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Issue Date:  December 21, 2007

A nation without a state

Inconsistency and double-dealing mark U.S. policy toward the Kurds


-- Getty Images/AFP/David Furst

Kurdish Workers Party guerrillas conduct military exercises in the mountains of northern Iraq's Kurdish autonomous region in November 2006.

One of the great unresolved issues of the Middle East involves the Kurds, whose plight has largely been ignored by the international community until periodic flare-ups of violence threaten to escalate into a larger regional conflict, as was the case this fall when Turkey began a series of attacks against Kurdish rebel sanctuaries in northern Iraq.

The Kurds are a largely Sunni Muslim people of more than 30 million divided among six countries, primarily what is now northern Iraq and southeastern Turkey and with smaller numbers in northeastern Syria, northwestern Iran and the Caucuses. They are the world’s largest nation without a state of their own and few Kurds recognize the artificial state boundaries that have divided them since the breakup of the Ottoman Empire nearly 90 years ago.

Though the Kurds see themselves as one people, the policies of the United States and other countries toward them vary depending on which side of a particular border they reside.

For example, while cautioning Turkey against overreacting, the United States is actively supporting Turkish military efforts to track and suppress guerrillas of the Kurdish Workers Party (PKK), including support for Turkish air and artillery strikes into Iraqi territory.

At the same time, the United States has been clandestinely supporting the Party for a Free Life in Kurdistan (PEJAK), a group closely allied with the PKK, which operates out of the same remote mountain valley. While the PKK launches its attacks in Turkey, its sister organization PEJAK launches its cross-border raids into Iran. Unlike the retaliatory attacks by Turkey against the PKK, the United States has condemned Iran’s retaliatory attacks against PEJAK as acts of aggression against Iraqi territory.

Such double standards and manipulation of the Kurdish people for geo-political gain are not new. In the mid-1970s, after goading Iraqi Kurds into launching an armed uprising against the then left-leaning Iraqi government with the promise of continued military support, the United States suddenly abandoned them following an agreement between the Iraqi government and the shah of Iran. The Iraqi army marched into Kurdish areas and thousands were slaughtered. Then-Secretary of State Henry Kissinger dismissed concerns about the humanitarian consequences of this decision by saying, “Covert action should not be confused with missionary work.”

The uprising by Iraqi Kurds against the central government in Baghdad resumed in the 1980s during the Iran-Iraq War. As many as 4,000 Kurdish villages were destroyed, more than 100,000 Kurdish civilians were killed and more than 1 million Iraqi Kurds -- nearly one-quarter of the Iraqi Kurdish population -- were displaced. Thousands were killed by chemical weapons.

Despite this, the United States increased its support for Saddam Hussein’s regime during this period, downplaying the humanitarian crisis. After the United States stopped backing the Iraqi government in the aftermath of the Gulf War in 1991, the Kurds responded to U.S. calls on the people of Iraq to rise up against the dictatorship by launching another rebellion. But U.S. forces stood by while thousands of Kurds were slaughtered in a brutal counterattack by Iraqi government forces.

This history of appeasement of Iraqi repression raises serious questions regarding the sincerity of both the strategic and moral concerns subsequently raised by U.S. officials about the nature of the Iraqi regime and the treatment of the Kurdish population. It was therefore disingenuous in the extreme for the Bush administration to have in part justified the 2003 U.S. invasion of Iraq on humanitarian grounds more than a decade later when the United States did nothing to stop the slaughter when it was going on.

The United States has had even less concern about repression of the Kurds on the Turkish side of the border. During the 1990s, more than 3,000 Kurdish villages were destroyed and more than 2 million Kurds became refugees in an operation in which more than three-quarters of the weapons were of U.S. origin. Human Rights Watch, which also criticized the PKK rebels for serious human rights violations, documented how the U.S.-supplied Turkish army was “responsible for the majority of forced evacuations and destruction of villages.” The 15-year war cost over 40,000 lives.

A cease-fire was established in 1999. However, frustrated by the limits of promised reforms by the Turkish regime and emboldened by the establishment of the autonomous Kurdish Regional Government in Iraq resulting from the 2003 U.S. invasion, the PKK resumed its armed struggle in 2004. The mix of Turkish and Kurdish populations makes the establishment of an independent all-Kurdish state problematic. This coupled with the PKK’s use of terrorism and the persecution of ethnic Turks in the autonomous Kurdish region of Iraq have given rise to strong anti-PKK feelings among the Turkish people.

It remains to be seen whether the current crisis in Iraqi Kurdistan and the Kurdish-populated areas of neighboring countries will escalate into a full-scale war. In any case, it is yet another tragic example of the consequences of a U.S. policy that seeks military solutions to complex political problems and uses oppressed peoples as pawns rather than consistently defending their rights.

Stephen Zunes ( is a professor of politics at the University of San Francisco.

National Catholic Reporter, December 21, 2007

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