The Corner

Debating Kurdistan

Cliff May, Max Boot, and Abe Greenwald have all penned excellent reports based on their trips to Iraqi Kurdistan in recent days. Each makes the broad point that Iraqi Kurdistan is more secure than the rest of Iraq and can provide a model of economic development for the rest of Iraq. Indeed, while acknowledging flaws in Iraqi Kurdistan, each notes that the region is too valuable for Washington to ignore.

Generally I agree with their assessments, even though I have been critical of Iraqi Kurdistan’s governance in recent years. It is always good to see the forest, even when analyzing the trees. For the sake of some good-spirited conservative debate, however, let me challenge Cliff, Max, and Abe on two general points:

1)      The issue isn’t whether Iraqi Kurdistan is more democratic than the rest of Iraq, but whether its trajectory is still forward. Has democracy expanded or retracted in the past five or six years?

2)      And, while the Kurds can be pro-American, is the Kurdish leadership always so? Or can they be just as pro-Iranian when Iranian delegations visit?

On the first point, it is clear that the Kurdish leadership’s rhetorical embrace of democracy has not been matched by an acceptance of its principles when the ruling families are challenged. Transparency remains a huge problem. While Max Boot suggests that Kurdish corruption is functional, he probably underestimates the extent of the Barzani and Talabani cut on contracts — NGO investigators have suggested a number closer to 40 percent. The social problem with corruption now is that, contrary to Max’s observations, a broad array of Kurds are not benefiting from the economic boom. This was highlighted when the head of the Korek phone company, a Barzani relative, was able to expropriate $600 million from the public coffer to support his private bid. Likewise, but on a smaller scale, a couple years ago, the Qubad Company (an offshoot of the Nokan Company which is the Talabani’s main financial arm) evicted families of martyrs from public lands so that these could be transferred to and developed by Talabani family members. It was eminent domain at its worst. (I should note that Qubad Talabani says he has no relationship with the Qubad Company, although it appears that the Qubad Company continues to operate). It would have been very interesting had the Foreign Policy Initiative trip asked to meet with officials at the Nokan Corporation to discuss that entity’s role in the Kurdish economy.

And, while each mentioned the murder of journalist Sardasht Osman earlier this month, all seem to discount the context in which this occurred: Osman’s murder was not the first; it is simply the latest. This is the reason why protests continue (and a protest is planned for tomorrow in front of the U.S. embassy in London). A few of the other cases:

Mushir Mizuri, an Islamic Union of Kurdistan (IUK)’s candidate in Duhok was shot point-blank in 2005 when a KDP mob stormed his office in protest of the IUK’s decision to run independently of the dominant Kurdistan Democratic Party.

Lvin writer Soran Mama Hama was murdered in Kirkuk in 2008 after writing an article discussing the ruling party’s involvement in a prostitution ring.

● Lahur Talabani, Iraqi President Jalal Talabani’s nephew, fired into a crowd at an opposition political rally earlier this year.

● In each case, the government abandoned the investigation when evidence started to point to family members of the ruling party.

More troubling to me is blanket acceptance of the Kurds as loyal American allies, although, relative to the rest of the Middle East, they are certainly better than all their neighbors, including Turkey. Qubad Talabani’s office has circulated on its e-mail list nonsense propaganda about the lies that led to war, besmirching the sacrifice of American soldiers who died for Kurdistan. Qubad has refused to apologize or retract this. Likewise, the Patriotic Union of Kurdistan’s representative in Tehran has demanded U.S. “occupiers” leave Iraq quickly.

When we rolled off Qods Force operatives in Kurdistan, the Kurdish parties were furious because we did not inform them in advance. The problem was that they had apparently leaked information to the Iranians when previously we did read them in on operations.

Iraqi Kurds can certainly be allies and friends. But if we are to be true friends to them and count on a stable and secure Iraqi Kurdistan going into the future, then it’s necessary to continue to pressure for reform and transparency and to judge the Kurdistan Regional Government not only by what it is willing to say in our presence, but also what it says when we are not there.

Separately, while Kurdistan’s development is impressive, let’s not ignore what is going on in Basra and Najaf, which have started from a greater deficit but which today are progressing at an impressive rate. I would encourage people who sing the praises of the north also to recognize the prospect of the south. It is Baghdad itself and the center of the country which, unfortunately, seems frozen in time.

Michael Rubin is a resident scholar at the American Enterprise Institute, senior lecturer at the Naval Postgraduate School’s Center for Civil-Military Relations, and a senior editor of the Middle East Quarterly.


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