Nobody likes it when American allies are left holding the bag. Those on the right complain that we abandon friendly regimes out of weakness of will, whereas those on the left use our exit to blame the U.S. for ever getting in. For these reasons abandonment feels like an order of execution, or at least of life imprisonment. South Vietnam was not the first little state to be swallowed up in our wake. The one criticism Americans lob at Churchill concerns his infamous complicity in Stalin’s carve-up of Eastern Europe, sealed with a hand-lettered map on a napkin. And now we wonder if Iraq is next.
Freedom of thought is a good thing, like freedom of movement on the battlefield — especially when wiggling through the tight spots of foreign affairs. For too long in Iraq, “stay the course” has meant not just strategic but tactical obduracy. But now, the humble returns on our massive investment have led some commentators to advocate, instead of an inst-o-matic exit from Iraq, an audible known as the “Kurdish Option.” By redeploying to Kurdistan, the case is made, we can salvage four worthy goals:
1. Our troops will depart a lethal, intractable civil war between Sunni and Shia.
2. The U.S. will retain the force necessary to hunt and kill al Qaeda in Iraq from a secure forward base.
3. The defense of Kurdistan will help ensure that democracy and the rule of law flourish for at least one ventricle in the heart of the Middle East; and
4. Americans will prove to the Kurds, to the world, and to ourselves that we don’t leave close friends in the lurch when the going gets tough for us.
Of these, Goal 4 is paradoxically the most important — though it has the least to do with hardheaded military and geopolitical strategy. But judging the other three goals, on the likelihood of their success after a Kurdish redeployment, suggests that the best way to fail the Kurds might actually be to send them bulk of our armed forces.
START AT THE TOP of the list. First, the attractions are obvious for a policy of disentanglement. Iraq’s rival factions are caught in a conflict only politics can solve, without recourse to all-out war. But whether the warring parties will halt magically at the Kurdish border is doubtful. Nothing is more important, whether winning or losing a civil war, than an ally of convenience with a good army, and the Kurds’ Pesh Merga is certainly that. The strategic city of Mosul is a frontier jewel, an irresistible draw sure to worry, and entice, the Kurds accordingly. The more important Kurdistan becomes — and the greater the percentage of U.S. troops there, the more that it does — the more at the mercy of their neighbors are the Kurds.
This must have slim appeal. The Turks have already pressured the U.S. to decapitate the PKK, widely recognized as a terrorist organization comprised of unbending Kurdish guerrillas. Our undersecretary of defense for policy has confessed we intend to oblige our NATO ally. This situation can only worsen when Sunni Iraqis begin casting about for allies against Iranian-backed Shia militias.
Pulling back to Kurdistan will get us out of the thick of it only to inspire the thick of it to follow us there.
Second, the hope that our concentrated forces can launch effective attacks against al Qaeda from Kurdistan fades on close inspection. Prior to that mission, we would very likely face a gauntlet, because we’d have to:
1. Put down Kurdish terrorists, a move guaranteed to irritate both local government and rank and file.
2. Massage Turkish expectations as their army awaits along the border; and
3. Fend off incursions and overtures from Sunni and Shia alike, none too pleased with our decision to favor neither side as they bleed themselves dry.
If, that is, we do manage to stay somehow neutral. In reality we will follow Iran’s lead and support one or both sides, betting the way campaign contributors do. Our hands, in short, will be full, precisely because we withdrew to Kurdistan. This is very little gain for a very lot of trouble.
Third, it’s now apparent that the pressures our occupation will place upon the Kurds — even at their behest — will greatly challenge their ability to run a model democracy. Kurdistan is a pro-American but not terribly democratic land. Tribes and militias have won what independence the Kurds have been able to earn. The Pesh Merga is a force as deserving of local trust and loyalty as it is unconducive to civilian government. This is not a dig against the Kurds. But it is another proof that undue expectations are the ruin of good hopes. We ought not dare foist the same dreams of hearts and flowers that distorted our view of Iraq upon the last portion of that country that seems capable of seeing to its own affairs without great violence.
THE INESCAPABLE CONCLUSION is that a relocation to Kurdistan will probably not solve any of our present problems and will likely make all of them worse. The pain will be particularly awful because of the sensation that the Kurds are our last ditch proteges. It will be terribly hard, if the going gets tough, not to egg on a declaration of Kurdish independence, which will give the Turks apoplexy and hasten the dismemberment of Iraq. Accompanying this will almost certainly be another round of strife as Kurds struggle to abandon their eternal aspirations (and brethren) in Turkey. There is nothing outlandish in expecting a rush of Turkish Kurd refugees after that.
Though we could gain the approximation of a formal colonial relationship, where rules are clearer and force can effectively be applied, we would lose a great deal in the bargain. Not least would be the embarrassment of having tried shiny, happy quasi-imperialism — only to be stuck with the ignominious, old school version. Occupying Kurdistan would invite grand dreams, and feverish, almost desperate hopes, of a success all the more important for its diminished scope and higher stakes. But relocating to Kurdish territory would also invite the worst of all possible worlds: the surrender of Iraq to its fate and the shackling of our own troops to whatever fate awaits them — in a Kurdistan that we will guarantee is unable to escape the Iraq we left behind.