The United States involvement in what is still on the map as Iraq is currently being described as “multi-focused”; a better description would be that it’s a blind each-way bet, hedged just in case the colonial creation of Iraq ceases to exist.
The US is currently insisting that the government in Baghdad remains legitimate and national, and that all military decisions must go through it. Having dropped Nouri al-Maliki into the Prime Minister’s slot in 2008 — using reconstruction aid for blackmail — the US has now replaced him because he has hollowed out the national government, replacing Sunnis with trusted Shia groups, at one point having the US arrest his own defence minister.
This has been presented as some sort of wanton wrecking of a democratic government, which is absurd. The “democracy” was a sham — voting and purple fingertips don’t add up to a working system of themselves — and Maliki was simply protecting himself against a Sunni coup. That in turn would have been a defence against a total Shia seizure of power.
His successor, Haider al-Abadi, is from the same party, Dawa, and will continue the process, albeit slowly and more subtly. Which is all the US wants at the moment. It is simply waiting to see if this non-state can regain its western territory from Islamic State. Ground forces are already arriving, contrary to John Kerry’s pronouncement in Australia yesterday — 50 US “special advisers” landed in Baghdad, and more are on the way. Their first task is to secure the embassy and Green Zone, given that conflict between Maliki loyalists and the “official” Iraqi government has broken out.
Plan B would be to abandon Baghdad, and Iraq, to their fate. The defence against IS is hastening the process, since it is being conducted by militias based around the small sheikdoms (sometimes called, erroneously, tribes) that were never fully dissolved in the creation of Iraq in the 1920s. Such armed resistance will effectively reconstitute them as political units, further undermining the idea of Iraqi nationhood.
The US might have wanted to abandon Baghdad altogether anyway, but two things stay its hand — the open threat made by Maliki before his deposition (and possibly responsible for it) that if the US didn’t help, the Iraqis would invite the Iranians in, and the domestic fallout. The fall of Baghdad would give some juice to the idea that Obama lost a war that had been won by withdrawing too early. That would allow the Republicans to re-position themselves as the party of national security and prestige, and Christ almighty it is not impossible that John McCain would run for president again, and win.
But they might have to do it in order to fully shore up Iraqi Kurdistan. There’s a deal in place here too — the US is providing armed support on the grounds that Kurdistan not declare unilateral independence. Now the US is directly arming the peshmerga, the militia/army, made up of the militias of several Kurdish political parties. But the Americans are also studiously excluding another armed group, the PKK — even though the PKK are better organised, better led, and capable of real action on the ground.
It was the PKK, after all, who opened up the corridor through which the Yazidis escaped from IS, and it is the PKK who have been taking on IS in front-line action to regain lost territory. The reason isn’t hard to see: the PKK, Marxist-Leninist, are not only well-trained, but well-indoctrinated (in the best sense of the term) — they know what they’re fighting for, and they’re willing to die for a secular cause: Kurdish nationhood first, and wider human progress beyond that. The peshmerga, on the other hand, are made up of loyalist militias who were fighting each other not so long ago. Should the peshmerga crumble, it is the PKK who will provide the ultimate on-ground defence for Iraqi Kurdistan.
“Self-liberation by the Kurds destroys any chance of re-establishing the Western salvation narrative, whereby [the West] gets one last chance, Hollywood style, to make things right.”
The US recognises this de facto, which is why it is providing de facto logistical support to the PKK in maintaining a line between IS and the Yazidis. But for the US, the UK and Australia, the PKK remains a banned terrorist group. This ban should be lifted immediately, and if these governments are serious about the safety of the Iraqi Kurds — as opposed to protecting the government of Kurdistan, quite a different thing — they will do so. Whether the PKK ever deserved the “terrorist” handle is a question of definitions — they were a very violent insurgent guerrilla army, but they never targeted civilians randomly. Their listing was a sop to Turkey, as a North Atlantic Treaty Organisation member, at a time when it was offering the Kurds no national life or existence. Now that the PKK has abandoned the demand for an independent Kurdistan in Turkish territory — armed struggle continues but by splinter groups — it should be given its due as a full partner.
That won’t happen, not merely because the US and UK want to keep a control on Iraqi Kurdistan — or “next Israel” as the Turks wryly call it — but also because self-liberation by the Kurds destroys any chance of re-establishing the Western salvation narrative, whereby we get one last chance, Hollywood style, to make things right.
This narrative is already being trotted out, especially in the UK, where John McTernan — just about the last, and minor, New Labour stooge willing to stick his head above the parapet — has nominated the Kurds not merely as people in need of salvation, but as representatives of humanity. Boris Johnson, already angling to replace David Cameron, has trotted out pretty much the same line. It is aided by the utterly asinine and mendacious position that foreign policy should be decided on the basis of photos of grotesque acts of violence, a la the IS beheadings — trotted out whether cynically, a la John Kerry, or with genuine native stupidity, a la Caroline Overington on The Drum. The clowns arguing that these grotesque acts should steer the use of lethal force are the same people who were backing the “Free Syrian Army”, until they started to post photos of — surprise — beheading and cannibalism. This is the endless, narcissistic parade of white Westerners living off their emotions, and killing all for them, desperate for anything on the world stage that will give their failed political projects a hint of meaning.
Meanwhile, the perfect democratic, etc credentials of the Kurds will be news to the hundreds of journalists and activists they’ve imprisoned over the past decade, as they arrange a series of corrupt oil deals, but hey, you can’t pick and choose your poster-peshmerga these days. Kurdistan should get foreign assistance if the mass of Kurdish groups — including the PKK — want it, not because it gives some semblance of meaning and purpose to the decade-long disaster of the destruction of Iraq. For any real assistance to the Kurds, as a de facto state, will be the death-tap for Iraq.
That, if it comes, is coming pretty soon. It will be aided by events in Syria, where, largely unreported, Bashar al-Assad’s forces have closed in on Aleppo. If they should advance on it and take it, then the Syrian civil war is close to over, and Assad will turn his forces to push IS back into Iraq (and if he fails, IS will consolidate in northern Syria, split the country, and put the Kurdish autonomous region under pressure there). Should that happen, then it seems likely that Iraq, or part of it, will become the IS in a stable form, Kurdistan will have no alternative but to declare itself independent, and an Iranian-protected Shia republic will emerge in the east. And that will be the Iraq that was. We’ll then deal with an IS state as we deal with any normal territorial entity. Within a few years, it will be a de facto ally in squaring off against Iran.
In the meantime, we should recognise the PKK, and listen to what the Kurdish people want, and Sunni and Shia people too — for this is in danger of turning into yet another racist narrative, where the mildly more Western Kurds (who speak an Indo-European language, and have a more Western culture) become stand-in whites, and all Arabs become constructed as a seething mass of savages — and resist the endless temptation for the Tarzan version of foreign affairs, which has dominated the West for the past decade.