December 04, 2006

Withdraw to Kurdistan: what does it mean?

This space has long been an advocate for improving the lot of Iraq's Kurds. However, the recent Chas. Krauthammer column advocating a withdrawal of the American presence in Iraq to "Kurdistan" in the next couple months prompts a necessary look at what that really would mean on the ground.

Currently, the Iraqi Kurdistan National Assembly (IKNA) has autonomous control over three northern, rather remote, Iraqi governorates, As Sulaymaniyah, Erbil, and Dahuk. These governorates have a population of about 3.7 million people, total, almost all Kurdish and perhaps comprising three quarters of all Kurds in Iraq. The IKNA is an elected body, with its chosen representatives elected in the same January, 2005 Iraq federal election that elected the Transitional National Assembly. After the Iraqi constitution was passed, the three governorates claimed the status of semi-autonomous Region under its provisions, with the IKNA as the regional government.

The Kurdistan Region as it is constituted presently has two major cities, the regional capital of Erbil (900,000) and Sulaymaniyah (800,000). It's fair to say these three governorates have been fairly quiet since 2003.

Three neighboring provinces that also have large Kurdish populations (effectively, all the remaining Kurds in Iraq) are currently in the process of deciding whether to join the Kurdish Region. These have been somewhat less stable. The governorate of Kirkuk (also known as At-Ta'mim), with a million people, mostly in the city of the same name, and substantial oil resources, is currently planning a referendum for November, 2007. Kirkuk has been the scene of considerable violence since the 2003 invasion. Its current population is estimated in the absence of reliable census data as mostly (60%, or maybe 600,000 Kurds total) Kurdish. There have recently been marked efforts to increase the population of Kurds in Kirkuk, in many cases by the return of Kurdish families who were dispossessed by the Hussein government in favour of Arab migrants.

The governorate of Ninawa, with the violent cities of Tal Afar and Mosul, is possibly 20% Kurdish (c. 500,000), concentrated in its northern (Mosul) end; the troubled governorate of Diyala, possibly 10% (100,000-plus), also concentrated in a small northern area of that governorate. The IKNA has stated it wishes to see referenda in both these provinces, as well (it can hardly expect to win them outright if they were held; more likely this is a gambit to induce a border correction in their favour).

The issue is complicated further by the strong presence in the same region of Iraq's third- and fourth-largest minorities, the Christian Assyrians centered around Mosul and the Turkish-speaking Turkmen centered in Kirkuk province, in both cases in numbers comparable with the local Kurdish populations. Both minorities were also oppressed by Saddam, but are not obviously enthusiastic yet for becoming minorities in an independent Kurdistan, either. American religious interests have expressed concern about the plight of the Assyrians, who have a wide international diaspora, while the Turkish government has set itself up as the Turkmens' advocate.

The most important question to ask when defining the boundaries of Kurdish region right now is whether it includes Kirkuk and its oil, which, if left to any kind of peaceful democratic process, it probably would -- given sufficient concessions by the Kurdish government to the Turkmen to keep them onside.

The second most important question is the disposition of the northern, Mosul end of Ninawa, giving the Kurds a land border with Syria. This could also enjoy majority support in the affected area of Ninawa if an accord with Mosul's Assyrians was reached. (The Diyala Kurds are so tightly concentrated and small in numbers that that will almost certainly have to satisfy themselves with a border correction between the Kurds and their Arab-majority governorate.) The method chosen in any "withdrawing to Kurdistan" will necessarily imply some American decision on these questions, so it might be worthwhile discussing them in advance. Certainly Krauthammer's line that Kurdistan is where Americans will be "welcome and safe" is going to be somewhat situation-dependent.

The Kurds are currently pro-U.S. largely because it's in their obvious best interest. That could change, of course. Possible circumstances where Kurdistan could grow rather hot for U.S. forces there rather fast would include: taking a stance against any border corrections in Kurds' favour for Ninawa or Diyala; declining to support that 2007 referendum in Kirkuk if the country breaks up before then; or allowing Turkish forces, which are currently fighting Kurdish rebels of their own, into the Kurdish region in hot pursuit.

On the other hand, taking the opposing position in any of these questions could put the U.S. up against Iraqi government or Turkish interests, as well. In Iraq's case, to use the U.S. Civil War analogy, these are their "border states:" unlikely to be shrunk or surrendered without the most vehement of efforts.

This is a significant issue because ground-based sustainment of U.S. forces in the landlocked Kurdish region would depend on the goodwill of one or both of these governments. Air-based sustainment would limit the sustainable force in that region to a size insufficient for much more than special forces activities and some basing of air assets. A military solution that keeps American main forces with a ground force projection capability in north Iraq therefore demands the willing compliance of both the Kurds and either the Iraqis or Turks: a difficult circle to square.

If one was purely concerned about keeping a U.S. footprint somewhere in Iraq, the Kurdish region would seem at this point to be a suboptimal solution because of these sustainment and political difficulties. If force preservation was the only concern, the southern and eastern desert (part of the larger Syrian Desert), in the vicinity or to the south east of Ar Rutba (pop. 25,000), would seem a much better option. It's isolated: discounting nomads, there is virtually no one living within 160 km of the Saudi border, or 250 km of the Jordanian. There are still-existing Saddam-era airbases that could be taken over in the area, multiple logistics routes in and out, and a good possibility of being able to support the Iraq government's Syrian- and Saudi-border interdiction efforts, in exchange for the basing rights (the footprint would have to still be small, of course, due to the obvious water shortages; any large main force units would still need to be based somewhere else, like Kuwait).

The one advantage that Kurdish bases do have over a Syrian desert base should be obvious, too: bases in the Kurdish area are much better positioned to support activities within Iran or Central Asia. This cannot be entirely discounted as a factor in U.S. decision making, either.

But as much as one hates to say it, a large U.S. military presence in the Kurdish Region at this stage is not what the Kurds need right now. The most likely outcome of such a deployment would seem to be to bring the civil war north with them.

Other sources: Here's a good map showing the ethnic disposition of Kurds and other ethnic groups within Iraq (also note the 36th parallel, which was the southern extent of the pre-war no-fly zone). Here's another map showing the current geographic distribution of U.S. force fatalities.

Posted by BruceR at 12:44 PM

LAT on 9th Mech

LA Times on the Iraqi 9th Mech Div's recent combat activities.

There's a lot of clagg in the article, but one point stands out, that a divisional senior reconnaissance officer says there were only three hours of darkness, from 0100 to 0400, between warning order and main phase execution of a major op.

There are only two valid conclusions that can be drawn from this:
1) the Iraqi officer, in question, a colonel, is lying and should be fired; or
2) the divisional commander in question does not understand his most basic responsibilities as a leader, and should be fired.

It's fair to say no American (or Canadian) officer would ever allow his troops to be used in this fashion, without tendering his or her own resignation first. The fact that one Iraqi general did, and that his American superiors had no problem with setting his forces up for failure, either, speaks volumes. Operation: Get Behind Darkie" has real-life analogues, it seems.

Posted by BruceR at 11:04 AM