With the collapse of Iraqi authority over Kirkuk and its lucrative oil fields, Iraqi Kurds have consolidated control over nearly all territory to which they have laid claim. They preside over a booming region fueled by oil and, in recent years, real estate development as well. A whole generation of Kurdish youth speak no Arabic, have no memory of life under Saddam Hussein, and feel no connection to Baghdad whatsoever. Whereas Kurds long quipped they had no friends but the mountains—and the world’s silence a quarter century ago when Saddam Hussein used chemical weapons against the Kurdish population reinforced such a belief—now an international array of investors, including a number of former U.S. officials, line up for a share of the Kurdish pot of black gold. Indeed, it’s hard not to embrace the Kurdish desire for independence denied to them in the wake of the post-World War I settlements and border adjustments. That Syrian Kurds now have de facto autonomy and Turkish Kurds appear likely over the next decade of winning similar status suggests that when Kurdish statehood comes, it may not simply be limited to northern Iraq.
That said, while it’s easy to cheer lead for Kurdish independence, it would be tragic to believe that the Kurdish struggle will end with the lowering of the Iraqi flag (if any still fly outside of Sulaymani and Kirkuk) and the raising of the old Mahabad flag adopted by Iraqi Kurdistan. Kurdistan is still divided among oligarchs and tribal strongmen. And while it will be easy to welcome Kurdistan into the formal family of nations, it would do Kurds a disservice if the international community simply forgot about them then and ceased pressuring for Kurdistan to become the democracy that so many Kurds desire. Masud Barzani, the Kurdish Region’s president, unilaterally extended his second term so as to avoid the constitutional mandate to step down at its conclusion. He promotes a cult of personality, bases employment on party loyalty and family fealty, and uses his son’s security force against any who would pose him or his party any challenge whatsoever. He draws no differentiation between state resources, party resources, and the personal pocketbook. In other words, while Kurdish officials often brag about their democracy, Kurdistan has become about as democratic as Bashar al-Assad’s Syria, Hosni Mubarak’s Egypt, or Saddam Hussein’s Iraq.
Let us hope that the Kurds win their freedom, but even as we celebrate that step it is important to remember that freedom and possessing a nation-state are not synonymous; indeed, a battle just as real for human rights and liberty may only just be beginning. In all the celebrations, it’s important to recognize that a Kurdish democracy can contribute to the advancement of the Middle East much better than just another Middle Eastern autocracy.