Dear Mr. Talabani,
As someone who is sometimes asked to comment on the affairs of our hapless Kurds, I have been confronted with the question of just who is Bafil Talabani? Before October 12, I would have declined the request or referred people to the good folks at the Kurdistan Regional Government (KRG) office, named after your brother, here in Washington.
But on October 12, I found myself staring at you courtesy of a YouTube posting by Kurdsat. You thanked those of us who had attended your father’s memorial service both in Kurdistan and abroad. You then proceeded to address Baghdad and the “international community” on the looming war between Kurdistan and Arab Iraq.
I wish you hadn’t done the second part. I now want to address you about the Arab capital and the chewing gum of the powerless folks like us, the international community. You credited your father, Mam Jalal, for the “unparalleled” prosperity in Kurdistan and said we had become the “shining star” of the Middle East!
Was it really Mam Jalal or freedom that unleashed the unparalleled prosperity in Kurdistan? If we have to credit someone for the good fortune of Kurdistan/Iraq, I would, if I were you, answer modestly and directly: Uncle Sam. George W. Bush is responsible for that accidental freedom in our homeland and our challenge now is to preserve it, isn’t it?
I also found your praise of your father a bit odd. Let us who crossed paths with him do so. Jon Lee Anderson of the New Yorker spoke for many of us when he said that Mr. Talabani was, “probably the only person in the world” to have “kissed the cheeks of Condoleezza Rice and Mahmoud Ahmadinejad.”
Anderson’s comment spoke of your father’s signature quality, flexibility, and you made it plain (in your address) that the task had, now, fallen on you and you urged us to walk in your footsteps. You offered to jointly administer Kirkuk with Baghdad (for the sake of peace) and volunteered to throw its duly elected governor under the bus as a bonus.
Flexibility is the sine qua non of politics. But flexibility belongs to the realm of negotiations, often behind closed doors, rather than public declarations broadcast on Kurdsat or YouTube. Listening to you, I murmured to myself: “he is showing our weak hand and one doesn’t do that on the eve of a potential war!”
Speaking of war, you said that Kurdistan doesn’t “need” it and doesn’t “want” it. I know your father admired Mao Zedong, but I am curious if he ever quoted Leon Trotsky to you? Both have made important contributions to the study of war and both should be required reading for aspiring Kurdish revolutionaries.
For example, Mao taught us, “If the enemy advances, retreat; if they retreat, shoot them!” Did this maxim play a role in your decision to abandon Kirkuk? Remember Stalin retreated all the way to the Volga, but won eventually. War is a fickle business and one should not (and I am not) try to second-guess the commander in the field.
I am, however, curious of your understanding of war. I don’t think you are familiar with the writings of Trotsky. I wish you had known of his sobering observation, “You may not be interested in war, but war is interested in you.” It negates your desire to keep Kurdistan out of war. Trotsky was probably reflecting on Plato’s observation, “Only the dead have seen the end of war.”
But what really incensed me, Mr. Talabani, was your cavalier attitude towards the twice-elected governor of Kirkuk, Najmaldin Karim. I know Dr. Karim and consider him a credit to the Kurdish cause. I met your dad at his house and witnessed their genuine affection for one another to my delight. But you obviously dislike Dr. Karim. Why?
That public dissing has revealed something disturbing about you, your blatant disregard for the democratic process in Kurdistan. People in the West expect nondemocratic dictates from the religiously influenced politicians like Abadi, but not from secular Kurds like you. Besides, once you make freedom negotiable, where will you stop? When you say goodbye to liberty, aren’t you also saying goodbye to prosperity?
The international community that you were trying to address thought Kurdistan had one head, and some diplomats were focused on the now retired President Masoud Barzani in Hawler. Baghdad, on the other hand, had already decided to fight him and was trying to read you—to outfox you on its own terms. Now that Kirkuk has fallen, I want to do a postmortem on how Haider al-Abadi acted in the course of the crisis as well.
While you were surrendering Kirkuk and decrying an unwanted war, Mr. Abadi was pretending he was running a democratic state and offering sugary platitudes such as, “We will not use our army against our Kurdish citizens.” It was the perfect pitch to lull Kurds and their friends. I wouldn’t be surprised if a London PR firm was behind his charm offensive.
Mr. Abadi then sent his army and militia to our border in Kirkuk. When we complained about it, he told the reporters it was “fake news.” He also sent his unofficial emissary, Qasem Soleimani, to pray over your father’s grave. The good Persian then apparently threatened you with an ultimatum that included fire and brimstone.
You buckled. Machiavelli could not have planned it better.
Kirkuk is now under the control of Baghdad and is part of the Iranian sphere of influence. The war that you warned against is now taking place not in Soran where your faction prevails, but in the vicinity of Behdinan, the areas controlled by forces loyal to Mr. Barzani. There is talk of dividing Kurdistan/Iraq into two halves. Your half would be on a diet of “peace;” the other that of war.
Mr. Talabani, here are my own thoughts about what is happening in Kurdistan/Iraq.
Nations don’t come into existence through the deliberations of lawmakers. Most fight their way to freedom. Our referendum was the most civilized (and completely nonviolent) expression of a people’s desire to be free. Jefferson, Lincoln, Tolstoy, Gandhi, and Dr. King would have proudly supported our experiment in freedom.
And yet you called the referendum a “mistake,” and a “colossal” one at that. It wasn’t. Lovers of freedom everywhere in the world should have reacted strongly against those who used force to crush our will. Their indifference has plunged Middle East into a new series of wars. You don’t need me to tell you that warmongers are celebrating our inability to turn our region into an abode of peace.
Kirkuk, the prize that Haider al-Abadi sought, has twelve deputies in the Council of Representatives in Baghdad. Eight are Kurds, two are Arabs and two are Turkmen. In our referendum, Kirkuk voted to join Kurdistan. If the United Nations were to hold another one, it would have the same result. Abadi knows this and is not interested in referenda. What he is interested in is to use brute force to disfranchise the Kurds for the jingoists at home and the greedy and indifferent abroad.
The international community doesn’t care whether we are free or not. When it suits its needs, it may arm us to be a rampart against ISIS to safeguard its own freedoms, as it has done for the last three years, but when we ask for our freedom, as we did last month, its response is cynical, amounting to go jump in a lake. Still many in the West (including this hapless Kurd) thought that Kurdistan, in spite of its internal problems, was a match to Arab Iraq. We all assumed, it turns out wrongly I am afraid, we would display Kobane-like resistance and act in unison. Will we ever?
Your father’s favorite revolutionary, before his reconciliation with representative democracy, was Mao and he deserves another mention. The Chinese leader fought Chiang Kai-Shek who was well armed by Americans. Mao later boasted that captured U.S. guns constituted the bulk of his arsenal. American guns in the hands of Iranian proxies tilted the battle of Kirkuk in favor of Baghdad. Perhaps we need to reread Mao. What do you think?
Iran is an ally of Iraq and a formidable foe of the Kurds. For now, Iranian commanders are aiding and abetting the Iraqi war effort. But they face a greater foe in the United States. In Syria, Iran and America face each other. In Iraq, their tactical alliance is built on the quicksand of distrust and enmity. We are, I am afraid, at the front and center of another impending showdown between these friends of Baghdad. Or the U.S. will simply abandon Iraq to the ayatollahs of Tehran. We will then be classified as collateral damage.
Mao and Trotsky are good to read, but you should also read Thucydides. Over 2,500 years ago, he observed that nations go to war out of fear, honor and interest. The same can be said how they form their alliances. America’s interests in Arab Iraq, for now, outweigh their interests in Kurdistan/Iraq. That is what H. R. McMaster, who is a good student of Thucydides, who happens to be an advisor of President Trump, sees in Baghdad.
I can’t say he sees very far. What I can say is that the Iraq that we face is a shadow of the Iraq that your father fought. With some help, he prevailed. With some ingenuity, we can too. For the sake of the unity that you preached on your France 24 interview, I hope you will continue to be a part of freedom’s story in Kurdistan and the world.
Kani Xulam @AKINinfo