- United States
- In recent years the United States has become by far the most important outside state involved in the Kurdish problem. This is mainly because the two Gulf Wars against Iraq have involved it with the future of the Kurdistan Regional Government (KRG) in that state. In addition, since Turkey was an important U.S. ally in the North Atlantic Treaty Alliance (NATO), the Kurdish problem in that state also involved the United States. This was all the more so given that the guerrillas of the Kurdistan Workers Party (PKK) were now based in the inaccessible Kandil Mountains located in the KRG region.U.S. involvement in Kurdistan dates back to World War I and President Woodrow Wilson's famous Fourteen Points, the 12th of which concerned a forlorn promise of "autonomy" for the "the other nationalities of the Ottoman Empire, which are now under Turkish rule." Resurgent Kemalist Turkey's successful struggle to regain its territorial integrity and Great Britain's decision to maintain control over the oil-rich Kurdish region of northern Iraq, however, quashed nascent Kurdish hopes for independence or even some type of autonomy. The first brief stage of U.S. foreign policy concern with the Kurds was over.More than a half century later, the United States again became involved with the Kurds. The United States supported the Turkish position on the Kurdish issue because Turkey was an important member of NATO. Thus, Kurds who supported the Kurdistan Workers Party (PKK) became "bad Kurds" or even officially terrorists from the point of view of the United States. In February 1999, Washington went so far as to play a leading role in helping Turkey capture Abdullah Ocalan, the leader of the PKK.In Iraq, however, the United States encouraged Mulla Mustafa Barzani's revolt in the early 1970s, and thus the Iraqi Kurds became "good Kurds" from the point of view of the United States. The United States pursued this path for several reasons: as a favor to its then-ally Iran, who was an enemy of Iraq; as a gambit in the cold war, as Iraq was an ally of the Soviet Union; as a means to relieve pressure on Israel so Iraq would not join some future Arab attack against the Jewish state; and as a means to possibly satisfy its own need for Middle East oil if the Kurds came to control the oil in their land.Accordingly, U.S. president Richard Nixon and his national security advisor, Henry Kissinger, first encouraged the Iraqi Kurds to revolt against Baghdad but then with their ally Iran double-crossed the Kurds when the shah (Muhammad Reza Shah Pahlavi) decided to cut a deal with Saddam Hussein. To rationalize these actions, Kissinger argued that they helped prevent Iraq from participating in the October 1973 Middle East War against Israel. Cynically, he also explained that "covert action should not be confused with missionary work."Mulla Mustafa Barzani himself died a broken man four years later in U.S. exile as an unwanted ward of the U.S. Central Intelligence Agency (CIA). As a result, his son and eventual successor, Massoud Barzani, never fully trusted the United States. Years later, Kissinger explained that to have saved the Kurds in 1975 would have required opening a new front in inhospitable mountains close to the Soviet border. In addition, the shah had made the decision, and the United States did not have any realistic means to dissuade him.The third and current stage of U.S. foreign policy involvement with the Iraqi Kurds began with the first Gulf War in 1991 and continues through 2010 with the U.S. involvement in Iraq and support for the Kurdistan Regional Government (KRG). At the end of the first Gulf War, the United States urged the Iraqi Kurds to rise against Baghdad, but when the uprising began to fail, the United States decided not to intervene because it feared that to do so could lead to an unwanted, protracted U.S. occupation that would be politically unpopular at home, and destabilize Iraq and thus possibly the entire Middle East. (This, of course, is exactly what happened after the second Gulf War in 2003.) In addition, Kurdish success in Iraq might provoke Kurdish risings in Turkey, a U.S. NATO ally. The ensuing mass Kurdish refugee exodus, however, caused the United States to reverse its position and institute Operation Provide Comfort and a no-fly zone under which the Iraqi Kurds were eventually able to construct the KRG in northern Iraq. When the Iraqi Kurds fell out among themselves in an enervating civil war from 1994 to 1998, Washington finally was able to broker a cease-fire, which stuck.When the United States removed Saddam Hussein from power in 2003, the Iraqi Kurds successfully provided the support that Turkey declined. This gave the Iraqi Kurds the great-power ally that they had always lacked and helped greatly to enable them to strike for the most advantageous situation they have been able to hold in modern times. Quickly, however, the United States found itself involved in a horrific civil war in post-Saddam Hussein Iraq. To control the situation, Washington found it necessary to urge the KRG to compromise on some of its most cherished goals such as a strong federal system in Iraq, oil exports, and implementation of Article 140 on Kirkuk, among others. Although the Baker-Hamilton Report's recommendations on these issues were rejected by President George W. Bush, the report still showed the Kurds how perilous their situation remained.Unlike the Iraqi Arabs, the KRG would like to have a permanent U.S. involvement in Iraq as a guarantee of Kurdish rights. Although the United States appears to be lessening its role in Iraq as of 2010, it is likely to continue to play a most important role in the future of the KRG. Illustrative of this new Kurdish importance to the United States is the recent creation of a 23-member Kurdish American Congressional Caucus. Representatives Lincoln Davis (Tennessee Democrat) and Joe Wilson (South Carolina Republican) are its co-chairmen.
Historical Dictionary of the Kurds. Michael M. Gunter.
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