No Friends but the Mountains?

There is a great deal of discussion; amongst supporters, chastened hawks and ongoing opponents; of the US and its ally’s project in Iraq and what to do next. McQ has been posting up a storm on the issue and how hopeful/hopeless the situation is in Iraq. We can easily find hundreds more. However, a while back in discussing a certain someone I mentioned the Kurd’s, that partition should not be off the table, and that we have had some successes, at least for now.

I want to touch on that again. The Kurds have a saying:

Kurds have “no friends but the mountains,” or so an old saying goes. It’s hard for Westerners to grasp just how isolated these people feel. That partly explains their fanatical pro-Americanism: A friend, at last!

The question is, are we their friends? I would like to think so, and if we are what is the policy response? Partition? Continued efforts to keep the country together? If the rest of Iraq descends into civil war (actually, I would suggest it has been in one for some time) is salvaging a stable Kurdistan worth the effort? The sad matter is that for the most part all discussions of Iraq treat the question of Kurdistan as a nuisance. To many who oppose the war and continuing it they are an embarrassment. They are collaborators with the coalition or a responsibility that they do not want to admit that we might have. To others they are a pawn to be used in stitching together a settlement on Iraq’s future. They are an obstacle, because by wanting autonomy, or worse independence, they arouse fear in Turkey, Iran and other quarters, never mind that for the Kurds submerging them within the greater Iraq may mean a bloodbath. That they may not want to cooperate in such a “realist” scenario is considered intransigent and lamentable, though of course they are just interests to be weighed and bargained with to many.

It seems to me that in order to decide how we should approach the Kurds we have to know something about what they have accomplished. In many ways it is quite impressive. Michael Totten is guest blogging at Andrew Sullivan’s place (so maybe those who have given up on Sullivan himself should slide over there and check out Michael’s work, better yet, go to his site and hit the tip jar and support one of the best citizen journalists in the world) and he has pointed me to his piece over at Reason magazine on Kurdistan.

In a region where rule by reactionary clerics, gangster elites, and calcified military dictatorships is the norm, Iraqi Kurdistan is, by local standards, an open, liberal, and peaceful society. Its government is elected by a popular vote, competing political parties run their own newspapers, and the press is (mostly) free. Religion and the state are separate, and women can and do vote. The citizens here are tired of war, and they’re doing everything in their power to make their corner of the Middle East a normal, stable place where it’s safe to live, and to invest and build.

Kurdistan is a remarkably peaceful place by the standards of the Middle East, and especially Iraq.

Only 200 U.S. troops are stationed in Iraq’s Kurdistan region. Even those are mere tokens. The Kurdish armed forces, the Peshmerga (”those who face death”), are in charge of security. They do a remarkable job. Since Saddam Hussein’s Ba’athist regime was toppled, only a handful of violent attacks have taken place in their part of the country.

Granted: In 2004 a suicide bomber killed Sami Abdul Rahman, the deputy vice president of the Kurdistan Regional Government, along with more than 100 other people. Last year another suicide bomber self-detonated just outside the perimeter of the fake knock-off Sheraton hotel. Bits of flesh splattered the flowers near the front door.

Those were major attacks. But not much else has happened. Meanwhile, the rest of the Kurds “country” (if we can still think of Iraq as their country) is the most terrorized place in the world.

Should Kurdistan stay part of Iraq? I am not sure, but the Kurds want out.

If Middle Easterners had drawn the borders themselves, Iraq wouldn’t even exist. Blame the British for shackling Kurds and Arabs together when they created the post-colonial, post-Ottoman map. The Kurds do. Like the English, they refer to a toilet as W.C., but they insist that stands for “Winston Churchill.”


It’s hard to overstate just how long and how badly the Kurds have wanted out. Barzani’s father, the guerilla leader Moula Mustafa, once told Jim Hoagland of The Washington Post, “We can become your 51st state and provide you with oil.” That was back in 1973.


They have had their own de facto independent state here for the last 15 years. Most of Kurdistan north of Suleimaniya was protected by the U.S. and U.K. “no fly” zones during the interim between the first and second Gulf Wars. Young Iraqi Kurds have no memory of living under Saddam, no memory of ties to Baghdad, no memory of associating with Arabs, no memory of the oppression, the genocide, or the war. They see no point in creating ties with Baghdad that haven’t existed in living memory, especially when Baghdad is burning.

Can we truly have friends with a Muslim people in the Middle East?

Most Kurds are moderately conservative Sunni Muslims. But their religious tradition is historically more liberal and lenient than many others in the Middle East. I speak and read Arabic fluently, Abdulkadir told me. “I have read the Koran in its original language. I know it’s more flexible than most Arab imams admit.”

Many portray the Kurds as just a different group filled with terrorists of their own.

“We never terrorized anyone in any country,” he said. “We occupied no one’s land. We defended ourselves with humble military force against a powerful enemy. We consider our nation a protector of human rights.”

The mayor conveniently left out the terror campaign waged by the Marxist-Leninist Kurdistan Workers Party (PKK) in Turkey from the 1970s to the 1990s. The PKK was, after all, occasionally supported by some Kurdish groups in Iraq. Even so, several Kurds I spoke to thought the PKK was a strategic and moral disaster. “Abdullah Öcalan was our own Yasser Arafat,” one person told me, referring to the PKK’s former leader. “The difference between us and the Palestinians is that we learn from our mistakes.”

As for the Iraqi’s in the south, do they really care? Probably not, except for on the matter of Kirkuk and the oil beneath it. I found this interesting:


Many Arab Iraqis aren’t even aware that Saddam’s regime committed genocide against Kurds. “A gum-smacking teenage Arab girl from Baghdad recently visited the genocide museum here,” Rasool told me, referring to an old Ba’ath Party dungeon that has since been converted into a monument to the tortured and the dead. The girl had no idea hundreds of thousands were murdered. She had no idea 5,000 villages were completely annihilated. She didn’t know that thousands, including children, were tortured to death in the prison blocks.

“She broke down in tears,” Rasool said. “She only knew that Kurds were supposedly troublemakers. She said she was so sorry, that she was ashamed to be an Arab.”

Finally, what is life like for the Kurds, is prosperity possible?

Some Middle Eastern countries, (Egypt, for instance) are grim, depressing places that feel like they’re circling the drain. Iraqi Kurdistan is optimistic, full of hope, infused top to bottom with a go-go, build-build attitude. Vast tracts of lovely new housing developments are under construction all over the major cities. Suleimaniya, the region’s cultural capital, has doubled in population in the last three years. It’s up to around 800,000 now, although no one is sure how many people actually live there. Like all cities that undergo rapid urban migration, most of the newcomers live on the outskirts. Unlike most Third World cities that explode in population, the outskirts of Suleimaniya are more prosperous than the old inner city.

Urban beautification campaigns are under way everywhere. Freshly cut bricks are being laid into sidewalks. Enormous new parks, some so large you might need a car to get from one end to the other, can be found in both Erbil and Suleimaniya. Highways are well-signed and in perfect condition. Advertisements for DSL Internet connections line the road from Erbil to the resort town of Salahhadin. There are no statues of tyrants, dead or alive. Most of the statues I saw were of poets. It’s a different world from the shattered country below. It’s easy to imagine the place as a reasonably well-functioning conservative democracy, a moderately prosperous Utah of the Middle East.

This is a place that is what in our wildest dreams we hoped would be created. There is corruption, there is racism, and there are all kinds of issues, as with any place. Kurdistan may not be the democratic prize all of Iraq was hoped to be, but it is no small accomplishment what we have enabled them to achieve. Treating them in our policy discussions as a problem might be missing, that over time, they may be part of our solution, even if the larger project goes badly astray. George Bush and many are upset at the lack of gratitude; there is no shortage of it in Kurdistan. Whatever we do going forward I hope we can find a way to keep it. Go read the whole thing.

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12 Responses to “No Friends but the Mountains?”

  1. on 22 Aug 2006 at 10:45 pm PogueMahone


    It’s the Other Iraq.


  2. on 23 Aug 2006 at 12:29 am bains

    Lance, I think one of the biggest impediments to a autonomous Kurdistan is NATO member Turkey. In fact, were there not been such violent acrimony between the Turks and Kurds, the colition would have happily and openly used the potential of a Kurdish state to ‘encourage’ other Iraqis to be a bit more realistic in the government building process.

  3. on 23 Aug 2006 at 12:34 am Lance


    Thanks for the link.


    True, but I want to know what we do about it. If the rest of Iraq spirals out of control what do we do?

    By the way, I expect both of you to contribute to my list of suggested readings and other stuff.

  4. on 24 Aug 2006 at 8:51 pm PogueMahone

    By the way, I expect both of you to contribute to my list of suggested readings and other stuff.

    I would if I thought I had anything substantive to add. My “libertarian readings” are pretty much consistent with authors already referred.
    Besides, I’m too much the contrarian to endorse any one author. I can always find flaw – I consider it my call in life.

    In fact, if I were to have a debate with a carbon copy of myself, there is little doubt that I would attempt to shred my opponent’s beliefs.


  5. on 24 Aug 2006 at 8:59 pm Lance


    You don’t get off that easy. I didn’t say you had to agree with them, just who or what should be read, seen or experienced?

  6. on 24 Aug 2006 at 9:08 pm PogueMahone

    Okay, then. I’ve got something for you that just might fly under the radar.

    Check out Pixar’s The Incredibles.

    The libertarian undertones are present throughout the entire film. Here’s one of my favorites,

    Helen: I can’t believe you don’t want to go to your own son’s graduation.
    Bob: It’s not a graduation. He’s moving from the 4th grade to the 5th grade.
    Helen: It’s a ceremony!
    Bob: It’s psychotic! They keep creating new ways to celebrate mediocrity, but if someone is genuinely exceptional…

    Honestly, I love that film.


  7. on 24 Aug 2006 at 9:15 pm Lance


    That was Peters choice as well. Good call

  8. on 24 Aug 2006 at 9:44 pm PogueMahone

    Oh crap. I missed that. Peter must’ve commented after I checked it out. Sorry. Kudos to Peter.

    And here I thought I was being clever.


    I got nothin’

    Maybe I’ll think of something later.


  9. on 26 Aug 2006 at 12:31 am laughingman

    Partition is a non-starter.

    But the Iraqi Kurds and their Turkish and Iranian brothers would be a sideshow compared to the Shi’a in the south of Iraq, Iran, and eastern province of Saud. Declare an end to Iraq and wave bye to the entire middle-east/near-east/southwest-asia.

  10. on 02 Oct 2006 at 11:25 pm A Second Hand Conjecture » Those Pesky Kurds

    […] They are busy doing their level best to mess with the narrative of disaster all around. We have covered this before, but one small place is definitely better off because of our efforts in the Middle East. As before I suggest reading Michael J Totten’s work on Kurdistan and for a site with a more promotional approach, but filled with useful background, one can always visit Kurdistan, The Other Iraq. […]

  11. on 13 Dec 2006 at 7:06 am A Second Hand Conjecture » The Opinions of Reformers and in the Middle East, Part 2

    […] No Friends but the Mountains Those Pesky Kurds The Path of the Kurds: Lessons going forward […]

  12. on 22 Feb 2007 at 5:40 pm A Second Hand Conjecture » The other side of the Vietnam story and its implications for Iraq

    […] For those of us who have followed the lives and struggles of the people of Iraq, the flowering of Kurdistan, the dogged hopefulness of the Iraqi bloggers, the brave men who risk death we hear about from Bill Ardolino and Michael Yon, would it not be the same? For those who had evaded the war and come of age believing our country was somehow evil, even as they romanticized the intentions of the Communists, these few weeks brought denials of their own responsibility in the debacle, armchair criticisms of the South Vietnamese military, or open celebrations. At the Georgetown University Law Center where I was a student, the North’s blatant discarding of the promises of peace and elections contained in the 1973 Paris Accords, followed by the rumbling of North Vietnamese tanks through the streets of Saigon, was treated by many as a cause for actual rejoicing. […]

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