RSN Fundraising Banner
FB Share
Email This Page
add comment
Print

Coll writes: "To the defense of Erbil: this was the main cause that drew President Obama back to combat in Iraq last week, two and a half years after he fulfilled a campaign pledge and pulled the last troops out."

 (photo: Sebastian Meyer/Corbis)
(photo: Sebastian Meyer/Corbis)


Why Is the U.S. Really Helping the Kurds, Now?

By Steve Coll, The New Yorker

11 August 14

 

o the defense of Erbil: this was the main cause that drew President Obama back to combat in Iraq last week, two and a half years after he fulfilled a campaign pledge and pulled the last troops out.

After Mazar-i-Sharif, Nasiriyah, Kandahar, Mosul, Benghazi, and a score of other sites of American military intervention—cities whose names would have stumped most American “Jeopardy!” contestants before 2001—we come now to Erbil. One can forgive the isolationist: Where?

Erbil has an ancient history, but, in political-economic terms, the city is best understood these days as a Kurdish sort of Deadwood, as depicted in David Milch’s HBO series about a gold-rush town whose antihero, Al Swearengen, conjures up a local government to create a veneer of legitimacy for statehood, all to advance his rackets. Erbil is an oil-rush town where the local powers that be similarly manipulate their ambiguous sovereignty for financial gain—their own, and that of any pioneer wild and wily enough to invest money without having it stolen.

Erbil is the capital of the oil-endowed Kurdish Regional Government, in northern Iraq. There the United States built political alliances and equipped Kurdish peshmerga militias long before the Bush Administration’s invasion of Iraq, in 2003. Since 2003, it has been the most stable place in an unstable country. But last week, well-armed guerrillas loyal to the Islamic State in Iraq and al-Sham, or ISIS, threatened Erbil’s outskirts, forcing Obama’s momentous choice. (The President also ordered air operations to deliver humanitarian aid to tens of thousands of Yazidis and other non-Muslim minorities stranded on remote Mount Sinjar. A secure Kurdistan could provide sanctuary for those survivors.)

“The Kurdish region is functional in the way we would like to see,” Obama explained during a fascinating interview with Thomas Friedman published on Friday. “It is tolerant of other sects and other religions in a way that we would like to see elsewhere. So we do think it is important to make sure that that space is protected.”

All true and convincing, as far as it goes. Kurdistan is indeed one of a handful of reliable allies of the United States in the Middle East these days. Its economy has boomed in recent years, attracting investors from all over and yielding a shiny new international airport and other glistening facilities. Of course, in comparison to, say, Jordan or the United Arab Emirates, Kurdistan has one notable deficit as a staunch American ally: it is not a state. Nor is it a contented partner in the construction of Iraqi national unity, which remains the principal project of the Obama Administration in Iraq. In that light, Obama’s explanation of his casus belli seemed a little incomplete.

Obama’s advisers explained to reporters that Erbil holds an American consulate, and that “thousands” of Americans live there. The city has to be defended, they continued, lest ISIS overrun it and threaten American lives. Fair enough, but why are thousands of Americans in Erbil these days? It is not to take in clean mountain air.

ExxonMobil and Chevron are among the many oil and gas firms large and small drilling in Kurdistan under contracts that compensate the companies for their political risk-taking with unusually favorable terms. (Chevron said last week that it is pulling some expatriates out of Kurdistan; ExxonMobil declined to comment.) With those oil giants have come the usual contractors, the oilfield service companies, the accountants, the construction firms, the trucking firms, and, at the bottom of the economic chain, diverse entrepreneurs digging for a score.

Scroll the online roster of Erbil’s Chamber of Commerce for the askew poetry of a boom town’s small businesses: Dream Kitchen, Live Dream, Pure Gold, Events Gala, Emotion, and where I, personally, might consider a last meal if trapped in an ISIS onslaught, “Famous Cheeses Teak.”

It’s not about oil. After you’ve written that on the blackboard five hundred times, watch Rachel Maddow’s documentary “Why We Did It” for a highly sophisticated yet pointed journalistic take on how the world oil economy has figured from the start as a silent partner in the Iraq fiasco.

Of course, it is President Obama’s duty to defend American lives and interests, in Erbil and elsewhere, oil or no. Rather than an evacuation of citizens, however, he has ordered a months-long aerial campaign to defend Kurdistan’s status quo, on the grounds, presumably, that it is essential to a unified Iraq capable of isolating ISIS. Yet the status quo in Kurdistan also includes oil production by international firms, as it might be candid to mention. In any event, the defense of Kurdistan that Obama has ordered should work, if the Kurdish peshmerga can be rallied and strengthened on the ground after an alarming retreat last week.

Yet there is a fault line in Obama’s logic about Erbil. The President made clear last week that he still believes that a durable government of national unity—comprising responsible leaders of Iraq’s Shiite majority, Kurds, and Sunnis who are opposed to ISIS—can be formed in Baghdad, even if it takes many more weeks beyond the three months of squabbling that have already passed since the country’s most recent parliamentary vote.

The project of a unified Baghdad government strong enough to defeat ISIS with a nationalist Army and then peel off Sunni loyalists looks increasingly like a pipe dream; it was hard to tell from the Friedman interview what odds Obama truly gives the undertaking.

Why has political unity in Baghdad proven so elusive for so long? There are many important reasons—the disastrous American decision to disband the Iraqi Army, in 2003, and to endorse harsh de-Baathification, which created alienation among Sunnis that has never been rectified; growing sectarian hatred between Shiites and Sunnis; the infection of disaffected Sunnis with Al Qaeda’s philosophy and with cash and soft power from the Persian Gulf; interference by Iran; the awkwardness of Iraq’s post-colonial borders, and poor leadership in Baghdad, particularly under Prime Minister Nouri al-Maliki. But another reason of the first rank is Kurdish oil greed.

During the Bush Administration, adventurers like Dallas-headquartered Hunt Oil paved the way for ExxonMobil, which cut a deal in Erbil in 2011. Bush and his advisers could not bring themselves to force American oil companies such as Hunt to divest from Kurdistan or to sanction non-American investors. They allowed the wildcatters to do as they pleased while insisting that Erbil’s politicians negotiate oil-revenue sharing and political unity with Baghdad. Erbil’s rulers never quite saw the point of a final compromise with Baghdad’s Shiite politicians—as each year passed, the Kurds got richer on their own terms, they attracted more credible and deep-pocketed oil companies as partners, and they looked more and more like they led a de-facto state. The Obama Administration has done nothing to reverse that trend.

And so, in Erbil, in the weeks to come, American pilots will defend from the air a capital whose growing independence and wealth has loosened Iraq’s seams, even while, in Baghdad, American diplomats will persist quixotically in an effort to stitch that same country together to confront ISIS.

Obama’s defense of Erbil is effectively the defense of an undeclared Kurdish oil state whose sources of geopolitical appeal—as a long-term, non-Russian supplier of oil and gas to Europe, for example—are best not spoken of in polite or naïve company, as Al Swearengen would well understand. Life, Swearengen once pointed out, is often made up of “one vile task after another.” So is American policy in Iraq.


e-max.it: your social media marketing partner
 

Comments   

We are concerned about a recent drift towards vitriol in the RSN Reader comments section. There is a fine line between moderation and censorship. No one likes a harsh or confrontational forum atmosphere. At the same time everyone wants to be able to express themselves freely. We'll start by encouraging good judgment. If that doesn't work we'll have to ramp up the moderation.

General guidelines: Avoid personal attacks on other forum members; Avoid remarks that are ethnically derogatory; Do not advocate violence, or any illegal activity.

Remember that making the world better begins with responsible action.

- The RSN Team

 
+45 # WBoardman 2014-08-11 13:17
Isn't this kind of over-thinking the whole thing?

At this point the choice comes down to:
1. Defend the Kurds, or
2. Don't defend the Kurds.

I suppose it matters that the choice is unpleasant, that
the Kurds are about oil, that Bush should have been
impeached for lying us into war, and so on, but
none of that matters much, does it?

How different would Kurdistan be today if Bush had
simply maintained Clinton's no-fly zone?

Integrating the Kurds into a unified Iraq was never
much more than a pipe dream, at best.

An independent, actual Kurdistan might be the best outcome
we can hope for at this moment, as al-Maliki organizes a
military coup to seize the government from himself.
 
 
+17 # jcdav 2014-08-11 20:29
I keep reading about divisions in Iraq (and The whole Arabian Peninsula) I keep wondering what the roundly ignored division made at the end of WWI by Lawrence of Arabia- probably the foremost authority on the subject at the time really looked like. Ol' T.E. Lawrence foretold sectarian violence if the religious & ethnic differences were not allowed to dictate the boundries.
 
 
0 # C. Winslow 2014-08-12 19:02
Just to point out, M. Boardman, that Nuri al-Maliki would not be the first authoritarian to seize power from himself. General Adnan al-Shishakli did it in Syria in, I think, 1951. Also, Muaw'iayah ibn Abu Sufyan, in a sense, took power from his own government in about 661 in Damascus, proclaiming himself Caliph after the assassination of the Imam Ali ibn Abi Talib. What was David's relationship to King Saul? Seizing power from oneself seems to be a feature of the bedouin ethos.
 
 
+20 # Jingze 2014-08-11 16:10
OIL! If it were no about oil, the USA would have happily bent over and allowed theKurds to set up a nation of its own. Now, it seems it has become important. Hah! What a laugh. The Kurds know full well that US help means giving the US its oil without reasonable compensation. The real question is who will snooker the Kurds this time around.
 
 
+7 # karenvista 2014-08-11 19:06
Quoting Jingze:
OIL! If it were no about oil, the USA would have happily bent over and allowed theKurds to set up a nation of its own. Now, it seems it has become important. Hah! What a laugh. The Kurds know full well that US help means giving the US its oil without reasonable compensation. The real question is who will snooker the Kurds this time around.


We have a tanker full of Kurdish oil sitting 60 miles off the coast of Texas because the U.S. government is holding it as "Iraqi" oil. What will we decide to do?
 
 
0 # Pancho 2014-08-11 22:42
There is some question about refining capacity as well, is there not, or does that just affect the West Coast?
 
 
0 # Caliban 2014-08-14 14:13
The oil will go to the appropriate petroleum market and be sold at the going price at that time.
 
 
-6 # Texas Girl 2014-08-11 19:07
Jingze --"without reasonable compensation", Are you kidding me? We get oil from many sources and we get it at MARKET PRICES. And that price would be much lower if it were not for the OPEC cartel that keeps the price high because they control so much of it.
 
 
+3 # dsepeczi 2014-08-12 12:21
Quoting Texas Girl:
Jingze --"without reasonable compensation", Are you kidding me? We get oil from many sources and we get it at MARKET PRICES. And that price would be much lower if it were not for the OPEC cartel that keeps the price high because they control so much of it.


That's a pretty misinformed statement. Perhaps you've heard of Wall Street ? This thing they trade called "futures" ? In simple terms, futures allow them to trade oil they don't have by buying oil contracts that mature some 30 years into the future. They buy oil now, betting on the price going up. That is why Big Oil and all that invest in them need the price of oil to go up. They trade on the market every day and we don't pay the price for oil, based on the actual price we pay for oil. Our oil is priced by a combination of actual cost, these Wall Street futures contracts, and local mark ups. Even the gas and oil we develop at home isn't used here because that wouldn't fetch the same price as it would for us to export it. Opec has far less to do with the price of our gas and oil than Wall Street does. When an OPEC member does make a move that would significantly affect our prices, such as one that Saddaam tried when he wanted to trade oil outside of using US currency, we simply bomb them or otherwise destabilize their government quite quickly.
 
 
+7 # Old Uncle Dave 2014-08-11 18:10
There are 16 billion barrels of oil remaining in the Kirkuk oil field.
 
 
+21 # peacetrain 2014-08-11 18:48
The Kurds are about people, a stable sane multiethnic society. Yes, the need oil to maintain it. Who doesn't?
 
 
+3 # soularddave 2014-08-11 20:43
With every move we make, I wonder how much it enrages the Muslim radicals. It really seems like the radicals can inflame themselves without the USA's influence.

How much of this counter-offensi ve is participated in by our allies?
 
 
+14 # AlWight 2014-08-11 20:44
What Coll does not take into account is the fact that it was our invasion that created ISIS. What is our obligation here? Do we walk away and say it is not our problem? How would we look to the rest of the world? The Kurds, Yazidis, and others cannot stand up to ISIS alone. We created this mess. We owe it to the world to help clean it up. Then we should stop interfering in the internal affairs of other countries.
 
 
+4 # bmiluski 2014-08-12 09:06
ISIS is a spin-off from Al-Quida which has been around a lot longer than our invasion.
This whole mess started in 1948 with the establishment of the state of Israel. And I'm so sick of these so-called muslims screaming about western imperialism when all they had to do in 1948 was to turn off the oil to the west and that would have stopped the illegal establishment of Israel. But they did nothing as their Palastinian brethrens were rounded up, forced off their land, and shoved into camps.
 
 
+3 # Nominae 2014-08-12 10:19
Quoting bmiluski:
ISIS is a spin-off from Al-Quida which has been around a lot longer than our invasion.....


So true it is, but to be fair to AlWight's comment, it was the U.S. which created Al Qaida as a strategy for fighting the Russians by proxy back when Russia was occupying Afghanistan.

The U.S. seems to think that Newton's Law of Motion (For every action there is an equal and opposite reaction) also known as Karma to the Asian Mystics.... applies to everyone and everything *in* the Universe with the apparent exception of the U.S.

Not too tough to see how well *that* ignorant and arrogant perspective is workin' out for us.
 
 
+2 # dsepeczi 2014-08-12 12:30
Quoting NOMINAE:
Quoting bmiluski:
ISIS is a spin-off from Al-Quida which has been around a lot longer than our invasion.....


So true it is, but to be fair to AlWight's comment, it was the U.S. which created Al Qaida as a strategy for fighting the Russians by proxy back when Russia was occupying Afghanistan.

The U.S. seems to think that Newton's Law of Motion (For every action there is an equal and opposite reaction) also known as Karma to the Asian Mystics.... applies to everyone and everything *in* the Universe with the apparent exception of the U.S.

Not too tough to see how well *that* ignorant and arrogant perspective is workin' out for us.


So true. We're kind of like some sick twist of "The old lady that swallowed the fly" song. We swallow a bird to kill the fly, we swallow a cat to kill the bird, we swallow a dog to kill the cat, etc. In short, once we screw up ... we just try again and make an even bigger mess than we did the last time. It seems all of our politicians say to themselves, "What ? War didn't work ? Hmmm. I know what we need ! We need more war !!! Yeah, it'll work this time ! I'm sure of it !" Lol. They are ALL a bunch of fucking morons and the NSA can quote me on that.
 
 
+2 # dsepeczi 2014-08-12 12:25
Quoting AlWight:
What Coll does not take into account is the fact that it was our invasion that created ISIS. What is our obligation here? Do we walk away and say it is not our problem? How would we look to the rest of the world? The Kurds, Yazidis, and others cannot stand up to ISIS alone. We created this mess. We owe it to the world to help clean it up. Then we should stop interfering in the internal affairs of other countries.


I can assure you we look like the bullies we are to the rest of the world and we will for a long time, even if we pull our heads out of our asses and leave the rest of the world alone starting today.
 
 
+2 # bmiluski 2014-08-12 12:30
And yet dsepeczi....whe never a country is in trouble they always call on the US. When we don't intervene (Syria) we are then blamed for the ensuing shit that happens (ISIS).
 
 
+6 # Rara Avis 2014-08-11 21:37
Certainly the Administration is well aware of Kurdistan's oil wealth. But any decision not to intervene to this point as we have, in limited but forceful fashion, means 40,000 dead Yasidis, the end of the Kurds, and ISIL having all that oil wealth--not Chevron or ExonMObil. As money hungry as these corporate entities are, they do not practice the worst sort of terrorism in the region. ISIL's ability to sell Kurdish oil would open them up to acquiring the latest weapons in a worldwide arms bazar, and greatly increase they're already worrisome power. The Kurds are indeed a fairly democratic nation, tolerant, and loyal, and most of all a mark of great stability in a region filled with chaos and killing. Then too, the Kurds with air support and some newer and modern arms will fight hard themselves and not demand we put troops in next to them. This is that rare case where our use of command of the air, and ability to provide technical help and the latest small arms including antitank weapons, perhaps some artillery, has minimal risk. Should the President expand the war without a lot of European and Regional powers, that will be yet another American mistake in the region.
 
 
+6 # ahollman 2014-08-11 22:41
I am increasingly bothered by a pattern I see in RSN articles: 1) Find a US policy or action to criticize. 2) Assemble facts/opinions that support such criticism. 3) Ignore facts/opinions that fail to support or directly contradict such criticism.

I see this in criticism of US policy on Ukraine, where RSN's alleged motive du jour for US involvement has shifted from supporting a corrupt government to economic alliance to military alliance to (as of today) oil and gas deposits in Slovyansk.

I see the same pattern alleged in this article: that again, US policy, this time toward the Kurds, is driven by oil.

This is shallow and ignores multiple, obvious considerations, current and historical: 1) The Kurds are Iraq's only example of decent, honest self-governance and religious tolerance, putting the Maliki and earlier Iraqi governments to shame. 2) The Kurds, like the Shiites in the south in Basra, have their own oil patch; it is perfectly reasonable for them to exploit it. 3) The Kurdish military functions far better than does the Iraqi military. 4) It was once the Kurds who were mountain refugees chased from their homes, slowly dying as the world watched and did nothing; they can do better.

The root cause of Iraq's poor governance is not US policy, but that its people identify more strongly with sect or tribe or clan than as Iraqis. Thus, it may be time for that for the British creation called Iraq to dissolve into a Shiastan, Sunnistan, and Kurdistan.
 
 
+2 # bmiluski 2014-08-12 09:08
Bravo ahollman....... ..well put.
 
 
0 # Buddha 2014-08-12 11:19
And considering the high Kurd population in Eastern Turkey, they might have a different opinion on the idea of a sovereign Kurdistan...

Also interesting how we say we don't support the idea of ethnic cleansing to create mono-ethnic or theocratic apartheid states...until we do when we see it in our interests.
 
 
+5 # Pancho 2014-08-11 22:55
It is said variously that ISIL helped itself to a half billion in Mosul banks, plus enough weaponry to supply two divisions when it ran off forces laughably commanded by al Maliki's idiot yes men. So they don't need all that dough.

Also, Bush 41 encouraged Kurds to revolt against Saddam in 1991, which got them slaughtered when we failed to provide support. So, do they trust us at all, and if so, why?

In addition, our allies the Turks have had very strained relations with the PKK, the Kurdish Workers Party, and that has kept the U.S. from providing adequate support, including in Syria, though the PKK's strength has been eroding in recent years.
 
 
+2 # C. Winslow 2014-08-12 19:23
Generally well said, Pancho (in brief). I would only add that, unlike President Cheney, President Obama would like nothing better than to not get into any military involvements in the Middle East. The world won't let loose of him, and he has no global police to call on. His obvious reluctance to engage with the world's political and commercial adventurers works against him, encouraging them to push too far. Of course, they will overreach, but, in the meantime, a lot of people will suffer.
 
 
+6 # medusa 2014-08-11 23:57
No sane person wants to see an Islamic Caliphate in power. America is responsible to do something about the crisis that was created by our Leader, George W Bush. Obama sees this clearly. Let's hope that he can keep us on track, to save the innocent and defeat the mindless.
 
 
+1 # RMDC 2014-08-12 06:32
Iraqi Kurdistan is also an Israeli colony. Part of the GWOT is the goal of establishing Israel as the colonial power in the muslim world. Israel largely has controlled Iraqi Kurdistan since the 90s. It also controls South Sudan. Israel benefits from the profits of holding colonies, but the US still has to take care of the military part and the cost of defending the colony.

It is important to note that Obama will not destroy ISIS. RT's news reported that the US ordered the Kurdish terrorist group, Pesh Merga, not to attack ISIS. The Obama regimne has work for ISIS to do and that is destroying Syria and overthrowing al Maliki in Baghdad. They've gone off script in Kurdistan and Obama is using bombing to steer them back on course.

ISIS is not a fierce fighting force. They are a cruel and vicious terrorist band or marauders created and run by the CIA and Saudi Intelligence. They were losing in Syria so they turned into Iraq. Maliki was beating them in their asssault on Baghdad, so they turned toward an easier target in Kurdistan.

Truthout has a good article on the leader of ISIS -- a CIA recruit.

http://www.truthdig.com/eartotheground/item/the_new_iraqi_monster_america_helped_make_20140811
 
 
+2 # margpark 2014-08-12 15:34
Isis is dangerous. There are Christians in Kurdistan that have been there since the time of Jesus and people who still practice the religion of Zoroaster. Isis will kill all those people if they capture Kurdistan. That is my reason for supporting the strikes. Kurdistan is obviously a place of interest to historians and especially religious historians.
 
 
+1 # C. Winslow 2014-08-12 19:51
Was al-Baghdadi a CIA recruit? There are only thirty-five or forty tribal and/or clan leaders in the Middle East who have not been recruited by the CIA. The Kurds, like the Palestinians, were promised a state following WWI and didn't get one. They will not quit until they get one and will be wary of the policies of the western powers, using us when it is to their advantage and shooting at us when it is not. Investing in Kurdish oil may be very lucrative, but it will also be risky. I doubt that ISIS will be around very long. Like Abu Muslim and the Old Man of the Mountain, they will overreach and be consumed by the mess they are trying to organize. Mr. Obama,don't yank on the fishing pole after the first little nibble. Wait until the fish tries to grab the entire bait. In the meantime, prepare for the aftermath by sculpting a proximate Iraq with genuine autonomy for the Kurds, et. al.
 
 
+1 # RMDC 2014-08-12 21:55
The Kurdish independence movemnt as infiltarted and co-opted by the CIA. Mustafa Barzani (father of the two brothers who now run Kurdistan) signed up with the CIA and began terrorist campaigns against the Iraqi government. There was in the 1950s a powerful communist force among Kurds because their campaigns for independence were supported by the USSR and there were Kurds in the former USSR where they were treated rather well. The CIA and Barzani wiped out the communists among the Iraqi Kurds and was working on fighting the PKK (Kurdistan Kommunist Party) in Turkey. The Pesh Merga was Barzani's terrorist force. They still exist today.

When Saddam negotiated an agreement with Kurds that gave them pretty much autonomy, Barzani retired and moved to Potomac Maryland right across the river from the CIA to live out his life with the millions he'd made doing CIA work.

The Kurdish leaders now -- the BArzanis and Talibanis -- are pure CIA. These family warlords have sold out their people for the military power and wealth the CIA can give them.


ISIS is pure CIA.
 
 
0 # Caliban 2014-08-14 01:59
Come on folks, don't you get RMDC yet? EVERYBODY is CIA--maybe even RMDC.
 
 
0 # geraldom 2014-08-12 23:08
From what I had heard, the U.S. has greater control over Kurdistan where there are large oil reserves.

If the U.S. can succeed in overthrowing Nouri al-Maliki, and it looks like they will, and put in his place Haider al-Abadi, the U.S. may be allowed to establish a permanent U.S. military base in the country and given complete immunity from prosecution by the Iraq government if any U.S. forces commit crimes against Iraqi citizens.

In addition, the U.S. may establish greater control over the Iraqi oil fields in the south. A large percentage of oil agreements signed by the Maliki govt have been with China. In the same way that the U.S. govt is in complete control over Ukraine via its puppet govt in Kiev, if Haider al-Abadi becomes PM, the U.S. will take greater control of Iraq and could nullify those Chinese contracts with western multi-national oil companies getting them instead.
 
 
0 # Caliban 2014-08-14 14:04
geraldom--If a GOP administration were in power, this scenario might be credible. But, to the best of my knowledge, there has been no sign from the Democrats or the current President are even remotely interested in a permanent military base in Iraq.

Nor does there seem to be any interest in offending the Chinese by such underhanded maneuvering. The Chinese are very useful trading partners with the US, and I expect the administration and the business community want to keep them that way.
 

THE NEW STREAMLINED RSN LOGIN PROCESS: Register once, then login and you are ready to comment. All you need is a Username and a Password of your choosing and you are free to comment whenever you like! Welcome to the Reader Supported News community.

RSNRSN