Hard times looming for Iraq’s Kurds
By Sarah Reinheimer Best Defense office of Kurdish affairs The United States has long counted on Iraq’s Kurds to be a relatively stable political partner in a volatile country. Yet after months of pro-democracy demonstrations that triggered violent crackdowns and media suppression by the Kurdistan Regional Government, the United States government needs to keep a ...
By Sarah Reinheimer
Best Defense office of Kurdish affairs
The United States has long counted on Iraq’s Kurds to be a relatively stable political partner in a volatile country. Yet after months of pro-democracy demonstrations that triggered violent crackdowns and media suppression by the Kurdistan Regional Government, the United States government needs to keep a much closer eye on the Kurdish region to ensure that simmering problems there do not boil over, according to a June 15 session at the Washington Institute for Near East Policy.
One of Iraqi Kurdistan’s worst problems is its weak economy. As WINEP’s Michael Eisenstadt explained, “The Iraqi Kurds believe that their economic situation will continue to improve” as it becomes more urban, but in reality its economy “suffers from structural shortcomings.” Due to the lack of jobs, the government pays students to go to night school so they have something to occupy their time. Even more troubling, out of 5 million citizens, half are children and 1.3 million are employed by the government. Many Iraqi Kurds are unwilling to do menial tasks, and the government and industries are forced to import foreign workers to do jobs normally reserved for citizens.
This patronage system “hinders the Kurdistan population from reaching its potential,” warned Eisenstadt, and will only worsen as the Iraqi Kurds become more dependent on foreign workers. Nevertheless, the economic situation is “viewed as not so bad” by Iraqi Kurds, a startling complacency given the scope of the challenges.
What truly worries the Iraqi Kurds and could bring the most instability to the country is the coming departure of U.S. troops. The Iraqi Kurds feel surrounded on all sides by unfriendly neighbors, despite the economic and political partnership they have developed in recent years with Turkey, a country that continues to disenfranchise its own large Kurdish population. Baghdad and Arbil share no intelligence, and Iraqi Kurds worry that as soon as most U.S. troops leave, Baghdad will turn on the Kurds, just as it did during Saddam’s reign, with the weapons and training the United States has provided.
Given these difficulties, the United States needs to re-evaluate its policy towards Iraqi Kurdistan. The United States, as WINEP’s Michael Knights advocates, should encourage intelligence sharing between Baghdad and Arbil while maintaining some form of U.S. military observation mission in Arbil to monitor Kurdish security. While Iraq is one country, the distrust between the Kurds and the central government in Baghdad, coupled with Kurdistan’s dysfunctional economy, could further destabilize the country in the months ahead.