Lessons from the Edge of Globalization: Part 2, Day 1

Stephen DeAngelis

August 6, 2007

I am back in Kurdistan again; my fourth trip in 4 months — this time beginning the roll-out of our Development-in-a-Box™ solution for post-conflict reconstruction and development. I am excited to begin this journey to help create a templated means of delivering an appropriately scaled, pre-packaged “Marshall Plan”-like program to Kurdistan. If our efforts are successful, which I have every belief they will be, then we will have created a breakthrough way to manage some of the disconnectedness between modern developed nations and developing states at the same time creating stability which will hopefully lead to peace in unstable regions.

Sunday the CBS news program “60 Minutes” updated and rebroadcast a report that Bob Simon did from Kurdistan last February [Kurdistan, the Other Iraq]. The program found the same vibrant and independent people that I discussed the last time I posted from Iraq. Simon also pointed out that behind the economic boom he found is a sense of security that generates hope in the people and fosters confidence in investment.

“When visiting Kurdistan, one can see nation-building wherever one looks—Kurds are building their country day by day. There are more cranes here than minarets and there’s a run on cement. A new mall with 8,000 shops and stalls is going up. So is an apartment complex known as ‘Dream City,’ in which some of the units are selling for $1 million. A giant bowling alley is almost finished, and an opera house is not far behind. What’s behind the boom? Security.”

It is amazing that the rest of Iraq (with this role model sitting within its borders), hasn’t seized the vision and wrested its future from those who desire to keep the world out and the country down. Sectarian disputes and political in-fighting continue to hamper efforts to rebuild that country. As Simon reported, “Distinct from much of Iraq, the security forces in Kurdistan are disciplined and loyal. And they’re all Kurds. There are no ethnic divisions here, so the violence stays on the other side of the border.” Although being a homogenous community helps, the decision to be uncooperative elsewhere in Iraq is just that — a choice, not an inevitability.

60 Minutes wanted to test the security situation, so one Saturday morning Simon and the team dropped by the main market in Erbil, the self-styled capital of Kurdistan, just 40 miles from the rest of Iraq. The only disagreements here were about prices. Just how safe is it? Simon, an American, strolled through the market in his shirtsleeves, without wearing the flack jackets reporters often have to wear in other parts of Iraq. In any other part of Iraq, walking down the street like this would be patently suicidal. But the point is as far as people here are concerned this is not another part of Iraq—it’s not Iraq at all. You may not be able to find it on a map but it is, Kurds will tell you, another country.”

That perception of Kurdistan as a separate government is not good news for most of the international community. This is because a separate Kurdistan carved from Iraq would undoubtedly encourage separatist movements in Turkey, Syria and Iran, sparking a larger crisis that could reverse the progress made in the Kurd region of Iraq. That is why the international community desires to see Iraq’s geographical boundaries maintained intact. It won’t be easy. The autonomous Kurdistan Regional Government is under great pressure.

“The Kurds are acting as if the end of Iraq is near. In many schools, English, not Arabic, is being taught as the second language. The Kurds are very big on the trappings of statehood. It’s as if they’re eager to prove that they exist. They have their own 175,000-man Army, the pesh merga, which means ‘those who face death.’ When you arrive in Erbil, immigration officers give your passport a Kurdish stamp. And if you want to see the Iraqi flag, don’t come to Kurdistan. It has been banned. ‘Under that flag they destroyed our country, our people. So that’s why our approach is to change that flag and have a new one,’ Prime Minister Barzani explains. The new Kurdish flag is literally everywhere; but it’s a flag without a country. Like most Kurds, Dr. Ali Saed Mohammed, the president of Sulemaniya University, would like to change that, and soon.

‘”What would happen if tomorrow the prime minister of Kurdistan went before parliament and said I declare a state, an independent Kurdistan,’ Simon asks. ‘This decision will be welcomed by 99.9 percent of the Kurds in Iraqi Kurdistan. We will say yes. We will back it,’ Dr. Mohammed says. Dr. Mohammed wants the prime minister to take the step, preferably ‘tomorrow,’ he tells Simon. But the Kurdish prime minister is not likely to push for complete independence. Not tomorrow. Not next year.”

Prime Minister Barzani recognizes that a move for independence would create more problems than it could possibly solve.

“The Kurds have a saying: no friends but the mountains. There are 30 million Kurds in the world, the largest nation without a state. But only five million reside inside Iraq’s borders. The rest are in Iran, Syria and primarily Turkey. There are so many Kurds in Turkey that the Turks are afraid that an independent Kurdish state would lead to unrest; they are dead set against it. So Kurdish leaders believe that, at least for the time being, the answer is federalism, a soft partition of Iraq into three parts. Kurdistan in the north, a Sunni state in the middle and a Shiite region to the south, with Baghdad as only a nominal capital.”

Although a federated state may be the eventual outcome, the Bush administration is struggling hard to strengthen the central government believing that only it can provide the overall security that will permit economic progress throughout the entire country. It wants Kurdistan to serve as a model for the rest of Iraq rather becoming a thorn in its side. Simon points out that the one thing that holds Iraq together for the moment is oil — much of which lies under an area disputed by Kurds and Arabs.

“The Kurds may have to wait a long time because for the U.S. military there is another overwhelming reason to keep the Kurds inside Iraq: oil. One of Iraq’s largest oil fields sits just across Kurdistan’s de facto border in an ethnically mixed city called Kirkuk. It is crucial to the future economic health of Iraq. The trouble is the Kurds say Kirkuk historically belongs to them. And this year there will be a referendum asking Kirkuk’s citizens if they want to join Kurdistan. Asked why Kirkuk is so important, Prime Minister Barzani says, ‘It’s Kurdistan. If you go back to history, any fight between Kurds and Baghdad is over Kirkuk.’ If the Kurds win the referendum, and they are favored to do so, many fear Iraqi Arabs could turn Kirkuk into an inferno.”

The best outcome is a reasonable revenue sharing plan that gives everybody something, even if it doesn’t provide everyone with everything they desire. The overall objective is make conditions so prosperous that maintaining the status quo becomes more important than fracturing the state. Simon concludes:

“Free state? Not yet. Free market? Right here. While in the rest of Iraq they’re counting bodies, the Kurds are counting their money. Gleaming shopping centers are sprouting up from the sand. One sports an escalator, the first in Kurdistan. There are plans for an American University, not surprising since there is a strong desire to have it the American way.”

Once again I find myself meeting with business and government personnel in Kurdistan and I see opportunity everywhere. Enterra Solutions’ interest, of course, is in fostering the free market sector. We are working to establish a system to help Iraqi businesses connect with the rest of the world and begin the process of building relationships and trust. We are starting in Kurdistan, because — as Bob Simon noted — the Kurds have security, but they also have a resilient culture and a populace that desires success and modernity and is willing to work hard to get it. More later as I continue my visit to this prospering Edge of Globalization.