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Tilting at Windmills

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February 27, 2008
By: Kevin Drum

TURKEY AND THE KURDS....Matt Yglesias comments on the Turkish incursion into northern Iraq, which the Iraqi government is (a) unhappy with but (b) unable to do much about:

Given the Iraqi government's dependence on the U.S. military, a Turkish invasion of Iraq that the United States approves of isn't something the Iraqi government can or will do anything about. Thus this incident becomes one more case where U.S.-supported Iraqi leaders see their credibility as national leaders leeched away. If you think of the goal in Iraq as helping to prop up a government that'll be able to stand up on its own, this sort of thing is a disaster. If, by contrast, the idea is to ensure that the authorities governing Iraq are permanently dependent on external American support to maintain their grip on power, it's actually pretty good.

I'm not sure this is quite right. As near as I can tell, the central government in Iraq doesn't actually care all that much about the Turkish incursion. They object in a pro forma way, of course, but that's about it. Iraqi Kurdistan has been de facto independent since 1991, and in a practical sense the central government has neither the power nor the authority to do anything there. This would be true whether or not the U.S. withdrew from Iraq.

But it's only the central government that's dependent on U.S. troops. We have only a token presence in Iraqi Kurdistan, and the peshmerga forces there are decidedly capable of acting on their own if they choose to. What's more important, then, is whether Iraqi Kurdistan leader Massoud Barzani eventually decides that enough's enough and defies the U.S. by launching a counterattack using peshmerga troops — and that almost certainly depends on just how far the Turks go, how much pressure the U.S. brings to bear, and the state of public opinion in Kurdistan. So far he's limited himself to warnings, but that may or may not be as far as it goes. Judah Grunstein has a bit of background here if you're interested in the current state of play.

UPDATE: Here's the latest:

Lawmakers in northern Iraq's semiautonomous Kurdish region authorized their military Tuesday to intervene if Turkish forces pursuing anti-government rebels bring their battle into civilian areas....The Kurdish regional government's parliament held a special session Tuesday in Irbil to discuss the issue and voted to authorize the regional military force, the peshmerga, to respond if civilian areas are attacked.

But Turkey says it ain't leaving. Stay tuned.

Kevin Drum 11:18 AM Permalink | Trackbacks | Comments (29)

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Comments

um, i think they care about the oil there.

Posted by: cindy on February 27, 2008 at 11:46 AM | PERMALINK

Perhaps if we could dispatch Tim Russert to Kurdistan to grill the Kurdish leaders we could find out more about this.

Just a suggestion.

Posted by: Duncan Kinder on February 27, 2008 at 11:48 AM | PERMALINK

Iraq "central government"? Surely you jest.

"There is no functional central Iraqi Government. Incompetence, corruption, factional paranoia, and political gridlock have paralyzed the state."--General(Ret) Barry McCaffrey

Posted by: Don Bacon on February 27, 2008 at 11:49 AM | PERMALINK
I'm not sure this is quite right. As near as I can tell, the central government in Iraq doesn't actually care all that much about the Turkish incursion. They object in a pro forma way, of course, but that's about it. Iraqi Kurdistan has been de facto independent since 1991, and in a practical sense the central government has neither the power nor the authority to do anything there.

The Democratic Patriotic Alliance of Kurdistan is the second most significant party in the Iraqi Parliament, and the leader of one of the main factions making up that alliance is the President of Iraq.

Posted by: cmdicely on February 27, 2008 at 11:55 AM | PERMALINK

Kevin gets owned by cmdicely

Posted by: Boronx on February 27, 2008 at 12:23 PM | PERMALINK

Don't forget this happy quote:

The United States is being skillfully handled by the Turks, who are dragging the U.S. into a policy disaster in Kurdistan. The Kurds have moved a lot of fighters and equipment quietly into the area, and are prepared to strike the Turks. Massoud [Barzani, the Iraqi Kurdish leader] has issued all the press comments he can to publicly warn that Kurdish patience is gone. The United States is either ignoring the signals or missing them…The Kurds can and will bloody the Turks badly in a fight.

Posted by: MNPundit on February 27, 2008 at 12:31 PM | PERMALINK

cmdicely,
The point is that "significant", "main factions" and "alliance" as applied to any part of the nonfunctional Iraqi "government" is inaccurate and mostly meaningless.

Iraqi Kurdistan is in fact, as Kevin indicated, essentially independent of Baghdad.

So Kevin is still un-owned.

Posted by: Don Bacon on February 27, 2008 at 12:36 PM | PERMALINK

The point, Don Bacon, is that the central government does care about Kurdistan, which means that Kevin's whole point is wrong (hence the owning) and Matt's point is bolstered.

Posted by: Boronx on February 27, 2008 at 12:45 PM | PERMALINK

From the LA Times article linked in this post:
"Iraqi officials have demanded that Turkey halt the operation and withdraw immediately. But Turkey today ruled out specifying a timetable for an end to the offensive. 'Our objective is clear, our mission is clear and there is no timetable until ... those terrorist bases are eliminated,' Turkish envoy Ahmet Davutoglu…."
Who is writing Turkey's press releases? Sounds like a Bush administration copy writer. The world is learning fast that they can get away with anything if they sound like W.

Posted by: TomByrd on February 27, 2008 at 12:48 PM | PERMALINK
Iraqi Kurdistan is in fact, as Kevin indicated, essentially independent of Baghdad.

The point Kevin is missing is that Baghdad is not independent of Iraqi Kurdistan. The only thing providing even an illusion of continuity and stability in Iraq is the participation of the Kurds in the central government. If they decide that it (and the US) and no longer providing a benefit worth the cost, the whole show is up. They were essentially bought off of their desire for independence with the idea that preserving the existing Iraq, at least nominally, coupled with US support, was the best protection they had against invasions by Iran, Syria, Turkey, and whatever entity would end up governing the Arab portion of Iraq. As it becomes clear that participating in the charade of an Iraqi government sponsored by the US is not providing that benefit, and that neither the US presence in Iraq nor the continued nominal existence of Iraq is doing anything to stop Turkey from invading "Iraqi" Kurdistan, it also becomes more likely that the DPK, PUK, and their allies rather than playing along with the US-sponsored dog-and-pony show in Baghdad will decide that neither the US occupation nor the continuation of the government of Iraq, at least as presently constituted, with even nominal soveriegnty over Kurdistan is consistent with their long-term security interests. And if that happens, the mess in Iraq becomes orders of magnitude messier for the US than it is now.

Posted by: cmdicely on February 27, 2008 at 12:55 PM | PERMALINK

cmdicely,
Even if Kurdistan never gets any help from involvement in the Iraq government, it is an effective way to keep Iraq out of Kurdistan.

If the US and Iraqi armies sit placidly by throughout a Turkish invasion, the Kurds would still be fools for giving up their stake in Baghdad.

Posted by: Boronx on February 27, 2008 at 1:05 PM | PERMALINK

Didn't I remember the peshmerga being an important part of the increase in troop strength in Baghdad? They might feel a little put out defending the central government whilst the said government is allowing Turkey to roam their countryside with impunity.

Posted by: jhm on February 27, 2008 at 1:32 PM | PERMALINK

I am not sure exactly what point Kevin is making (beyond the obvious one that this is yet another failure to think things through by the Bush gang) but, in fact, the Kurds only have the ability to act as human tripwires. Fighting the Turkish Army with only a few regiments of light infantry would be little more than an act of collective suicide, if the Turks were prepared to carry things that far. A quick Google search of “capabilities of Turkish army” and “Turkish army order of battle” would suggest an exceedingly significant imbalance between the two combatants-----Turkey has, for example, a substantial air force and its armored units alone probably outnumber and outclass the combined military force available to Iraqi Kurdistan and probably the entire “Iraqi Army”, such as it is.

What I do think is significant (and this may be what Kevin is pointing out) is something which was discussed before George Bush started this war but was dismissed as “outlandish” and “too farfetched”.

Namely, conflict between the Iraqi Kurds and our NATO ally Turkey. There is nothing that would prevent Turkey from invoking the collective defense provision --–Art.5--- of the 1949 NATO Treaty. This would be done to embarrass the USA and not because the Turks actually required any help in taking and holding Kurdistan. Such a request would require all NATO forces (including the USA and GB) to immediately come to Turkey’s aid. This would put the USA in an untenable provision.

Likewise, there is nothing to stop Iraq or the Kurds from calling upon the USA to come to their aid---which is a likely outcome in the event of an outbreak of serious fighting given the clear imbalance in forces between Turkey and Iraq/Iraqi Kurdistan. The would be a terrible choice: To refuse is to call into question our ostensible reason for having 140,000 plus troops inside Iraq (protecting Iraq from outside aggression). Nevertheless, to fight the Turks is simply unthinkable and also (if one excludes nuclear war) considerably beyond our current ability.

I have no ideas about how to resolve this except to bring all three parties together and remind each of what it stands to lose if things get out of hand. This is, however, yet another reminder of why the Iraq war is clearly the greatest strategic/foreign policy disaster in our nation’s history.

Posted by: Mitch Guthman on February 27, 2008 at 1:48 PM | PERMALINK

Don Bacon's point is right on the money. It is fallacious to speak of a "central government" in Baghdad. The sock puppets who are pretending to play that role, dance on strings pulled by Bush, Cheney, Gates and Rice. There is no functioning government anymore in that part of Iraq - only dueling bands of mercenaries, mainly funded by the U.S. Read this article and this one to get the whole picture.

As far as Kurdistan, they don't even fly the Iraqi flag there. It is essentially a sovereign nation. That said, they are going to get the snot kicked out of them by Turkey, since we have been arming Turkey for years. The Kurds are horribly outmanned and outgunned. So, everyone is fighting everyone in that area of the Middle East and we are either arming or funding all sides.

Good God, how did we get this situation so totally hosed up???

Posted by: The Conservative Deflator on February 27, 2008 at 1:54 PM | PERMALINK

The U.S. is in the same position as the Taliban in their relationship with al-Qaeda after 9/11--not willing to go after our allies, the Kurds, and so by default tacitly supporting Kurdish terrorism. I certainly hope the Turks don't have the same mindset of attacking not only terrorists, but countries that sponsor terrorism.

Posted by: Luther on February 27, 2008 at 2:29 PM | PERMALINK

jhm is right. The peshmerga make up a significant portion of Iraqi troops around Baghdad. If Kurdistant goes into full war with Turkey, the peshmerga will Baghdad and head home.

Posted by: Elrod on February 27, 2008 at 2:35 PM | PERMALINK

I'm willing to guess that the US will be the big loser in this, since we have been the informal advocates of Kurds for a couple of decades. If we let Turkey attack in Iraqi Kurdistan at will, our strongest Iraqi supporters will turn on us. Does the US really need to have Kurds turn on our troops in Kirkuk and Mosul? Has Bush found the way to unite all Iraqis by turning every last one of them against us because we have proven untrustworthy to every group?

Posted by: freelunch on February 27, 2008 at 2:59 PM | PERMALINK

And when did you say the Archduke Ferdinand was visiting?

Posted by: Stewart Dean on February 27, 2008 at 3:21 PM | PERMALINK

This is a fascinating thread, especially the dialectical point stretching Kevin's point via cmdicely. First, it's prompted only 14 responses. A sign perhaps that few people care? Or, perhaps, the minimal number of responses represents the fact that few individuals feel knowledgeable enough to comment? No wonder if that's the case.

The subject of Iraq is Exhibit A for the Socratic axiom: the more you know the more you know how much you need to know. National Socialism versus the Jews, Communism versus Capitalism - easy to understand binary struggles. Iraq? Where to begin diagramming opponents? See: http://www.rollingstone.com/politics/story/18722376/the_myth_of_the_surge . What's an insurgent? Who indeed is al-Qaeda in Iraq? One day a Sunni loyalist, the next day a terrorist. The lines blur too frequently for positive identification. Empirical understanding of Iraq? Impossible.

The complexities surpass common understanding, and thus, in part because of this, it's been relegated to the back burner.

What exactly is Kurdistan? An autonomous region? How autonomous? Talibani is now insisting that Kurdish autonomy is impossible: http://www.kurdmedia.com/article.aspx?id=14609 .

Yet according to article 113 of the Iraqi Constitution ( PDF FILE:
http://portal.unesco.org/ci/en/files/20704/11332732681iraqi_constitution_en.pdf/iraqi_constitution_en.pdf ), which, at best is an amorphous exposition, Kurdistan is autonomous. Except when considering article 137 which could, at times, contradict Kurdistan's autonomy.

Exacerbating the matter even further is the lack of a provision in the Constitution for judicial resolution. There is, quite simply, no provision for a federal constitutional court: http://www.opendemocracy.net/conflict-iraq/iraqiconstitution_2925.jsp .

Complicating matters is Kirkuk, listed as the 17th governate out of 18, which were established in 1976: http://www.statoids.com/uiq.html . The oil rich region is a lure for both "autonomous" Kurdistan and federal Iraq. Who's going to win? And what mechanism is in place to settle the dispute?

There are conflicting views about the matter within Kurdistan: http://www.krg.org/articles/kurdistan_regional_government_en.html . In the end, the truth about what's happening in Iraq is, at least, relativistic.

Is the surge working? Yes. Is the surge failing? Yes. Is Iraq in a kinetic state of civil war? Yes. Is there now the numbers of conflicts and deaths that would indisputably prove there's a civil war? No. And yes. It all depends on who's keeping count.

Currently, the media and the politicians are discussing the surge as if it's the vital event that will define the future of Iraq. The truth, however, is far more complicated. Who knows whether halting a civil war midstream will diminish or heighten animus in the long run? No one.

It's speculative at best. But if the current situation in the Balkans is any indication, ancient resentments aren't retired simply because the patina of democracy has been applied to a given region. Now Russia is bellicose. The Serbs riled. The Balkans, further balkanized. The conflict? Hardly over.

The same will be true of Iraq regardless of how long the U.S. stays or leaves. History doesn't stand still once a democratic constitution has been erected. Consider France, circa 1789 - 1848, as an example. Would a well armed U.S. intervention - a surge so to speak - at the time accelerated accommodation or fanned the flames of conflict in France?

Until issues such as the one discussed on this thread enter the public domain's sphere of concern, and the details commonly understood, the Democrats are going to have a difficult time disproving McCain's contention that America must "win" in Iraq. And that's terribly sad.

Posted by: arty kraft on February 27, 2008 at 4:23 PM | PERMALINK

"but, in fact, the Kurds only have the ability to act as human tripwires. Fighting the Turkish Army with only a few regiments of light infantry would be little more than an act of collective suicide, if the Turks were prepared to carry things that far"

You're assuming that it would be direct conflict. Make it a guerilla war, in terrain that the Kurds know well, and I'm not sure that the outcome would be as certain or as swift as you think it might be.

Posted by: PaulB on February 27, 2008 at 4:59 PM | PERMALINK

"You're assuming that it would be direct conflict. Make it a guerilla war, in terrain that the Kurds know well, and I'm not sure that the outcome would be as certain or as swift as you think it might be."


Mind you,under those circumstances, given the Kurds hands aren't exactly clean when it comes to their treatment of the other ethnic groups in the area in the last few years, it would be easy enough for the turks to fund and arm the turkomans and arabs and set them on the kurds.

Hurrah, a multi sided ethnic shoot out....

Posted by: kb on February 27, 2008 at 6:14 PM | PERMALINK
I'm willing to guess that the US will be the big loser in this, since we have been the informal advocates of Kurds for a couple of decades. If we let Turkey attack in Iraqi Kurdistan at will, our strongest Iraqi supporters will turn on us.

It also undermines are credibility everywhere, though given the past 7+ years there's not a lot of damage left to be done there.

Posted by: cmdicely on February 27, 2008 at 6:35 PM | PERMALINK
There is nothing that would prevent Turkey from invoking the collective defense provision --–Art.5--- of the 1949 NATO Treaty.

As long as they are attacking the Kurds in Iraq rather than Iraqi Kurds attacking them in Kurdistan, the fact that the North Atlantic Treaty only obligates the allies to respond on attacks on another ally that occurs in North America, Europe, Turkey, or islands in the North Atlantic north of the Tropic of Cancer, would, in fact, prevent them from invoking Art. 5, the same way the U.S. can't couldn't invoke Art. 5 to demand the rest of NATO go to war with Iraq because of Iraq's attacks on US planes enforcing the no fly zones.

Posted by: cmdicely on February 27, 2008 at 6:41 PM | PERMALINK

Of course the central govt cares about Kurdistan. And the way they care about Kurdistan is that the Arab parties are plenty happy to see the peshmerga (the only legitimate indigenous fighting force in the Iraq...and not fully integrated with the federal army) tied up fighting the Turks. Of course the peshmerga and the Turkish army, both with solid claims for US support, will tie up our diplomatically challenged POTUS in knots. If you are looking for a place for WW-IV, or WW-V, or however the PNACs are numbering them now, to start, this looks as good a place as any. Add Kosovo/a independence to the mix and its beginning to look a lot like 1914 again.

Posted by: majun on February 27, 2008 at 6:59 PM | PERMALINK

So what happens when/if a peshmerga soldier kills a Turk on or near the border using American supplied munitions?

Our ally by treaty get killed by our ally on the ground due to a situation we instigated.

Turkey is THE example of a working Islamic democracy that has freedom of religion (no it's not perfect but if the middle east was all a bunch of Turkey's we'd all sleep better tonight and so would their citizens). It's unforgivable that the administration has antagonized them like this.

Posted by: scott on February 27, 2008 at 7:31 PM | PERMALINK

PaulB,

I don’t think that it is reasonable to assume a situation in which the Kurds fight a guerrilla war against the Turkish army for a number of reasons, which I will explain in a moment. Also, I would note that even the PKK (which either is a “guerrilla army” or very nearly so) is being forced into larger engagements because they have villages and bases which they would like to protect and which they fear losing. I think the more likely situation in the event of conflict between Iraqi Kurdistan and Turkey is a series of fairly large engagements in which the peshmerga try to use their temporary advantage in manpower to push the Turks out while seeking to exert diplomatic pressure to end the incursion before Turkey is able to deploy a much larger invasion force supported by powerful armored units, artillery and air power.

I strongly believe that any move by the peshmerga would likely trigger a much wider deployment of Turkish forces into the interior of Iraqi Kurdistan and these forces would be supported by heavy armour and strong tactical air units. Turkey might have the twin goals of destroying the peshmerga (and finishing the PKK) and occupying Iraqi Kurdistan (where there is lots of oil---something which Turkey lacks and wants). Lacking armour, artillery and air power, the best the peshmerga (possibly supported by the “Iraqi army”) could do would be to fight probably a series of set-piece battles in defense of their main cities with the objective of delaying the Turkish advance long enough for either the Iraqi government or representatives of Iraqi Kurdistan to bring diplomatic pressure to bear on Turkey, perhaps through the UN or the EU.

This would, of course, surely bring about the crisis which is the main topic of this discussion and would leave the USA with the"Hobbesian choice" which I and others have described in this thread.

Now, addressing the specific point which you make, let me say that the general conditions for a successful guerrilla campaign are either absent here or would be totally dependent on help from the USA or the arabs.

Assume that such help is not forthcoming and consider these factors in terms of a developing Kurdish insurgency: The Turkish army is well trained and equipped. They can easily occupy Iraqi Kurdistan with at least the necessary ratio of government forces to insurgents (which is often given as 10:1). The Turks are experienced in dealing with Kurds and have been largely successful over a long period of time at suppressing their resistance to Turkish rule in the Kurdish areas of Turkey. Also, the Turks could expect significant local support from the large population of Iraqi Turkomans who resent what they see as their oppression by the Kruds and who also have significant ties to Turkey itself.

Equally as important, there is no place of sanctuary for the Kurds to recruit, to train, to stage and to re-equip and rest after engagements. Again, in the absence of support from the USA or the arabs, there would be no outside source of financial support and no outside supplier of weapons and equipment. To my knowledge, no modern insurgency or campaign of guerrilla warfare has ever been successful in the absence of such conditions, and particularly not under the circumstances which I describe in the preceding paragraph.

Thus my conclusion that the peshmerga can only perform the function of “human tripwires”. If things totally fall apart, they do not have the necessary force to defeat the Turkish army and expel it from Iraqi territory. Neither could they fight a successful guerrilla action unless the United States was willing to support either the peshmerga or the Iraqi government against our NATO ally Turkey. Without that support, they would eventually run out of men and material and be destroyed. No matter how skilled they might be as guerrilla fighters they would eventually be defeated.

They are “human tripwires” because they can precipitate the crisis but are incapable of satisfactorily resolving it without massive outside help.

Posted by: Mitch Guthman on February 27, 2008 at 8:03 PM | PERMALINK

Cmdicely,

While I agree that you are technically correct about the provisions of Article Five, I believe that Turkey could nonetheless properly invoke it in the event that the peshmerga were sent into action in circumstances which suggested Iraqi or Kurdish support of the PKK. I believe that Turkey would point to the fact that the NATO membership (correctly, I believe) invoked Article Five on Sept. 11, 2001, in response to the attacks launched by Al-Qaeda from Afghanistan and supported by that government thereby confirming that an attack on one member is an attack on all.

Although I agree that the analogy is not perfect, I believe that it is nonetheless at least arguably valid. It is clear that the PKK is a terrorist organization and that they have launched many attacks from Iraqi Kurdistan into Turkey itself. These attacks have caused many Turkish military and civilian deaths. The critical point would be whether the deployment of the peshmerga could be seen by NATO as indicating that the Iraqis or Iraqi Kruds were supporting or rescuing the PKK in much the same way as the Taliban government supported Al-Qaeda.

If the deployment of the peshmerga can properly be so viewed, then I think the analogy is easily close enough to make a Turkish request for support under Article Five appear legitimate, which is all that is needed to put the USA on the spot about whether we will support Turkey in the way that they and other NATO members offered to support us after 9/11. It would leave us in a terrible quandary. And it would once again demonstrate that the Bush administration is a totally incompetent gang of fools who have caused the greatest foreign policy disaster in our and perhaps anyone else’s recent history. I have no idea how to get out of this one. None at all.

Posted by: Mitch Guthman on February 27, 2008 at 8:36 PM | PERMALINK

This is the exact scenario I worried about when I visited Iraqi Kurdistan in 2006. It seems to me that calming the tension between Turks and Kurds has got to be the supreme diplomatic responsibility of the US government in the region, no less important than the mediating role played by the USA between Greece and Turkey.

Posted by: Jonathan Dworkin on February 27, 2008 at 8:40 PM | PERMALINK

We're not in Kansas anymore, Toto.

Posted by: Lucy on February 27, 2008 at 8:52 PM | PERMALINK




 

 

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