibe, night and day. Cabinet ministers regularly meet with locals and each other there, pouring over investment proposals, greeting foreign delegations and fielding questions from journalists. They have no time for formality or pretense. “We were always taken advantage of because we were asleep,” Falah Mustafa Bakir, a senior minister in the Barzani government, told me. “Now we have to be awake round-the-clock.” Iraqi Kurdistan is now the freest and most productive of all Kurdish-populated regions, and has become the melting pot for the region’s Kurds and a hub from which resistance to subjugation in particularly Iran and Syria is planned. Syrian Kurdish men in particular have fled en masse to study in Sulaymaniah, where they can freely associate and make plans to return home and agitate for greater rights. But to measure Kurdistan’s merits purely on the basis of comparison to the frightening mayhem of Iraq would be a straw-man approach. Kurdistan needs to accelerate its political development if it is to convincingly distinguish itself from its politically regressive neighbors. With Kurdistan no longer divided and ruled by Saddam, the two ruling parties -- or rather families -- Barzani’s KDP (Kurdistan Democratic Party) and Talabani’s PUK, still divide and rule Kurdistan. They have mafia-like control over business interests in the region and high-level stakes in Baghdad itself. A rivalry between the parties has meant that the two cellphone operators in Kurdistan remain incompatible, utterly corrupt nonsense for a population so small. More fundamentally, they have resisted efforts for the formation of new parties such as the “People’s Front,” maintaining a patronage duopoly which dictates the terms of elections. Anger at both parties is simmering, as demonstrated by the gains made by the Kurdistan Islamic Union Party in the most recent elections. Anger at PUK and KDP corruption recently boiled over in Halabja, where hundreds of demonstrators torched the very monument inaugurated by Colin Powell two years ago to commemorate the victims of Saddam’s chemical gas attack in 1988. Ultimately, the remaining task of consolidating Kurdistan’s position vis-à-vis more powerful and manipulative neighbors will require that its leaders stick together and cooperate. With the exception of America -- and more recently Israel, which prefers that Iraq remain weak -- Kurds still realize that they have, as their saying goes, “no friends but the mountains.” Because America continues to officially seek a united Iraq, little news of Kurdistan’s unique success makes the headlines. But as America’s standing hits new lows among Iraqis and remains high in Kurdistan, its need for a reliable, secular ally in the region may force it to concede even greater autonomy to the Kurds, perhaps in exchange for support for Washington’s increasingly confrontational policies on Syria and Iran. What Kurds want most in the post-Iraq settlement is Kirkuk. The oil-rich city was a central point of contention with the Kurds as Iraq was formed in 1921, and judging from the two-hour-long litany of complaints given to an audience of card-carrying PUK members by their man on the ground there, the situation remains far from resolved. Saddam’s campaign to isolate the Kurds meant they had no major power stations, railways, airports or refineries. Though there are oil deposits elsewhere in Kurdistan, its autonomy is unsustainable without a major industrial center. The Kurds have already demographically reversed Kirkuk’s violent Arabization under Saddam, but they will have to wage a nonviolent, democratic campaign to become the masters of its oil fields through a referendum scheduled for 2007. If they can complete a refinery for Kirkuk oil in its outskirts in the next five years, the last foundation for independence would be in place. But as a landlocked country, Kurdistan cannot amount to much more than a Middle Eastern Bolivia without reassuring its neighbors that it has no regional ambitions beyond claiming Kirkuk. Though the ideal united Kurdistan state, the dream of mid-20th century Kurdish hero Mustafa Barzani, would stretch from the Syrian city of Afrin through Iraq’s Badra district to the Ilam region of Iran, Kamal Fuad, an elder statesman in the PUK Politburo, makes clear that “our responsibility stops at Hamri mountain,” which lies 100 kilometers south of Kirkuk and constitutes a natural land boundary with the rest of Iraq. Mosul, which was the Ottoman and then Baathist administrative center for northern Iraq, holds no interest for Kurdish leaders. Few neighbors want a strong Iraq to emerge from the ashes, and even fewer seem to want a strong Kurdistan encroaching on their borders. The Turkish government, for example, has shown little sympathy in closing its border to Kurdish oil refined in Turkey and needed back in Kurdistan, leading, ironically, to long lines for petrol throughout Kurdistan and the common sight of plastic gas containers being sold on the roadside. But in one of the most hopeful examples of globalization trumping geopolitics, it is Turkish companies applying the most pressure on their government to back down. As the master construction engineers of the region, Turkish contractors are speedily building both of Kurdistan’s international airports, as well as tunnels, flyovers and ring roads. Interestingly, the Turkish government’s recent steps to recognize Kurdish rights, combined with its concerns over the pan-Kurdish rhetoric of Kurdistani satellite television, have led it to launch two “moderate” Kurdish-language satellite stations of its own, a net plus for Kurdish identity. Ultimately, having Kurds remain as minorities in the neighboring states -- rather than entirely consolidating into Iraqi Kurdistan -- would serve Kurdistan’s interests. Minority status helps to build international pressure for greater rights. For example, in the wake of the recent Kurdish protests across Turkey, particularly in Diyarbakir in the Kurdish-dominated southeast, a Kurdish TV station plans to open a case before the European Court of Human Rights against Turkey for restricting its airtime and content. Minorities straddling Kurdistan’s borders will also preserve trade relations. The smuggling of fuel, tea, sugar, and drugs has for centuries linked the markets of Turkey, Syria, Jordan, Iraq, Iran and Afghanistan -- with Kurdistan right in the middle. The famed Hamilton Road along the Zagros range (built by New Zealand engineer A.M. Hamilton in 1928-32) can once again be the modern artery for this branch of the Silk Road. The Zagros mountainscape is pinch-yourself magnificent, the site of thousands of impromptu family picnics throughout the week of Nowrouz, the Zoroastrian-derived celebration of spring. Kurdish women in colorful, flowing gowns and men in their baggy peshmerga suits with matching headdresses and cummerbunds dance in the markets and hills like a scene from a Bollywood movie. If geopolitics has an end state, it is when borders, populations, resources and interests find equilibrium. In Palestine and Kurdistan, new quasi-states are emerging in response to a need to correct the mistakes of the post-Ottoman settlement as well as the more modern imperative to transcend the rigid state system altogether. Kurds will undoubtedly have, in some form, all the freedoms they deserve. They should get them sooner rather than later.