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Blogger Roundtable on Iraqi Kurdistan

I was on this week's DOD Blogger Roundtable with General Cichowski and UK Brigadier Neil Baverstock (who, I mention purely as a point of interest, is also a judge for the UK Romantic Novelists' Association.  "Glamorous, or what?").

These two gentlemen had been asked to talk to us about the transition ceremony, by which the three provinces of Kurdistan passed to formal Iraqi control.  From now on, Coalition operations in the provinces will have to be approved by the local authorities.  The ceremony was apparently very flashy and inspiring, as befits such things.  It didn't get much coverage in America, as Red State (also on the call) noted.

As they had come to talk to relatively friendly bloggers about a happy and inspiring event, the generals were probably shocked to find themselves in a hot LZ.  They were there to talk about the ceremony; the bloggers wanted to talk about the war.

In fairness to the generals, who took time out of the crucial business of warfighting to talk to us, I want to start by telling you what they wanted you to know about all this.  USAF General Cichowski said (this is the link to the official transcript):

[I]t was very nice yesterday -- and it's important for the readers to in your -- those on the Net to understand that yesterday we went up in an Iraqi C-130, the -- part of the brand new Iraqi air force -- into the Kurdish region. And so as their capability grows it's growing in all areas, and it was very nice to be able to step off with a very, very professional aircrew, speaking as an airman, to take part in the ceremony.

That is an important point, and one the general is right to mention.  Heavy airlift capacity is always at a premium in modern military operations -- even several NATO partners are lacking in that regard.  One of the key early contributions to OEF came when Norway devoted C-130s to the effort.  The development of an Iraqi air force that is capable of such transport, insofar as is it is linked to the development of an Iraqi state that is an ally, is a useful long-term advantage.

Now, here's what Danger Room's David Axe wanted to talk about:

Iraqi Kurdistan is a full partner in the federal Iraqi state. The armed standoff between Kurdistan and Turkey is Iraq's problem and Baghdad is sure to handle it just fine. Kurdistan will share its oil. And let Iraqi Arabs into the region. And everything is just great.

These are some of the half-truths I was fed during today's blogger teleconference with U.S. Army Major General Kurt Cichowski, Deputy Chief of Staff, Strategy, Plans and Assessment for coalition forces. We were talking about Iraqi Kurdistan, that autonomous region in the north bordering Turkey. Since 2003 Kurdistan has been functionally independent, with its own parliament, army, police and courts and its own oil fields. And as Kurdistan has risen, so have the aspirations of Kurdish nationalist terrorists ... and so has Turkey's alarm. In recent weeks the Turks have massed troops on the border, threatening to take action to suppress the nationalists if Kurdistan doesn't.

When I challenged Cichowski about his rosy presentation, his best evidence that things are going great up in Kurdistan, between Kurds and Turks and between Kurds and Arabs, was the conduct of yesterday's official ceremony handing over security in Kurdistan from the tiny local body of coalition forces to the Kurdish regional government.

Danger Room got a response from Jack Holt at OASD, which said that the questions were "best asked of the government of Iraq."  That's perfectly true, especially now that they are fully in control of Kurdistan -- high order diplomatic concerns make it hard for the Coalition to speak about these concerns.

On the other hand, this exchange was troubling:

Q Yes, good morning, gentlemen. Andrew Lubin from ON Point. Just kind of following with David's questions a little bit -- with the violence in the last two weeks up in Kurdistan, which is really the first time this has happened, you know, for the past few years, doesn't this make the Kurds want to close the border even tighter? My friends -- sources up there tell me they're shutting down the border to all Arabs. So how does this square with them being oil members of the government of Iraq when they don't want to let their alleged Sunni and Shi'a brothers up into the country or up into the region?

GEN. CICHOWSKI: Gosh, Andrew, I've got to tell you I've not heard of that and that's one of the things that we were talking the other day with the border officials. Again, the control of the borders is a federal government thing and I've heard of no reports of any kind of shunning of any group whether it be on racial or ethnic or religious background.  [GRIM:  Note that at this point the General is talking about the external border, not the internal one that was asked about -- probably a misunderstanding.]

Q (But that's just ?) coming from the Kurdish side, not from the Baghdad side.

BRIG. BAVERSTOCK: Well, it's interesting you hear that because I mean, the -- and they've come back to -- (inaudible) -- to relations between the Kurdish region and Turkey as well because it is more complicated than just a security issue. There's a huge amount of trade actually goes on between the Kurdish region and Turkey, so closing borders is going to hurt both sides and it's not necessarily in their interest so we haven't heard about borders being closed --

(Cross talk.)

Q -- more if I could --

BRIG. BAVERSTOCK: -- patrol the borders, yes, but not necessarily closure.

Q No -- no, this was more on the Iraqi side -- on the southern side than the northern side because there's huge -- most of the construction in Kurdistan is with Turkish construction companies.

BRIG. BAVERSTOCK: That's exactly right.

Q Yeah. But no, I was referring -- I was --

BRIG. BAVERSTOCK: I don't know how they can actually close the border. There is no border between the Kurdish region and the rest of Iraq, and there are checkpoints but there are checkpoints in a lot of places, and those checkpoints are there for internal security reasons. They're perfectly legitimate, and we've heard no reports they're actually turning people away on the basis of their ethnicity.

Q Okay.

Q Sir, it's with all due respect -- this is David Axe -- I've been to Kurdistan twice and I think that's not true. The checkpoints do turn Arabs away.

Q [Lubin] Yeah. And that's what I was hearing -- they will, you know, this -- I heard it in the future tense -- that they will be turning people away from who are, you know, who are Shi'as. Sunnis maybe -- Shi'as definitely -- do not want them. They're the troublemakers.

GEN. CICHOWSKI: Well, gosh, that would be interesting because I have to tell you that's one of the issues that we have talked a lot about, and there are Kurds on our committee. There are Kurds that have come down and visited us and our going out there -- that's certainly an area that we will look into but I will tell you from the internal that we have not heard that.

This isn't an invocation of high order diplomatic concerns, but an assertion about the internal data.  I take the general at his word.  What I wonder about is whether (a) the military intel does show these rumors, but they're being discounted or disproven by analysts before the general sees it, or (b) if the military intel has not picked up the same information at all.  Case (a) is not troubling, if it's so; case (b) is troubling.

There was a second exchange of this type.  I think the first speaker was Lubin again:

Yeah, a general question if you don't mind. How do the Kurds -- what I was trying to say -- they have their own economy. It's like they're trying -- they have their own flag -- they got their own government. It's like they're trying not to be assimilated except on a superficial basis into Iraq. It strikes me they're giving Maliki some lip service. Beyond that, they're going their own way. How does that square with one, you know, unified and friendly Iraq? I don't see it.

GEN. CICHOWSKI: I think that's a little harsh. For example, they had both anthems played yesterday. There was more than the lip service of the talk between the indivisible whole. There's a tremendous amount of discussions that are going on for the federated state that is taking on the Kurdish bloc in the parliament is very active. The determination of the hydrocarbon and the revenue sharing is one that is of great interest throughout the entire country as a whole, and the determination of the military budget for that will be inclusive of the regional forces is something that both sides are talking to next. So there are a number of issues that they are taking on as an indivisible whole, not as two separate independent parties.

Q Okay. Appreciate that.

Q Hello, sir, this is David Axe again. I hate to keep disagreeing but the KRG has not expressed any interest in sharing its own oil revenues from the new fields up in Dohuk and elsewhere. So I mean, so far there is no -- at least not -- there's not going to be any oil revenue sharing from Kurdistan down to Baghdad.

GEN. CICHOWSKI: David, it must be important that you understand the legislation that is currently going through the process. There is one particular law in the hydrocarbon implementation that talks to new fields versus old fields, and I believe you're referring to the one version of it where new fields do not have to be shared but that could be not just in the region -- in the Kurdish region, but it could be in the potential for the new fields out west as well as some new undeveloped fields down in the south.

Now we're at the overarching issue.  Is Kurdistan paying lip service to a diplomatic vision of Iraq, while secretly setting itself up for independence?  Let's look at an earlier question:

So Streiff, do you want to kick it off?

Q Sure.

The first thing I'd like to ask is on the security forces in Iraqi-Kurdistan, or these three provinces, is the Iraqi army there drawn from throughout Iraq or are the army units in Kurdistan primarily based on the old pesh merga?

GEN. CICHOWSKI: That's a question that's going to take a little while, so hang with me.

There are three parts of three divisions in that area: the Iraqi army divisions from the second, third and fourth divisions. The even numbered divisions were built on the National Guard. So the predominate forces in the second and fourth are Kurdish individuals; however, we have worked very hard to have a balance of all nationalities and ethnic backgrounds in not only the odds, but in the future development of the even number of the Iraqi divisions.

In addition, the constitution allows the formation of regional guards, or guards of the region. This particular force in the Kurdish region is made of the leftovers of the -- what we call the CPA-91 Militia, which in this particular case is a pesh merga, or what is left of the pesh merga, but they are now the Kurdish Regional Guards. Both the PDK as well as the KUP have formed together into one and they are now the Kurdish Regional Guards.

So, the units that now have the lead in securing Kurdistan are three divisions of the Iraqi Army, two of which are locally recruited; and a separate, special unit composed entirely of pesh merga.  That's pretty enviable.

What can we reasonably infer from all this?

I think we can reasonably infer that the Kurds are creating what is at least a fallback position of separatism.  They've arranged themselves so that they have a reliable guard composed of their countrymen -- the pesh merga were the first fighting units from Iraq that were functionally capable of interacting with the Coalition.  They are also not indebted for existing oil revenues to the rest of the country.  Should they separate from Iraq proper, then, they have the means to secure their liberty v. the rest of the nation, and no outstanding debt that could be used as a casus belli against them.

If I were a Coalition military officer in Kurdistan, I would be taking a hard look at my intelligence to see whether we were getting the rumors about Kurds turning back Arabs and discounting them -- and if so, how solid our reasons for discounting those rumors were --  or if we are not tracking that data at all.  It may not be true, but true or not, we should have some data about it, if only for IO reasons.  If it's a false rumor, we ought to know who is putting it out and why, to combat it; if it's a true fact that's somehow been kept out of Coalition intelligence, that's a problem.

There is no special reason to be concerned about the data otherwise; the Kurds would be fools not to be setting up a fallback position, given the real possibility that the US Congress may yet force an end to stability operations in Iraq.  I would be surprised, in point of fact, if no one at DOD has written a very similar fallback plan -- something that would create bases in Kurdistan from which we could conduct continuing operations against any mini-states al Qaeda attempted to erect in fallen Iraq, as well as support operations v. Iran, whether diplomatic or military.

For now, of course, the plan remains victory.  The proposed new US Embassy is really a fortress.  The Bush statement that he expects a fifty year deployment points to what is probably a very wise policy of creating a permanent presence to counterbalance Iran and shepherd the spread of democracy in the region.   The Surge is showing some positive signs, and the recent turn against al Qaeda among Sunnis around Baghdad is the best news in a while.

That said, every good fighting man has a backup plan just in case.  The Kurds are very good; we shouldn't be surprised if they have one too.  In fact, we ought to get in on it, if we haven't already.

Michael Goldfarb of the Weekly Standard was also on the call; he asked a very good question about whether there were official Turkish military contacts in Kurdistan (the answer, encouragingly, was yes).  I asked about Coalition force levels in Kurdistan, which will be remaining constant -- a reasonable policy, given that we want to be sure the new order works before we ship people out to fight elsewhere; and likewise a wise policy, if we were considering Kurdistan as a backup stronghold.