The Future of Kurdistan in Iraq
Brendan O’Leary, John McGarry and Khaled Salih, editors.
(Philadelphia, University of Pennsylvania Press, 2006), 355 pp.

Reviewed by Wayne H. Bowen, Ph.D., Professor and Chair of History at Southeast Missouri State University

As the future of post-war Iraq continues to be debated and examined by scholars and policymakers, one vexing problem remains at the forefront: Should the people residing in the Kurdistan region of Iraq remain under Iraqi governance, receive greater autonomy or be granted independence? For the editors of The Future of Kurdistan in Iraq, the answer is clear: Kurdistan exists as a distinctive element of modern Iraq, and cannot be subsumed into Arab Iraq. Editors Brendan O’Leary, John McGarry, and Khaled Salih state that the Kurds in Iraq deserve recognition as a separate people, and their continuing presence within the state must come with accommodations, most likely in a federation, but possibly through independence, rather than in a unitary system.

Emerging as a result of conferences in 2002 and 2003, the collection of twelve essays examines the status of the Kurds which, according to the CIA World Factbook, make-up 15-20% of the population within the international borders of Iraq. Kurdistan’s population, with its own language, ethnic identity, and political movements, sits uneasily between much larger groups of Turks, Arabs, and Persians, and states controlled by those nationalities.

The first four essays in The Future of Kurdistan in Iraq discuss “Federative Possibilities” for an independent or autonomous Kurdistan. It is important to note that the terms “federation” and “federalism” are ones that do not have clear definitions, except as contrary impulses to the concentration of power. Instead, there are many options within federalism, which the authors apply to the history of the Kurdistan region. To analyze these options, the authors look at examples of autonomous regions within a broader state—including relatively positive ones (Canada and Switzerland) as well as more negative ones (Bosnia and Cyprus)—which illustrate the complexities of balancing regional autonomy within international borders. For the Kurdistan region, the city and province of Kirkuk is the most difficult case. With its historical significance, surrounding petroleum reserves, and division between Kurds, Arabs and Turkomen, its resolution remains one of the greatest challenges to determine the future of the Iraqi Kurds.

Along with addressing how an independent or decidedly autonomous Kurdistan would function, the book examines the historical developments preceding the US invasion of 2003, from Saddam Hussein’s actions to internal conflicts between the two major political parties of Iraqi Kurdistan, the Kurdish Democratic Party (KDP) and the Patriotic Union of Kurdistan (PUK). This analysis is critical to the question because the Baathist regime consistently worked to divide the leadership of the Kurds, forging temporary accommodations with some Kurds, while pursuing exterminationist tactics against others. The result was a nearly-poisonous relationship between the leaders of the KDP and the PUK. Even after the post-1991 US-enforced “no-fly” zone, these two parties fought bitterly, rising to the level of open warfare in the mid-1990s. Kurdistan of the 1990s was a semi-state, effectively autonomous from Baghdad, but dependent on international sufferance, revenues from the UN-administered “oil-for-food” program, and the tolerance of Turkey, Iran, and Syria, who feared that Iraqi Kurds would form a nucleus for a future Kurdistan. The effective division of Iraqi Kurdistan into two smaller regions, each dominated by one of the two Kurdish parties, emerged as an unexpectedly permanent solution, which survived the US invasion.

The book moves smoothly from the past to the present by including essays that assess the situation of Kurds in Iraq since the 2003 war. In a story now well-known, the US government bungled many aspects of the invasion, especially post-war planning. US commanders and key Bush Administration officials sidelined civilian planning groups, relied excessively on exile leadership, and expected the Iraqis to quickly coalesce in a functioning government, minimizing the impact of twenty-five years of brutal dictatorship. The Iraqi Kurds, who were allies of the US during the invasion, became important players in the postwar political landscape of Iraq, but this was more as a result of their pre-existing strength than as a conscious US-led process. In the context of the book, the experience of Kurds in US-occupied Iraq did not live up to the promise of the heady months surrounding the invasion, when independence was on the mind of many in Kurdistan.

In the book’s concluding remarks, editor O’Leary redraws the state of Iraq in 2004. He suggests that the Kurds can find a place in Iraq, so long as their existence, distinct culture, and political autonomy are guaranteed—not only by the Iraqi constitution and negotiations—but by demonstrated good will of Arab Iraqis. Should any or all of these considerations fail, however, O’Leary suggests the permanent dissolution of Iraq may be the end result.While some of the issues addressed in The Future of Kurdistan in Iraq have been overcome by events, the book remains a useful contribution to our overall understanding of Iraqi Kurdistan.

Some readers might be concerned about the relative lack of balance among the authors—since all essentially place primacy on Kurdish autonomy over other interests—but that is a relatively minor concern given the availability of other arguments in the broader field. This book would be a valuable addition to college and university libraries, and should also find an audience among readers interested in the Middle East, US foreign policy, or nationalism.