Kurdish fiasco an ‘America first’ cause

WHEN PATRICK HENRY vowed to “live free or die,” he couldn’t have known about today’s Kurdish dilemma in Iraq. Two weeks ago 92 percent of Kurdish voters in northern Iraq voted in a referendum to create an independent state, consisting of the three Iraqi provinces where they’re in a majority. Unfortunately for them, the outcome has been, not independence, but curbs on their freedom to travel, economic hardships, and political isolation in the region. Now very few Iraqi Kurds seem ready to risk further hardships pushing for independence, let alone die fighting for the cause.

Iraq already has banned air travel in and out of its semi-autonomous “Kurdistan.” No Iraqi government can expect to stay in power if it were to allow the dismemberment of the country. And the Turkish government has announced it’s going to shut off the oil pipeline of the Iraqi Kurdish Regional Government (KRG), which runs through Turkey, carrying 5.5 million barrels of crude oil daily and providing more than 90 percent of the KRG’s annual budget.  Ankara fears that the secession of a Kurdish enclave in Iraq would embolden its own Kurdish militants, who have been carrying on a terrorist campaign since 1984 to create an independent Kurdish state in southeastern Turkey.  Turkish President Recep Tayyip Erdogan, like the Baghdad government, had urged the KRG over and over not to hold the referendum.

Two days ago Baghdad announced that it’s now going to host a summit among Iran, Turkey and Iraq to decide on further measures to punish the KRG for its secessionist move.

Poor Iraqi Kurds! Their grievances remind me of a Mexican official’s response to President Trump’s demand that Mexico pay his proposed wall along its boundary with the United States. An aide to President Enrique Peña Nieto told the Trump administration, facetiously of course, that Mexico would be happy to pay for the wall provided it’s “built along the northern boundaries of New Mexico and Arizona.” He was obviously alluding to the fact that those American sates used to be part of Mexico until the United States grabbed them by force.

Kurds in Iraq – and in Turkey, Iran and Syria – have a similar grievance. In reality, their plight as minorities in those Middle Eastern countries originated in the imperialist machinations of a century ago. When France and Britain were gobbling up territories of the defeated Ottoman Empire at the end of World War I, they promised the Kurds an autonomous statelet, which they said could eventually become an independent nation-state. That commitment was mentioned in the 1920 Treaty of Sevres. Little did the Kurds know that oil under their soil would turn out to be the stumbling block to their independence, just as resources in many other developing countries had cost theirs. Lure of resources drove European powers into invading and colonizing most of the non-Western world.

In the 1920s as Britain was settling down in its Iraqi colony (bestowed on it under the League of Nations mandate), the British-owned Iraq Petroleum Company struck oil near Kirkuk, in the middle of the Kurds’ “promised land” of an autonomous state. Out the window went the British and French pledge for a “Kurdistan.” The two imperial powers now decided to split the more resourceful part of the centuries-old Kurdish homeland between the British colony of Iraq and neighboring French colony of Syria and dole out the remainder of the territory to Turkey and Iran.

Thus 35 million Kurds have become the world’s largest ethnic community without a state of their own, languishing as minorities in four states and refugees in many others. During trips to Iraq and Turkey, the word I often heard Kurds mention as the source of their quandary was “betrayal” – betrayal by British and French colonial powers. Throughout the century that followed the fourfold partition of their land Kurds in one country or another have struggled off and on for a national homeland or homelands.

In Turkey bloody terrorist attacks by the Kurdistan Workers’ Party (PKK) and bloodier government reprisals have cost nearly 40,000 lives in three decades. In Iraq separatist uprisings by the Kurdish Peshmerga militia led to equally brutal government crackdowns, including a chemical attack in the Halabja village by the Saddam Hussein government.

Thanks to America’s need for the Kurdish Peshmerga militia to fight its wars against the Saddam government and then against the Islamic State, the United States has helped set up Iraqi Kurdistan with wide local autonomy.  But Washington never agreed to support Iraqi Kurds’ secessionist scheme.  In northern Syria Kurds have taken advantage of the five-year-long Syrian civil war to carve out a territory they call Rojava, which they aspire to turn into an autonomous or independent Kurdish stare. The Syrian government of President Bashar al-Assad is also perturbed by the Rojava campaign and the adrenaline it could get from the KRG referendum in Iraq. Last week Damascus denounced the KRG for its referendum. In Iran Kurdish separatism is less assertive than in any of the three other countries. But Tehran, too, worries about a spillover of the Kurdish ferment in its neighborhood, and the Iranian government has decried the referendum in northern Iraq. The United States and several European countries have also been concerned that a Kurdish independence movement in Iraq could threaten the stability of the state system in that region. The Trump administration repeatedly warned KRG President Masoud Barzani not to stage the referendum.

Barzani couldn’t but have known that in the teeth of the strong regional and international opposition his referendum would open a Pandora’s box, instead of promoting Kurdish independence. True, the Kurds lost their territories to the four states against their will, just as Mexicans lost part of their land to America against theirs. But plenty of water has flowed down the Euphrates and Mississippi rivers since America and the four Middle Eastern countries took shape and evolved as nation-states.  The aide to the Mexican president can’t expect to wrest Texas, New Mexico or Arizona back from America anymore than Kurds in Iraq – or Turkey, Syria or Iran – stand a reasonable chance of tearing up those nation-states to create one or more independent Kurdish states.

The Kurds could achieve their goal of national independence in one of two ways: by the force of their own arms or through the military or diplomatic intervention of a major power or powers. Bangladesh, South Sudan and East Timor gained their independence in one or the other of the two processes. But Kurds in none of the four countries have the armed capability to secede, and support for their cause in the international community is zero (Oops! I forgot the vociferous Israeli support for the KRG’s independence project).

You would wonder why, then, the KRG president went ahead with his ill-fated referendum. I think his fast dwindling support base among Iraqi Kurds has something to do with it. Barzani was elected KRG president by the regional legislature in 2005. Since then he has turned into an autocrat, ruling the territory without a mandate since his term of office expired in August 2015. His blatant nepotism, rampant corruption in his government and a sharp downturn in the region’s economy have heightened his people’s discontent against him.  But the aspiration for an independent homeland still animates most Kurdish minds and hearts in Iraq. If he held the referendum to shore up his popularity among Kurds, their overwhelming yes vote shows that he made a good bet. But sadly, their euphoria was short-lived.  Media reports show that it already has died down and most Kurds are worried, instead, about the onset of the economic and political crisis, spawned by the neighboring states’ virulent reactions to the referendum.

I think the international community should get to work to help resolve the Kurdish imbroglio. The United States, which has used Iraqi Kurds in two major wars, is morally obligated to step in to pull them out of the quagmire. The Kurdish predicament also offers the Trump administration an opportunity to get away from its own quagmire created by the president’s reckless stands on the climate change accord, Iran nuclear deal, North Korea, Venezuela, Cuba, and other issues. He should get Secretary of State Rex Tillerson to take the lead in an international initiative to bring about a reconciliation between Iraqi Kurdistan and its neighbors. Because such an effort would bolster America’s standing in the world, it would be part of Trump’s “America first” agenda.

  • Mustafa Malik, an international affairs commentator in Washington, hosts this blog.

 

 

 

 

No ‘cakewalk’ to Pyongyang, please

ON WEDNESDAY I was about to head out to a seminar on cyber security at Wilson Center in Washington when I peeked into the Internet to check the latest news.

“U.S. quietly plans to occupy North Korea after war,” a banner headline in London’s The Sun newspaper screamed at me. I remembered that President Trump and Defense Secretary Jim Mattis had said, too, that military action against North Korea is a  possibility.

The story led to a Newsweek link. Clicked, it opened a piece in which German Foreign Minister Sigmar Gabriel was quoted as saying that a war between the United States and North Korea “could be deadliest conflict in history,” more catastrophic than the Second World War.

The seminar was about security threats from North Korea, China and Russia.  James Lewis, vice president of Center from Strategic and International Studies (CSIS) in Washington, talked about a “deterrent” against cyber threats from Pyongyang.

I told him that North Koreans had been saying that their nukes are meant to be “a deterrent against American invasion.”  I also mentioned that I had heard Sunni Arab leaders in Iraq lamenting that if Saddam Hussein had a few nuclear weapons he could’ve “deterred the U.S. invasion” of 2003, sparing both Iraq and America the “unnecessary and catastrophic war.”

Lewis nodded, apparently signaling that he was aware of it.

Continuing, I inquired if Iranians wanted to have “a couple of nukes,” which they insisted they never did, won’t those warheads also serve as a deterrent against Israeli or U.S. military action? I couldn’t conceive, I added, of Iranians wanting to “commit national suicide” by initiating a nuclear conflict with Israel or the United States.

I asked the CSIS executive what he thought of Kim Jong-un’s reasoning for a nuclear deterrent against a U.S. invasion.

The panelist didn’t answer my question, but warned, instead, that North Koreans “would be deluding themselves” if they thought that a few nukes “would give them immunity” against the U.S. military power. The United States could “get rid of the problem” posed by Kim, regardless of his nukes.

Was he hinting at a possible regime change in North Korea? I wondered.

Explaining the reason America was determined to prevent North Korea and Iran from acquiring nuclear arms, Lewis said, such weaponry could tempt those countries “to evade their responsibilities under international law, to violate international law,” and threaten their neighbors and international security.

I thought of asking him the obvious question of whether the United States and other nuclear powers weren’t potentially violating international law over and over because they sat on nuclear stockpiles.  Nuclear arsenals have given them the ability to commit illegal aggression against non-nuclear countries. Also, they have equipped them with veto powers at the U.N. Security Council, practically shielding them against accountability for violations of international law. But I didn’t want to get into an argument with the panelist.

Martin C. Libicki from the U.S. Naval Academy, another panelist, picked up on my comment about Iran. He said Iranians would be “right to think that Israel can do things with its [nuclear] capabilities that its neighbors can’t.”  But the Israelis needed that capability for their national security, added the professor of cyber security studies.

Their comments reminded me of a complaint that my Pakistani mentor had made to me several times in the early 1970s. Nurul Amin was prime minister and later vice president of Pakistan, and I worked as his press aide.  He would lament to me about America’s “blatant and illegal” military interventions, and often regime change, in Iran, Lebanon, Vietnam, Congo, Ghana and elsewhere. “Independence from colonial rule lets us [Asian and African nations] have our own brown and black rulers,” he would say, “as long as we toe their lines.”

On the subway train back home from Wilson Center, it occurred to me that Nurul Amin’s comment of the Cold War era doesn’t quite apply to the new world we live in. Yes, in 1953 the CIA under the Eisenhower administration could have Iran’s democratically elected government of Prime Minister Mohammed Mosaddeq easily overthrown in a military coup. But by 1979 Iran’s Islamic revolutionaries bundled out the brutal pro-American monarchy of Muhammad Riza Pahlavi, whom the Americans had installed in Tehran.

In 1958 the Iraqi army overthrew the pro-Western monarchy in Iraq while Muslim insurgents in neighboring Lebanon rose up against the pro-Western Christian minority government of President Camille Chamoun. Chamoun asked for U.S. help, and the Eisenhower administration immediately rushed some 14,000 troops to Lebanon. The Muslim insurgents ran for cover and the invading American troops hit the beaches in Beirut.

“We drank a lot,” as the U.S. Marines corporal Thomas Zmecek would recall later. “We were provided with swimming trunks and swam with the daughters [of Christian hosts] and had a grand time.”

Twenty-five years later a U.S.-led multinational force was stationed in Lebanon to intervene in a brewing civil war between the Israeli-backed Christian forces and Syrian-backed Muslim and Druze activists. When opposition forces threatened the presidency of Maronite Christian Amin Gemayel, the Reagan administration, prodded by the Israelis and Secretary of State George P. Schultz (against the strenuous objection of Defense Secretary Casper Weinberger) ordered an American contingent to rush to West Beirut to protect the Gemayel regime. But the new Lebanese generation didn’t go into hiding as had their parents and uncles in 1958. They were infuriated by the America intervention in their internal affairs and began to mobilize to resist it. But one of them, a Shiite Muslim, spared them a prolonged fight. He went on a suicide mission, piling up explosives onto a truck and detonating it at a U.S.-French Marines barracks in Beirut, killing 241 American and 58 French servicemen. That led to the withdrawal of U.S. forces from Lebanon.

American politicians and bureaucrats have had difficulty grasping the changed social ethos and worldviews of contemporary generations of post-colonial societies. Many people who grew up under European colonial rule or in the shadow of the colonial era were tolerant of Western military interventions and hegemony. Their children are not. Born in independent countries and exposed to Western values of freedom and democracy, disseminated by myriad communications media, they’re mostly allergic to foreign domination and presence of foreign troops on their lands.

American neocons and Cold War retirees who planned the Iraq war were ostriches with their heads buried in the sand, without having a clue about the dynamics of the Muslim youth of the day. During the run-up to the war neoconservative security expert Ken Adelman proclaimed he was “reasonably certain” that the Iraqis would greet invading U.S. troops “as liberators.” He probably was musing over Lebanese Christians reveling at the arrival of U.S. troops in 1958. Or maybe images of Koreans hailing U.S. Marines under Gen. Douglas MacArthur after their heroic victory in Battle of Inchon was flashing back on his mind.

But in 2003 Iraq had a fiercely independent-minded breed of Arabs who, despite their sectarian feuds, were deeply hostile to foreign domination, as I had observed during three trips in previous years. Their resistance to the U.S. invasion led to the rise of the Islamic State, sectarian blood-letting, unraveling of the Iraqi state, and the security of America and the West.

I’m not sure that the United States can launch a successful invasion of North Korea. Unlike Iraq, that Communist country is believed to have between six and 16 nuclear weapons, most or some of which are in locations unknown to Americans.  “It is one of the hardest, if not the hardest, [intelligence] collection nations that we have to collect against,” Daniel Coats, the director of national intelligence, told Congress in May. Even if America can succeed in taking out all of Kim’s nukes before an invasion, which is extremely unlikely, I doubt that North Koreans would hail American invaders as “liberators” anymore than did Iraqis.  North Koreans are extremely xenophobic people, usually suspicious of foreigners.  A U.S. occupation force would very likely get bogged down in the Hermit Kingdom for years, which the war-wary American public is unlikely to accept.

If the Trump administration blunders into an invasion of North Korea, I’d be as concerned about the catastrophe it would spawn for Americans and Koreans as is Gabriel, the German foreign minister.

– Mustafa Malik, an international affairs columnist in Washington, hosts this blog.

Terrorism feeding on U.S. amnesia

WHILE AMERICA MOURNS the slaughter of 49 innocent people in Orlando, Florida, by an ISIS-inspired Muslim man, the CIA director warns that more of this kind of tragedy may be in store for the West. The Islamic State of Iraq and al-Shams and other terrorist groups are throwing evermore killers into the West, John Brennan said.

He also told the Senate Intelligence Committee that ISIS already “has a large cadre of Western fighters who could potentially serve as operatives for attacks in the West.”

What’s going on!

Six weeks ago the man who leads the State Department’s counterterrorism programs assured us, a group of journalists, that while “it’s understandable that [people] would be worried” about terrorist attacks in America, “chances of you dying in a terrorist attack are very low.” Justin Siberell said the United States has put in place programs in many countries, which are “addressing the roots of radicalization [of Muslim youths] and disrupting the recruitment into terrorist organizations,” and that supposedly had lessened the threat from ISIS and other terrorist groups.

When I mentioned to Siberell that I saw units of ISIS and Al Qaeda mushrooming in different countries, he said those were “highly localized” events, and that the Obama administration was working with the countries involved to “develop the tools” that would “help governments better address these threats.”

The diplomat apparently was trying, pathetically, to cast a smokescreen around the administration’s dismal failure to “destroy” anti-Western terrorist groups that it promised over and over to accomplish. That failure was glaring at us in Orlando, San Bernadino, Boston, Paris, Brussels, London, Madrid and other Western sites.

So why is it that terrorism has so blatantly defied the West’s anti-terrorism wars, diplomacy and surveillance programs? As I see it, the medicine isn’t working or is aggravating the affliction because the prognosis isn’t right. The West, especially America, attributes Muslim terrorism to one expression of Islam or another. Some folks also link Muslim terrorism to poverty, backwardness, autocratic repression and other problems plaguing Muslim societies.

President Obama is being roasted by Republicans for not calling Muslim violence against the West “radical Islamic terrorism,” as they do. The president’s main argument against using an Islamic label on terrorism is that that would alienate many Muslims around the world. Deep down, he believes that some strands of Islam are indeed fueling murderous proclivity among some Muslim youths. He told Jeffrey Goldberg of The Atlantic that “the real problem” fomenting Muslim terrorism is “the fact that some currents of Islam have not gone through a reformation that would help people adapt their religious doctrines to modernity.”

Obama seems to be oblivious to the fact that Islam has been going steadily through religious and social reforms since the late-colonial era, but it’s not following the path that Martin Luther, John Calvin and Huldrych Zwingli did a half millennium ago. The leaders of the Protestant Reformation broke away from the long-established Christian doctrines and tradition, while Islam has been reforming and evolving from its core beliefs, values and epistemology.

My grandfather was a traditional Muslim cleric who got up at 3 a.m. every night and prayed till sunrise and devoted the last 23 years of his life in prayers, teaching children the basics of Islam and building and managing a tin-shed mosque in the hill town of Haflong in northeast Indian state of Assam. My father, an Islamic scholar and political activist, was deeply concerned about the plight of impoverished and repressed Muslim minority in British India. He worked simultaneously with a Muslim clerical organization and Mahatma Gandhi’s Hindu-dominated Indian National Congress to struggle for the liberation of Indians from British colonial rule. I’m a Western-educated secular Muslim, but I defend and take pride in Islamic principles of community, charity and justice. And I seem to have inherited from my father concern for Muslims and lower-class Hindus in India and Bangladesh. Like most other Muslim families around the world, mine has been evolving, peacefully and steadily, from our Islamic religious and cultural roots.

I don’t believe that Westerners who view Islam as an inherently obscurantist and violent religion, offshoots of which are breeding terrorists, are innately hostile to Muslims or their faith. I see most of them unfamiliar or inadequately familiar with Islam and Muslim values and worldviews. As we have seen in the past, encounters with unfamiliar people and cultures often breed many Americans’ hostility toward those people and their values. Remember the days Americans thought Jews were “greedy,” Irish “dirty,” Germans “swarthy,” Poles “stupid,” and Italians “mafia,” and denounced Chinese as harbingers of “yellow peril”? How many Americans today use any of those labels for any of these racial and ethnic categories? For most Americans and other Westerners, Muslims are the new kids on the block or the horizon. No wonder they’re “terrorists.”

Yes, for several decades now a bunch of Muslim terrorist groups from across the Mediterranean and their fellow travelers in the West have been committing acts of terror against Westerners. And Westerners, unsurprisingly, are anguished and enraged by these terrible incidents. What surprises me, though, is that most Western politicians and intellectuals who blame Islam and or some of its strands for terrorist acts don’t seem ever to ask of themselves this question: Why did Muslims in developing countries admire America and view it as the only good Western country when European nations had colonized and plundered their lands and slaughtered and persecuted them? The Muslim world then was more deeply steeped in Islam, more impoverished, far more backward, and lived under as brutal kings and dictators. Muslim admiration and good will for the United States was fostered, mainly, by the US abhorrence of European colonialism. That good will turned into gratitude after Woodrow Wilson announced his Fourteen Points, an outline for peace negotiations at the end of World War I, which underscored the “right of self-determination” for colonized peoples. Muhammad Ali Jinnah, the would-be founder of Pakistan, was so taken with Wilson’s anti-colonial stance that a decade later, in 1928, he outlined a 14-point demand for political and cultural rights of British Indian Muslims.

Anti-American sentiments in the Muslim world have been fueled, as I mentioned elsewhere, by America’s economic exploits and military invasions and incursions in many Muslim countries. The exploitation of mineral and other resources in Muslim countries began with the 1944 Anglo-American Petroleum Agreement, dividing Middle Eastern oil between the United States and Britain. And it continues. America’s military, intelligence and diplomatic offensives in the Muslim world date back to 1948, when the Harry Truman administration became the first in the world to recognize and support the state of Israel, set up by European Jews on the land they had ethnically cleansed of more than 700,000 of its native Palestinians. Muslim grievances against America deepened through the overthrow or destabilization of democratic and other Muslim governments by successive American administrations, who installed or supported repressive pro-American dictatorships and monarchies. U.S. military aggression and interventions in Muslim societies reached a high watermark with the outright invasion and occupation of Iraq and Afghanistan.

As during the Crusades and the colonial era, Muslims have always proclaimed the sanction of their faith in their struggle against foreign aggression and hegemony. But ever since the Crusades, the sources of their hostilities with Western countries have, almost always, been Western aggression, exploitation or hegemony, not Islam or any of its theological branches. The same is the case with anti-Americanism, smoldering today around the Muslim world, strands of which have, deplorably, degenerated into terrorism.

Yet most, but not all, American and Western politicians and pundits fail to see the connection between Western policies and actions and Muslim hostility toward the West. Many of us know, and in fact several American politicians, including Sen. Patrick Leahy (D-Vt.), have said publicly, that ISIS was born as a Sunni Arab response to America’s invasion of Iraq and replacement of its Sunni Arab regime with Shiite ones. Under Shiite governments, Sunni Arabs in Iraq have been slaughtered, persecuted, thrown out of their jobs and driven away from their homes and lands. Two days ago Iraq’s Shiite government of Prime Minister Haider al-Abadi, with American-trained, equipped and guided troops and American air support, completed the war in mostly Sunni Fallujah against Sunni guerrillas from ISIS. The devastating U.S. bombardment and Shiite ground war have all but emptied Fallujah of its population, who have fled into intense suffering. I’m afraid many of the thousands of Sunni Arab youths who have fled Fallujah will join ISIS to try to avenge their travails on America.

At last month’s State Department briefing, I asked Siberell if he thought U.S. invasion of Iraq, support for its Shiite regime and military interventions in other Muslim countries had contributed to the emergence of ISIS, Al Qaeda and other anti-American terrorist organizations.

“I reject the suggestion,” replied the terror-fighting diplomat, “that the United States is responsible for all these different terrorism movements you’ve mentioned.”

America’s refusal to take a hard look at the sources of terrorism and its bombing of Muslim countries and demonization and witchhunt of Muslims are only helping to strengthen and multiply terrorist groups. The CIA’s Brennan wants us to brace for more acts of terror by these groups without saying what we or our government can do about them. I wonder how long this self-destructive amnesia has to continue before American political elites, especially policy makers, begin to take a bold and honest look at the real causes of the horrible tragedies being unleashed by vengeful terrorists.

  • Mustafa Malik, an international affairs commentator in Washington, is the host of the blog ‘Muslim Journey,’ (http://muslimjourney.com).