Commentary

Withdrawing to Kurdistan Is No Withdrawal

An increasing number of moderates opposed to the Bush administration’s policy in Iraq – and even some supporters of it – are flirting with the option of redeploying U.S. forces to the Kurdish areas in the north. Sen. Christopher Dodd, a Democratic presidential contender, has openly advocated such a policy, and others, including former U.N. ambassador Richard Holbrooke – a probable Secretary of State in the next Democratic administration – and Washington Post warhawk Charles Krauthammer have floated similar proposals.

The redeployment strategy has understandable appeal to moderates. It would get American troops out of the most violent and dangerous portions of Iraq, such as Anbar Province and Baghdad, while not amounting to a complete U.S. withdrawal. Unlike other groups in Iraq, most Kurds actually like the presence of American forces. Nevertheless, the Kurdistan option is almost as misguided as the current policy. Indeed, it would expose the United States to an entirely new set of risks.

Though American troops in Kurdistan would not be under incessant attack as they have been elsewhere in Iraq, retaining military bases there is a bad idea. Any long-term U.S. military presence anywhere in Iraq is likely to inflame passions among Arabs and other Muslims who believe that the United States plays an imperial role in their region and is determined to perpetuate the occupation of Iraq. Maintaining even a limited number of bases in the Kurdish north could validate that allegation and further damage America’s standing in the Muslim world. Indeed, Arabs would likely regard Kurdistan as “another Israel” — a second alien U.S. client state in their region.

Even worse, a military presence could easily entangle the United States in Kurdistan’s probable struggles with Arab factions in Iraq over control over the cities of Mosul and Kirkuk — especially the latter’s oil riches. A referendum on Kirkuk’s political status is supposed to take place later this year. In preparation, the Kurdish regional government has been moving Kurdish residents into the city and driving out Arabs — effectively reversing the Arabization resettlement program that Saddam Hussein engineered. Whatever the outcome of the referendum (which the Kurds are likely to win), that explosive quarrel will continue and probably escalate.

A U.S. troop presence could even entangle the United States in the murky and potentially contentious relationships between Iraqi Kurdistan and two of its neighbors, Iran and Turkey. Ankara has already begun rattling sabers, declaring on several occasions that it will not tolerate Kirkuk becoming part of Kurdistan. Turkey believes that such an outcome would lead to the persecution of the Turkmen minority in the city (which it has pledged to protect). Placing Kirkuk under Kurdish control would also give Kurdistan the oil revenues needed to make a bid for full-fledged independence, which Turkish leaders regard as a grave threat to the territorial integrity of their country, given its large Kurdish minority.

Ankara also has a major grievance with the authorities in Iraqi Kurdistan regarding the activities of the Kurdistan Workers Party (PKK), which has waged a war of secession in southeastern Turkey for more than two decades. PKK fighters routinely use Iraqi Kurdistan as a sanctuary for attacks into Turkey.

In early April, Turkish officials warned Washington that if the United States did not take action to halt those incursions, Turkey might be compelled to send its own forces across the border. Such a clash would be dangerous enough under the present circumstances, but imagine the position in which Washington would find itself if large numbers of American troops were stationed in Kurdistan and the Turks invaded.

Iraqi Kurdistan also has troubled relations with Iran. Tehran contends that another Kurdish insurgent group, The Party for a Free Life in Kurdistan (PJAK), that seeks to liberate the Kurds in Iran, operates out of Kurdish territory in Iraq. Iran is sufficiently concerned about that threat that Iranian officials have met with their Turkish counterparts on several occasions in recent months, apparently to coordinate responses to both the PKK and PJAK.

On the surface, Kurdistan might appear to be a safe haven for beleaguered U.S. troops in Iraq. Compared to the rest of the country, the region is relatively peaceful and well governed at the moment. But appearances can be deceiving. Kurdistan has dangerously volatile relations with all of its neighbors — both inside and outside Iraq. Redeploying our troops to Kurdistan would be a snare, and one that Americans would have occasion to regret for years to come.

Ted Galen Carpenter is vice president for defense and foreign policy studies and author of “Escaping the Trap: Why the United States Must Leave Iraq.”