Peter Galbraith was part of the debate on Kurdish options which aired twice last week in the Commons . . .
Peter Galbraith, a long-term Kurdophile and former US Ambassador to Croatia, was uninhibited in advocating Kurdish independence. He has seen for himself the consequences of trying to hold countries together when nations inside want to leave. He said that the big mistake in Yugoslavia was trying to keep it intact when the Croatians and Slovenians wanted out. The west should have concentrated on preventing war rather than a false or forced territorial integrity.
Peter Galbraith of Townshend has spent much of the last 30 years working closely with Kurds in northern Iraq as that region has tried to create a path to independence from the rest of the country. A former diplomat, Galbraith is in Kurdistan working as an advisor to Kurdish leaders.
Galbraith is the author of the 2006 book, The End of Iraq: How American Incompetence Created A War Without End. He spoke with Vermont Edition about his perspective on the Islamic State in Iraq and Syria, or ISIS, the Maliki government and whether Iraq will remain a unified country.
Vermont State Senator Peter Galbraith provides an update from Iraq on the latest developments in that country.
This interview will be broadcast on VPR (Vermont Public Radio)– Vermont Edition at noon and at 7:00 p.m. on Thursday June 26, 2014. You can go to Vermont Edition at http://digital.vpr.net/programs/vermont-edition to listen to this interview. This segment is after “Rental Discrimination by the Numbers”.
“The United States should stop asking the Kurds to help save Iraq because Iraq is not saveable, and, if it were, the Kurds would not want to save it. Instead, the critical U.S. interest has now become stopping the Islamist State of Iraq and Syria. If ISIS is not defeated, there will be in western Iraq and eastern Syria a transnational terrorist state controlling large cities and with vast recruiting potential. Seen in this context, U.S. diplomatic recognition of an independent Kurdistan has become a very small price to pay.”
It’s a stark reminder — despite the hand-wringing of a foreign-policy establishment that diplomat and scholar PeterGalbraith rightly calls “professionally committed to the perpetual existence of every country on the map” — that Iraq as it is presently constituted has had only a brief and haphazard existence.
“They are not reconcilable,” said Peter Galbraith, former US diplomat and author of the book “The End of Iraq.” “There is no common ground. Both sides want to run Iraq and each side wants to exterminate the other.”
Peter Galbraith, writing in 2007, put it simply: “Let’s face it: partition is a better outcome than a Sunni-Shiite civil war.” Galbraith, a longtime U.S. diplomat, had long advocated an even further devolution of power than federalization. Asked about recent events, he was unequivocal. “It’s the end of Iraq,” Galbraith, now a state senator in Vermont, said. “It is the breakup of Iraq along the lines of three communities. It isn’t just that ISIS came into the Sunni areas with a small number of really dedicated fighters who were able to defeat a much larger and demoralized Iraqi army, it is that the population is increasingly hostile to the Iraqi army, seeing it as Shiite army.”
Only an independent Kurdistan can save what’s left of Iraq from becoming a terror state.
By PETER GALBRAITH
June 17, 2014
The Iraqi Army is not a plausible partner. Providing more weapons to a disintegrating army that turned over U.S. military equipment worth hundreds of millions of dollars to radical Islamist terrorists does not make sense. The Obama administration has indicated that it would like to talk to Iran about a possible joint response to the threat from ISIS. Since the United States spent north of $1.5 trillion on a war that installed Iran’s closest allies as Iraq’s leaders, there is poetic justice in having Iranian troops fight to save them. But expanding Iran’s influence in Iraq clearly is not a preferred course of action for any American administration.
Obama does, however, have one potential ally with boots on the ground in Iraq. It is one of the most pro-American places on the planet and its soldiers are well-disciplined, highly motivated and prepared to die for their country. That place is Kurdistan, nominally part of Iraq but with no love for that country. Kurdistan is not yet independent but may soon be.
Kurdistan’s military, called the peshmerga, is ideally situated to combat ISIS. The Iraqi Army—or what is left of it—is hundreds of miles from Mosul; the peshmerga hold the Kurdish eastern half of the city. Although ISIS readily routed the Iraqi Army from the west bank, it chose not to tangle with far more formidable Kurds. President Obama can only order air strikes if he has good intelligence, controllers who can identify targets and troops who can follow-up on the ground. Only the Kurds can do this.
Over the past two decades, I have talked to Iraq’s Kurdish leaders about ways to maximize their autonomy, including offering advice in connection with the negotiation of the 2005 Iraqi Constitution. But, however much autonomy the Kurds enjoy, their real dream is to have an independent Kurdish state.
Three factors have kept Kurdistan in Iraq to date: a lack of sufficient financial resources, an unresolved dispute with Baghdad over territory and international opposition to the break up of Iraq. Since 2004, Kurdistan has been developing its own oil resources (I also had a role in bringing in the first oil companies) and has now built a pipeline to Turkey through which it exports Kurdish oil, over Baghdad’s opposition. Until last week, Kurdistan’s production was not adequate to finance the operations of an independent state. But then the Iraqi Army fled the disputed city of Kirkuk and the adjacent super-giant Kirkuk oil field. The peshmerga, who had co-existed uneasily with the Iraqi Army in Kirkuk for a decade, now fully control the city and the Kurdish parts of the province. As a result, there is no longer a territorial dispute with Baghdad. For the first time, a Kurdish government controls all Kurdish territory in Iraq. And with the Kirkuk oil field, Kurdistan now has the financial resources for independence.
Ten years ago, the United States and Turkey opposed Kurdistan exercising even a fraction of the autonomy it has today. Bush administration plans for postwar Iraq (to the extent that there was any planning at all) envisioned Iraq as a centralized federal state of 18 governorates—where there would be Kurdish majority provinces but no Kurdistan government. Turkey had long opposed Kurdistan’s autonomy for fear of the example it might set for Turkey’s 15 million Kurds.
Today, Kurdistan and Turkey are the closest of allies. Turkey is Kurdistan’s most important trading partner and Turkish companies are the largest investors in Kurdistan. Turkish intelligence and military officials consult regularly with their Kurdish counterparts. Turkish Prime Minister Recep Tayyip Erdogan has a close personal relationship with KRG President Massoud Barzani and a poisonous one with Iraqi Prime Minister Nouri al-Maliki. In advance of Turkish elections, Erdogan and Barzani jointly addressed a large public rally in Diyabakir, the largest city in Turkey’s Kurdish southeast and Kurdistan is playing a constructive role in support of Erdogan’s effort to make peace with Turkish Kurdish rebels.
Until last week, Turkey clearly preferred that Kurdistan remain part of Iraq, although in recent years the Turkish Foreign Ministry has changed its language on the subject. Ten years ago, Iraq’s unity was “a red line” for Turkey; in recent years it has been “preferable.” Today, Turkey may well see an independent, secular and pro-western Kurdistan as a far better neighbor than an Iraq comprising an ISIS-dominated Arab north at war with a sectarian Shiite regime in the south.
Similarly, U.S. views on Iraq’s unity have evolved. While the State Department takes the official line that it wants reconciliation among Iraq’s leaders, senior officials are, more and more, acknowledging privately that the independence of Kurdistan is inevitable. In fine bureaucratic manner, they simply prefer it not happen on their watch.
Nonetheless, Kurdistan’s independence is probable in the near future. Should ISIS take Baghdad, Kurdistan will declare itself independent the next day. The mostly secular Kurds would have no truck with a fanatical Islamist regime.
Even before ISIS emerged as a major threat, the Kurds doubted they had partners in Iraq. Prime Minister Maliki has for years refused to implement constitutional provisions giving Kurdistan control over its own oil and requiring a referendum on the status of Kirkuk and other territories disputed between the Kurds and the central government. Maliki’s decision earlier this year to withhold Kurdistan’s constitutionally guaranteed share of the Iraqi budget enraged the Kurds, who started discussing holding a referendum on Kurdistan’s future. Even if ISIS advances no further than the Sunni parts of Iraq, the Kurds do not see a future for Iraq or for themselves as Iraqis.
Until last week, the Obama administration’s Kurdistan diplomacy focused mostly on trying to patch up—or at least paper over—the quarrel between Erbil and Baghdad over oil and the budget. But if the United States is to roll back ISIS, it needs Kurdish help. Kurdistan has an obvious interest in staying out of a war between Iraq’s Sunnis and Shiites and, so far, ISIS has mostly refrained from attacking the Kurdish areas.
If the United States wants the peshmerga to join the fray, it will have to pay a price. Operationally, the Kurds need humanitarian assistance for the hundreds of thousands of Iraqis who fled to Kurdistan the last week as well as for the quarter-million Syrian refugees already on Kurdish territory. The peshmerga will need sophisticated U.S. weaponry of the type provided to the Iraqi Army (and now in the hands of ISIS).
Kurdistan will also want something to fight for, and that is independence. To convert their current de facto independence into full independence, the Kurds need diplomatic recognition. And this the United States can provide.
So, here is the basis of a bargain: U.S. recognition of an independent Kurdistan in exchange for peshmerga troops joining a U.S. air campaign against ISIS and helping to stabilize what used to be Iraq. While there will be hand-wringing within our foreign policy establishment (a group professionally committed to the perpetual existence of every country on the map), the United States would in fact be giving only a little to get a lot. Iraq has broken apart and is no more capable of being put back together than Yugoslavia was in 1991. President Obama gamely talks about reconciliation among Iraqis, but this will not happen. There are no changes that Maliki—or any successor Shiite leader—can make that will satisfy the Sunnis. The Sunnis don’t want a more friendly Shiite leader; they want the Shiites out of power altogether. ISIS wants to exterminate the Shiites.
The United States should stop asking the Kurds to help save Iraq because Iraq is not saveable, and, if it were, the Kurds would not want to save it. Instead, the critical U.S. interest has now become stopping ISIS. If ISIS is not defeated, there will be in western Iraq and eastern Syria a transnational terrorist state controlling large cities and with vast recruiting potential. Seen in this context, U.S. diplomatic recognition of an independent Kurdistan has become a very small price to pay.