SUMMARY: Beyond a legitimate foreign policy and strategic military debate necessary in any open society, there is no doubt that American foreign policy continues to be stigmatized with serious questions about its credibility by allies and adversaries. The nature of US policy toward the Kurds over the past decades, dating back to the 1960s, is a classic case in point. It’s important to put this relationship into a historic perspective not only from a geopolitical point of view but also the human costs paid by the people on the ground who bare the brunt of the suffering and, also importantly, the future challenges this will incur when it comes to the implementation of US foreign policy in the region and elsewhere. Professor LaPlante is a veteran journalist with invaluable experience over and above the textbook material, including travels in the region. He last wrote about Kurdistan and American foreign policy in 2010. The article below, which reflects on his view of those experiences through the lens of historic and contemporary policy decisions by the United States, offers an indispensable analysis in a critical examination of American foreign policy and its inevitably adverse but important consequences at a micro level that is seemingly lost in the senseless macro-level analyses common to Washington’s Arms Chair strategists, many of whom who are in denial of the long-term effects of their policy.
By Matthew D. LaPlante
I was on a city bus in Istanbul when a man standing beside me softly grasped my arm.
“You are American?” he asked.
The year was 2005, and I was freshly back from a reporting tour in Iraq. I was still on edge, and his question stopped me. I hadn’t said anything to anyone on the bus, and I wasn’t wearing clothing that would be identifiably American.
“Yes,” I said, tentatively, “but how did you know?”
“I know,” he said. “One knows a man to whom he owes a debt.”
He leaned in closer and whispered in my ear. “I am Kurdish, you see.”
I did see. Over those past two months, I had been in Baghdad, Najaf, Mosul, Ramadi and Fallujah. None of those places were particularly welcoming to Americans — not even those Americans who came bearing pens rather than guns. But in the semi-autonomous Kurdish north, the world was a very different place. It was one of the only places in Iraq, at that time, that an American could walk alone, without purpose and without worry. Men embraced me and called for me to share a coffee or a cigarette with them. Children gathered around and asked me to take their photographs.
The warmth was like nothing I had experienced in any of my travels anywhere else in the world, especially in those years, when the global consensus was that the U.S. invasion of Iraq in 2003 had been an unprovoked assault — one that Kofi Annan, who was then the secretary-general of the United Nations, had unambiguously called “illegal.”
But for the Kurds in Iraq, and those elsewhere, it was an action that offered yet another step toward possible independence, even if that was an unintentional effect. And among a people who had been fighting for statehood since the waning days of the Ottoman Empire, that was of no small consequence.
I explained to the man on the bus that I was a writer, not a warrior, and he assured me this did not matter. We spoke briefly about what had brought him to Istanbul and about my travels in Iraqi Kurdistan. I had spent some time in the area where his wife was born and we marveled at the smallness of the world, the way people do when they make such connections.
A few minutes later the bus approached my stop, and I reached out to shake the man’s hand.
He pulled me close. “Please don’t abandon us,” he whispered, and I cringed, for I knew we what we had done before and I feared what we would do again.
The cycle of betrayal began in the 1960s and is familiar to anyone who has followed the enemy-of-my-current-enemy strategy that has been the only consistent guiding force for U.S. foreign policy in the Middle East and South Asia since World War I. We armed the Kurds when it seemed to be in our interest to do so, then walked away when it was not. We did this again and again, most tragically during Ronald Reagan’s administration, when we abandoned past support for the Kurds during the time in which the U.S. supported Iraqi President Saddam Hussein in his eight-year war against Iran.
As many as 5,000 Kurds were killed in Saddam’s March 16, 1988 massacre in Halabja — the largest-ever chemical weapons attack against a civilian population. It should have been quite easy to condemn such an atrocity, but we didn’t. Instead, U.S. State Department officials went so far as to suggest Iran had some responsibility for the attack — a contention backed by no evidence whatsoever. Saddam took our indifference on a sadistic joyride. By the end of 1988, thousands of Kurdish villages had been destroyed and more than 100,000 people had been killed.
When Saddam ordered the invasion of Kuwait in 1990, however,
then-President George H.W. Bush — the former director of the CIA and vice-president under Reagan — could no longer support the monster he’d helped create. It took just 100 hours for the U.S. military to turn Saddam’s army around, and in the aftermath of that victory, Bush took to the airwaves calling for the people of Iraq to rise up against their leader.
The Kurds took up the call — taking control of many of northern Iraq’s largest cities. Once again, Saddam responded with brute force. And once again, the U.S. stood by and watched. Millions of Kurds fled north, sparking a humanitarian crisis along Turkey’s southern border. Finally, the U.S. stepped in, establishing the no-fly zone, which held until George W. Bush orchestrated Saddam’s overthrow in 2003.
That invasion, of course, ignited a sectarian crisis that led to the rise of Al-Qaeda in Iraq and the Islamic State. The enemy of our latest enemy was once again our friend, and the Kurds would have our support for years to come.
When I next returned to Iraqi Kurdistan, in 2010, my fears of yet another betrayal had begun to subside.
In a decade and a half of relative peace and significant autonomy, backed by American assurances of protection, the Kurds had prospered. Construction cranes stretched across the skyline. Cement trucks rumbled overcrowded freeways. Hip-hop music thumped from cars and clubs. Business leaders openly dreamt of becoming “the Taiwan of Southwest Asia.” By the time of the U.S. withdrawal in 2011, the Kurds were running a largely autonomous and broadly functional government in northern Iraq. It wasn’t an independent state, but it was something close. And the Kurdish appreciation for U.S. support knew no bounds.
“If not for the support of the United States, I would still be fighting in those mountains over there,” Gen. Salah Adin told me as he gestured toward the rugged Zagros Range, where he spent several decades of his life as part of a guerilla movement aimed at Kurdish independence.
He reached a muscular arm around my shoulder and pulled me close. “You belong to a great people,” he said.
The general’s admiration for the United States was hard to fathom, given how many times my nation had turned its back on him and his fighters. But the goal of statehood, preeminent in the psyche of the world’s largest group of stateless people, transcends resentment.
“How many times has the United States forgiven its enemies?” a Kurdish colleague from the University of Sulaymaniyah asked me in 2015. “You fought against Germany and now you are friends. You fought Japan and Korea and Vietnam, and now you are friends. Yes, there have been disappointments in our relationship, but the U.S. and the Kurds are not enemies. If we are ever to be a state, we cannot get hung up on what happened in the past. We have to forgive. And this is easy with the United States, for now we are friends.”
“Yes,” I agreed, “for now we are.” And I hated myself for the wordplay.
The United States leveraged its relationship with the Kurds in Iraq in order to secure the assistance of the Kurds in Syria, who were the enemy of our enemy in the fight against the Islamic State.
The situation facing the Syrian Kurds was different in many respects to that which had faced the Iraqi Kurds, but the promise we made was similar. We could not commit to the goal of a Kurdish state, but we could provide a measure of protection that would allow some manner of autonomy, in this case protection from a Turkish invasion.
The Kurds held up their end of the deal. And then some.
“When the Islamic State surged across Syria and Iraq like a tidal wave of terror in 2014, all the other armies in the region, including those in which the U.S. had invested billions, were found to be complicit or corrupt and cowardly,” veteran foreign affairs journalist Christopher Dickey wrote on Oct. 18.
But the Kurds did not falter.
“Are they angels? Perhaps killer angels,” Dickey continued. “With the Americans and other members of the U.S. backed coalition raining death from the sky, they defeated on the ground the Islamic State’s forces of darkness. Are they mercenaries? If so, then truly, they earned their keep.”
They had indeed. And yet we abandoned them anyway.
Much has been said of the immediate and long-term damage done by U.S. President Donald Trump’s decision to suddenly abandon the Kurds in Syria, giving the green light to a Turkish invasion. It is a rare day in which my nation’s two major political parties agree on anything, but both have resoundingly denounced Trump’s order to stand down in Syria.
Trump’s former defense secretary, Gen. James Mattis, has not hidden his dismay. America is always safer when it builds trust among allies, he told NBC, “and re-instilling trust is going to be very difficult for the Americans at this point.”
That’s, to say the least.
And yet, when again we come looking for allies in the next iteration of searching for the enemies of our enemies, there is one group I would not count out, though it deeply pains me to say so.
Forgiveness is to the Kurds as honor is to the Japanese, as efficiency is to the Germans, as extrovertedness is to the Brazilians, as hope is to the Ethiopians, as pride is to my fellow Americans. It is an indelible cultural trait.
Indeed, the 21-ray sun at the center of the Kurdish flag is a symbol of rebirth, of embracing today without respect to what happened yesterday. And since the flag itself does not yet fly over an independent nation, it has to be so.
When we next need them, it would not at all surprise me to find that the Kurds will be there. And to our great shame, we will exploit that for all it is worth, accepting the embrace of our brothers and sisters as though we deserve it, and knowing without a shadow of a doubt that we do not.
Matthew D. LaPlante is an associate professor at Utah State University, where he teaches classes on global crisis journalism, feature writing and science communication. He has reported from more than a dozen nations and his work has been published by news organizations including CNN.com, The Washington Post, The Salt Lake Tribune and The Los Angeles Daily News. A selection of his work can be found at mdlaplante.com. He tweets at @mdlaplante.
associate professor of journalism | Utah State University
host | Utah Public Radio’s UnDisciplined