Yesterday, the New York Times published an op-ed entitled “The West’s Best Ally Against the ISIS” by Kemal Kirkuki whom it identified as “a commander of the peshmerga forces on the northwest Kirkuk frontline, and a former speaker of the Kurdistan Regional Government’s Parliament.” Bizarrely, that byline omitted the fact that Kirkuki is also a member of the political bureau of that region’s ruling Kurdistan Democratic Party (KDP).
Kirkuki’s article argued that the West should arm the Kurds directly as its best ally fighting the Islamic State. He bashed the Iraqi government in Baghdad’s efforts to fight the Islamic State and sang the praises of recent Kurdish victories in and around Sinjar. If that were the end all and be all of the situation, Kirkuki’s argument might make sense. But, a closer look shows Kirkuki’s article full of omissions, half-truths, and outright falsehoods.
Here are just a few:
- Kirkuki writes: “Unlike the little progress made by Iraq’s central government, we are making headway militarily.” What he omits is that the Iraqi central government has reconquered Tikrit, Beiji, and has made headway around Ramadi.
- Kirkuki writes: “Last month, we undertook a major operation and recaptured the city of Sinjar, which was one of the main Yazidi cities in Kurdistan until it fell to the Islamic State in 2014.” Here, he omits two important facts: First, Yazidis castigate the KDP peshmerga for abandoning them to the Islamic State after both rejecting reinforcements ahead of the initial Islamic State attack and then refusing to leave the Yazidis with weaponry as the peshmerga withdrew. Because of the Yazidis animosity toward the peshmerga, many have turned to the YPG, the Syrian Kurdish militia, for protection. Hence, the second omission: According to Kurdistan Prime Minister Nechirvan Barzani’s media company Rudaw and other press, the YPG — by far the most effective force against the Islamic State — participated in the liberation of Sinjar. Here, for example, is a photo of a YPG banner draped over the silos of Sinjar on the day of the Islamic State defeat. What Kirkuki wrote was the equivalent of a Brit ignoring the American contribution on D-Day (or vice versa).
- Kirkuki writes: “During each successive Iraqi government, and reaching a peak during the regime of Saddam Hussein, the Kurds and other minorities in the north of this fictitious state were subjected to genocidal attacks and harsh oppression.” That is true, but what Kirkuki forgets is that in 1996, he and his boss — Masoud Barzani — invited Saddam Hussein into Erbil rather than risk losing the city to Kurdish political rival Jalal Talabani.
- Kirkuki writes: “The American-led invasion of 2003 offered us hope that a democratic regime might finally take root in Baghdad. Unfortunately, these hopes were dashed upon the rocks of sectarian violence and a faulty system of federalism.” The reality is that democracy is stronger in Baghdad than Erbil. Since Iraq regained its sovereignty in 2004, it has had four different prime ministers. Kurdistan, on the other hand, has had only one ruler — Masoud Barzani — who refused to step down at the end of his presidency.
- Kirkuki writes: “The situation could have been worse; were it not for the timely intervention of Kurdish forces the city of Kirkuk, with its population of nearly a million and huge oil reserves, would also have fallen.” What Kirkuki omits is that the political party to which he belongs initially refused to send arms or equipment to Kirkuk because its governor belonged to an opposition Kurdish party.
- Kirkuki writes: “Heavy arms and ammunition would help reduce casualties on our side and speed up the process of liberating the territories currently occupied by the jihadists. All the heavy weaponry that the United States sends to fight the Islamic State, however, is directed to the central government, which has failed to make significant progress despite the lavish aid that is provided to them at the expense of American taxpayers.” What Kirkuki omits is that the United States also sends arms to the Kurds through Baghdad. Here is a list current as of last summer. In addition, the Kurds have received weaponry directly from Iran, Germany, Bulgaria, and other countries. Indeed, the Kornet anti-tank missiles which the Kurds purchased from Bulgaria were somehow transferred to the Islamic State before that group’s initial assault on Mosul. More importantly, Kirkuki fails to explain why he has not used the weaponry provided to him. Rather, as Barzani’s presidential term was about to expire, the peshmerga convoyed the equipment through the regional capital of Erbil in order to intimidate local civil society. Indeed, when Kirkuki seeks more money and weaponry, it seems his concern is more to support the political movement to which he belongs rather than to fight the Islamic State.
- Kirkuki writes: “While Baghdad has been happy to take the money from selling our oil, it has been less enthusiastic about passing it on to us.” He ignores the fact that the Kurds received 17 percent of Iraq’s oil revenue. He also ignores that Iraq continues to pay the pipeline fees for Kurdistan’s exports to Ceyhan, Turkey, to the tune of $270 million over the past year. As for Kurdistan’s inability to pay salaries, Kirkuki might ask why Baghdad has been able to pay salaries to its employees, but Kurdistan hasn’t chosen to use the billions of dollars it has received from Baghdad to pay Kurdish workers. Perhaps if Kurdish leaders spent less on real estate, they might have more money to meet their obligations.
Opinion is not news, but there still should be standards. The New York Times erred in the past by allowing its opinion page to be used as a propaganda platform for Hamas (on the same day as did the Washington Post). If the desire is to arm the Kurds, the Grey Lady might have published the same arguments without the overstatements, omissions, or falsehoods. It might have asked basic fact-checking questions of Kirkuki or the firm placing the essay on his behalf. Its treatment of Kirkuki’s piece is not only problematic because of its inaccuracies, however, but rather because the editors failed to acknowledge Kirkuki’s political role in the ruling party at a time of constitutional crisis in Kurdistan. What results, therefore, is less a policy argument and more the type of piece a public relations firm might write on behalf of a client. Kirkuki might celebrate his ghostwriter’s placement of the piece and the imprimatur the New York Times brings his request for more money and arms, but ultimately the inaccuracies cheapen the New York Times’ still important brand.