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Divide, Not Conquer

Book review: The End of Iraq by Peter Galbraith


Published July 19, 2006 at 4:00 a.m.

Search most any national capital and you will eventually find a statue of some foreigner whose connection to the city or country is not immediately apparent. In London, Lincoln glares across parliament square at Big Ben (glaring, perhaps, as he remembers Britain's pro-Confederacy tilt during our Civil War). Latin American liberator Simón Bolivar is honored with a large bust smack in the center of Cairo -- it is almost as incongruous as the statue of Martin Luther on Massachusetts Avenue in Washington, D.C.

In that spirit Iraq's Kurds, when they finally get the independence they so clearly desire, ought to consider a small memorial to Townshend, Vermont, resident Peter Galbraith. Surely few outsiders will deserve more credit toward the creation of a free and sovereign Kurdistan.

Galbraith's involvement with Iraq in general and the Kurds in particular stretches back more than two decades, to his time as a staffer with the Senate Foreign Relations Committee. He was also the United States' first ambassador to Croatia and, later, taught at the National War College. Long a fixture of op-ed pages, publications such as the New York Review of Books and the more erudite corners of the talk-TV world, Galbraith has emerged as one of the country's most thoughtful commentators on both the Balkans and Iraq. He recounts this personal history -- while arguing forcefully both for Kurdish independence and against Bush administration policies -- in his new book, The End of Iraq: How American Incompetence Created a War Without End.

The crux of Galbraith's argument is simple: First, Iraq as a state is broken beyond repair. Second, even if the place could be fixed, the result would not be worth the effort. Iraq has never functioned as a unitary state in the past, and no amount of foreign meddling is going to turn it into one in the future. Third, Iraq's Kurds have, with substantial Western help, built a decent, functioning pseudo-state in the north of the country. As a matter of morality, practical politics and American self-interest (alone among Iraq's feuding factions, the Kurds are vocally pro-American), they should be allowed to keep it.

"Thanks to the American invasion, Kurdistan has consolidated its status as a virtually independent state, and in so doing has righted an historic wrong," Galbraith writes. In any event, Iraq already "has broken up in all but name." The Kurds, he notes, control their own borders with Turkey and Iran, and require no visa of visiting Americans. (Enter the country through Baghdad and you not only need a visa to get in, but after two weeks you need an exit visa to leave.) They have their own army. They do not allow ministries from the central government in Baghdad to operate branch offices in their part of the country.

Galbraith doesn't mention it, but the Kurds even have their own airline, offering direct flights from Kurdistan to Europe.

The early chapters of The End of Iraq recount in detail the history of that country and America over the last quarter-century. It's a well-known story, but one that needs retelling to remind us how we got into our present mess.

In 1980 one of the longest, bloodiest and most pointless wars in modern history began. The Iran-Iraq War lasted eight years, cost a million lives, sucked in neighboring countries as well as the United States, led to Washington's dubious embrace of Saddam Hussein, spawned the Iran-Contra scandal, and saw the first serious use of chemical weapons in battle since World War I. When it was all over, essentially nothing had changed. The border between the two countries remained where it had been. Saddam was still in power in Baghdad, the Ayatollah Khomeini in Tehran.

With Iran no longer distracting him, Saddam turned his fury on the rebellious Kurdish provinces in Iraq's north. The Kurds estimate that 182,000 people died in the genocidal campaign known as the Anfal, a systematic program designed to wipe out Kurdistan's rural culture, Arabize the region's cities, and crush rebellion. The campaign involved the routine use of chemical weapons, the destruction of thousands of villages, and mass executions -- in some cases involving thousands of people at a time.

Galbraith, then a member of the Senate Foreign Relations Committee's professional staff, saw much of this firsthand. Traveling extensively, and occasionally clandestinely, in Kurdistan and along its borders with neighboring Turkey and Syria, he and several colleagues from the U.S. Foreign Service documented what was happening and sought to raise the alarm.

To call Washington's official response craven would be polite. Galbraith notes that no one in government disputed his findings, but no one seemed eager to do anything about it, either.

"When I returned to Washington after a week on the Iraq-Turkey border, I found hundreds of yellow slips on my desk, almost all calls from special interests that would be adversely affected by sanctions," he writes. "A staff member working for Louisiana Democratic Senator John Breaux on agriculture issues wept as he told me that I was committing genocide against his state's rice farmers."

Galbraith was in Kurdistan again in 1991 when its people rose against Saddam at the behest of the first President Bush, and he recounts the story of the Western-protected safe zones in the north of the country that eventually evolved into today's pseudo-independent Kurdistan.

All of this, of course, is background to the present mess. This is where the book really comes together, drawing in equal parts on Galbraith's experience as a policy-maker and his on-the-ground familiarity with Iraq's political players -- especially the Kurds. Galbraith has spent an unusual amount of time in post-Saddam Iraq, particularly for someone who was neither a journalist (he did work for a time as a consultant to ABC News) nor a coalition official. His government career appears to have afforded him extremely high-level access to the occupation authorities, while his long history with the Kurds put him near the center of many of the critical constitutional talks of the last two years.

From that perspective Galbraith is unsparing in his criticism of the "arrogance and ignorance" of both the Washington politicians who consistently saw Iraq not as it was but as they wanted to see it, and of the clueless ideologues who staffed the upper stratum of Paul Bremer's Coalition Provisional Authority. With Bremer now living in Chester, Vermont, less than 20 miles up Rt. 35 from Galbraith's home, one cannot help but wonder what a chance encounter between the two men -- say, at the supermarket in Bellows Falls -- might sound like.

The final section of The End of Iraq puts forward Galbraith's argument for the partition of Iraq, or at the very least its devolution into a loose federal confederation. What America wants and needs at this stage is to extricate itself from Iraq. The first step, Galbraith says, is to abandon our insistence on Iraq's territorial integrity and let the Kurds go their own way. "Pursuit of a coerced unity has led to endless violence, repression, dictatorship, and genocide," he writes. "I don't believe it is possible over the long run to force people living in a geographically defined area to remain part of a state against their will. Iraq's Kurds will never reconcile to being part of Iraq."

As for Iraq's "national unity" government, which U.S. and British officials are so quick to praise, Galbraith argues convincingly that the Shiite-Kurdish coalition ostensibly running the country is, in reality, no such thing. "The Shiites and Kurds have never shared common ground as Iraqis," he writes. Their "government" is little more than a marriage of convenience in which the Kurds support the Shiite parties' desire to set up a theocracy in the Arab part of Iraq provided they, and Kurdistan, are left alone. The Shia, caring little about or for the Kurds, are happy to cede de facto independence to Iraq's north in exchange for unchallenged control of the rest of the country. Whether the 20 percent of the country that is Sunni Arab can find its own place in this system remains open to question.

The idea of breaking up Iraq has been floated repeatedly over the years by various Western commentators, and is routinely excoriated by traditional Middle East experts. The traditional arguments against it include the reaction it may provoke among Iraq's neighbors, the possible emergence of hostile anti-American mini-states in Iraq's center and south, the nearly inevitable violence that would accompany partition, and the accusation that anyone who thinks breaking the country into two or more pieces will solve anything is simply being naïve. None of these points can be easily rejected, but with no end in sight to the morass of Western involvement in Iraq, perhaps it is time to reexamine some of the solutions that have long been pushed to the side. The End of Iraq is a thoughtful, and thought-provoking, addition to this discussion.

Peter Galbraith may indeed deserve to have a statue in Kurdistan some day. Until then, we here in the States owe him thanks for broadening our national debate about Iraq, for striving to keep that debate civil, and for two decades of quiet work from inside the government to keep far-away atrocities from being forgotten.