Iraq Heading for Partition

When the US invaded Iraq and overthrew the government, we heard a bit about “nation-building” until the establishment discovered it no longer knew how to do that, and/or wasn’t willing to pay the price that it paid rebuilding Germany, Japan, and South Korea.

Not that those were particularly high prices, all things considered – it’s just that since the end of WWII the US has shifted from a relatively efficient corporate oligarchy to a corporate kyriarchy: there is too much inefficiency and graft to get anything done any more. Scroll back to the 1950s when US corporations tried to modernize Afghanistan and Iran, to turn them into model US client-states: at that time the Army Engineer Corps was moderately competent and the US industrial firms really knew what they were doing. The times have changed – they’re less competent, but they’re now corrupt, fraudulent, pits of waste and abuse. That synergizes perfectly with a country like Afghanistan or Iraq, where the government(s) were reconstructed around corrupt politicians, as well. If the US reconstruction efforts were being run relatively honestly, it would have made it less easy for corruption to set in, but now you’ve got kindred spirits on both sides, grabbing as much money as they can, while the money-valve is jammed in the “full, on” position. [brookings]

All of this has consequences: when Iraq’s military initially encountered ISIS, they broke and ran. The massively expensive militaries the US built in Afghanistan and Iraq were attractive places to go get a paycheck, they were not serious fighting forces – though subsequent events appear to be forging some military competence (massive close-in air support and artillery support by the US “no boots on the ground” and special forces doesn’t seem to have hurt, either) – but, basically, Afghanistan and Iraq are money-pits governed by tin-pot dictators. Scroll back to when the US said it was exporting democracy to the Middle East, and you can see how low the bar of achievement has become.

When the US first overthrew Iraq, and tried to create a new government, but couldn’t, because Baghdad wanted to maintain control over the north (where the oil is) and the north, south, and northwest were fairly neatly divided between kurds, sunni and shia. It has been said before, and better, but the US walked into a delayed ethnic and sectarian civil war and hit the “resume” button. It has been 14 years of sliding into partition; If the US hadn’t rushed massive force in to prop up Iraq’s collapsed military, ISIS would have effectively partitioned the country already.

Kurdistan, as expected, voted for independence. [stderr] We’ve all been waiting for the other shoe to drop: would would Iraq do? And would the US move to back their play?

The Iraqi government issued a “deadline” for the Kurdish troops that are occupying Kirkuk: leave.

The deadline passed today. Apparently, the Kurds didn’t move. This is very similar to the situation we saw in Northern Syria, where US forces had to drive their strykers between Kurdish militia that were unofficially occupying Manbij [stderr] and Turkish forces. The cluster just keeps on getting fuckeder.

checkpoint in Kirkuk flying a Kurdistani flag

Apparently, having given an order that was not obeyed, the Iraqi government demonstrated its powerlessness by giving the order again, and extending the “deadline.” [bbc] You can be sure there are frantic attempts to do diplomacy, as both Iraq and the Kurds try to talk to the US State Department and figure out which way the US and its air cover and artillery are going to bounce. I suspect that the US’ response was: “not now, playing golf.” Meanwhile, rumors abound that the Kurds have been negotiating with Iran. If those rumors are accurate, that may explain why the US has been lukewarm to the Kurdish move for independence: they’re afraid it will benefit Iran. Of course, if the US had been concerned with that, it would have stayed friendly to Saddam. There was no realistic scenario in which Saddam was overthrown and Iran did not get more powerful in the region.

As the situation stands right now, you have two forces that are inter-penetrated, in a city, with moderately advanced weapons. Both forces have recently gained some battlefield experience.

Today’s news is that the Iraqi army is deploying toward Kirkuk. Iraq probably sees this as completely necessary, because – if they lose control of the oil wells in Kirkuk – they will never be able to construct a country, let alone be a national power. [guardian]

Iraqi forces have reportedly advanced on Kirkuk’s oil fields and air base after the prime minister of Iraq, Haidar al-Abadi, ordered his army to “impose security” on the Kurdish city in the wake of a recent vote for independence.

Kurdish and Iraqi officials said forces began moving at midnight on Sunday, with state TV reporting “vast areas” of the region had been seized, a claim disputed by the Kurds.

The US is in a horribly quandary of its own construction. Having used both parties as shock troops to root out ISIS, it looks like they’re going to hit “resume” on their rebellion.

The US defense department urged Iraqi and Kurdish forces “to avoid additional escalatory actions” that would detract from the battle against Islamic State militants. The US provided weapons to both the Iraqi army and the Peshmerga to fight Isis.

Later on Sunday, the US state department said it was “very concerned” about reports of a confrontation and was “monitoring the situation in Kirkuk closely”.

Some of you may remember, back before the US toppled Saddam Hussein, there were foreign policy wonks saying “the only thing holding Iraq together is Saddam, and fear of Saddam”? Because the US played both sides, neither side is particularly afraid of the US, or each other, yet.

One thing that this makes me think is that the US ought to choose its Secretary of State based on actual experience with state-craft, not for being a good foot-soldier (Kerry) or grooming for a run at the presidency (Clinton) or being good at golf. Undoubtedly Talleyrand or Bismarck or Pitt could sort the situation out, but it would be endless, tiring, and unrewarding even for a diplomat of that caliber. Did you notice something? The US has never had a diplomat of that caliber.

Remember how the Kurds wound up occupying Kirkuk in the first place: the Iraqi army decamped without firing a shot when ISIS approached, and the Kurds came in and fought ISIS off.

There are no strykers full of US Marines that can be driven between the Kurds and Iraqis in Kirkuk, all the US has as leverage is air and artillery. Either the US deliberately arranged this with the Kurds via a back-channel, or the US has painted itself out of the situation. Way to “world power”, America.

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To be fair, the Afghan military probably would be better than they are, and less demoralized, if the US could get out of the habit of occasionally bombing them in “friendly fire” incidents. We’ve killed as many of them as the Taliban have. (that’s hyperbole, but you know which they’re going to remember)


  1. Brian English says

    What do guys at West point study? Or are they all double face palming what their political leaders order?
    It seems that if your strategy is to keep a client state that is run by your bastard, and he’s niggling Iran, then blowing up your bastard’s country and resuming ancient shitfight might be bad tactics. But I’d never make a good military leader, so what do I know?

  2. Pierce R. Butler says

    The preferred national adjective is “Afghan” – “afghani” is the unit of currency, the value of which is so small as to be considered an insult when applied to anything else.

  3. cartomancer says

    The aristocratic Englishmen who ran the place in the 20s and 30s used the correct pronunciation of the country’s name – “A wreck”.

  4. says

    BBC reporting that the Iraqi military have taken key sites in Kirkuk.

    Yes, and it sounds like the US is diplomatizing a bit, which is good. I saw an oblique reference to the idea that the US didn’t authorize the Iraqi army to use the gear we gave them for that purpose. Which kind of makes my mind boggle. But it indicates that someone is apparently waving the “hey, wouldja think this over?” banner.

    Kurds have retreated from Kirkuk and are apparently holed up in the nearby oilfields. I guess that’s a way of saying “no artillery, plz?”

    Did Trump go golfing today?

  5. says

    Brian English@#1:
    What do guys at West point study? Or are they all double face palming what their political leaders order?

    I’ve asked people I know who went through West Point: a lot of logistics, history, and – sheesh, I don’t know what to call it, maybe: “establishment doctrine.” For example, there are classes about insurgency and revolution but they are mostly based on doctrine that is “by the book”; I wouldn’t be surprised if the counter-insurgency classes referenced Petraeus’ field manual (which was ripped from a French military theorist trying to do counter-insurgency in Algeria) (see how well it’s worked?) In other words, there’s a lot of stuff about how to do what the civilian controllers of the military say to do, but not a lot of “question what the civilian control tells you to do.” It’s a university that includes course material on how to be a good staff officer/cog in the machine.

  6. says

    The aristocratic Englishmen who ran the place in the 20s and 30s used the correct pronunciation of the country’s name – “A wreck”.

    I’m surprised they didn’t pronounce it “Our wreck”.
    The aristocratic Englishmen at Kut called it “Our hell.”

  7. kurt1 says

    Somehow the Kurds remind me of the Fremen in Dune: oppressed and living under harsh conditions for decades made them tough people.

  8. says

    Somehow the Kurds remind me of the Fremen in Dune: oppressed and living under harsh conditions for decades made them tough people.

    Yes, tha’s sort of how I see them, too. Like the Vietnamese, they have a long history of resisting people that are trying to suppress or eradicate them. Like with the mujahideen in Afghanistan, the US may some day come to regret arming them and giving them a chance to see the light at the end of the tunnel. The fuse of Kurdish nationalism has been well and thoroughly lighted, now.

    God’s still on the size of the big battalions, though.

  9. Bruce says

    I’m a bit confused by the data on the map. I know the majority of Kurds are Sunni. But I thought a significant fraction of them were Shia.
    I don’t know how things differ between the Kurdish regions of Iraq and of Turkey. But evil Wikipedia says that about 30% of Turkish Kurds are Alavi Shiites. So, could 30% of Iraqi Kurds also be Shia?
    My understanding is that to many Kurds, being a Kurd is a more central aspect of their identity than whether they are Sunni or Shia Muslim. So maybe it doesn’t matter. But maybe it is an oversimplification to say that Kurds are all Sunni.
    Of course, the larger factor is that Kurdish citizens of Iraq may not want to be fighting the government of Iraq.
    On the other hand, maybe the larger dispute now is between the political parties within Kurdistan. Now, I REALLY don’t know what I’m talking about here. Any ideas?

  10. cartomancer says

    Speaking of great diplomats and skilled military leaders, one interesting facet of the interaction between Kurdish and Iraqi nationalisms since the Saddam era has been the use of Saladin as a culture hero by both sides in the dispute. Saddam made much use of the great man in his propaganda imagery, since Saladin was both a symbol of heroic Muslim resistance to the Western crusaders and born in Tikrit like Saddam himself and half of his government. Saddam styled himself the new Saladin just as much as Mussolini wanted to be the new Caesar, and fell just as far short in reality.

    What Saddam didn’t tend to mention, though, was that Saladin was of Kurdish ethnicity. The Kurds tend to revere him as a symbol of their own dignity and their own struggle for recognition among the other peoples of the region, and get somewhat frustrated that he has become a symbol of pan-Arab unity to non-Kurds.

    Bruce, #11

    The Kurds living in Iraq today are almost entirely Sunni Muslims. A few percent of them are Yezidis. Kurdish peoples have tended not to go in for religious separatism over the centuries, adopting various religions based on their region of origin (hence the Alavi Shia tend to be almost exclusively in Turkish territories). Some Iranian Kurds are Zoroastrian, and there have been prominent Christian and Jewish communities among them in the past too. Saladin is a good example of Kurdish religious tolerance actually – he was a Sunni, but worked for both the Shiite Fatimids and the Sunni Abbasids in his early days before becoming ruler of Egypt and Syria and proving significantly more gracious towards Christians and Jews in the region than most.

  11. Bruce says

    Cartomancer #12, Thanks for your update. It was much more helpful than anything else I found. Now that you say it, it makes total sense that Kurds (or anyone) in one country could be a different cultural group (and thus a different religious group) from their fellows in other countries. Thanks.