The United States and Iraqi Kurds

The potential three state divide in Iraq has made saving the country much more challenging.  More specifically, the issue of an independent Kurdistan has made unification significantly onerous.  From the lens of the United States, the Kurds are a complicating factor because they like the United States very much, but feel the United States does not reciprocate this sentiment all the time.  One of the main concerns regarding US intervention in Iraq is why should the United States risk political and human capital to save Iraq if the Iraqi soldiers and people will not fight to save their own country?  Iraqi soldiers shed their uniforms by the hundreds as a significantly outnumbered radical Islamic insurgency expelled Iraqi forces from western Iraq and captured the city of Mosul weeks ago.  Meanwhile, Kurdish Peshmerga troops fought valiantly against these insurgents (who have now established a self-proclaimed caliphate and are now known as the Islamic State [IS]) and captured territory in northern Iraq such as Kirkuk.

The Kurds in Iraq, and across the region, have been a disenfranchised people for much of their history.  Kurds who also reside in Syria, Turkey and Iran, have faced repression and genocide from regional governments.  The Kurds are a large ethnic group comprised of tens of millions with their own language and rich cultural history dating back centuries.  After the breakup of the Ottoman Empire, the Kurds were left without an independent state and were forced to relinquish previous nomadic life.

Iraqi Kurds sit on an abundance of oil, which they wish to export.  Enjoying semi-autonomy, the Kurds believe they are entitled to that oil and should be free to export it.  However, according to the Iraqi constitution, all oil sales must go through Baghdad, which had caused a rift between the central Iraqi government and Kurdistan prior to the current unrest caused by the Islamic State.

Kurdistan had begun to export oil to Turkey via the Ceyhan pipeline, much to the disapproval of Baghdad.  Since gaining additional territory in northern Iraq, the Kurds believe their hopes for an independent state are closer.  However, the United States does not support such claims.  The United States has maintained support for a unified Iraq in line with the Iraqi constitution, which means an inclusive Sunni, Shia, and Kurdish government and society.  This also means the Kurds cannot export their own oil independently from the Iraqi central government.

From a purely abstract sense, Kurdistan would appear to be a more reliable ally to the United States given their passion and support for the United States.  Despite Iraqi forces fleeing in the face of insurgency, Kurdish Peshmerga, who have vast experience in fighting, stood their ground and defended their territory (however, some are now accusing the Kurds of being allied with IS.)  There are theories that posit to address these two situations; Iraqi troops shed their uniforms and fled because ultimately they were faced with the question of, “do I want to die for Nuri al-Maliki,” – who had alienated a large population of Iraqis.  In terms of the Kurds, as noted above, they have been marginalized for much of their history and capitalized on the current situation as a chance to fight for their independence as they now control a larger swath of territory.

Rumors of a tighter US-Kurdish relationship have surfaced since the CIA has decided to expand one of their outposts in Erbil, the capital of Kurdistan.  According to one Kurdish official, “It’s no secret that the American Special Forces and CIA have a close relationship with the Peshmerga.”  The Kurdish source, who spoke to McClatchy confidentially, also stated, “Peshmerga fighters fought closely alongside the American Green Berets throughout northern Iraq in places like Mosul, Tal Afar and Kirkuk because we are very professional and trusted.”  Furthermore, confidential US sources provided signals that the Kurds are reliable partners that the United States would want to work with: “It’s a natural fit that as these guys [US officials] look around at the collapsed Iraqi army and how all of its remaining competent units are either infiltrated by or directly led by Iranian Revolutionary Guard commanders that there would be a high degree of discomfort directly operating with them…the Kurds are trustworthy, reliable and already know how to fight alongside your units.”

President Obama has maintained that he does not want Iraq to fall into three separate states.  The United States wants to ensure Iraq remains intact, but the administration has been clear that the Iraqi government must prove that it seeks to include all ethnic and religious groups.  So how does Kurdistan fit into this model?  US officials have called on Kurdish members to assist in dispelling terrorist groups in order to unify Iraq once more.  It is hard to say if Kurdistan will come to the aid of the Iraqi government as they have received tentative support from Turkey – who has imported Kurdish oil from Iraq – for independence (an interesting side note: it will be important to watch this relationship between Turkey and Iraqi Kurds as an independent Kurdistan in northern Iraq could lead to unrest in Turkey among their large Kurdish population as the Turkish government has feared.)

Some commentators and pundits have called for a more benevolent US-Kurdish relationship as the Kurds have demonstrated to be a more viable partner in the region than others.  It is still too early to tell if Iraq’s new government will fail to be more inclusive as they have yet to form following recent elections.  It is highly plausible that the United States shares the thinking of Turkey that if Iraq’s central government fails to meet western expectations, an independent Kurdistan could be a bright spot in an otherwise volatile religious civil war for power and authority (though some have raised concerns regarding how an independent Kurdistan will raise revenue other than oil exports.)  However, at the current moment, the United States is bound by the constitution it helped establish in Iraq, which is contrary to an independent Kurdistan at the moment.