Kurds in the Coal Mine

How will we know if the attempt to reconstruct Iraq is failing?

This is a serious question. With as much hysterical anti-Iraq-war,
anti-Bush-Administration fabrication going in the media as there has
been, it’s tempting for a rational person to dismiss every negative
report as just another load of Michael Mooronism and dismiss it. That
would be a mistake. Things could still go very bad there. How would
we tell?

I was pondering this question the other day, and I realized that there
is an excellent test for the state of Iraq. When the Kurds start muttering
about secession, then is the time to worry that matters are
spinning out of control. Conversely, as long as they’re happy to
stay in Iraq, outsiders can feel reasonably confident that the place
is not going to hell in a handbasket.

Consider. The Kurds have mostly been running their own affairs
since the end of Gulf War I, shielded by the northern no-fly zone.
They’re a large, cohesive minority with cross-border ties to Kurds
elsewhere and a recurring dream of an independent Kurdistan. They
have enough oil to jump-start an independent national economy. Their
militia, the peshmergas, has a reputation for effectiveness and is
probably the best-trained factional army in Iraq. And of all the
factions, they’re on the best terms with the U.S.

It was, frankly, a bit surprising to me that the Kurds didn’t bid
for independence when the Hussein regime went down. Of all Iraq’s
tribal factions (except the defeated Sunnis) they have the least to
gain from staying in the national government. Consequently, the
Shi’ites have been forced to cede them an allocation of ministries and
top posts far out of proportion to the Kurdish percentage of the

population. The President of Iraq, Jalal Talabani, is a Kurd

(For those who need a reminder, the Kurds are roughly 20% of
the population, Sunnis 17%, Shi’ites about 60%; other groups such
as Turkomens are statistical noise)

An early respondent to this essay brought up the Turks. Out of
nervousness about their large Kurdish minority, they have been
threatening military action against any attempt to form Kurdistan
for years; the conventional wisdom is that this is what kept the
Kurds from declaring independence after Gulf War I. But there are
at least two reasons the Kurds can now calculate much lower odds of
a Turkish coup de main. One is that Turkey has its hopes for escape
from Third-World-pesthole status pinned to joining the European Union
which (to say the least) doesn’t look kindly on military adventurism
in prospective members. The second is the presence of American troops
on the ground in North Iraq. Any confrontation with them would turn
a Turkish incursion into a disastrous failure.

All in all, the option to form Kurdistan has never looked more viable.
This is why the Kurds’ attitude towards Iraq-the-nation should be a
reliable barometer. The Baathist/Jihadi insurgency has very little
strength in the Kurdish north; if the Kurds think it’s winning
elsewhere, or that the politics of Iraq-the-nation has gone seriously
dysfunctional, they’re very well positioned to bail out. Conversely,
as long as they figure there’s something to be gained by staying in
Iraq, the rest of us can take that as a proxy that the place is
improving.

Figuring this out has been a relief. Now I can ignore the constant
doomsaying by George Bush’s political enemies and just keep a weather
eye on the Kurds. While they’re happy, I won’t worry about Iraq too
much.

30 thoughts on “Kurds in the Coal Mine

  1. If the Kurds don’t start to trust each other. We take trust for granted here in the USA, but it’s lacking in almost all the undeveloped societies. Indeed, that’s WHY they’re not developing. They don’t trust each other and they have no reason TO learn to trust each other.
    -russ

  2. Hmmmmm…not a bad theory, but I think I see a minor flaw. As far as I can tell, the Turks will not allow an independent Kurdish state. Given the trouble the Turks have had with Kurds internally they see an independent Kurdish state as a large threat on their border and have made noises in the past about taking measures if a such a state should arise. The Kurdish politicos and their US advisors realise this and (it appears to me) have loudly taken that option off the table to keep the Turks from overreacting. So while I’d judge that the Kurds talking separation would definitely indicate reconstruction is failing, it is an extreme enough reaction that it may not actually be useful.

  3. You raise a point about the Turks that is worth another
    paragraph in the entry. I’ll add one.

  4. The Turks may not be able/willing to act militarily, but they have other chips to offer in order to buy a brake on US support of/acquiescence to an independent Kurdistan. The base at Incirlik comes to mind. The Kurds in turn know that, so that explains part of why they won’t go for independence. Also, the Iranians have a similar position re: independent Kurdistan, and they have many more chips to offer in Iraq itself (heard much from al-Sadr lately?). So the Kurds’ avoidance of overt independence moves is caused by many factors. Therefore, your “causal backtracking”, although still sound logically, does not offer 100% relief.

  5. Another fascinating blog Eric. But I think unless you’re personally close to the Kurdish leadership, you’re unlikely to hear any dissent until it’s too late – their relationship with the US is too close for them to go shooting their mouths off about formal independence – they have de-facto independence now so why risk conflict with Turkey?

    Russell, I’m not sure your point about a US monopoly of trust is valid. There are a number of instances of the US encouraging (through the CIA) foreign “insurgents” with prospects of military support then leaving them to get slaughtered. Hungary in 1962 and Iraq post-Gulf War I, for instance.

    Some interesting history:

    http://www.bbc.co.uk/history/war/iraq/britain_iraq_01.shtml

    Blame the Europeans :-)

    John

  6. One is that Turkey has its hopes for escape from Third-World-pesthole status pinned to joining the European Union which (to say the least) doesn’t look kindly on military adventurism in prospective members.
    It doesn’t look too kindly on swallowing Turkey in order to keep the US happy, either – that seems to be part of what the recent French rejection of the EU constitution was about. The European leadership is into the grand gesture of pulling a Muslim country of seventy-odd million fully into modernity (a lot of the west is already pretty modern, “Third-World-pesthole status” notwithstanding) but the EU citizens who are going to be paying for it are as leery as an old maid with a penitentiary out back (tm Harlan Ellison, ISTR). One of the main things keeping the Turkish economy on its knees is maintaining a much larger army than they can afford.
    The second is the presence of American troops on the ground in North Iraq. Any confrontation with them would turn a Turkish incursion into a disastrous failure.
    The Turks are in NATO, and probably aren’t dumb enough to attack US troops, who in any case are supposed to be going home again in due course if your take on American non-imperialism be true. I think there’s probably adequate liason going on via the US to make sure the Kurds don’t get blamed for the dissolution of the country. That would be too embarrassing.

  7. hahah.. yeah it’s a good thing the kurds are all so happy in iraq. It’s a good thing they haven’t asked the assembly to allow them to vote on independence. It’s a good thing the overwhelming number of kurds in northern iraq don’t want their own state… boy then we’d really be in trouble. Good thing Mullah Bakhtiyar isn’t pushing the assembly to claim to Kirkuk as Kurdish territory.

    I’m really glad you recently started pondering questions that many of us asked BEFORE we went to war. As for your dismissal of Turkish influence: Have you all forgotten about the kurdish populations in Syria and Iran? It’s not just turkey folks. Syria and Iran could easily go to war over this one. The reason the kurdish leadership in iraq isn’t overtly declaring independence yet is because the resulting landlocked state would be surrounded on all sides by hostile forces.

    Hey thanks for the laughs, good times. Just keep watching them happy Kurds.

  8. This is really great intellectual mastrubation! ESR, have you ever been to Iraq since the war started? Do you know of any Kurds in high govermental positions? I suspect the answer to both of these is a resounding, “No”.

    “While they’re happy, I won’t worry about Iraq too much.”

    This is the whole point of the anti-war people — you, the pro-war people aren’t too much worried about what goes on in Iraq! You aren’t too much worried that Americans are dying! You aren’t too much worried that innocent Iraqis are dying!

    How about using your intelligence to understand if war is the best way (in the long run) to root out the insanity that stems from the Middle East? A lot harder than you 15-minute mental mastrubation — you bet! But also a lot more meaningful!

    ESR, why haven’t you signed up for the army? Why aren’t you in Iraq? (Note: this is similar to your (paraphrasing) “…if you don’t believe in guns, put a sign outside you house saying that ‘this house doesn’t have any guns in it’…” argument. Both your argument and mine stem from the “personal perspective”.) Anti-war people think, “Do I want to die in a war? NO! Does anybody want to die? NO! Is it really necessary for people to die for a change to occur in the Middle East? Don’t know, but don’t think so!” If anti-war people aren’t rational and you aren’t anti-war….and you aren’t in the war….. that makes you a coward and a hypocrite! That is, you support the war but you just don’t want to be a part of it — you don’t want to lose YOUR life. But if others lose their lives that’s OK — because death is really part of the war, right?

    “Figuring this out has been a relief.”
    Yep, you figured it out — you 15-minute mental challenge was, well….changelling. But you, ESR, came out on top! Now for you, all is quiet and good on the middle-eastern front. The funny part of all this despite you snuggling in bed with the Republicans, the first thing they would do is to kick you out of their party, since you “open” relationships and view of the world doesn’t quiet fit in with their established morals! The comedy of that!

  9. Please s/Kurds/Iraqis/ in my previous comment. Braino. The Turks keep inflating their currency. That’s one of the things keeping their economy in a confused state. How can you run a business when the money in your cash register changes value for the worse from day to day. When you have to reprice everything weekly? It’s gotten so bad that they’ve had to lop six zeroes off their currency. When I was in Istanbul in 2000, you could get a hamburger for only a million Turkish Lire.

  10. A friend of mine was recently killed in Iraq. But, if Mr. Raymond is right, then I’m not worried either. I never much bought the WMD theory, but I’ve always thought it would be good to depose Saddam Hussein. We did that. That war is over. Now we’re helping the Iraqis fight their resulting civil war. We are fighting for the side that hopes to set up a democracy. Are we winning? Yes, if Mr. Raymond is right. If we weren’t, the Kurds would have bolted. I’m not worried because our sacrifice is accomplishing something worthwhile. This isn’t another Vietnam. We actually appear to be bringing freedom to Iraq. Not only is that good for most of Iraq, it’s good for America. As long as we are succeeding, we all have the luxury of supporting the war.

  11. … just another load of Michael Mooronism

    Ah, Michael Moore, the lying fascist thug, as Christopher Hitchens so delicately puts it. Actually, I think Hitchens is quite an interesting case. Much of the left is simply acting in, as he puts it in that article, “bad faith”.

    It’s quite clear to me that, at bottom, we’re seeing an adolescent desire to be at odds with the surrounding social reality. Denunciations of that by militant anti-clericalists, feminists, and homosexual activists have always in the past been welcomed by the left. But, and this is the kicker, so now is denunciation by female-oppressing, sodomite-beheading Islamic clerics. This is only a paradox if one fails to see that the deepest motive is hatred of the West by some of its most pampered denizens arising from that ubiquitous social phenomenon that Nietzsche identified as ressentiment.

    But what if one really believes in anti-clericalism, feminism, and homosexual “rights”? Enter Hitchens. From this perspective, Michael Moore looks as sick as he does from a conservative one.

    Hitchens is interesting on the Kurds, too:

    http://talk.greatbooks.org/tcr/hitchens41

    And, yes, they are worth watching.

  12. Hello I’m Iranian so I know Saddam-Hosein better ;)
    Sadam’s fighters kill many people in my family and city! ;(
    so I think Mr.Bush fight with terrorists and next goal must be Irans government! Iran government is terrorist.

  13. There’s an interesting article on the possibilities for a theocracy here:
    http://www.nybooks.com/articles/18150
    …but it’s by the son of JK Galbraith, and is probably therefore liberal America-hating lying fascist thuggery which should not be read by anyone.

    I like the Snitchens interview:
    Interviewer: “Are you the next George Orwell, or are you the next Paul Johnson?”
    Hitchens: “Paul Johnson is a buffoon…” (no mention of Orwell).

    Sorry Christopher, you’re not in his league either.

  14. Eric, you might also want to keep an eye on other countries treatment of their kurds, I believe turkey has been easing up (but the Kurds have also been cleaning house on their own radical terrorists so could be quid pro quo) and I’ve heard of kurdish demonstrations in Syria without an attendant harsh crack down. Hard to seperate their friend of US status from their own ability to project power, but one more set of data to consider.

  15. Yeccch.

    Raymond, I thought your computer writings were silly….but they can’t match the drivel of your political yammerings.

    And ah yes, the cowardice of your gun stance fits perfectly.

    Let us know when you plan on enlisting in the fight for democracy in Iraq.

    Idiot.

  16. It seems ESR has devoted several posts recently to defending American involvement in overseas military campaigns, often on the grounds that ultimately, it’s been for the good of the people fought/invaded. Of course, he does conveniently ignore many of the somewhat shonky actions committed by U.S. military forces either directly or indirectly via despotic allies.

    That’s not really what interests me though. What interests me is how he calls himself a libertarian. Maybe this is only one definition of being a libertarian, but here’s something from the website of The Libertarian Enterprise (http://www.ncc-1776.com/):

    “A libertarian is a person who believes that no one has the right, under any circumstances, to initiate force against another human being, or to advocate or delegate its initiation. Those who act consistently with this principle are libertarians, whether they realize it or not. Those who fail to act consistently with it are not libertarians, regardless of what they may claim.”
    - L. Neil Smith

    It seems to me you’re either a libertarian or you’re not. You can’t have your cake and eat it too, even if you are “doing it for their own good.” That seems to be precisely the problem with the left: they want to interfere in people’s lives “for their own good.” Yet when they do it, that’s bad. When the right do it, that’s perfectly fine. It seems that many so-called libertarians aren’t very libertarian at all, and when it comes down to it, the left and the right often aren’t that dissimilar, despite what either will say.

  17. I wonder if the presence of U.S. troops enables political dickering and selfish brinksmanship because as long as the Americans do most of the fighting, and the existing staus quo is not threatened, there is no reason to make compromises. Thus the deadline for the constitution can slide while everyone tries to get a better deal.

    I wonder if without U.S. troops, those with a vested interest in democracy can get together out of sheer self-preservation. It seems to me, a fire gets lit under democratic organization in an environment of threatened anarchy, as opposed to an environment of relative colonial order.

    Compare the development of democracy in America following revolution to the development of democracy in other colonies of the British empire — say, India or South Africa.

    People have to be scared into democracy by an unattractive alternative, and the presence of a relatively benign sort of colonial force is not an unatractive alternative, especially when that force has a lot of money to hand out.

    To our closest friends in Iraq who benefit from our presence (e.g. Kurds), there will never be a right for the U.S. to leave. That’s why we need a test that’s independent of the self-interest of our friends to determine when to leave.

  18. Caleb, I’m a libertarian who has faced up to the harsh truth that right now the State is the only effective weapon I have against barbarians who want to destroy my civilization.

    And yes, believing this hurts me a lot.

  19. …right now the State is the only effective weapon I have against barbarians who want to destroy my civilization.

    It seems to have been the actions of that same State – mainly in propping up despotisms like the Sauds and the Pahlavis that would otherwise have had a chance to be recycled into autogenous democracies, and avoiding any debate on an energy policy to reduce American dependence on imported oil – that has made a lot of these aforesaid barbarians want to “destroy your civilisation” (I think they’d mainly like you to leave them alone, but I realise the “They hate our freeeeedom!” meme has pretty good traction in these parts).

  20. Adrian — supposing you are right about the origin of the barbarians (which I doubt, but just supposing) doesn’t it follow that the State in question is obliged, not merely to cease propping up despotisms in the Middle East, but to make the Middle East whole by removing the barbarians and encouraging the growth of democracies in that region? Restitution for an act of wrongdoing is simple justice; we may not abandon the Middle East, unless making it whole proves beyond our power.

    Also, you shouldn’t suppose, just because you would rather leave the Middle East alone, that the barbarians in the Middle East wish to leave you alone. Read Osama bin Laden’s publications. The man has said that his final goal is a Muslim Caliphate sovereign over the known world — not just the present Muslim lands, not even all the lands where Islam has ruled, but the whole world. And he has said that democracy as we know it is inconsistent with Islam as he practices it. What conclusion follows from those two statements? Have you reason to believe bin Laden didn’t mean both of them?

  21. Eric: That’s fine. After all, I’m a “libertarian” who pretty well resigns his political actions to having an online sulk about how the world isn’t fair, whilst biding his time until he can just try to sidestep the whole circus by moving to the country, becoming self-sufficient in as many things as possible and basically opting out as much as possible. I don’t have any grand schemes to “save the world” and make it more libertarian anymore. I’m pretty jaded actually.

    Of course, I disagree with your stance, but that’s not my main issue. Others may or may not debate you on that, but I can’t be bothered in a lot of ways (more evidence of how jaded I am). To use an analogy: if you want to pick up the ball and run with it, you can call it what you like, but it’s not soccer. Just call yourself a conservative, even if that’s only with the smallest of c’s.

  22. Raymond, I thought your computer writings were silly…but they can’t match the drivel of your political yammerings.

    Hey now – I like the computer stuff. OTOH, I am just a hobby-coder so I might know diddley-squat.

  23. If the Kurds do break off a chunk of Iraq, they might be smart to weld it firmly to Turkey. 1) A Greater Turkish Kurdestan would have the Turkish army *defending* them from Iraq, Syria, and Iran. Ask any veteran of the Korean war what that means. 2) Turkey may actually get to join the EU. Greater Turkish Kurdestan might delay it, but would be part of the package. 3) They would bring some oil revenue, which might help Turkey’s economy. The Turkish economy has suffered since the UN sanctions cut off the oil pipeline revenue from Iraq.

    We might add the Sunni triangle to Jordan, and let Iran enjoy trying to absorb the Iraqi Shiites. Iraq was just a figment of diplomats’ imagination made “real” after WW1 anyway.

  24. Adrian – supposing you are right about the origin of the barbarians (which I doubt, but just supposing)

    Everybody else reads into this stuff what they want to see there – why not you and me?

    doesn’t it follow that the State in question is obliged, not merely to cease propping up despotisms in the Middle East, but to make the Middle East whole by removing the barbarians and encouraging the growth of democracies in that region?

    That would be great if that was what we were doing, but I’m afraid it looks to me that the guys fighting the occupation in Iraq have orders of magnitude more motivation, passion, sense of purpose etc. than the sad Iraqi army the Americans are trying to put together, in which afaict the only combat-ready formations are pure peshmerga. I’m also seeing a lot of talk about the “professionalisation” of the terrorists, which doesn’t fill me with confidence for the future. Some of these guys will spread out and go home in due course, and what they have to teach could be really costly to Western interests.

  25. Also, you shouldn’t suppose, just because you would rather leave the Middle East alone, that the barbarians in the Middle East wish to leave you alone. Read Osama bin Laden’s publications. The man has said that his final goal is a Muslim Caliphate sovereign over the known world – not just the present Muslim lands, not even all the lands where Islam has ruled, but the whole world. And he has said that democracy as we know it is inconsistent with Islam as he practices it. What conclusion follows from those two statements? Have you reason to believe bin Laden didn’t mean both of them?

    He may well have *meant* them, but with the technological advantages held even by Europe on its own, let alone the US, I regard such notions as fantasy. He’s not in a position to convert the West to anything. He *might* eventually be in a position to affect the oil flow, in which case we’d better either resign ourselves to occupying the oil regions indefinitely or think seriously about weaning ourselves off the stuff.

  26. And do be advised, that Sharia is *spreading.* From the radial Islamist point of view, they are either winning, or else at least holding their own. The role of the State is foremost to provide security. I count freedom from dhimmitude as part and parcel of that, however else I prefer my state minimal…

  27. This solution doesn’t seem like much of a solution at all. They fight for an ideology brainwashed into them and for revenge. We do nothing to try and reverse their ideology, and we give them much more to avenge for. Military ‘success’ in Iraq just means the enemy has moved to another location.

    I still think you paint the left with too broad a brush. Logical fallacies abound sure, but a valid criticism of the current war effort is that little thought seems to have been put into how we got ourselves into this position. What actions did we take that angered others against us to begin with? Who was irresponsible and sat idley when libel began against us?

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