Successive administrations in Washington have long taken the Iraqi Kurds for granted, which is a shame because the Kurds have, since the tail end of the Cold War at least, been relatively pro-American, at least compared to others in the region.
Alas, if anyone wants to confirm just how far American influence is falling, even among American friends, they need go no further than Iraqi Kurdistan. The Patriotic Union of Kurdistan (PUK), a party founded in 1975 as a more progressive, less tribal off-shoot of Mulla Mustafa Barzani’s Kurdistan Democratic Party (KDP), has in recent years suffered from increasing factionalism, a phenomenon only worsened when a debilitating stroke removed party founder and Iraqi president Jalal Talabani from anything more than a symbolic leadership role.
There are three main factions to the PUK: Hero Ibrahim Ahmad, Talabani’s wife; and former PUK Prime Ministers Barham Salih and Kosrat Rasul. Hero is heavily involved in both the transparent and opaque aspects of party purse strings and has sought to promote her sons within the party. Most observers see the Western-educated Barham—whom Hero dislikes immensely—as a reformer. Kosrat, whose health has declined in recent years, is most popular with the peshmerga, the Kurdish militia, as he was himself long a successful military leader.
That the three factions and their various followers have been unable to cooperate has paralyzed the PUK.
I spent part of last week in Sulaymani, Erbil, and Kirkuk in Iraqi Kurdistan. Kurds pointed out the significance of the fact that it was not the United States which brokered political compromise, but rather Iran which worked out—or some might say imposed—a formula in which Barham would become secretary-general of the party, with Talabani’s second son Qubad as one deputy and Kosrat’s son Darbaz as another deputy. Earlier this week, with Hero seeking seemingly infinite delays to a new PUK conference, both Barham and Kosrat resigned their PUK politburo positions sparking a new crisis. Again, the Iranians are coming to the rescue to set Kurdish politics straight.
How sad it is that America’s best friends in the region see the United States as devoid of meaningful influence. And what happens in Kurdistan does not stay in Kurdistan: Every other politician in the region has watched the crisis unfold and concluded that it is Iranian dictates which matter and not the demarches of the United States. And how sad it is, as well, that this is a legacy Obama’s successors will face for years to come.