Iraq has improved immeasurably since the dark days of 2006 when hundreds were being killed every day by al Qaeda bombs and Sadrist death squads in Baghdad. But terrorist bombs continue to go off intermittently, and lingering instability and ineptitude still block economic development. Indeed, the political situation has recently taken a turn for the worse, with Iraq’s political parties at a stalemate in their quest to form a new government more than two months after parliamentary elections were held.
Driving down Baghdad’s dingy streets, as I did recently as part of a delegation from the Council on Foreign Relations, one is sometimes tempted to despair. What chance is there, the visitor may reasonably wonder, that the capital of this oil-rich country will ever be truly peaceful, not to mention as luxurious as Doha, Dubai, or other boomtowns to the south on the Persian Gulf?
A short trip north to the Kurdish region, where 4.5 million of Iraq’s 30 million people live, offers a different, more hopeful perspective. Known as the Kurdish Regional Government, or KRG, this area feels as safe as it gets in the Middle East. Terrorist attacks aren’t a concern. Americans can wander around without body armor or bodyguards—even if they’re in uniform. Don’t try it in Baghdad. That’s a tribute to the effectiveness of the Kurdish intelligence service, the Asayesh, and to their peshmerga troops (“those who face death”). It also has something to do with Kurdish attitudes toward the United States. There is none of the lingering resentment that is still prevalent in the rest of Iraq; Kurds are among the most pro-American people on the planet. They regularly and profusely thank American visitors for liberating them from Saddam Hussein’s murderous regime—not something one often hears from Iraqi Arabs.
There are also many sights in Erbil that you don’t see in the rest of Iraq. They include a spanking new airport that puts dinosaurs like New York’s Kennedy Airport to shame, and new shopping malls, banks, stores, homes, and hotels that would not be out of place in Europe. Erbil, the capital of the KRG, seems a world away from the rest of Iraq even though it is located only 50 miles from Mosul, the most violent city in the entire country and the only one where Al Qaeda in Iraq remains a major threat. Almost all of the development has occurred in the last few years, filling once-empty fields with modern buildings.
The Kurdish region’s prosperity is fueled by oil. The KRG actually has considerably less oil than the rest of Iraq. It is entitled to just 17 percent of Iraqi oil revenues. So why is the KRG so much richer today? The difference is that the KRG government has gotten its act together and is much further along in attracting foreign investment, exploiting its natural wealth, and spending the proceeds.
There was nothing inevitable about this. Kurdish politics in the past have been as violent and divisive and dysfunctional as in the rest of Iraq. As recently as the 1990s, the two major Kurdish factions—Massoud Barzani’s Democratic Party of Kurdistan and Jalal Talabani’s Patriotic Union of Kurdistan—were fighting one another. Barzani even sought help from Saddam Hussein, while Talabani turned for assistance to Iran. But eventually these two old adversaries realized they could do better by joining hands and splitting the spoils of an ever-growing economy. In 1998 they signed an American-brokered peace treaty in Washington. In 2002, just prior to the U.S. invasion of Iraq, they created a joint parliament in Erbil uniting the Barzani-controlled areas (Dohuk and Erbil) with Talabani’s preserve (Sulaymaniyah). The Kurdish compact, which has deepened over the years, allows Barzani predominance in the KRG while Talabani represents Kurdish interests in Baghdad as president of Iraq. This is a rare instance of veteran guerrilla fighters hanging up their guns and concentrating on peaceful development, making the kind of leap that Yasser Arafat never could.
Taking advantage of their newfound autonomy, the Kurds have instituted pro-growth policies that encourage outside investment, something that is still viewed with great suspicion in the rest of Iraq, where the socialist legacy of the Baathist state lingers even among the most strident anti-Baathists.
Kurdish leaders have also shown geopolitical wisdom by not seeking independence as demanded by most of their people. They realize that, surrounded by hostile states, an independent Kurdistan could not flourish. Instead of confronting its neighbors, the Kurdish Regional Government is working with them. Its most notable success has come with Turkey, which in 2007 was threatening to invade the KRG to root out rebels from Turkey’s own Kurdish community, the PKK (Kurdistan Workers Party). Today the KRG and Turkey have flourishing trade ties and expanding diplomatic links. The Turkish government has even invited Massoud Barzani to visit in his capacity as president of the Kurdish Regional Government, whose very existence the Turks only recently recognized.
Another sign of the Kurds’ sagacity is their attitude toward Israel. In Iraq proper, visiting the “Zionist entity” is still considered a death-defying feat to be undertaken only by the extremely brave or foolish. (Mithal al Alusi, a member of parliament who has visited Israel, was charged with visiting an “enemy state,” and his sons were killed in a terrorist attack.) But the Kurds, who are secular Sunni Muslims, are notably pro-Israeli in their attitudes. If it would not risk a major rift with the rest of Iraq, they would be happy to establish formal ties with the Jewish state. As it is, they maintain informal links. The Barzanis, the first family of the KRG, have a branch in Israel with whom they keep in contact. “It would be good for Iraq to have good relations with Israel,” a senior Kurdish politician told me.
The record is hardly perfect. Heavy-handed Kurdish attempts to extend their influence across northern Iraq have caused a backlash among Arabs and created an opening for extremist groups. In some areas they have been guilty of anti-Arab ethnic cleansing in an attempt to make up for anti-Kurdish campaigns under Saddam Hussein. Also, although an opposition party called Gorran (“Change”) is growing in influence after its members split from Talabani’s camp, political intimidation—even, on occasion, violent intimidation—still occurs. Recently, for instance, journalists accused Kurdish security forces of killing a young writer who was critical of the Barzanis and other powerful clans. Deplorable as they are, such events are also rare—certainly less prevalent in the KRG than in the rest of Iraq.
So too with corruption, which remains a problem in the KRG (its leading politicians are fabulously wealthy), but far less so than in the rest of Iraq. One old Iraq hand suggested to me that payoffs to politicians in the KRG run only 20 percent of a contract as opposed to 50 percent or more in the rest of the country. More important, Kurdish politicians deliver results; they don’t just pocket the proceeds and leave their constituents without basic services. The KRG might be seen as a monument to the kind of “honest graft” that built America’s major cities, as opposed to the kleptocratic practice too often evident among Iraqi Arab politicians.
The Kurdish model suggests what Iraq can become in a few years—but only if it continues to improve in fighting crime and terrorism, reducing corruption, and developing the rule of law. Much of this is outside American control, but we can have a major impact on the security situation. A key component of Kurdish success, after all, has been American protection, offered in one form or another since 1991, when the George H.W. Bush administration proclaimed a “no fly” zone to keep Saddam’s aircraft from bombing the Kurds. American planes were still patrolling the no-fly zone at the time of the U.S. invasion in 2003. Some kind of long-term protection will be necessary in the rest of Iraq, which must deal in the future with hostile neighbors and suspicious sectarian factions. As it stands, however, the last American troops are supposed to withdraw on December 31, 2011.
That is a worrisome prospect because Iraqi political disputes can still engender violence. Nowhere is the danger greater than along the Green Line separating the KRG from the rest of Iraq. The boundary remains disputed, with the Kurds keen to assert their sovereignty over the oil-rich city of Kirkuk and other parts of northern Iraq. The Kurdish peshmerga and Iraqi troops have been on the verge of gunfire numerous times, pulling back only as a result of American mediation. Today U.S. troops patrol the Green Line in cooperation with the peshmerga and Iraqi forces.
If U.S. troops are withdrawn before land disputes between the KRG and Iraq proper are resolved, Kurdish politicians warn that the result could be war. That is an especially worrisome possibility because the United States has agreed to sell the Iraqi armed forces M-1 tanks and F-16 fighters. We have a moral and strategic obligation to ensure that this high-tech hardware is never used against our Kurdish friends. That argues for keeping a small U.S. force in Iraq after 2011, perhaps 10,000 to 15,000 troops and trainers. The Kurds, for one, would love to host a U.S. military base. The Obama administration should push for that once a new government takes power in Baghdad and negotiations begin on a new Iraqi-American strategic accord to take the place of the one negotiated by President Bush and Nouri al Maliki in 2008.
Max Boot is the Jeane J. Kirkpatrick senior fellow for national security studies at the Council on Foreign Relations and a contributing editor to The Weekly Standard.