Seven Questions

Seven Questions: Jay Garner

The man who first led reconstruction efforts in Iraq says that Arab-Kurd tensions are overblown and that "soft partition" would have been a good idea.

KIERAN DOHERTY/AFP/Getty Images
KIERAN DOHERTY/AFP/Getty Images

Jay Garner knows Iraqi Kurdistan. First appointed to the region following the Gulf War, the retired U.S. lieutenant general has returned to the region countless times — most famously when he was pulled out of retirement to lead U.S. reconstruction efforts in Iraq after the 2003 invasion. He was quickly succeeded in an expanded version of that role by L. Paul Bremer, but has since remained an active commentator on the region and the U.S. strategy there.

Speaking from Iraqi Kurdistan by phone, Garner discussed recently reported tensions between Kurdish leaders and the Iraqi government with Foreign Policy‘s Elizabeth Dickinson. As U.S. forces begin their long pullout from the country, Garner warned that Sunni-Shiite relations are far more fragile than those between Arabs and Kurds, that there are no stirrings of independence in the north, and that former U.S. senator and sitting Vice President Joseph Biden’s call for what many described as a "soft partition" of Iraq would have served the country well.

Foreign Policy: As someone who has worked extensively with the Kurds, dating back to the 1990s, how is Iraqi Kurdistan?

Jay Garner: Well, compared to the rest of Iraq, it’s incredibly stable. I’m sure your readers don’t know this, but there hasn’t been a soldier either killed or wounded here since 1991. There’s never been a contractor or foreign businessman attacked here, so it’s more stable than most of the places you live in the United States.

FP: Given the region’s history of autonomous governance, can you talk about how the Kurdistan Regional Government works and how well its institutions are established?

JG: The autonomy is part of the Iraqi Constitution, so there can be no question about the autonomy. It’s like asking someone in the [U.S. National Rifle Association] if they have a right to bear arms. Yeah, they do — there’s an amendment that says they can do that. Autonomy is in the Iraq Constitution, not the Kurdish Constitution, but the Iraqi Constitution — voted on by the Iraqi people.

FP: How did you think about where the Kurds would fit into the political arrangement of Iraq after the fall of Saddam Hussein in 2003?

JG: You gotta remember, it started before 2003. When the Turks would not let us move through Turkey, we, the United States, solicited the Peshmerga [Kurdish militia] as our allies, and they helped our forces in 2003 against Saddam Hussein. They were part of the coalition of the willing. [A] hell of a lot more Peshmerga fought than French, you know that?

I think the Kurds knew they had to be a part of Iraq, of the Iraqi government. They knew they couldn’t be independent. I talked to the Kurdish leaders in early April [2003], and they were adamant that they had to be part of the new Iraq. I never saw a movement on their part to be independent. But they did demand that they keep their autonomous region, because they had written the Constitution back in 1992; they had had their first elections back in 1992; they had set up a parliament in the early 1990s; and they had their own governmental system. They didn’t want to take that apart, and I don’t blame them, because they had a well-run, well-structured government.

You might notice that when we began to put together the Iraqi government, you ended up with a Kurd as the president, a Kurd as the foreign minister, a Kurd as the deputy prime minister, and a Kurd as the chief of staff of the Army, because the Kurds were the only ones in Iraq who knew how to govern and lead, [and] because they had been doing that for 12 years.

FP: Recent reports have suggested that the Kurdish region could be positioning itself for maybe even independence — or at least increased separation from the central government of Iraq. The Kurdish Parliament approved a new Constitution two weeks ago, for example, and has signed oil contracts with foreign companies.

JG: Wait a minute. You guys entered this at one point in time without any knowledge of what happened in the past and you think everything is from now on — and it’s not. There’s a big rich past in all this.

No. 1, they’ve had a Constitution for about 17 years. It’s been a draft constitution, but they’ve been practicing that Constitution. So that was not a new event. If you take their Constitution from the time they wrote it and began practicing that, it’s about five times older than the Iraqi Constitution. No. 2, the Iraqi Constitution allows for regional constitutions, so they’re doing everything within the context of the Iraqi Constitution. No. 3, they’ve been having elections since 1992; they’re experienced in doing this thing. I’m here [in Iraqi Kurdistan] right now, and they’re getting ready to have elections again — huge politics going on, there are speeches everywhere. It reminds me of the [American] South when I was a kid when everybody got out, and that’s the way it is here. They expect 80 percent turnout, almost.

Since the regime fell, I have not heard one Kurd, not one Kurdish leader — in deep conversations I’ve had — I have not heard one of them talk about independence. Everything I’ve heard them talk about is within the context of a whole Iraq. Now, what their worry is, is that when [U.S. forces] pull out, there will be a Sunni-Shiite civil war, which they will not participate in. And they’re worried about how will Turkey respond to that, how will the United States respond to that, how will Iran respond to that. They have a fear of being left alone. But I don’t see any movement here to try to be independent. I’d worry a hell of a lot more about what goes on in Baghdad than I would about what goes on in Erbil.

FP: What are your thoughts on the oil law that’s still being drafted and discussed to decide how resources would be divided up between the regions?

JG: The Kurds are doing exactly what we do in the United States. The Kurds are saying, "We have oil here; we will bring companies in here." And they have a set of standards for companies: They have to be able to do so many barrels per day; they have to have this much money, this much past performance, all standard stuff. And they said, "We’ll look at that [information] and we will award an oil block. And out of that oil block, 83 percent of the proceeds will go to Baghdad, which is required by their law, and we [the Kurds] will abide by the Baghdad law. But what we won’t do is let Baghdad dictate what countries and what people come into our land and drill oil — any more than the governor of Oklahoma is going to let Washington. D.C., come and drill." It’s no different from what [Americans] do.

[As for the oil law,] I think they are going to come to a resolution. It’ll be solved probably within the next year. I don’t think it’s a big thing. Baghdad still harbors central control of everything — that’s the legacy of Saddam Hussein. And in Kurdistan, which has been a quasi democracy for 18 years, they are more decentralized. They are not going to succumb to centralization by Baghdad any more than the southern [U.S.] states will succumb to centralization by the federal government. I mean, we bitch about [the same thing] in the United States.

FP: Is that in some ways almost an existential dilemma? As Baghdad pushes for more national integration with regions pushing for autonomy, how do you reconcile those two?

JG: When we [Americans] first came in here, had we put this country on a federal system, if we had had a Sunni entity, a Shiite entity, and there already was a Kurdish entity — if we had done that, and we put in a weak central government that does things that governments do (it delineates currency, it has minimum standards for education and health, sends somebody to OPEC, sends somebody to the U.N., raises a small army, etc.), the power of government would have been in the federal entities. We would have stood a good chance of never going through things that we went through. The Sunnis would have been ethnically, religiously, and tribally comfortable. What we tried to do [instead] is forget about the ethnicities, forget about the religions, forget about the tribes, stir [the Iraqis] all up like a melting pot — and it doesn’t work.

Biden had the right answer; Biden talked about a partition, and that’s probably an uncomfortable word, "partitioning," but he didn’t mean it that way. He said there ought to be a federal unity among these homogeneous groups, which were the same religion, same ethnicity, and homogeneous tribes. That made a lot of sense. But we didn’t do that, and I think we suffered the consequences.

FP: With Biden as the U.S. envoy for reconciliation in Iraq, what priorities should he be pushing for?

JG: No. 1, a referendum on disputed lands, because I don’t think you can ever have a stable Iraq as long as you have an unstable Arab-Kurdish border. No. 2, a resolution on the oil law because it’s a thorn in everybody’s side. No. 3, continue to exert whatever leverage we have on the Iraqi government to get these things done.

Anything that happens here, whether it is Kurds versus Arabs or Shiite versus Sunni — and those are huge flash points — is not an Iraqi problem; it’s a regional problem. It’s huge. It’s much greater than Iraq, because if it’s Shiite-Sunni you are going to have Iranians on the side of the Shiites and you are going to have the Gulf region on the side of the Sunnis. If it’s Arab-Kurdish, you are going to have an ethnic war, and lives will be gone and other countries will get involved because they are going to want to shape how it comes out.

I don’t think the [U.S.] administration wants to pull out in 2011, run for the presidency in 2012, and have this whole damned thing blow up on them, you know? So it is good that [U.S. President Barack Obama has] appointed Biden; it’s good that he’s made a special envoy; and it’s good that Biden is drilling in on this. Biden is a guy that has studied a long time. He is more thoughtful about this than the other people, and I think that’s a good first step. But you’ve got to have some leverage to execute that. So whatever leverage we have left, we need to make sure that those flash points are solved before we leave.

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