Kurdistan Deserves U.S. Support. Here Is Why
With 72 percent turnout and a 93 percent affirmative vote in a referendum on independence in September, there is little doubt that the people of Iraqi Kurdistan seek freedom from the Republic of Iraq. Last week’s vote in the autonomous region was overwhelming and showed that the country’s Kurds are deeply invested in a quest for self-determination reminiscent of our own more than 200 years ago. Yet the U.S. response was terse. The State Department said that Kurdistan’s independence would impede the effort to defeat ISIS, despite the fact that we are fighting side by side with these same Kurds and that they have proven to be a well-organized, effective force.
Given our own tradition and the recent history of Iraq and Kurdistan, we should at least consider the potential strategic advantages of Kurdish independence.
First consider that a stable and diverse nation in Iraq may be unachievable. Iraq was arbitrarily created by the Sykes-Picot Agreement in 1916; British and French diplomats drew its boundaries to serve their own postwar interests with little respect for the history and nature of the peoples they lumped together. The country is therefore comprised of large communities of both of the principal schismatic Islamic sects, Sunnis and Shiites. It also contains a sizable community of Kurds. These groups are in a constant state of enmity and conflict which appears to be intractable.
Asserting that an independent Kurdistan would impede efforts to defeat radical Islam depreciates the Kurds' current contributions to that very cause and seems to excessively defer to the Iraqi government. A strong and independent Kurdistan might actually strengthen our efforts by reinforcing the role of the Peshmerga, the Kurdish fighting force, as a full-fledged participant in the coalition opposing the Islamic State.
In a similar vein, the Kurds might help reconcile Islam with 21st Century values. Contrary to what we see throughout much of the Middle East, Kurds have promoted a secular brand of Islam in which church is separated from state and many different religions flourish. Drawing Muslims into a tolerant and secular interpretation of the Koran is a critical element in reducing radicalization and Islam-inspired violence. Pope Benedict XVI launched this argument in his well-known address at Regensburg in 2006, where he stressed the need for a modern construction of Islam that can peacefully and tolerantly co-exist with the rest of the world.
Furthermore, an independent Kurdistan would establish another countering force to Iran’s quest for hegemony in the Middle East. An independent Kurdistan securely aligned with the United States would undermine, or at least influence, the Shiite nexus Iran has created among Hezbollah, the Shiite-dominated government of Prime Minister Haider al-Abadi in Iraq, and Bashar al-Assad's Syria.
Finally, despite sharp political rhetoric between the two parties, Kurdish trade ties with Turkey have recently increased. Iraqi Kurds built an oil pipeline in 2013 linked to a Turkish port on the Mediterranean and have signed multiple energy deals with Turkish entities. If this strategic linkage developed enough to replace Iraq with Turkey as the Kurds’ principal economic partner, it might offer more stability. Such a relationship could also be a better conduit for regional U.S. interests than is Washington’s partnership with the ineffective al-Abadi government. The question remains, of course, whether Turkey would allow trade to continue with an independent Kurdistan. There is longstanding enmity within Turkey for the Turkish Kurds. The Kurdistan Worker’s Party (PKK), designated a terrorist organization by both Turkey and the United States, continues to cause violence and disruption within Turkey. Could Ankara be persuaded to distinguish the PKK from an independent former Iraqi Kurdistan? Perhaps not, but it may be worth trying.
The Kurdish situation is analogous to Kosovo. There, an ethnic Albanian culture successfully divorced Slavic Serbia, which expressly did not want to lose it, after the Dayton Accords resolved the conflicts in former Yugoslavia. Kosovo and Serbia have ethnic and cultural differences like the Kurds have with the rest of Iraq. They lack the common values, the history, and the cultural alignment that, for example, Catalonia shares with the other provinces of Spain.
Given how elusive success has been in the Middle East, and the number of American lives and amount of our national patrimony which have been invested there since 2003, it seems that our foreign policy leaders should embrace an open and thorough debate on all of the issues and factors bearing on the question of Kurdish independence before reaching a final conclusion.