The view from Kurdistan: Divide Iraq in order to save it

The capture of Mosul represents the failure of efforts to force three distinct communities to form a single state.

Kurdish Peshmerga troops gather on the outskirts of Kirkuk [Reuters]

I am sitting with a group of friends at the outdoor restaurant of Chwar Chra Hotel in Erbil. Next to my table is an Arab family that has fled the recent violence. Their kids are happily running around while the grown-ups enjoy a barbecue and smoke hubbly-bubblies. At our table, the conversation is dominated by a conflict happening a half-hour drive from us: the takeover of Iraq’s second largest city, Mosul, by an al-Qaeda splinter group, the Islamic State of Iraq and the Levant (ISIL).

The question we are trying to answer is this: How could a few hundred fighters – in just a matter of hours – bring about such a humiliating defeat upon more than 20,000 well-armed Iraqi soldiers, who had been trained and equipped by Americans?

Here is my view: What happened in Mosul should not come as a shock at all. Iraqi Kurds have seen it before, many times. The Iraqi army has a humiliating history of defeat after defeat. In 1988, it lost an eight-year war to Iran. In 1991, it lost the first Gulf War and much of northern Iraq to Kurdish rebels – among them my father – who had driven out Saddam Hussein’s forces from three of Iraq’s predominately Kurdish provinces: Erbil, Duhok and Sulaimania.

In the following years, shielded by a Western no-fly zone, Iraqi Kurds established their first autonomous government and started building the apparatuses of a modern state.

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The recent defeat of Iraq’s armed forces in Mosul was not caused by the lack of enough training or equipment, as some analysts have suggested. It was rather caused by the lack of will. What happened in Mosul is not a conventional loss of a battle resulting from an imbalance in size or shortage of ammunition. It represents the failure of a narrow-minded, authoritarian worldview that, in different forms, has been pursued by the ruling elite since the country was founded nearly a century ago: an ideology that supports the use of whatever it takes to force three different ethnic and sectarian groups, with a history of bloody conflicts, together in one country and under one leader.

Saddam Hussein tried this. He killed 182,000 Kurds and tens of thousands of Shia. He used chemical gas against his own people. What did he achieve?

Over the past eight years, Maliki’s main objective has been the same: trying to force everyone to live under his rule while refusing to trust others except for his Shia relatives. If he continues along this path, his fate will be no better than Saddam’s.

Do not be deceived by the fact that the army’s chief of staff is Kurdish or that there are some high-ranking Sunni officials, such as the deputy prime minister, in the Iraqi government. None of this makes the government any less sectarian. Almost all of the non-Shia Muslim officials have publicly spoken about their powerlessness, while Maliki has accumulated power and built all-Shia brigades to protect himself and his close associates. What, if not mistrust, has left Maliki holding the top three security positions over the past four years: minister of interior, minister of defence and minister of intelligence?

All of these have, of course, happened with the indifference, if not tacit approval, of the United States. Not unlike Maliki, the US has viewed Iraq’s crisis largely as a “security problem” that can be solved with advanced weaponry such as an F-16 jet, dozens of hellfire missiles and rocket-firing helicopters and more training.  

At this restaurant, all of us agree on the reason for the unparalleled security we enjoy. The Kurdistan Region is largely a homogenous nation, ruled by Kurds and protected by a loyal and determined Kurdish army known as Peshmerga – or, those who face death.

On the ground, Iraq has already ceased to exist as a unified entity. What keeps Iraq’s bloodshed going is not the disunity of its people per se; it is rather the struggle to keep them united. Domestically and internationally, everybody promotes and fights for Iraq’s unity. There is hardly a White House statement about Iraq that does not stress upon the importance of “Iraq’s unity” or “territorial integrity”. By promoting the notion of Iraqi unity, they may think they are trying to save Iraq. They may be doing so territorially, but they will not save Iraqis.

Namo Abdulla is Washington bureau chief for Rudaw, a 24-hour news channel in the Kurdistan Region of Iraq. He hosts an English-language show on Rudaw called Inside America, which discusses US foreign policy in the Middle East.