Not a national flag. Yet.

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Kurds Get Closer to a State of Their Own

Eli Lake is a Bloomberg View columnist. He was the senior national security correspondent for the Daily Beast and covered national security and intelligence for the Washington Times, the New York Sun and UPI.
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With Cuba and North Korea dominating the headlines, Americans may have missed the good news from a corner of the world that has provided very little: Iraq. Kurdish peshmerga fighters have inflicted a series of defeats on Islamic State forces, freeing a broad swath of northern Iraq from the jihadists' control. 

These battlefield victories underline an equally striking change in U.S. policy: Starting in 2015, the U.S. military will be training three brigades of peshmerga and spending more than $350 million equipping them for battle with the fanatics tearing Iraq apart. While the Kurds have been semi-independent since 1991, with their own government, militias and foreign policy, this is the biggest step yet toward Washington allowing them to have a state of their own.

To understand the significance, recall that for the almost the entire Barack Obama presidency, the Kurds and the U.S. have been at odds. In Obama’s first term, the White House asked the highest-ranking Kurd in Iraq’s government, President Jalal Talabani, to resign his post in favor of Iyad Allawi, the secular Arab whose party won the most parliamentary seats in the 2010 election. (Talabani declined.) Obama’s diplomats consistently acceded to the sensitivities of Iraq’s Shiite-led government and refused to send promised equipment and weapons directly to Kurdish fighters. When the Kurds tried to fend for themselves by selling oil on the international market, U.S. diplomats warned oil companies not to purchase it.

But then came the Islamic State. After Mosul, Iraq’s second-largest city, fell in June to jihadists using vehicles and weapons the U.S. had provided to Iraq’s army, Obama realized that the Kurds are America’s only competent friends left in Iraq. Indeed, last week Kurdish forces finally broke the Islamic State’s siege of Sinjar near the Syrian border. 

This dependence on the Kurds to stop the jihadists complicates U.S. foreign policy tremendously. Since the fall of Saddam Hussein in 2003, Presidents George W. Bush and Obama have supported a "one Iraq" policy that commits the U.S. to discouraging Iraq’s Kurds from declaring themselves an independent country. Militarily, this meant the U.S. was committed to standing up a national Iraqi Army, not a regional militia that could challenge Baghdad’s monopoly of power.  

“The unity of Iraq is absolutely essential both for longstanding U.S. policy and for regional stability; for American credibility and predictability with other partners; and for defeating IS,” James Jeffrey, the U.S. ambassador to Iraq between 2010 and 2012 told me last week. Current U.S. officials working on the Iraq file echo this view. In short, Washington cannot be perceived by Iraq’s neighbors to be encouraging the dissolution of the country. For one thing, it could very well spur Turkey and the Persian Gulf States to defect from the international campaign against IS.

Yet the question of a Kurdish state is getting harder to avoid. In July, Massoud Barzani, the president of the Kurdistan region, came out in support of a referendum on Kurdish independence from Iraq. The month before, Kurdish fighters had taken up posts abandoned by the Iraqi army in Kirkuk, a strategic city at the heart of disputes between Baghdad and the Kurdish region. 

Even though Kurdistan is landlocked, it’s no longer such a stretch to imagine it being independent. Kurdish customs officials already stamp your passport at its airports. The Kurds have their diplomats and lobbyists in foreign capitals. And now, thanks to an oil deal reached early this month with Baghdad, they have staved off financial collapse and gotten Baghdad to agree to pay the salaries of their Peshmerga fighters. Over the summer Israel’s prime minister, Benjamin Netanyahu,  came out for an independent Iraqi Kurdistan.

The one thing the Kurds do not have, however, is a modern army. The peshmerga own some tanks, some rifles and have in the past worked very closely with American special-operations forces in Iraq. But they are still organized like a militia, with various commanders more loyal to local Kurdish political leaders than to the Kurdistan Regional Government, or KRG. Between 1994 and 1997, forces loyal to the two major Kurdish parties fought one another in a civil war. 

On a visit to Washington last month, Fuad Hussein, Barzani’s chief of staff, told reporters that his government was now beginning the process of creating a centralized Kurdish army. And this is where U.S. training of three Kurdish brigades could make a major difference. If the peshmerga transforms from a localized guerilla militia into a modern army, then one of the remaining pieces necessary for Kurdish independence will fall into place.

The Pentagon plays this down -- the budget justification for the training of peshmerga fighters for example says that arming them “will provide them needed capability and will provide interoperability with the Iraqi Army.” It also says that such training “will provide visual proof of American commitment to the Kurdish people and will facilitate our desire for a unified Iraq.”

Yet many observers feel that this language is belied by a softening in U.S. policy. Privately, Kurdish officials tell me there is no chance the Peshmerga will be commanded by officers from the Iraqi Army, particularly after many of those officers fled the fight against the Islamic State.

In pure policy terms, the training of the peshmerga, along with the establishment of a military operations center on Kurdish territory to fight the Islamic State, represents a major victory for the Kurds.

“Since the Islamic State turned its guns on the outskirts of Irbil this past summer, the U.S. government has started providing security assistance to the KRG in ways it had been asking for almost a decade and not receiving from consecutive administrations,” said Ayal Frank, a Washington based adviser to the regional government. 

Kenneth Katzman, an Iraq expert at the Congressional Research Service, said the new training and the fact that Congress gave the administration the authority to directly arm the Kurds and bypass Baghdad in legislation passed this month has weakened the longstanding one-Iraq policy.

Katzman says this policy shift reflects the tremendous threat the Islamic State poses to Iraq’s sovereignty. “The bottom line is that the one-Iraq policy has been weakened by the exigencies of the situation in Iraq, mainly the Islamic State,” Katzman said. “So these policies are in response to a dire threat that could turn Iraq into a failed state.” 

For now, the Kurds are partners in helping to destroy the makeshift caliphate that has effectively erased the border between Syria and Iraq. For this the world owes them a debt of gratitude. But by training and equipping a modern Kurdish army to achieve this task, Obama may find that he is helping destroy Iraq in order to save it. 

This column does not necessarily reflect the opinion of Bloomberg View's editorial board or Bloomberg LP, its owners and investors.

To contact the author on this story:
Eli Lake at elake1@bloomberg.net

To contact the editor on this story:
Tobin Harshaw at tharshaw@bloomberg.net