US helping to patrol border inside Iraq

Tuesday, Jan. 26, 2010

According to the New York Times, the US military is going to begin patrolling the unofficial 'border' which separates the areas of northern Iraq from the rest of Iraq. 

This northern front, or “trigger line,” dates to the American invasion in 2003. As Saddam Hussein’s army collapsed, Kurdish forces called the pesh merga pushed from their three provinces in the north [note from Jim: these are Dahuk, Arbil, and Sulaymaniyah] and occupied sections of Nineveh, Kirkuk and Diyala Provinces that the Kurds had historically claimed.
They have controlled the areas ever since, despite calls by Iraq’s government and regional Sunni leaders for them to withdraw to the “green line” that established the internal Kurdish boundary before 2003.
It seems likely that this move will upset both the Iraqi central government and Turkey. In the case of the Iraqis, the unilateral support provided by the Americans to the Kurdish government in Northern Iraq with respect to a disputed internal border must surely seem like an appallingly colonialist move. Does anyone recall the efforts of British and French statesmen, following their victory in the First World War, to redraw the borders of what had once been the Ottoman Empire?

The three provinces in green have been administered by the Kurds since 1991, thanks to the American-created and UN-enforced safe haven 

In Turkey, meanwhile, political leaders and citizens across the political spectrum have long been suspicious of American support for the Kurds in Iraq. Many people feel that the United States is attempting to create a separate (or at least very autonomous) pro-American buffer state, one that the United States would support in its effort to acquire territory from its neighbors. 

Some questions:

If the United States (even under Obama!) appears to be pursuing an imperial plan of backing regional minorities in their territorial disputes with existing states in the region, how does this differ from the support given by European states vis-a-vis Balkan separatist movements in the nineteenth century? By providing diplomatic and sometimes military support to the aspirations of Greek, Serbian, and Bulgarian nationalists, European states often placed enormous strains upon the efforts of Ottoman statesmen to hold the empire together.

Is the United States likewise supporting the partition of Iraq today? Regardless of the actual intentions of the United States (which under both Republicans and Democrats tends to provide moralistic justifications to its foreign policies), this is how such actions will be seen. 

Does this development express the influence of Joseph Biden? As a presidential candidate, Biden co-authored an article with Leslie Gelb in which they argued in favor of dividing up Iraq into "three largely autonomous regions." 

What kind of signal does this send to Iraqis about US support for the government of Nuri al-Maliki, whose government is in a border dispute with the Kurdish authorities in the north? Here's the American line:

American commanders have emphasized that the checkpoints are not meant to preclude negotiations between Arabs and Kurds over the final internal boundaries of the Kurdish region, though the hope is that cooperation on the ground will give momentum to a political — and peaceful —resolution of the underlying dispute.

So, the presence of American soldiers patrolling an internal "border" that is unrecognized by the state of Iraq will somehow provide "momentum" to a political solution of the dispute? How is that so? Surely, this will take away any impetus for negotiation on the side of the Kurds. 

I'm not arguing the advantages or benefits for the Kurds of forming their own state, autonomous zone, or whatever--that's their business, and the business of the counties currently possessing the territory that the northern Kurds want. But Americans should realize the potential for the types of conflict that we could be allowing ourselves to be drawn into if we maintain a military presence in Iraq (and in Afghanistan, for that matter, which also has an ethnically mixed population). 

Two more questions: 

How must the government of Turkey and its citizens be viewing this? They must be wondering if the United States, having acquiesced to Kurdish demands in its border dispute with Baghdad, would likewise support Kurdish efforts to create a state out of Turkish territory. The United States is a NATO ally of Turkey. How would we respond if a very powerful ally of ours were supporting the efforts of neighbors we considered to have territorial claims upon our borders? 

If you were in the Turkish or Iraqi government, would you trust the Americans on this issue? 


More links, info and analysis can be found at the Borderlands Lounge.

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