Kurdistan: A Middle East haven?
As late as the ’90s, Americans visiting Berlin could still meet Germans so thankful for the U.S. role in saving West Berlin from Soviet strangulation in the years immediately following World War II that they would greet American visitors as if they were the very GIs they remembered as children giving them chocolates in 1948. ...
As late as the '90s, Americans visiting Berlin could still meet Germans so thankful for the U.S. role in saving West Berlin from Soviet strangulation in the years immediately following World War II that they would greet American visitors as if they were the very GIs they remembered as children giving them chocolates in 1948.
As late as the ’90s, Americans visiting Berlin could still meet Germans so thankful for the U.S. role in saving West Berlin from Soviet strangulation in the years immediately following World War II that they would greet American visitors as if they were the very GIs they remembered as children giving them chocolates in 1948.
With the deterioration in U.S.-German relations over the last decade, such experiences occur less frequently today. Instead, Americans in search of such gratitude purely because of their nationality might want to pay a visit to the Kurdistan region of Iraq.
On a recent week long trip to the area, sponsored by the Kurdistan Regional Government (KRG), it quickly became apparent that the Kurds have achieved something their fellow Iraqis should aspire to — a safe, secure region where the economy is booming and Iraqis revel in the freedom and opportunity afforded by the post-Saddam era.
Protected from Saddam’s wrath by a no fly zone following the Gulf War, Kurdistan did not experience the chaos that befell much of the country following the U.S. invasion in 2003. Although U.S. troops parachuted into the region in the early days of the war, Kurdish officials like to say that not a single drop of American blood was shed in the region. Reflecting that reality, the current U.S. military presence in the region is limited to a small contingent in Erbil, the region’s capital.
The region’s security success (no major attacks since 2005) is due in large part to a network of checkpoints separating the region from the violence in the rest of Iraq as well as the skills of its vaunted Peshmerga forces. Kurdish officials also point to the fact that foreign terrorists attempting to infiltrate the region are quickly reported to the authorities by average Kurdish citizens.
While the continued instability in the rest of Iraq has limited the number of U.S. and European companies investing in the region, investors and companies from Turkey, Iran, Syria, and the Gulf countries are flocking to this sprawling city. Everywhere you look you see new hotels and apartments. Erbil will soon have its own race track. A gleaming new international airport funded by the KRG is set to open in several months and will boast the fifth largest runway in the world, capable of handling the largest capacity Airbus and Boeing planes as well as, Kurdish officials slyly note, the U.S. military’s largest transport planes.
Support for a larger U.S. military presence in the region appears to have widespread support. Even students debated the merits of a base with 5,000 vs. 10,000 American troops with our group. The Kurds are concerned that as the U.S. military continues its drawdown and planned withdrawal from Iraq next year, continued instability in Baghdad could lead to renewed violence in disputed areas along the Green Line between Kurdistan and the rest of Iraq in cities such as Kirkuk.
The Obama administration appears to be concerned that a formalization of the U.S. presence in Kurdistan might upset the delicate political balance in Baghdad. It is possible that the U.S. Regional Reconstruction Team currently based here in Erbil may soon be converted to a consulate, a long overdue move given the economic opportunities for U.S. companies as well as the signal this would send to people who have been steadfast U.S. allies for decades.
Possibly contributing to the Obama administration’s wariness about deepening ties in the region is the recent murder of a young Kurdish student journalist. The student wrote an article about the President of Kurdistan’s daughter prior to his death and some local journalists are pointing fingers at the security services given that such violence in the region is very rare.
When questioned about the incident, senior government officials pledged a complete investigation and prosecution of those involved. Friends of Kurdistan in the United States will be watching to see whether they follow through or if the case is swept under the rug.
Kurdistan’s success in the coming years will hinge not just on what happens in Baghdad, but also on how the current ruling elite, an alliance between two previously warring parties, handle the transition to a new generation of Kurdish leaders. Whether the ruling parties allow the opposition to develop the capability to challenge their grip on power will say much about whether their talk of democracy is merely that.
The Kurds, like many American allies around the world, are questioning the United States staying power. The success of Iraq but also our ability to handle the repercussions of Iran’s drive toward a nuclear weapon require us to work with allies like the Kurds, despite their flaws. To build on the very real successes that the Kurds have achieved, it is essential that the United States become more engaged in the region.
Just as West Berlin served as a beacon for those in the communist East, in many ways, this beautiful region is a harbinger of hope for what Iraq and its neighbors such as Syria and Iran might one day become: vibrant, functioning democracies with booming economies. In the interim, if nothing else, Kurdistan can serve as a haven in the Middle East for Americans in search of friendship and gratitude.
Jamie M. Fly is Executive Director of the Foreign Policy Initiative
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