If the next U.S. president wants “to put America first” he might look toward the Kurdish north of Iraq. There the long-standing question of Kurdish independence scares Washington into a tired reflex that quashes important U.S. interests beneath an unwavering policy to promote the fiction of a unified Iraq. Iraq is nothing of the sort, yet our current president sees neither this nor the merit of an independent Kurdistan. Wise foreign policy is founded on honesty. It’s time we remember how to be honest.
Here’s why — Iraq is leaving Kurdistan, not the other way around.
It’s difficult to argue otherwise after the Iraqi Parliament building was occupied and ransacked by 70,000 Shia protesters twice in the last two months. The current month has been nearly as bad. On June 3, threatening mobs returned to mass for a third attempt, and on June 9 thugs torched the headquarters of Dawa, the political party of Haidar al Abadi, prime minister of Iraq. Regimes capable of good governance and empowered by the trust of their citizens simply do not have their seats of power repeatedly overwhelmed by violent crowds.
Still, these recent events are not the camel’s nose in the tent flap. They are only the latest manifestations of the underlying problem — an Iraqi state built around successive regimes in Baghdad chronically lacking of legitimacy and persistently unable to govern effectively or nonviolently. Since the U.S. invasion in 2003 and the subsequent toppling of the regime of Saddam Hussein, no postinvasion authority has fared much better. As for Hussein and the regimes that preceded his, anything close to governance was prosecuted through force. Even as far back as the secret signing of Sykes-Picot in 1916 and the subsequent British and French Mandates in Iraq, governance there functioned, where it did, through the threat or application of military force.
With such a track record there should be little wonder the current regime in Baghdad struggles to execute the functions of a national government. Its responsibility to legislate is paralyzed by the repeated boycotts of its parliamentarians. Its ability to provide for the defense of Iraqi borders and for the internal security of its citizens is wholly lacking. Even its constitutional duty to fairly distribute federal revenues is willfully breached by Mr. Abadi, who two years ago canceled all mandated funding to the Federal Region of Kurdistan — which hasn’t received a single dinar since. What remains of Iraq consists of its flag and passport, but those are slender reeds upon which to hang the hat of a country.
If Washington is blind to this, Tehran is surely not. This is why Iran moved swiftly to exploit the fatwa issued in June 2014 by Grand Ayatollah Ali Sistani to authorize the raising of an army of Shia co-religionists inside Iraq. These are the so-called Popular Mobilization Units (PMU), the Shia militias supported and cadred by Iranian special forces, whose footprint of 110,000 men under arms dominates the southern 60 percent of the country. Their muscle constrains the political freedom of maneuver for Mr. Abadi and has become indispensable to the Iraqi Army. Shia combat power is spreading north, too, and has resulted in serious clashes with Kurdish defenders along the southern perimeter of the Kurdish region. Left unchecked, Tehran will gain positions from which to compel Kurdish behavior in the future.
“Have no doubt, Tehran wants to control Kurdistan next,” said Hussein Yazdanpana, a key Kurdish commander operating near Kirkuk. “Their fighters are trying to enter portions of Kirkuk, but we won’t let them, and we don’t need them. Believe me, they will be the next ISIS. Baghdad is controlled by Tehran, so it won’t help us, and the Abadi regime has already collapsed. Independence is inevitable.”
Kurdish independence is also not the end of the world. In fact, the United States can gain significant strategic benefit from it. Kurdish national sovereignty enables the West to more directly support the Kurds in their role as the main effort in the near-term war to destroy ISIS as an organization. It also empowers the Kurds’ well-known moderate voice as a necessary counterpoint in the longer-term war against jihadi ideology. Moreover, the community of friendly, sovereign democracies in the Middle East doubles upon the birth of an independent Kurdistan, and with appropriate U.S. support, it can stand strong as a counter to Iranian ambitions. Finally, the Kurds’ grossly underutilized petroleum reserves have the potential to help undermine Russian energy levers on our NATO partners in the European Union and Turkey.
Unfortunately, U.S. policy wedded to a fictional, unified Iraq will leave Americans playing a sad game of catch-up when the Day After Iraq formally arrives. The rational policy is to prepare now, purposed to advance important U.S. interests. No one needs to apologize. We just need to be honest.
• Ernie Audino, a retired U.S. Army brigadier general, is a senior military fellow at the London Center for Policy Research. He is the only U.S. Army general to have previously served a year as a combat adviser embedded inside a Kurdish Peshmerga brigade in Iraq.