Why I Don’t Write Much About Iraq Anymore

Because it’s too depressing.

Longtime Readers will remember that I was against invading Iraq from the beginning. But even I didn’t think in my worst nightmares in 2002 that an invasion would turn out as badly as this one has. I made the mistake of assuming some degree of competence in our nation’s foreign policy leadership, which I think we can all agree in retrospect was unwarranted.

But that, as they say, is water under the bridge. The question that looms now is, how do we end this thing?

I don’t know. I honestly don’t.

None of the plans that I’ve heard floated strike me as having any realistic chance of keeping Iraq from sliding into chaos as we pull out.  (Of course, one could argue that Iraq is in chaos now. But more chaos is still a possibility.)

My prediction is that we’re going to hear a lot more about the so-called "soft partition" option once the nation gets serious about withdrawal in the fall. "Soft partition" is the plan favored by Senator Joe Biden and some other foreign affairs types in which Iraq would essentially be divided into three countries along ethnic lines. The Shia would get the south, the Sunni would get the center and west, and the Kurds would get the north; these divisions would be made based on which parts of the country have that ethnicity as the majority. And the U.S. forces would pull out of most of the country and settle down in the Kurdish region, in case they’re ever needed in the future. (The Kurdish region would be our base because the Kurds are the only Iraqis who view American intervention as an unalloyed good, so we’d be welcome there.)

And if you’re a Shia living in (Sunni) al-Anbar, say, or a Kurd living in (Shia) Nasiriyah?  Well, you get your ass out of there and into your group’s new homeland tuit suite, or you suffer the consequences.

This is actually not without precedent; the Partition of India in 1947 saw millions of people uprooted as British India was split into Hindu India and Muslim Pakistan. But that event was marked by serious violence, and left bitter hatreds that have set the two states at each others’ throats for sixty years. Even today there is still sectarian violence occurring there whose roots can be traced back to the Partition.

And there’s an additional wild card in any Iraqi partition: the Kurds. When "soft partition" is typically discussed, it includes a Kurdish state in the north, allied with the other two new states in some kind of loose confederation. And if there are any people in Iraq whom we owe something to, it’s the Kurds, considering how we happily armed and funded Saddam Hussein while he was brutally exterminating them in a campaign of genocide that killed tens of thousands — maybe even hundreds of thousands — of people.

So it might seem that giving the Kurds their own homeland would be the logical thing to do. Right? They certainly deserve it.

However, Iraq’s neighbor to the north, Turkey, has made it clear that they would take such a move extremely seriously. Turkey, you see, has its own Kurdish population, which has been striving for independence from Turkey just as Iraqi Kurds clamored to be free of Iraq. The Turkish government fears that the sudden appearance of a Kurdish homeland on Turkey’s southern border would start giving their own Kurds ideas — ideas of a unified Kurdistan made partly of land from Iraq and partly of land from Turkey.

(It doesn’t help matters any that the PKK — a group of Turkish Kurds who stage violent attacks on Turkish officials in the name of winning an independent Kurdistan — have used the Kurdish regions of Iraq as a safe haven for staging their operations.) 

Until now, we have been able to finesse this issue by keeping Iraq’s Kurds technically part of Iraq. But if we set them up with their own autonomous political unit — even one with the fig leaf of a powerless Iraqi confederation — the Turks will not be happy. So unhappy, in fact, that they have been making noises about invading Iraqi Kurdistan if the Kurds try to achieve anything resembling independence.  

Let’s say we went ahead and pulled back into the Kurdish region, and then the Turks invaded it. We guarantee the Kurds’ security, but Turkey is a NATO ally. Would we fight? On whose side? Just thinking about it gives me a headache.

There’s another Kurdish-related problem with soft partition, too: the city of Kirkuk. Take a look at this map of Iraq’s ethnic groupings; notice how Kirkuk sits right on the border between the Sunni region and the Kurdish region. This is a problem for two reasons:

  1. Kirkuk used to be a heavily Kurdish city, until Saddam decided to "Arabize" it by running the Kurds out and giving their homes to Iraqi Arabs (Sunnis and Shia). Estimates are that at least 100,000 Kurds were driven from the city.
  2. Kirkuk is swimming in oil. The Kirkuk area accounts for 40 percent of Iraq’s oil reserves and 70 percent of its natural gas reserves.

Keeping that in mind, answer this question: who, in a "soft partition" scenario, would get Kirkuk? The Kurds, whose claims to it are so emotionally powerful that some refer to it as "the Kurdish Jerusalem"? Or the Sunnis, who by today’s geography and ethnography have just as much a claim to its riches as the Kurds do?

(And remember, if you give it to the Kurds, that’s really going to piss off the Turks. A dirt-poor Kurdistan, they might be able to learn to live with. But a filthy rich Kurdistan thanks to all that oil?)

It’s a measure of just how starved for good options we are that "soft partition" still seems like the most practical way out, even with all these problems factored in. But nobody should delude themselves that it will be an easy process. The best that can be said for it is that it may be the best of a bad bunch of choices.