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Kurdistan’s Dream of Independence

October 8, 2007


Last month the Economist ran a lengthy article about the Kurdish dream of independence [“Does Independence Beckon?” 8 September 2007]. The article begins by noting that for all intents and purposes the Kurdish Regional Government already acts as an independent state.

“During a recent voyage around Iraqi Kurdistan, not a single sign or hint that the place is officially part of a federal Iraq was in evidence. Landing at Erbil International Airport (as the Kurds call it, invariably also noting that it has one of the longest runways in the world), you see no shadow of an Iraqi, as opposed to Kurdish, presence. You show your passport or offer your bags for inspection to officers bearing bright Kurdish insignia on crisp uniforms. … Travellers arriving at Erbil airport jostle with Lebanese bankers, Norwegian oilmen and Dubai traders sniffing for business; most now give bomb-ridden Baghdad, 250 miles (400km) to the south, a wide berth. At the eight or nine security checkpoints through which you pass on the road from Erbil to Sulaymaniyah, the two main cities of Iraq’s Kurdistan Region, as international documents officially call it, you never spot the name of Iraq on a military or police badge. Arabic is used hardly at all; few Kurds under 25 understand more than a smattering of it. Schools are starting to teach English as much as Arabic as a second language. Increasingly, you are expected to call Erbil by its Kurdish name, Hawler (pronounced, roughly, “How-lair”). Above all, the Iraqi flag, in a region where flags matter mightily, flutters nowhere. It has no place at the airport or over any official building, such as the Kurds’ lively parliament.”

The article also highlights the relative peace and security in Kurdistan compared to the rest of Iraq — a point I’ve made time and again as the primary reason Kurdistan can sustain an economic boom. If some things about Kurdistan are clear [like the fact that business people are clattering to do business there], other things [like its actual borders] are not.

“The issue of maps is just as toxic and tricky. Where, indeed, are the borders of Iraqi Kurdistan (let alone those of the parts of Turkey, Iran and Syria, where another 21m-plus Kurds reside, alongside 4.6m Iraqi ones)? The Iraqi Kurds’ standard map that hangs nowadays on ministry walls, in restaurants and for sale in kiosks shows Iraqi Kurdistan stretching a lot further than the area currently under the Kurds’ control. It sweeps in an arc from Sinjar and Zakho, in the north-west, near the border with Turkey, brushes Mosul’s once largely Kurdish east side, then runs down the east bank of the river Tigris, taking in the whole of the contested province of Kirkuk (which Arab maps call Tamim), then runs on along the Hamrin mountains north-east of Baghdad, all the way down to a sliver of land east of the Iraqi capital, abutting the Iranian border near the town of Badreh. Even the most acquisitively nationalist Kurds do not take this maximal map seriously. For one thing, some of it is inhabited predominantly by Arabs—who would not be trusted in Kurdistan. But most Kurds do demand fat chunks of extra territory, especially but not only in Kirkuk province, which they were deprived of by Saddam when he Arabised Kurdish lands by expelling Kurds and bringing in Arab settlers from Iraq’s south and centre. It is hard to say exactly where Kurdish influence or control now extends, though a ‘green line’ has roughly demarcated their zone since the end of the first Gulf war in 1991, giving Kurds an area in which they could safely govern themselves. But after the American invasion of 2003 they extended their zone of influence, marked by their own checkpoints (technically manned by the Iraqi army but actually by Kurdish units of it), in predominantly Kurdish areas west and south of the green line, which has become blurred and sporadically shifts.”

The article raises the dream of some Kurds to establish a greater Kurdistan that includes large portions of land now belonging to Iran, Iraq, Syria, and Turkey. The most ambitious of these dreamers envision a land that touches both the Persian Gulf and Mediterranean Sea. It concludes, however, that those dreams are unlikely to be fulfilled (in fact, calling them “fantastical”). The first practical step to enlarging Kurdish control over more territory will come with a referendum over the fate of Kirkuk.

“For every Iraqi Kurd, Article 140 of the Iraqi constitution that was endorsed in an Iraq-wide referendum in late 2005 is a national mantra repeated in almost every political conversation. That article provides for a further referendum, following a census and a supposedly voluntary exchange of populations known optimistically as ‘normalisation’, to determine whether people in Kirkuk province ‘and other disputed territories’ want to stay as part of the Arab-ruled part of Iraq or join Kurdistan or perhaps, in the case of Kirkuk, live in a specially administered region. That census, due to have been completed by the end of July, has barely begun. Most Kurdish politicians still insist publicly that the December 31st deadline for holding the referendum will, as the constitution says, be met. In private, most admit it will not. What they dread most is an open-ended postponement which may, they fear, let Kirkuk, with some 5% of the world’s oil reserves, slip out of their grasp. Nor has it been decided just what questions would be asked, nor whether the people’s wishes would be assessed district by district or province-wide. Officially, the Kurds want the whole province. In fact, many realise it would be more sensible to take just those districts where they are a large majority rather than incorporate slices of territory full of sullen Sunni Arabs who might make Kurdistan unworkable. At the least, the Kurds would take back the large chunks of Kirkuk province that Saddam gerrymandered out of the old Kurdish region. But the blanket of stability covering the area of Iraqi Kurdistan recognised by the government in Baghdad emphatically excludes Kirkuk city, now sealed off from the rest of Kurdistan by a series of intrusive checkpoints. Indeed, the tinderbox city at the heart of the matter is fizzling ever more menacingly. Per head of population, acts of violence are now more frequent there than in bloody Baghdad, according to a Western diplomat who monitors the score. Moreover, in some nearby towns in Kirkuk province to the south and west of the city, such as Arab-dominated Hawija, al-Qaeda and Saddam loyalists have established a brooding presence.”

Given a choice between living in a violent and depressed city or in one that is peaceful and prosperous, I venture to say that even most Sunni Arabs would prefer the latter. Nevertheless, living as ethnic minority under the Kurds could prove difficult, especially if Sunni Arabs are constantly viewed with suspicion. As noted above, oil is an issue in the Kirkuk referendum.

“The oil factor is important but not crucial: if Kurdistan stays part of a federal Iraq, the Arabs in non-oil-rich parts of Iraq would still get a fair share of oil revenues, whether or not Kirkuk is run by the Kurds. The Kurds have agreed that they would get 17% of Iraq’s oil income from fields already in operation. But they are still arguing with the authorities in Baghdad over the management, exploration and contracts in unexploited or not-yet-discovered fields. Several oil companies, mostly mid-sized and small independent ones, have signed deals with the Kurdistan regional government, and a dozen more are in negotiation, all waiting impatiently for the government in Baghdad to give the green light. The Kurds say they can dish out export permits, though the authorities in Baghdad disagree. More to the point, the Kurds do not control the existing pipelines for export. So they want to build their own ‘feeder’ pipelines to join the national one just before it reaches the Turkish border. Several Western firms hope to get in on this act.”

Clearly, Kurdistan desires economic independence, but its leaders don’t believe that national independence is looming on the horizon. The Economist points out that Kurdistan has done very well indeed considering that it is landlocked and had to build an economy from scratch. Saddam Hussein did his best to destroy the region and crush the Kurds during his reign of terror.

“Farming was virtually destroyed by Saddam. According to today’s planning minister, the percentage of Kurds in agriculture has dropped from some 60% to around 10% in the past generation. During his Anfal (Spoils) campaign to suppress the rebellious Kurds in the late 1980s, Saddam’s forces destroyed more than 4,000 villages and killed tens of thousands of civilians—180,000, according to the Kurds. There is no banking (‘We have no access to money,’ says Osman Shwani, the planning minister), no insurance, no postal service and in the past few years the Kurds’ budget has entirely lacked public scrutiny. Commercial law is less than rudimentary. There is a gaping lack of statistics. Mr Shwani freely admits he does not know the size of Kurdistan’s GDP. There is virtually no tax system. In theory, income tax of between 3% and 10% is paid by salaried earners. ‘But no one has ever paid taxes,’ says Mr Shwani. One of the biggest brakes on the economy is the vast proportion of people on the public payroll, which gobbles up about three-quarters of the budget.”

From that description, it is easy to see why Kurdish leaders have welcomed Enterra Solutions’ Development-in-a-Box™ approach. In some ways, building from scratch makes it easier to implement international standards and best practices since they are not displacing traditional standards and practices that could create unnecessary cultural tension. The article admits that things are moving in the right direction and that Kurdistan has an active parliament. It also notes that the country is run by two dominant families.

“Another huge problem for Iraqi Kurdistan is the fact that it has been run, since 1991, by two rival administrations. In the provinces of Dohuk and Erbil, the Barzani family, which runs the Kurdistan Democratic Party (KDP), has called the shots for generations. To the east, the province of Sulaymaniyah has been run by the Patriotic Union of Kurdistan (PUK), run by Jalal Talabani; this, too, has become something of a family affair. In the late 1990s, the two outfits fought a vicious civil war, in which at least 3,000 people—some put the figure at more than 10,000—were killed. To a large degree, the party and the union are tribal fiefs, with power, money and even land distributed from the top by the ruling families. While Mr Talabani is currently president of federal Iraq, Massoud Barzani is president of Kurdistan; his nephew, Nechirvan Barzani, is its prime minister; Massoud’s son, Masrur Barzani, heads the powerful intelligence service. At the end of the year, one of Mr Talabani’s men is supposed to take over as Kurdistan’s prime minister. No one is sure whether that will happen smoothly.”

Although Kurdistan has prospered as a result of an accommodation between the two families, the article implies that the truce is tenuous. That makes one wonder why anyone thinks that a larger Kurdistan could emerge as a peaceful and prosperous nation. If two powerful families have difficulty sharing power, bringing in more parties would make any powersharing arrangement even more difficult. The best hope for the continued peace and prosperity, the article claims, is a more open political system in which all Iraqi Kurds feel they have a voice.

“Yet on both scores—democracy and unity—there has been progress. The two administrations are undergoing a merger. All but three ministries have joined up (the last to unite being the most awkward: defence, interior and finance). On the democracy front, parliament, which includes four small blocks of opposition parties with the Islamists to the fore, has lively debates and is making government more accountable. A decent constitution for the region is set to enshrine an array of rights, including for Christians, Yazidis (a sect of their own) and other minorities in Kurdistan. Two small but plucky opposition newspapers give an airing to the peccadillos of the party duopoly. And even some of the party-owned media outlets—for instance, Kurdsat TV, owned and run by Mr Talabani’s modernising wife, Herro—occasionally broach topics that were once taboo. Especially compared with the rest of Iraq, Kurdistan has been making strides on every front.”

That optimism reflects my own experiences. Certainly the ruling families desire to maintain their preeminent positions and increase their fortunes; but I have also sensed a sincere desire to make Kurdistan a peaceful, prosperous, and secure haven in which all its citizens can benefit and grow. Is it a perfect situation? Of course not, but the regional vector is pointed in the right direction. The article notes that a successful Kurdish region depends on three things: The peshmerga, good relations with neighbors, and the mountains — all of which I have discussed in previous posts. Good relations with neighbors (including neighbors within Iraq) requires a very pragmatic approach to the future — one that does not include independence. The article concludes:

“Could the Kurds be satisfied with extreme autonomy in northern Iraq? An informal referendum in 2005 suggested that 98% of them would like outright independence if they could have it. But almost every senior Kurd in Iraq says he would accept extreme autonomy—provided there is a genuine federation and that the central government in Baghdad gives the Kurds a good deal, especially over the management and exploration of oil in the north. Getting back Kirkuk means a lot too; conceivably, a special deal could be arranged there to leave the city with a status of its own. Is it possible to feel both Kurdish and Iraqi? A former long-serving minister in Iraq’s Kurdish government, who is a noted historian, barely blinks. ‘Frankly, no.’ Then, after a pause, he adds: ‘If Iraq ever became truly democratic, maybe.’ Masrur Barzani, the 38-year-old intelligence chief and possible future head of the Barzani clan, recommends a ‘three-state solution’, presumably meaning that Iraq, which he calls ‘the illusion of a country that doesn’t really exist’, should one day be divided into a three-way confederation. To most Iraqi Kurds, the emergence of a kindly, federal, Arab-run Iraq in which they could have a comfy existence is an absurd prospect. Briefly after the Ottoman Turks’ empire collapsed, the Kurds seemed in reach of a homeland of their own—only to be betrayed by the great powers, Britain to the fore. Now they are enjoying a golden age of not-quite-independence for longer than at any time in their modern history. So why would they risk a reversion to a past of subjugation by Arabs, Turks or Persians? If they are sensible, the Kurds will not rush towards independence. To be landlocked and without permanently friendly neighbours is a pretty hopeless recipe for statehood. The outside powers on which the Kurds ultimately depend, especially Turkey and the United States, would not allow them to break away. The Turks could throttle them economically if not bash them militarily; the Americans may well turn their backs, reckoning that it is strategically more important to curry favour with Turks and Arabs. But if the Iraqi Kurds can bed down quietly for, say, five or ten years, securing their borders, making their economy work, building a modicum of freedom if not full-fledged democracy, and staying out of the trouble swirling around them in the rest of Iraq, it will be increasingly impossible for the rest of the world to ignore their patently rightful claim to self-determination. They have at least a chance of getting it.”

I believe it will be economics, not politics, that determines Kurdistan’s fate. One only need look at relationships between the politically feuding states of Taiwan/China and North Korea/South Korea to see how economic ties have far surpassed any political progress. A peaceful and prosperous Kurdistan should be able to sustain its economic growth by pursuing a course that concentrates on business opportunities rather than trying to force a political outcome that could be unsustainable even if achieved.

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