Last May, Lt. Gen. Vincent Stewart, director of the Defense Intelligence Agency, told the Senate Armed Services Committee that Kurdish independence “is on a trajectory where it is probably not ‘if’, but ‘when.’”
Mr. Stewart also explained that after ISIS is defeated in Mosul, the “greatest challenge” to the Baghdad government will be “to reconcile the differences between the Shia-dominated government, the Sunnis out west, and the Kurds in the north.”
“Failure to address these challenges,” he warned, “will ultimately result in conflict among all of the parties,” which could deteriorate into “civil strife” in Iraq.
Baghdad has now proclaimed victory in Mosul, but there is little indication that it is rising to the task Mr. Stewart described. Iraq’s government remains strongly sectarian.
Baghdad’s failure to address the needs and concerns of Sunni Arabs prepared the ground for ISIS’ spectacular advance into Iraq in the summer of 2014. The Obama administration insisted that then-Prime Minister Nuri al-Maliki step down before it would support Baghdad.
Mr. Maliki was replaced by Haydar al-Abadi, a far less sectarian figure and by all accounts a decent man. However, as in Washington, the mere replacement of one leader by another is most unlikely to change policy fundamentals (just ask Donald Trump!)
Indeed, in some respects, the war against ISIS has increased Iraq’s sectarianism. It has created significant new vehicles for promoting Iran’s influence: the Shii’ite-dominated militias, known as the Popular Mobilization Forces (PMF), which arose to support the Iraqi army in fighting ISIS.
Iran has long experience creating and directing such organizations. The first and best example is Hezbollah, which Tehran helped found in Lebanon in the early 1980s, following Israel’s ill-fated invasion of that country. Thirty years later, Hezbollah remains an important institution for projecting Iranian influence in the region!
Some Iranian-supported PMF leaders are shocking figures, linked to lethal assaults on Americans. In 1983, Iranian-backed terrorists bombed the U.S. and French embassies in Kuwait. Kuwaiti authorities charged Abu Mahdi al-Muhandis with involvement in the attacks. Mr. Muhandis now heads a major PMF group in Iraq.
Qais al-Khazali is another such figure. He was involved in Iran’s IED campaign against U.S. forces in Iraq before 2012 and now leads another powerful group.
Iraq scarcely controls its own borders, and Tehran is far advanced in its objective of creating a corridor under the control of loyal militias, from its border with Iraq, on through to Syria and Lebanon.
Nor does Baghdad appear to be doing what is necessary to reconcile with its Sunni Arab population. Human Rights Watch reports that Iraqi forces are engaged in widespread, retaliatory executions in west Mosul, while the Iraqi government does little to stop it. The “revenge killings will haunt Iraq for generations to come,” it warns.
U.S. officials regard the U.S. withdrawal for Iraq in 2012 as a major mistake, and Washington is now engaged with Baghdad on reaching agreement for a longer-term U.S. military presence.
Iran, along with its local allies, strongly opposes that. Whether such an agreement can be reached remains uncertain. Moreover, Iraq will hold elections next year and there is no guarantee that Mr. Abadi will remain prime minister. Any agreement reached with his government could easily be undone if someone else wins the elections.
However, in marked contrast to the Arab areas of Iraq, the Kurdistan Region — both people and government — is extremely friendly to Americans. The Kurdistan Regional Government will hold a referendum on independence on Sept. 25.
The U.S., short of allies in that part of the world, should welcome this vote. It could well bring significant advantages. One of the most concrete and obvious is military basing facilities.
An independent Kurdistan would happily provide the U.S. military bases into the indefinite future — and without political conditions that others might impose. Even now, the U.S.-led fight against ISIS in Syria is supplied from the Kurdistan Region — and not from Turkey, which strongly objects to the U.S. partnership with the Kurdish-led Syrian Democratic Forces.
In 1992, when I first toured the Kurdistan Region, I found the vast size and peacefulness of the area very impressive. A year after the 1991 Gulf War, coalition air forces, operating out of Turkey, kept Saddam Hussein’s army at bay. Saddam had imposed an internal embargo on the Kurds, who were also subject to the international sanctions on Iraq as a whole.
Of course, the U.S. should not have imposed sanctions meant to keep Saddam weak on the Kurdistan Region (that was the manifestation then of America’s commitment to a “one-Iraq” policy.) Despite the difficulties, the Kurds carried on, relieved that Saddam’s brutal oppression had ended and grateful to Americans for that.
But why defend this region from Turkey? Wouldn’t a U.S. airfield in Kurdistan be nifty? The U.S. could sit at the backs of both Saddam and Iran’s mullahs. I asked the two Kurdish leaders — Massoud Barzani and Jalal Talabani — what they thought of the idea. “You are welcome,” they each replied.
There are other reasons why the U.S. should support the Kurdish independence referendum, including to make the Middle East a better place, where the aspirations of the people more closely align with the actions of their government.
Such a process will be long and slow, but the Kurdistan Region is a very good place for the next step.
• Laurie Mylroie is a Washington, D.C. Correspondent for Kurdistan24, covering the Pentagon and State Department.