Foreign Policy Blogs

The Kurdistan Situation

Will the departure of U.S. forces derail recent development success?


Under Saddam Hussein, Iraq’s Kurdish population faced policies of genocide, forced assimilation, and ethnic cleansing. That changed after 2003 when Kurds emerged as a leading democratic force in the new Iraq. For several years, the Kurdistan Regional Government (KRG) has been a model of successful government and economic development compared with the political turmoil to the south. The regional capital in Erbil is home to shiny new department stores, shopping centers, banks, and a “spanking new airport that puts dinosaurs like New York’s Kennedy Airport to shame.” It is also less violent and less corrupt than the rest of Iraq. However, American withdrawal commitments, a build-up of the Iraqi armed forces, and regional border disputes pose problems for future stability in Kurdistan.

Investing in Kurdistan is currently more attractive for foreign companies as corruption and violence continue to plague the rest of Iraq. Oil revenues are responsible for much of recent growth, and the regional government is proving itself capable of turning these profits into successful development projects. Foreign direct investment has vastly increased in recent years, amounting to $39 billion in 2008. Compelling opportunities for foreign companies lie in the agriculture sector, transportation systems, oil and gas, and hydroelectric power-all of which are facilitated by Kurdistan’s proximity to Gulf, Iraqi, and Turkish markets. Last week, commercial cooperation discussions with a high-level delegation from the United Arab Emirates kicked off in Erbil. In June, London will play host to the Kurdistan Trade and Investment Conference featuring prominent speakers from the Kurdish government and delegations from international businesses. As the Conference’s homepage highlights, “Kurdistan is open for business.”

However, recent protests in Erbil highlight latent problems of government corruption and sectarian and political violence. Zardasht Osman, a 23 year old freelance journalist and student, was found dead earlier this month after he published several articles critical of the Kurdish Regional Government’s two ruling parties. Hundreds of people gathered in front of the parliament building to protest Osman’s death. The protestors, who accuse government security forces of the killing, highlight underlying tensions between the ruling party and a younger, more critical generation of Kurds. The killing of journalists is rare but, according to the Kurdistan Syndicate of Journalists, security forces intimidated or threatened critics of the ruling alliance 357 times in 2009. These tactics are still prevalent-the New York Times mentioned yesterday that the editor of an influential Kurdish magazine received a death threat via text message in the aftermath of Osman’s killing.

The unrest that has developed since Osman was murdered will not seriously threaten the Kurdish government’s stability or the flow of foreign investment in the region’s resources and infrastructure, but it does highlight underlying tensions in Kurdish politics. More worrying still is the potential for conflict between the regional government in Erbil and the national government in Baghdad, especially over the oil-rich city of Kirkuk.

The continuing drawdown of U.S. forces in Iraq is a sign of the growing capability of the Iraqi government to maintain security on its own. It also allows the many sectarian and regional groups more freedom to settle disputes without American mediation. Possibly the most contentious border dispute involves Kirkuk, whose oil revenues and governing responsibilities are claimed both by the Baghdad and Kurdish governments. Kurdish pashmerga troops and Iraqi forces have been on the verge of violence numerous times near the Green Line that separates Kurdistan from Iraq proper. Today, the American military keeps the peace along the Green Line, patrolling it together with Kurdish and Iraqi forces.

Tensions could be made worse by international contracts to re-equip the Iraqi armed forces. The U.S. has reportedly agreed to sell M-1 tanks and F-16 fighter aircraft while BAE Systems is edging out its competitors in the quest for a £1 billion contract to supply Baghdad with 24 Hawk trainer jets. These deals signal a vast increase in the capabilities of the Iraqi armed forces and leave the Kurds far behind. American protection has served the Kurds well in the past, but what will happen when U.S. forces withdraw? The Kurds will be woefully outmatched if Baghdad turns to intimidation tactics over the fight for Kirkuk’s oil reserves.

UPDATE: Turkish fighter jets bombed parts of northern Kurdistan last Friday, focusing on positions considered to be home to the Kurdistan Workers’ Party (PKK), which has led an armed struggle against Turkey for several decades. The airstrike involved around 20 planes and 50 targets. Al Jazeera puts the number of deaths over the past 25 years of Kurdish uprising against Turkey at 40,000. This is another destabilizing undercurrent in Kurdish politics and in the region – greater Kurdistan comprises a wide swathe of southeastern Turkey, northern Iran, Iraq, and Syria.

photo courtesy of the New York Times.