Transcendental Bloviation

Politics, Space, Japan

Tuesday, June 01, 2004

Balkan Roulette: Iraq and/or Kurdistan

Less than a month to go. June 30th looms. The definition of Iraqi sovereignty seems to shift daily. Much is at stake. And yet ... the politics of the Iraqi interim government remind me more of high school student government intrigue than the outcome of global diplomacy. It's probably safe to assume that what we see on the surface is relatively meaningless.

The Iraq sovereignty handover process might be considered a charade, as Marc Cooper suggests. It's hard to take it at face value. More likely, it reflects a placing of bets. One of the bets is obviously that Iraq will be a sovereign, unified nation.

I think that bet is a long shot. I think that bet will be hedged to the hilt by the various players. The axis of this roulette wheel is not Baghdad or Tikrit or uprisings in Shi'ite holy cities. It's Kirkuk.

I take encouragement in this view from the interim Iraqi constitution, recently approved by the IGC. Despite a commitment from the U.S. that Iraq will become a unified democratic republic, the document (at least as translated into English, if it was originally Arabic) makes surprisingly frequent use of a wonderful neologism: "Kurdistan", typically appearing in the collocation "Kurdistan region" where you'd think "Kurdish region" would make more sense. It appears 16 times, far more frequently than any other regional designation except for "Iraq" itself.

East of the moon, west of Westphalia

What is Kurdistan? The most important thing to know: it now includes Kirkuk (see Article 53, section A), long claimed and coveted by the Kurds.

And what's the most important thing to know about Kirkuk? That, as a region, it is estimated to contain nearly 9 billion barrels of Iraq's oil - worth about $350 billion in today's prices, or almost $100,000 per Kurd. Better still, it's relatively cheap oil, not just by world standards, but by Iraq standards. Read the U.S. Department of Energy's analysis:

According to Tariq Shafiq, a founding Vice President of INOC and currently director of Petrolog and Associates, Iraq's oil development and production costs are amongst the lowest in the world, ranging from as low as $750 million for each additional million bbl/d day in Kirkuk, to $1.6 billion per million bbl/d near Rumaila, and as high as $3 billion per million bbl/d for smaller fields in the northwestern part of the country. In contrast, Cambridge Energy Research Associates (CERA) estimates an average cost for Iraqi oil development of $3.5 billion per million bbl/d for the country as a whole, which is higher than Tariq Shafiq's estimates, but still relatively low by world standards.

Northern Iraq, including Kirkuk, also has abundant reserves of natural gas. Natural gas will become increasingly important as oil prices rise over the coming decades.

Daddy says we're suppose to share, so gimme

Of course, the interim constitution also speaks of how to distribute proceeds of the sale of Iraq's "natural resources" (Article 25-E) in an even-handed and equitable manner, but follows with long, vague, weasel-wording about historically unjust deprivations of revenue(read "no Saddam presidential palace construction jobs for the Kurds under the U.N. sanctions regime"), special regional needs and so on.

Specifically, the Iraqi Transitional Government is "granted exclusive competence" (not authority, but competence!) in:

[m]anaging the natural resources of Iraq, which belongs to all the people of all the regions and governorates of Iraq, in consultation with the governments of the regions and the administrations of the governorates, and distributing the revenues resulting from their sale through the national budget in an equitable manner proportional to the distribution of population throughout the country, and with due regard for areas that were unjustly deprived of these revenues by the previous regime, for dealing with their situations in a positive way, for their needs, and for the degree of development of the different areas of the country...

As a practical matter, there seems to be nothing really preventing this Kurdistan from pumping oil, shipping it out through Turkey through the Kirkuk-Ceyhan pipeline, selling it to Coalition of the Willing members at prices well below OPEC market rate, turning those lowball proceeds over to the transitional Iraqi government (or putting proceeds into escrow if the rest of Iraq is contested), and getting the difference back from its clients in foreign aid. This Kurdistan could become a sort of Taiwan of the Middle East, but a Taiwan with oil - with oil production largely centered around Kirkuk.

Follow the oily brick road

Kirkuk has additional enhancements to its status beyond simply being included as part of some de facto Kurdistan. There are constitutional provisions for any three governorates to merge into one, with two exceptions: Baghdad and Kirkuk. From Article 53, section C:

Any group of no more than three governorates outside the Kurdistan region, with the exception of Baghdad and Kirkuk, shall have the right to form regions from amongst themselves.

In one interpretation, this provision leaves those areas up for grabs in an overall Iraqi federation. In another, however, it reflects a recognition that Iraq now has two capital cities.

I just want someone to love

The U.S. occupation force has been relatively popular with the Kurds, despite some earlier ambivalence on the invasion itself. It enjoys a high degree of support, and there are very few U.S. troops in the Kurdish areas of Iraq because there has been no particular need. The Kurdish regions is getting hit by terror attacks, but not many, and not seeing uprisings at all.

The American occupation must have become much more popular with the Kurds in view of this tacit constitutional support lent to the notion of a Kurdistan that legally includes Kirkuk, courtesy of an IGC selected by Americans. It's safe to say that if the rest of Iraq descended into civil war, the Kurds would be only too happy to have a greater U.S. troop presence on their soil, so long as that presence included border defense of Kirkuk. I think that would have been a safe proposition even if the invasion had amounted to simply setting up just such a partition, with border control, instead of the countrywide invasion and occupation that we did see.

Finally, let's not neglect a claim of moral legitimacy for Kurdish statehood: Kurds were gassed by Saddam. There's a rough analogy to the situation of Israel, mostly populated by an ethnic group that was effectively exterminated in much of Europe in the 1940s. Given a choice between sharing oil revenues with a fractious Iraq, and claiming those revenues for themselves, the Kurds may invoke a genocide reparations argument. After all, the Kurds can't put a price on so many human lives, but they can always maintain that whatever they have in the way of material compensation still isn't enough. And anyway, America owes them, for leaving them to hang so many times.

A de facto partition of Iraq into a stable Kurdistan in the north and a Sovereign State of Chaos elsewhere may yet be the endgame. We could see the U.S. government protecting - and of course, in the long run, economically benefiting by - a peaceful, prosperous, nominally democratic Kurdish Entity (to borrow from the lexicon of Arab opposition to Israel), while the rest of Iraq seethes impotently about the imbalance, but is distracted by internal power struggles in which armed force may play no small part. Kurdistan will have a friend in can depend on: America. All those other Iraqi ingrates can go to hell.

Nonsense and sensibility

Kurdistan is, after all, strategic for the United States. The U.S. needs foreign oil. Colin Powell implied on a radio show recently that the oil was a motivating factor in the invasion, when he said that the U.S. wanted a democratic nation in the Middle East as an oil supplier. Specifically, he said the following, from a transcript of the Westwood One radio show on May 27th:

Well, what we need is a more sensible energy policy .... But the fact of the matter is, because of our economy, because of our desire to use automobiles in the way that we do, and our desire for different kinds of automobiles, we are importing over 50 percent, closer to 58 percent, of our petroleum needs. And that comes from countries in the Middle East, the Gulf area .... We need stable regimes in this part of the world who will be partners and friends of ours, because the fact of the matter is we do rely on imported oil to fuel our economy and to fuel our nation .... And now what we ought to do is put in place a stable, democratic nation that will provide oil to the world market.

Powell concludes his line of reasoning with this comment:

That's not sending our troops overseas for oil. That's sending our troops overseas to put in place a democratic nation rested on a foundation of openness and human rights that will be a friend and partner of the United States.

And yet, if oil were not a motivating factor, why Iraq? Any such liberation mission would certainly be better directed at a target regime closer to home. If you're going to overthrow global norms about sovereignty and legitimate warfare, why start with a target that presents such moral hazard?

How close are we to Powell's goal, by way of Kurdistan? Despite a slightly rigged election in the Kurdish region over a decade ago, and no repeats of that process, the Kurdish region is commonly supposed to be a democracy already. So a Kurdistan with Kirkuk essentially completes Powell's formula. Kurdistan is an acceptably free and democratic oil state.

Beating the house, fleecing the suckers

One might say getting only a Kurdistan is a disappointment. Still, preparing for disappointment just goes with big-picture strategy in any game. In the ancient territorial game of Go, a proverb from Korea tells us "Don't throw an egg against a wall." When you see a wide open territory that you'd like to have all of, the wisest thing is to find the move that you believe guarantees you just a little more than half. America's military technology is second to none, but a mere 138,000 troops on the ground in a country the size of Iraq is an egg thrown against a wall. Ultimately, America needs solid allies there. Luckily, America has solid allies there: the Kurds.

America's bets are pretty decently hedged. They have been since the beginning. Bush Sr. was heard to mumble "What's the exit strategy?" early in the game There probably was an exit strategy: declare Kurdistan a partial victory, and retreat. It's not a strategy they could openly talk about, but it is a way out of Iraq that leave America with plenty of access to cheap oil, with some face-saving for all the talk about democracy in the Middle East (albeit not an Arab democracy), and with a much more relaxed long-term troop commitment in Iraq.

America still has a lot of leverage over the Iraq situation. The bets on the IGC are mostly from those with not much influence. What influence they had was considerably diluted by their cozy association with the CPA. They are suppossed to sculpt out Iraqi sovereignty? Sovereignty over what, exactly? Well, whatever it is, it needn't really include the Kurds, and the Kurds know it. What sort of Iraq does that leave? It's not clear. With so much uncertainty, all you'll see from the IGC is the sorts of high level government appointments you see in papal succession crises when the Catholic Church is divided against itself: Cardinals selecting a Pope with a vanishingly short shelf-life. Anything to keep that roulette wheel turning.


At 12:22 PM, Blogger John said...

Outstanding analysis, and one that sheds some light on the brutal internal power struggle - in the Bush administration.

Excellent start - now let's see some more!

At 12:37 AM, Blogger James said...

I found intriguing your suggestion that the Kurds might wrangle a quasi-autonomous status, a bit like Taiwan. (Hopefully not like the Palestinians' plight - maybe a bit like the Native American nations, that are opening so many casinos here in California that we'll soon have more than Nevada.) I wish a truly independant Kurdistan could emerge - it would be one happy outcome from the sorry mess unfolding in Iraq.

But I gotta differ with your characterization of "Kurdistan" as a neologism - it's been around for a while, and doesn't imply U.N. member nationhood. "Stan" is a Farsi suffix, and just means "land of" or something. So there are other stans (e.g. Baluchistan) besides the 7 that are countries.

OK, I just googled up that last factoid. I'm sure you're sufficiently geopolitically literate that you'd be able to just reel off all 7, along with trenchant observations about their current role in world politics, like for instance that Krygyzstan is still the most difficult country to spell.

At 4:13 AM, Blogger Michael Turner said...

James McMullen writes: "But I gotta differ with your characterization of "Kurdistan" as a neologism - it's been around for a while, and doesn't imply U.N. member nationhood."

Michael Turner screwed up. Michael Turner regrets the error. But, sure he can remember all seven "-stans", like any good knowitall. There's Afghanistan, Baluchistan, Bantustan, Frammistan, Phlogistan, and my old friend, Stan. So there!

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