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.
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.