Like the Palestinians, the Kurds are routinely described as a “question.” The label refers, in one sense, to their status as a people who sought self-determination in the wake of World War I but whose claim is still unsettled. From the standpoint of the states that divided the population of Kurdistan among themselves, the Kurds are a “question” as the Palestinians are to Israel today, or as the Jews of Europe were in the past, a troublesome, bumptious minority and a running challenge to the states’ preferred notions of national identity. In each of Iraq, Iran, Syria and Turkey, the Middle Eastern countries where Kurds live in large numbers, governments have resorted to violent repression, of varying degrees, in vain attempts to make the “Kurdish question” go away.
On the world stage, the Kurds are infamously classified as “good” or “bad” depending on the attitude of the great powers toward the Middle Eastern state in the spotlight at any given moment. Since the 1991 Gulf war, the Kurds of Iraq have generally been viewed as “good,” for their stubborn insurrections against Saddam Hussein and then their acquiescence in the US-led invasion of 2003. Their peshmerga militias now comprise the crack units of the new, US-trained Iraqi army. The Kurds of Turkey, when they are noticed at all, are frowned upon for undermining the territorial integrity of a key US ally. The group that launched armed struggle on their behalf, the Kurdistan Workers’ Party (PKK), is on the State Department’s list of foreign terrorist organizations. Oddly enough, the “good Kurds, bad Kurds” formula is frequently applied among the international left as well, though with protagonist and antagonist reversed. This narrative frame has led to no small amount of moral hypocrisy — among governments and progressives alike — and left various groups of Kurds without outside support when they most needed it. The durability of “good Kurds, bad Kurds” thinking attests to the excessive weight given to Washington and the unspoken loyalty to the prerogatives of the nation-state in the collective imagination.
At one level, and barring a dramatic reversal of fortune, the collapse of the Iraqi state in 2003 has outmoded the old ways of seeing the Kurdish issue. Already in the 1990s, with a US-British no-fly zone over much of northern Iraq, the dual Kurdish parties had achieved the substantial self-governance for which they had long fought in the majority-Kurdish provinces. Since 2003, the two parties have deftly inserted themselves into the councils of quasi-state in Baghdad even as they have inscribed their de facto autonomy in law. These hard-won gains have a power to inspire the Kurds of Iran, Syria and Turkey that cannot be dismissed.
It is important to note, however, that the landlocked Kurds of Iraq remain deeply interconnected with their neighbors, in particular, Arab Iraq and Turkey. In Iraq, there is extensive commerce between the Kurdish zone and points south, and a burgeoning licit trade with Turkey to augment the smuggling networks that have survived the end of sanctions. Turkish policy toward northern Iraq is primarily aimed at destroying the PKK’s mountain bases, but it appears that Ankara is also promoting business ties to establish Turkey as Iraqi Kurdistan’s economic lifeline and to stabilize the Turkish southeast. Kurdish businessmen from Turkey, for instance, are now encouraged to invest across the Iraqi border.
With the denouement of the Iraqi Kurds’ liberation struggle also comes the nettlesome intramural contestation of a “normal” polity. The Kurds of Iraq, like their brethren elsewhere, are divided along lines of party affiliation, language and tribe, and highly stratified by income and education. Class divides will only widen amid the frontier capitalism of the post-sanctions era. Socio-economic grievances once blamed upon Saddam or sanctions are now directed at the twin Kurdish parties and the Kurdistan Regional Government they jointly operate. The most sensitive issue of all, of course, is the fact that the Kurdish-controlled areas contain numerous Arabs, Assyrians, Turkmen and other non-Kurds; the “disputed territories” the Kurdish parties seek to annex, chiefly oil-rich Kirkuk, contain even more. The “reverse Arabization” of Kirkuk, while it has not proceeded as rapidly and mercilessly as once feared, has these smaller communities worried about the prospect of consolidated Kurdish rule.
Finally, the Kurdish parties of Iraq remain enmeshed in perhaps the most consequential great-power intervention in the vicinity of Kurdistan since the aftermath of World War I. They have hardly been mirrors of US policy preferences — witness, for example, Iraqi President and Patriotic Union of Kurdistan leader Jalal Talabani’s regular visits to Tehran or the Kurdish parties’ near silence at Iranian attacks upon the peshmerga from Iran (allegedly backed by the US) based in Iraq. While they embrace an expansive version of federalism, the Kurdish parties have not worked to impose the “soft partition” of Iraq along ethno-sectarian lines, as Sen. Joe Biden (D-DE) and a few Washington think tankers have irresponsibly advocated. But they are part of a rump Iraqi government that is negotiating with the Bush administration over the parameters of a long-term US military presence in Iraq, against the express wishes of important Arab Iraqi factions and, if polls are to be believed, a majority of the Iraqi people. They are clearly counting on Washington, as well, to help them thread the needle of Kirkuk, where they hope to press their territorial claim while maintaining warmer relations with Turkey. US intentions in this regard, as in others, are unpredictable at best.
All these factors militate against thinking that the present successes of the Kurds of Iraq are necessarily a first step toward a greater Kurdistan or even the replication of the Iraqi experience in Iran, Syria or Turkey. In these countries, the states persist in denying the Kurds the right to identify as Kurds, mandating that Kurds assimilate to the dominant national formation or consign themselves to frustrated, and often dangerous, political opposition. Turkey’s advances in this area are inadequate, as are Iran’s; Syria’s are non-existent. Any future moves to code the Kurds of these countries as “good” or “bad” for great-power priorities will likely redound to the detriment of their just demand to be acknowledged as equal citizens with a distinct culture.
The Kurds symbolize the incompleteness of the project of nation-state building in the Middle East, being a nation without a state and having borne some of the most terrible costs of the efforts of states at forging nations. Today, their activism inside and outside the corridors of power is shaking the old ethno-nationalist faiths, but also displaying the limitations of ethno-nationalism itself. A peaceful conclusion to the Kurds’ long quest for communal rights will require imagining self-determination that does not force the displacement or disenfranchisement of others and citizenship that does not dictate the erasure of difference.