A quarter-century ago, Iraqi Kurds were refugees. Now they are almost a nation.

Photographer: SAFIN HAMED/AFP/Getty Images

The Liberation of Iraq Began 25 Years Ago

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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One of the few foreign-policy priorities on which Republicans and Democrats can agree these days is the importance of aiding Kurds in and around Iraq. The White House is working openly with Syrian Kurds whose political roots go back to Kurdish separatists in Turkey. Members of both parties support legislation to directly arm the Kurdistan Regional Government in Iraq. Even Donald Trump has spared a kind word for them.

The U.S. relationship with Kurds hasn't always been so warm. In 1975, the CIA cut off covert aid to the Iraqi Kurds at the request of the shah of Iran, leaving them to be slaughtered by Iraqi forces. President Ronald Reagan turned a blind eye in 1988 when Saddam Hussein attacked Kurdish villages with nerve gas. President George H.W. Bush was slow to respond when Saddam attacked the Kurds again in 1991 after a U.S.-led coalition drove invading Iraqis out of Kuwait.

But the elder Bush did not just continue his predecessor's indifference to the plight of Kurds. In the spring and summer of 1991 -- fearing a repeat of the 1988 genocide of Iraqi Kurds known as the Anfal campaign -- President Bush authorized the rescue of half a million Kurds who had fled Saddam's army for Turkey and Iran. By the end of the summer, the U.S. was patrolling the skies of northern Iraq, creating the no-fly zone that continued until the 2003 invasion of Iraq.

On Monday, the Middle East Institute held a symposium with many of the generals and diplomats who carried out this mission. The symposium marked the 25th anniversary of what at first was called Provide Comfort, and later Northern Watch.

It turns out these people didn't really know what they were doing. Retired General Anthony Zinni, who was the chief of staff to Operation Provide Comfort, said the coalition forces brought together for the first mission to return the Kurdish refugees to their villages were a "pick-up team." He said there were no military plans for how to respond to a refugee crisis after Kuwait was liberated in 1991. He described the command relationships between officers and soldiers as "creative." 

Andrew Natsios, who headed the U.S. Agency for International Development's Office of Foreign Disaster Assistance, said that when he was first asked to assemble the teams to go to northern Iraq, he didn't have anyone. The "disaster assistance response teams" were already deployed to Ethiopia, southern Africa and other locations, so he needed to improvise. He brought on a renowned disaster-relief specialist, Fred Cuny, who devised a plan: to have Kurdish elders return at first to their villages and then get word to the rest of the dispersed villagers that they could safely return.

Natsios recounts reading in the Washington Post an interview Cuny gave where he said the U.S. planned to create a "no-fly zone." The only problem, Natsios said, was that this was the first he had heard of it. He said he was convinced he would be fired for it, but it turned out that within 24 hours, the White House agreed.

In the first months of Operation Provide Comfort, Zinni said he knew the Iraqi forces out-numbered him. So he was pleased that General Jay Garner "did his best Clint Eastwood impression" and bluffed. Garner said he told an Iraqi general that if they attacked Kurdish civilians again, the U.S. military would "kill every last one of them." The bluff worked.

This mix of improvisation and frantic activity turns out to be a hinge moment in modern Middle East history.

First, the no-fly zone that the U.S. military established gave the Kurds the space to create their own regional government. Today the seat of that government in Erbil resembles a national capital. Passports are stamped at the airport. Taxes are collected. As Falah Mustafa Bakir, the head of the regional government's department of foreign relations, told me Monday with some pride, there are now 35 foreign missions to Erbil, including representatives of all five permanent members of the U.N. Security Council. "We could have never imagined we would be here 25 years ago," he said.

That is an understatement. In 1991, Iraq's Kurds were in danger of becoming permanent refugees. Today, they are closing in on becoming a state of their own.

Second, the no-fly zones that Bush created in the south and north of Iraq in many ways set the stage for the U.S. intervention in Iraq in 2003. As the late Christopher Hitchens would remind readers in the run-up to that war, the U.S. was already intervening in Iraq by protecting Saddam's primary ethnic victims, the Kurds and Iraqi Shiites. This bit of history helps explain why Bill Clinton, who continued the policy of the no-fly zones, ended up supporting the 2003 war. Familiarity with this commitment may also have influenced Hillary Clinton's vote for the war when she was a senator from New York.

It also explains why Zinni, who helped create the no-fly zone over northern Iraq, is so cautious about doing the same thing elsewhere. "I've been hearing a lot about setting up no-fly zones in Syria," he said Monday. "What I'd say is you can't get a little bit pregnant; once you are in, you own what is under it."

Many Americans today wish the U.S. had never taken ownership of Iraq. But many also make the mistake of thinking that the U.S. signed that deed of purchase with the 2003 war. In fact the down payment was made with a haphazard operation to rescue half a million Kurds, and it began 25 years ago.

This column does not necessarily reflect the opinion of the editorial board or Bloomberg LP and its owners.

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

To contact the editor responsible for this story:
Philip Gray at philipgray@bloomberg.net