No Friends But the Mountains

By Michael J. Totten

A visit to Kurdistan reveals an autonomous people ready for an alliance with America and Israel.

But one certainty, at least, is that if Kurdistan declares independence and is not protected, one of two possible wars is likely to begin immediately. The first will involve Turkey; after all, few things are more undesirable to Ankara than Turkish Kurdistan violently attaching itself to Iraqi Kurdistan. The second will be about borders: Iraqi Kurdistan’s southern borders are not yet demarcated. If Turkey doesn’t invade, the Kurds will want to attach the Kurdish portions of Kirkuk Province, and possibly also Nineveh Province, to their new state.
Even if Kurdistan doesn’t declare independence, there may still be more war on the way. “We believe if the Americans withdraw from this country there will be many more problems,” Colonel Mudhafer said. “The Sunni and Shia want total control of Iraq. We are going to get involved in that. Iran is going to be involved in that. Turkey is going to be involved in that. Syria is going to be involved in that. The Sunni and Shia fighting in Baghdad will pull us in. We are going to be involved. Turkey and Iran will make problems for us. It is not going to be safe. All the American martyrs will have died for nothing, and there will be more problems in the future. Americans should build big bases here.” For obvious reasons, the idea of the American military garrisoning its forces in Kurdistan is wildly popular among the Kurds.
It should be obvious by now why an American-guaranteed independent Kurdistan would benefit the Kurds of Iraq. But few Americans seem to realize that—after Kurdistan itself—no country would benefit more from this than the United States.
For starters, if the United States insists on cutting its losses in Iraq, it would be best to cut only its losses. And clearly, Kurdistan is not a loss. Indeed, it would be a waste and a disgrace if this eminently decent society is abandoned to war, terror, and mayhem. Certainly the Kurds would have to be crazy to trust, let alone work with, Americans ever again. Moreover, the complete and permanent liberation of Iraqi Kurdistan and its rehabilitation from mass grave to free state would surely be one of the great foreign policy successes in American history. It would rightly take its place alongside the democratic transformation of Nazi Germany and Imperial Japan, and the rescue of South Korea from the Stalinist starvation monarchy in Pyongyang. Losing Arab Iraq would be a partial loss, for sure. Yet no serious person says America unambiguously lost in Korea because only part of that country was saved.
Declaring partial victory isn’t just a matter of pride. Al-Qaida has set up shop in Iraq and hopes to defeat America there, just as the Mujahadeen drove Soviet troops from Afghanistan in the 1980s. The Mujahadeen’s defeat of the Soviets there has long been one of al-Qaida’s most effective ideological talking points and recruiting slogans, insisting (however wrongly) that the economic and military superpowers are in fact easily defeated faַades. Osama Bin Laden insisted that America would be next, and millions of radical Muslims loved him for it. Many wished to help him and joined al-Qaida.
And for a time, particularly in the weeks and months following September 11, it might have looked as though they were right. But they have been in decline ever since, unable to top their murder of three thousand civilians in New York and Washington. If they drive the American military out of Iraq, however, they will surely have topped themselves. They will no longer be in decline; they will, rather, be at a whole new peak. Bin Laden’s old and dubious claim that America is “next” will look almost plausible, and he will have a new case in point when he says that America and the West are the “weak horse.” Now, a partial American victory in Iraq won’t stop al-Qaida from declaring its own partial victory. But a draw certainly beats a rout. If al-Qaida manages to build a statelet in the Sunni Arab portion of Iraq—the only part of the country it could take over, even in theory—that statelet will exist right on the border of Kurdistan. How much better it would be if American troops were just minutes, and not time zones, away. Without a doubt, no better strategic location exists for American forces to disrupt or destroy al-Qaida’s new base—or, for that matter, to undertake future operations, should the need arise, in Iran or Syria.
As if more reason were needed, the odds of American soldiers facing a Kurdish insurgency are vanishingly close to zero. A few hundred troops are based there already, and not a single shot has been fired at them. In fact, Iraqi Kurdistan is where American soldiers go to relax on the weekend, a place where they can briefly take off their body armor. Nearby Arab countries—even those with friendly governments—are scarcely as welcoming: Most Kuwaitis, for example, don’t mind hosting American troops, since it was America that liberated them from Saddam Hussein. But some Kuwaitis think it’s time for American troops to go home now that Baghdad has a new government. American troops in Saudi Arabia also protected that country from an Iraqi invasion after Saddam swallowed Kuwait, but Osama Bin Laden cites that very protection as one of the grievances that triggered al-Qaida’s formation. Moving American troops to friendly Kurdish soil and away from hostile Arab soil will help put this long-standing problem to bed. American bases won’t be needed in Saudi Arabia or Arab Iraq if they are re-located to Kurdistan.
And one thing is certain: The United States military needs bases it can use without walking into the minefield of regional politics. If radical regimes like those in Syria and Iran are more emboldened than ever in the wake of recent American setbacks, new bases in Kurdistan may prove their worth very quickly.
In the mid-1970s, the United States quietly armed and funded a Kurdish insurgency against Saddam Hussein. This was before America’s notorious—and bogus—alliance with Iraq during that country’s war against the Islamic Republic of Iran.
Although the Iran-Iraq war broke out just after the 1979 revolution that forced Shah Muhammad Reza Pahlavi into exile and brought Ayatollah Khomeini to power, hostilities had long been brewing: The shah, an American client-state dictator, was no more enamored of Saddam than the Islamic Republic would prove to be. So the United States and the shah were all too happy to back Iraq’s Kurds in their fight against Baghdad. When the shah signed a peace treaty with Saddam, however, American aid to the Kurds was cut off without warning. The Kurds were left stranded, cruelly exposed to Saddam’s murderous retaliation.
Between 150,000 and 300,000 Kurdish civilians were forced to flee to Iran. Some sought asylum in the United States, but Washington refused to grant them refugee status: “Covert action,” said then-secretary of state Henry Kissinger, “should not be confused with missionary work.” Indeed, Washington refused even to provide humanitarian assistance to the people Congressman Otis Pike admitted were used as mere “tools.”
Today, the Kurdistan regional government is bracing itself for another round of more of the same. “As a military person, I am disturbed by what is going on in America now,” said General Karam. “They want to withdraw their troops. We want the Americans to stay. Why are people thinking like this? I want you, as a reporter, as a journalist, to get our Kurdish voice to the American people so they know about Kurdish suffering in Iraq. We don’t want the American army to leave this area. The terrorists are excited about what is going on in the Congress.”
True, the Kurds have a lot less to worry about than do most Arab Iraqis. Those who work with the United States in the Iraqi government, the Iraqi army, and the Iraqi police are already on the hit lists of numerous death squads, terrorist cells, and militias. Doctors, lawyers, writers, journalists, and countless others have already been singled out for extermination for choosing democracy and civil society over politics by bullets and car bombs. The terror that plagued Pol Pot’s Cambodia in the 1970s and Algeria in the 1990s now stalks every decent person in the center and south of Iraq.
When American troops leave, they can’t (or, more accurately, won’t) bring all these people home with them. Fortunately, the Kurdish Autonomous Region already admits some of them as refugees. Iraqi Kurdistan is about twice the size of Switzerland: Not big enough to absorb every moderate person in Iraq who wants to live in a normal country, but with room enough to shelter those who are exposed by name. Securing Kurdistan with American forces, on the condition that Erbil admits a certain number of refugees, could demonstrate that the United States at least tries to keep its word—not only with its Kurdish allies, but with its Arab ones as well.

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