- By John HannahJohn Hannah is a senior fellow at the Foundation for Defense of Democracies. He blogs for Foreign Policy's Shadow Government.
Among the Iraq-related anniversaries to consider, here’s one more: Twenty-one years ago this week, millions of Iraqi Kurds set flight for the desolate, snow-capped mountains bordering Turkey and Iran, frantically seeking to escape the advancing armies of Saddam Hussein. Fresh off his humiliating defeat in the first Gulf War, Saddam had quickly trained his guns on wiping out all internal opposition to his tyrannical rule.
Where the Kurds were concerned, his purpose seemed clear. Saddam aimed to eliminate once and for all the persistent challenge this proud, irrepressible minority had long posed to his dictatorship. Genocide was on tap, the completion of a job begun in 1988, when Iraqi forces razed thousands of Kurdish villages, murdered their inhabitants, and rained chemical weapons down on the innocent men, women and children of a town called Halabja.
Now, with their backs literally to the wall, freezing to death on a barren mountainside, facing Saddam’s full vengeance, the Kurds’ destruction seemed nigh.
Until, that is: America. Said. No. Working with a small group of allies, the United States, quite simply, saved the Kurds. Saddam’s army was ordered to stand down or face renewed hostilities. U.S. ground forces deployed to northern Iraq and organized one of history’s greatest humanitarian rescues, Operation Provide Comfort. A no-fly zone was established over Kurdistan, which U.S. aircraft patrolled until 2003, when America finally settled its score with Saddam for good, liberating almost 30 million people from his republic of fear, including the long-suffering Kurds.
It’s a story of deliverance and American leadership well worth recalling, especially this year. For the first time in a generation, Iraq’s Kurds find themselves without direct American protection. President Obama’s decision to withdraw U.S. troops from Iraq has once again left the Kurds largely alone. While no longer confronting Saddam’s terror, the long shadow of their anguished history remains, as do unresolved tensions not only with Iraq’s majority Arabs, but with powerful neighbors in Iran, Syria and Turkey struggling with disadvantaged Kurdish minorities of their own.
It’s a mix of fear, loathing and foreign meddling that, left untended, could easily lead to conflict and even war — both inside Iraq and, perhaps, regionally. That, indeed, would be tragic — for the often-betrayed Kurds, to be sure, but also for the prestige and long-term interests of their main benefactor, the United States.
Say what you will about the American project in Iraq, its application in Kurdistan was well down the path toward success. As happened in Germany, Japan and South Korea after World War II, a few decades of intense American engagement had begun working wonders for the Kurds. Excellent security — indeed, not a single U.S. combat death in areas under Kurdish control. A booming economy with growing levels of foreign investment. And an emerging democracy that, while far from perfect, has seen real opposition parties emerge, as well as a burgeoning civil society and media. Yes, corruption, lack of accountability, and uneven development remain serious problems. But certainly no worse than, say, South Korea circa the 1970s, at a similar point in that country’s experience under America’s wing.
Properly nourished, Iraqi Kurdistan has all the makings of a U.S. strategic asset. Iraq’s Arabs may have been profoundly ambivalent about a continued role for American troops. But not the Kurds, whose leaders loudly proclaimed their desire for a permanent U.S. presence, and whose population of some 5 million is overwhelmingly pro-American. Sharing borders with Iran and Syria, Kurdistan could play a vital role in U.S. strategy to combat the serious threats now emanating from those anti-American regimes. Kurdish security and intelligence forces are competent and battle-hardened, and after years of cooperation have built up excellent working relations with their U.S. counterparts, including in fighting Al Qaeda. And sitting atop 40-50 billion barrels of oil, Kurdistan is poised to become one of the world’s largest petroleum producers, a major contributor to global energy security.
Confident in its U.S. backing, Kurdistan could serve as both engine and anchor for the rest of Iraq’s democratic development. But America’s precipitous retreat has left behind a dangerous vacuum, a potential breeding ground for destructive acts of self-help that could easily spiral out of control That vacuum urgently needs to be filled by a concerted American strategy to define a new, "special" relationship with Iraq’s Kurds. Making clear that Kurdistan’s well-being within a truly federal Iraq is a high U.S. priority could serve both to deter potential aggressors while encouraging Kurdish restraint, patience and cooperation in dealing with the turmoil of Baghdad’s day-to-day politics.
When Kurdish President Masoud Barzani visits Washington next month, the Obama administration would be well advised to use the opportunity to establish a new Joint Commission on U.S.-Kurdish relations to oversee the bilateral relationship, composed of high-level officials from both sides. America’s consulate in Kurdistan should be led by a senior foreign service officer of ambassadorial rank, perhaps seconded by a retired general. Under the rubric of U.S. security assistance for Iraq, programs for equipping and training Kurdish security and intelligence services should be established, including robust channels for information sharing and other cooperative efforts. A joint initiative to expand dramatically American investment in Kurdistan needs to be launched, with a focus on expediting the region’s emergence as a reliable energy exporter to Western markets. Technical assistance should be provided to support Kurdish efforts to battle corruption, strengthen the rule of law, and ensure human rights.
More than two decades after saving Iraq’s Kurds from annihilation, it’s time for America to institutionalize a long-term strategic relationship with them — one that understands that a secure and prosperous Kurdistan, confident in its ties to the world’s sole superpower, can be a boon to U.S. interests, and a force for stability and modernism throughout Iraq and the broader Middle East.