By SETH J. FRANTZMAN
There is an article making its rounds claiming an independent Kurdistan would be a “failed state.” It has been republished by Newsweek, the website eKurd, and the American Enterprise Institute. The article correctly notes that Kurds have “a right to be Independent.” But it claims that Kurdish independence would not make the region more stable. The author points to the failures of other states that became independent, such as South Sudan, Kosovo and East Timor. He claims that water disputes with neighbors will frustrate dreams. In addition border controversies of the new state “promises a decades-long dispute.” The piece argues that “corruption and nepotism” will harm the oil economy and that Kurds might lose Iraqi citizenship. It argues that the armed forces of Iraqi Kurdistan “really are no different that the Shi’ite militias” and constitute more a militia than a professional army. Neighbors pose issues as well. “What about Iran and Turkey’s posture to Kurdistan?” Therefore “Kurdistan could become the stage for the Middle East’s newest proxy battle” because Iran opposes an independent Kurdistan. It also claims that Kurdistan’s leaders will be similar to Yasser Arafat and the Palestinians.
The reality is far different. Iraq is the real failed state, not Kurdistan. The narrative opposing Kurdish rights and independence in Iraq has always tried to claim that Kurdistan would be a “new Israel.” In the old days they claimed that it was a “dagger” pointing against Arab unity. Now that narrative has changed and it is mainly Iran and its Shia militia proxies who oppose Kurdistan. An Iraqi Shiite leader, Ammar al-Hakim, recently claimed that Israel supports Kurdish independence to “divide Iraqis.”
The claims against Kurdish rights could all be used to justify not giving independence to any group. The United States when it declared independence in 1776 was also a failing economy with militias. Its rights were opposed by neighbors and its borders unclear. So what? Even before Kurdish independence, Iraq has water disputes with Iran that harm the Kurdish region.
Iraq is a failed state. It is overrun by extremists, first by the insurgency and ISIS that arose after 2003 which followed upon the crimes of Saddam Hussein, and then today by the Shia militias. It banned the sale of alcohol last year and is dominated by religious parties. The ISIS genocide built upon the intolerance of the insurgency, the mass persecution of Christians and Kakei, Yazidis and all minorities by Sunni Arab extremists. ISIS was defeated by the Peshmerga and by the Shia militias, but it was to Kurdistan that Sunni Arabs fled when they faced abuse by Shia militias. It was to Kurdistan that Yazidis and Assyrian Christians and others fled. It is in Erbil that churches are built, not in Baghdad or Mosul or Basra.
Kurdistan is the one place in Iraq that functions well. It is a place that a diverse group of people can walk the streets. It isn’t perfect, but it’s far better than the rest of Iraq, far more tolerant and far more stable than many countries in the region. The religious extremism of Iran or Hezbollah is not present and neither is the Sunni religious extremism and oppressive laws of places like Saudi Arabia. It is no surprise that alongside Jerusalem, Dubai and Beirut, it is a place that journalists from around the world are based. They are based in Erbil, not in Baghdad, not in Damascus, not in Tehran. Tourists come to Kurdistan, not the large numbers expected in 2013 before ISIS, but today they are coming back. Do tourists go to Ramadi? Do they go to Libya?
The Kurdistan region is where IDPs fled from all over Iraq in the last years, so many millions of them that it is a huge burden on the Kurdish economy. Why did they flee to Kurdistan? Because it is stable and international NGOs are based there and it has been more welcoming. People seek refuge in Kurdistan from Iran and Syria. Investors come to Erbil to be part of the property market.
It was Europeans, particularly the British and French, who carved up the area that became Iraq today. Turkey once claimed parts of Mosul and the Kurdish region. But after 100 years since Sykes-Picot, and the rise of groups like ISIS and Saddam’s crimes, isn’t it time that Kurds be allowed the same rights as other groups in the world? Kosovo or East Timor may not be perfect states. Neither was France after the Revolution or the US after 1776. Each had their growing pains. But that doesn’t mean they don’t have the right to be a state. Many people in the world prefer the right to determine their own future rather than be colonized or dictated to. Many colonial powers claimed that countries in Africa or Asia were better off under their “civilizing hand.” But people deserve the right to try and fail.
The logic that the uphill struggle Kurdistan faces negates support for its independence is mistaken. I’ve written on six crises facing the Kurdish region, including borders and the economy. Many countries face these crises. The “failed state” argument above posits points that are easily disproven.
- Water disputes can be overcome through negotiations and Kurdistan has ample water resources. It is not water poor, rather its neighbors are.
- Border disputes can be resolved. The disputed territories from Sinjar to Kirkuk, Tuz Khurmato and Khanaqin will continue to be disputed. “Peace walls” are not only a thing in Northern Ireland, they also work in Iraq. The disputed areas already created conflict inside chaotic Iraq, an independent Kurdistan can solve them more easily than the autonomous region can.
- Corruption and nepotism are a fact of life in much of the region, it is not unique to Kurdistan and there is no reason to assume it will be worse in the future than today or lead to more “failure” than one finds in Jordan or Egypt or any other country that has problems with corruption and nepotism.
- Citizenship? Today the Kurds suffer because of having an Iraqi passport, they don’t benefit from being Iraqi citizens. Being Kurdish citizens isn’t a net loss. It’s not like they are wanting to secede from a first world successful country into a new country that is worse off. Iraq is the failed state, not Kurdistan.
- The Peshmerga aren’t ready to be a real army? What, compared to the Iraqi army which is so professional and an amazing cohesive force unifying Iraq? The Iraqi army, after huge investments by the Americans after 2003, collapsed in the face of ISIS in 2014 and its collapse led to millions fleeing and thousands being genocided. It was the Peshmerga and Shia militias that helped defend Iraq in 2014 and saved Iraq and civilians, not the Iraqi army. Today’s Iraqi army is riven by sectarianism and only has a few good units. Are the Peshmerga more of a “militia” than parts of the Iraqi security forces, are they divided more? The Hashd al-Shaabi is made up of actual militias, actual groups loyal to different figures, many of whom got their training in Iran. The fact that the Peshmerga have loyalties to political parties, such as the KDP or PUK, and that the Kurdistan Regional Government (KRG) has tried to work to unify them into one Peshmerga force, doesn’t make them incapable of being the armed forces of a new state. New countries have armies that are derived from militias and underground groups. How did Turkey emerge in the 1920s, how did Israel come into being in 1948, where did the armed forces of many countries, such as China in 1949, come from? They were forged in war, and eventually became more professional. Foreign trainers have trained thousands of Peshmerga in the last three years and invested heavily in them. There is every reason to believe this Kurdistan Training Coordination Center (KTCC) training near Erbil, Suli and Dohuk will result in a more professional Peshmerga.
- Kurdistan faces issues with its neighbors if it becomes a state. Yes, it does, but so what? Syria and Iraq failed as countries in the last years. Yemen is at war. Libya is at war. Every country in the region has problems with its neighbors. To claim that Kurdistan might be engaged in wars after independence and become a new “proxy battlefield,” is pretending that this doesn’t already happen in the Kurdish region, in Iraq, Syria, Lebanon and elsewhere. The Middle East is in the shadow of sectarian proxy-battles. Kurdistan isn’t fanning the flames, it is simply part of the region, and already behaving as a proto-state because of its autonomous KRG status. Simply because Iran opposes an independent Kurdistan is not a reason to listen to Iran.
- Will Kurdistan’s leaders become better leaders after independence? Of course this remains to be seen. How Kurdish democracy and its party structure of KDP, Gorran, PUK and the other parties find an agreement and whether there will be new successful elections. Families such as Barzani and Talabani play a major role in political parties and there are historic rivalries and there was a civil war in the 1990s. But Ireland had a civil war when it gained independence. So did America (620,000 people were killed). Spain, Russia and France had tremendous upheaval in the 19th and 20th centuries. Civil conflict and the growing pains of independence are not negators of independence or delegitimize rights to self-determination. Past examples should be learned from. In many ways the Kurdish conflicts of the 1990s were growing pains of autonomy, so the question is if Kurdistan can learn from that or not. But civil conflict doesn’t negate independence or rights. Lebanon had a civil war, it doesn’t mean Lebanon should not be an independent country. Afghanistan isn’t being done away with simply because it has had decades of internal war. Internal problems don’t make a country a “failed” state unless it trends toward what happened in Somalia, Syria, Yemen or Libya, and Kurdistan isn’t trending that way.
The idea that Kurdistan is trending towards being a “failed state” if it becomes independent ignores the reality of what is happening in Iraq. If Kurdistan is the problem then why do foreigners, especially journalists, all go to Erbil and not Najaf, Falluja, Basra and Baghdad. They fly into Erbil or Suli, not into Baghdad. This is because even the same westerners who talk about Iraqi “unity” and the “destabilizing” of Kurdish independence aspirations, all vote with their feet and go to Kurdistan and stay there. They oppose the rights of the same place they all use and the same place they feel freest in the region. When they go to report about Mosul they sleep in Erbil, not Mosul and then claim that Iraq must be unified? Everyone knows that the Kurdish region is successful, pleasant, and a safe place to be. It is the main hub of business in Iraq and a hub for NGOs and westerners and journalists. If it is teetering on “failure” then why are all these people based there and not in Ramadi?
Kurdistan is a successful state in the making. It is an anchor of stability. It functions well and is improving infrastructure. It has relatively new airports. It is a regional center of trade. It has an improving economy and weathered the storm of war with ISIS and IDP burdens. It is pro-Western and welcoming to foreigners and minorities, unlike many states in the region that pose challenges or have larger terror threats.
Kurdistan is not the Netherlands, but it isn’t in Europe and it should be compared with its peers in the Middle East. It’s not as wealthy as Dubai, but it is better off than most of Iraq (GDP per capita is around $4,500, which is 50% more than the rest of Iraq) and many countries in the region (independent Kurdistan could likely be similar to Egypt or Jordan and aim to similar to parts of neighboring Turkey and Iran). It faces the same challenges they do in terms of water or corruption or neighbors or security. It has a lot of promise and more promise than some countries in the rest of the Middle East. Most of all it deserves the right to continue along the road it has chosen, which is autonomy and a different kind of culture than its neighbors. It has developed leaps and bounds since the 1990s and since 2003. That is why it doesn’t look like Mosul today. It has invested in infrastructure where other parts of Iraq have fallen into disrepair. It should have the same rights as Quebec or Scotland or other places like Kosovo, to consider independence and, if necessary, go it alone without Iraq.
Instead of frustrating Kurdish desires the international community should be investing in aiding Kurdistan. They should help its referendum and legitimate the results. They should aid its needs to address the crises of IDPs and help them return home. It should invest in infrastructure and security in the Kurdish region and areas near it, so Mosul becomes secure and doesn’t slouch back into the 2009 style-insurgency. Instead of warning about a “failed state,” western commentators should give Kurdistan the same right to self-determination that other countries had and support the hopes of local people. If people feel failure they should advise the Kurdish region on how not to fail, not simply raise objections.