No spin, no angle, fair and balanced….no I’m not talking about the Fox News Network, I am talking about an event I attended at the Washington Institute for Near East Policy (WINEP) on Tuesday about the Kurdistan Region of Iraq.
WINEP fellows, who had recently returned from a trip to Kurdistan, delivered to a crowded room of DC foreign policy watchers a very candid assessment of what they saw, both good and bad, in the Kurdistan Region.
One of the fellows, Michael Eisenstadt hadn’t been to Kurdistan since he participated in Operation Provide Comfort in 1991. He was first to speak, and was struck by both the strong sense of Kurdish identity that existed in Kurdistan, as well as the Region’s improved relations with Turkey. On the latter, he said “attitudes of Iraqi Kurds towards Turkey have changed from hostile in ‘91 to grateful, today”. Referring to the general popularity of the United States in Kurdistan, Eisenstadt stated that it was nice to be somewhere “where US stock is high”.
Next up was David Pollock, whose last visit to Kurdistan was in 2008. Pollock focused his part of the talk on governance issues facing the KRG and the evolving nature of politics in Kurdistan.
Pollock explained how “people in Iraqi Kurdistan generally say that the economic situation is pretty good and expected to improve further” (he cited polling data indicating people’s perception of the economy’s overall direction as positive). But he also noted that while there continues to be a lot of development, even improvement in the delivery of services, the economy still suffered from structural shortcomings, including high unemployment, especially amongst the youth, as well as the KRG’s over bloated civil servant workforce.
Pollock also gave disturbing examples of a diminishing work ethic among Kurds in Kurdistan, which according to him has led to an influx of foreign workers being employed across the Region, notwithstanding high unemployment among the youth.
On Kurdistan’s politics, Pollock made mention of the emergence of opposition politics in Kurdistan, noting that Gorran, a party that broke from the PUK, recently made inroads by winning 25 out of 100 seats in 2009’s Regional elections. Pollock added that while there was a “Kurdish ‘Spring’ of sorts” in Sulaimani (referring to demonstrations that were held in Sulaimani), it fell way short of a “revolution” and according to Pollock the reason for this was that many people in Kurdistan think that things are just not “so bad.” He added that “While there may be grumblings about corruption and unemployment, they are not big enough for people to ask to change the whole system.”
The final speaker, Michael Knights (who was the only person in the room other than me that has any idea of where The Waddon pub is in Croydon, England) focused more on security and stability and had some poignant words of advice to our American friends. Knights bluntly echoed a statement by US army Lt. Col. Dennis Chapman’s that it’s time for the “US to end its benign neglect of the Peshmerga”.
While stressing the necessity of fully placing the Peshmerga under regional government and not political party control, Knights said that a professional security force (in Kurdistan) was a “good thing.” Knights highlighted weak intelligence sharing between Regional and federal intelligence agencies and warned of increased “administrative segregation” between the KRG and the federal government in Iraq. He went on to say that while the US has been working with federal, provincial and at times municipal and district level security services across Iraq, it was time for the US to stop being so reluctant “to (openly) work with KRG security forces.”
In closing, Pollock paid tribute to “[the Kurds’] sense of pragmatism” while Knights, justifying a “profound reason for continued US engagement” went one step further by saying that if the “KRG and Baghdad work out their differences, the country (Iraq) will be fully integrated with a real potential for US strategic success, including a fundamental transformation of Iraq to a state that is not only democratic”, but a “true model for the region: a multiethnic, cross-sectarian, bilingual, federal democracy at the heart of the Middle East.”
The general impression left by the speakers was not that Kurdistan is the best thing since sliced bread, nor that it is the “disaster” that some pro-opposition commentators and Kurdish media outlets have proclaimed. Rather it’s a part of Iraq that remains stable, progressing and ripe for investment; and while it needs to open up more, improve its level of governance, and place its security services under the governments control, it’s a place that “so long as it’s able to carve out a political and cultural identity”, is not only willing to stay part of Iraq, but can help shape its future.
No fuss. To the point. Refreshing.
For more on the event, including audio, go to: