The Secret Origins of the U.S.-Kurdish Relationship Explain Today’s Disaster
The seeds of Washington’s abandonment of the Kurds traces back to a classified document written in the 1970s by Henry Kissinger.
On June 30, 1972, two Kurdish men, Idris Barzani and Mahmoud Othman, arrived nondescriptly at the CIA’s sprawling headquarters in Langley, Virginia, and were led into the office of the agency’s legendary director, Richard Helms. They discussed a stunning shift in U.S. policy. Henry Kissinger, President Richard Nixon’s national security advisor, had personally authorized Helms to express American sympathy for the Kurds’ plight and assure them of his “readiness to consider their requests for assistance.” For more than a decade, the Kurds had been fighting against the Iraqi government and had made countless pleas for American assistance to no avail. Helms was now declaring that the United States had changed its mind. He failed to mention it would soon change again.
The long history of U.S. abandonment of the Kurds is well understood by most observers. What has mostly gone forgotten is that such eventual betrayals were entirely predictable given the way the two sides came together in the first place. Indeed, it’s impossible to understand President Donald Trump’s decision to support Turkey in waging war in Syria against U.S.-allied Kurds without understanding the largely untold origins of the U.S.-Kurdish relationship.
The history extends back to 1920, when the Kurds, the largest ethnic group in the world not to have a state of their own, were promised autonomy in the Treaty of Sèvres. But the two great powers of the day, Britain and France, reneged in 1923 and carved up the Kurdish territories into modern-day Turkey, Iran, Iraq, and Syria. The Kurds rebelled against this betrayal and were crushed by their new British, French, Iranian, and Turkish colonizers. After decades of relative quiet, the Kurds tried again to achieve autonomy in the aftermath of Iraq’s 1958 revolution, which saw the overthrow of the Hashemite monarchy.
After the outbreak of war in Iraqi Kurdistan in September 1961, the U.S. government adopted a policy of noninterference. The primary objective of U.S. policy at the time was to maintain good relations with Baghdad, and there was always the nagging suspicion that the Kurdish rebel leader, Mustafa Barzani, was a communist agent, given his 11-year exile in the Soviet Union from 1947 to 1958.
However, two close American allies in the region—Israel and Iran—quickly concluded that the Iraqi Kurds were ideological and strategic allies who could be exploited to keep the radical Arab nationalist regime in Baghdad—and its large military—tied down. Starting in mid-1962, the Shah of Iran ordered his intelligence agency, SAVAK, to help finance the Kurdish insurgency in northern Iraq to undermine the stability of the regime in Baghdad. The Israelis joined the Iranian-led intervention in 1964, after Prime Minister David Ben-Gurion recognized the Kurds as a strategic ally against the radical Arab regime in Baghdad. For the next decade, the Iranian and Israeli strategy was simple: As long as the Kurds presented a clear and present danger to Baghdad, the Iraqi military could not be deployed in force against Israel in the event of a war or threaten Iranian ambitions in the Persian Gulf. This paid off in 1967, when Iraq was unable to deploy its forces in the pan-Arab war against Israel, and in the successor war in 1973, when it could only muster a single armored division because 80 percent of its military was tied down in northern Iraq.
The Americans were slower to come around. Since the mid-1960s, both the Iranians and Israelis had been seeking to convince the White House to reconsider its nonintervention policy; so had Iraqi Kurds, who regularly met with U.S. foreign service officers. They were always greeted with a polite but firm refusal.
This changed in July 1968 when the Baath Party—whose leadership included a young Saddam Hussein—seized power and firmly established itself as the dominant political force inside Iraq for the next 35 years. In March 1970, Saddam concluded that the war against his country’s Kurds was a wasted effort and personally traveled north and met with Barzani. Saddam agreed to every demand, which centered on Kurdish autonomy within a unified Iraq, but indicated that the program would not be implemented until 1974. Essentially, the March accord bought time for both sides. Saddam was able to consolidate power, and Barzani was able to secure a powerful new ally—the United States.
Following the March Accord, Saddam pulled Iraq firmly into the arms of the Soviets. In December 1971, Iraq signed an arms deal with Moscow, and in April 1972, it signed a Treaty of Friendship and Cooperation. The following month, Nixon visited Tehran on his return from a successful Moscow summit, where he managed to secure detente with the Soviets. During his visit, the shah pressed Nixon to assist the Kurds in destabilizing Iraq.
After a careful review of the risks, the Nixon administration concluded that the Soviet-Iraqi threat to Western interests was significant enough to justify helping the Kurds. Following Nixon’s green light, the Kurdish operation was run out of Kissinger’s White House office. Between August 1972 and late 1974, when fighting in the Iraqi-Kurdish war resumed, the Nixon administration frequently consulted with the Iranians, Israelis, and the Kurds on how to prepare them for an inevitable confrontation with Baghdad. This meant stockpiling weaponry and training Kurdish fighters on modern warfare techniques—all while relations between the Kurds and Baghdad deteriorated rapidly.
In early 1974, Saddam violated the terms of the March accord and unilaterally imposed a watered-down version of autonomy for the Kurds. Barzani responded by traveling to Iran, where he met with the shah and the CIA’s station chief to request U.S. backing for a plan to set up an Iraqi Arab-Kurdish government that would claim to be the sole legitimate government of Iraq. As Kissinger wrote in his 1999 memoir, Years of Renewal, Barzani’s request “triggered a flood of communications” among U.S. officials focused on two questions: whether the United States would support a unilateral declaration of autonomy and what level of support the United States was willing to give the Kurds. The CIA, in particular, warned against increasing U.S. assistance.
But Kissinger was dismissive of CIA Director William Colby’s caution, writing, “Colby’s reluctance was as unrealistic as Barzani’s enthusiasm.” Nixon ultimately decided to increase U.S. assistance to the Kurds, including the provision of 900,000 pounds of Soviet-made weapons that the CIA had stockpiled and a $1 million lump sum of refugee assistance. In April 1974, Kissinger sent Nixon’s orders to the U.S. ambassador in Tehran. This cable was important because it laid out a succinct proclamation of U.S. interests vis-à-vis the Kurds. The objectives, he wrote, were “(a) to give Kurds capacity to maintain a reasonable base for negotiating recognition of rights by Baghdad Government; (b) to keep present Iraqi government tied down, but (c) not to divide Iraq permanently because an independent Kurdish area would not be economically viable and US and Iran have no interest in closing door on good relations with Iraq under moderate leadership.” It was also made clear that U.S. support for a Kurdish government on a long-term basis was not possible because it could not be kept covert and there were deep concerns within the U.S. government about the viability of a Kurdish state, not to mention the shah’s own concerns about Kurdish independence, given Iran’s large Kurdish minority. This point was conveyed to the Kurds at the beginning of their relationship with the United States and was reiterated throughout the Kurdish operation.
This sheds light on the basic problem that the Kurds have always faced, which is geographic. An independent Kurdistan is certain to be landlocked, rendering it unable to participate in the international economy without being reliant on external—and hostile—powers such as Turkey, Iran, Iraq, and Syria. For example, if the Kurds wanted to export oil or natural gas, it would have to traverse neighboring territory via a pipeline to reach international markets. If none of these countries agreed, then the Kurdish economy would be doomed. Even basic services like air travel would be reliant on external patrons because Kurdistan-bound flights would have to travel through the airspace of hostile countries—countries that already have relationships with the United States. That’s why, despite a deep affinity for the Kurds and their cause, the United States has always been clear—to itself, if not always in public—about its reluctance to support Kurdish independence.
In late 1974, the Iraqi Army launched an all-out offensive against the Kurds, making deep gains in the mountains, thanks to the close guidance of Soviet military advisors. But, despite considerable Iranian and Israeli efforts to bolster the Kurds militarily, the Iraqis managed to hold ground in the winter of 1974-1975. This prompted Kissinger and the Israelis to devise a plan to provide the Kurds with $28 million worth of arms.
But it was too late—the geopolitics had shifted from underneath the Kurds. On Feb. 18, 1975, the shah met with Kissinger in Zurich. He informed Kissinger that the Kurds had “no guts left” and was thinking about meeting with Saddam at an OPEC conference in March to see if he could trade his support for a border concession. Kissinger claimed in his 1999 memoir that he argued against the shah’s proposal and reminded him of “his own repeated warnings that the collapse of the Kurds would destabilize the entire area.”
None of this mattered. Iran’s decision to abandon the Kurds was presented to the United States as a fait accompli, a done deal. On March 6, the shah and Saddam announced the Algiers Agreement, which exchanged partial sovereignty over the Shatt al-Arab waterway, a strategic waterway along the Iran-Iraq border, in return for noninterference in each other’s affairs. The Kurdish intervention was doomed. The shah ordered the closing of Iran’s border with Iraq, effectively throwing the Kurds to the wolves. With the border closed, the Americans and Israelis were incapable of providing the Kurds with ongoing assistance. The next day, the Iraqis then unleashed the full weight of their military against the Kurds, forcing thousands of civilians to flee to Iran. The CIA officers and Israeli special forces who had been helping their Kurdish allies fight the Iraqis were stunned. So was Kissinger, who had spent the better part of three years working tirelessly to give the Kurds a fighting chance. There was nothing that could have been done to prevent the slaughter. With Iran now cut off, there was no avenue to continue providing American assistance. Saddam’s forces overran the Kurds, razed 1,400 villages to the ground, rounded up thousands of Barzani’s followers, and imposed his rule on the region.
This tragic end of the American intervention to support the Kurds would mark the beginning of the back-and-forth relationship between the United States and the Kurds that still exists today. Thousands of Kurds in Iraq lost their lives after the United States, Iran, and Israel rescinded their support in 1975. In the 1980s, the Kurds and the United States found themselves on opposite sides of the Iran-Iraq War, which saw Saddam regularly using chemical weapons against both Iran and the Kurds and led to widespread genocide in Iraqi Kurdistan. The tides would turn again in the early 1990s. After Iraq invaded Kuwait in 1990, the United States urged the Kurds to revolt against Saddam’s government, only for the George H.W. Bush administration to abandon them in their time of need. In April 1991, the White House realized its mistake and implemented Operation Provide Comfort, which established a no-fly zone over northern Iraq and allowed the Iraqi Kurds to finally live in peace. In 1992, the Iraqi Kurds established the autonomous Kurdistan Regional Government, which became an indispensable American ally during the Iraq War and the war against the Islamic State.
It seemed that the United States had finally righted the wrong that it inflicted in 1975—until now. But even this latest betrayal shouldn’t come as a shock. It’s entirely consistent with the interests toward the Kurds that the United States has privately described from the very beginning.