Threats On the Kurdish Front Should Have Been Expected

When Saddam Hussein’s brutal invasion and occupation of Kuwait was greeted by a joint U.S.-Soviet statement of opposition, and later by an international coalition determined to use force, if necessary, to free Kuwait, I was reminded of the cautionary maxim: "Never pick a fight you can’t win."

Saddam apparently hadn’t heard that piece of wisdom, or chose to ignore it, and in the end his country paid dearly for his foolishness.

When the U.S. was gearing up to invade Iraq in the Spring of 2003, I offered a slight variation of that same maxim, suggesting that it would be wise to "Never pick a fight you don’t know how to win." But the Bush Administration threw caution to the wind, convinced that victory would be easy, defining it in terms that appeared delusional to anyone who knew Iraq.

Bull-headedly marching into a country whose history, culture and social composition were not understood, promised disastrous consequences unanticipated by the invaders. That has come to pass. With almost 4,000 American dead, tens or hundreds of thousands of Iraqis dead, two million refugees and as many internally displaced persons, 600 billion U.S. dollars spent, and countless billions lost by Iraq itself, this war has been a disaster. But this war is far from over, and may soon get worse.

After successive and overlapping waves of internal violence, emanating from insurgents, criminal gangs, sectarian militias and terrorists, the conflict now threatens to spill out beyond Iraq’s borders, into Turkey and possibly Iran.

What is so damned infuriating is that these consequences all should been expected, and were, by those who warned against this foolish war. Those who knew of Iraq’s fragility, and who worried about score-settling in the wake of Saddam’s fall, warned of instability and political violence. And those who understood the deeply felt historical grievances of the Kurdish people, warned of the consequences of opening that file. It is now open, and won’t close any time soon.

Over the past decade, Iraq’s Kurds have prospered under a U.S.-protected umbrella. With the collapse of the regime in Baghdad, Kurdish hopes of expanding their autonomy grew, and with it, their ambition as well. The Kurdish Provisional Authority (KPA) has become, for all intents and purposes, a state within a failing state. With its own flag and military, and its own Washington representation, the KPA is moving inexorably toward independence.

To consolidate and to create greater economic viability for their putative state, the KPA covets and seeks to annex the oil-rich region of Kirkuk. To achieve this, they have scheduled a referendum of Kirkuk’s residents – but not before completing a population transfer scheme, moving Kurds into Kirkuk while displacing Arabs who had been transferred into the area during Ba’ath rule. This has inflamed not only Arabs, Sunni and Shi’a alike, who fear Kurdish separatism; and it has also caused concern in Turkey, whose Turkomen brethren in Kirkuk fear dispossession.

As controversial as this Kirkuk scheme has been, the KPA’s recently signed oil concession with the U.S. based Hunt Oil company has been criticized even by the U.S. as a peremptory act that threatens Iraqi Constitutional reform on oil distribution, and deepens fissures within Iraq’s governing coalition.

Nevertheless, despite growing regional concern, the KPA has moved forward, even advertising itself in the U.S. as "the other Iraq," boasting of their region’s stability and security, inviting investment and even tourism.

One might have assumed that all was going well for the KPA as it moved quietly and steadily toward greater prosperity and autonomy. But, because the consequences of the "Kurdish question" are bigger than Iraq, external realities and internal pressures may soon catch up with the illusory "other Iraq."

Deep ties, including a shared sense of grievance, connect Kurds in Turkey, Syria, Iran and Iraq. Historically, developments, either positive or negative, in one country have affected Kurdish citizens in the others. These governments all watch developments in the others’ Kurdish areas, knowing of the possible spillover effects.

And so it should have been expected that increased autonomy for Kurds in Iraq would inspire Kurds in Iran and Turkey to press for greater rights or, as has been the case, for Kurdish insurgents based in the rugged mountain areas of the KPA to launch raids into Turkey and Iran.

While attacks of this sort are not new, growing threats by both Iran and Turkey to invade rebel strongholds in the KPA has created a set of serious problems. The KPA is now being challenged to use their militia/"national army" to attack and control the Turkish and Iranian Kurdish insurgents operating within their borders. This is something they have done before, but are hesitant to do at this point. With Turkey and Iran both bombing Kurdish positions within the KPA and threatening an even greater response if the insurgent groups are not controlled, the U.S. sees the possibility that its one Iraqi success story may give way to the opening of a new front in what will become an even more complicated war.

This all should have been understood before the war began, but was not. And that is why one of the principle recommendations of the Iraq Study Group is as valid today as when it was written. And that is the necessity of creating a regional security pact which brings together all the component groups inside Iraq, along with Iraq’s neighbors, under the auspices of the United Nations, so that problems of this sort are not tackled piecemeal. Iraq’s neighbors have a direct stake in the stability and unity of Iraq, and are better made partners toward that goal than a collection of allies and rivals.

There was no excuse to ignore the wisdom of "not picking a fight you don’t know how to win," before this war began. There is even less excuse for ignoring it now when we see what the consequences have been, and what consequences may yet occur.