Interview with Barham Salih: Risk and Reform in Iraqi Kurdistan

Policymakers in Iraqi Kurdistan must restore their people’s faith in the government, or jeopardize the region’s future. Since summer 2014, the Kurdistan Region of Iraq has faced growing economic and political challenges, worsened by the costly battle against ISIS and its humanitarian fallout. We spoke with Barham A. Salih, former Prime Minister of the Kurdistan Regional Government and founder of the American University of Iraq, Sulaimani, about how Iraqi and Iraqi Kurdish  policymakers can build stability after ISIS. 

The border between Iraqi and Iraqi Kurdish territory on the Ninewa Plains (March 2017).

M. Schweitzer: Last year, the former Speaker of Parliament in the Kurdistan Regional Government (KRG), Yousif Sadiq, declared that “there is a lot of anger in the Kurdistan region, and it is quiet so far because people are being responsible…But after ISIS is gone, they won’t be waiting anymore.” How have intra-Kurdish rivalries between the region’s key political parties evolved since June-August 2014?

B. Salih: It is very important to put these developments in the proper context. Iraqi Kurdistan’s development over the past decade has been a remarkable success story in the heart of the Islamic Middle East. However, one cannot deny the fact that Kurdish self-government today is extremely challenged. This partly due to collapsing oil price, refugee influx and the war with ISIS. The political crisis between the Kurdistan Democratic Party (KDP), Patriotic Union of Kurdistan (PUK), Gorran, and other parties is but one manifestation of the present-day crisis in Kurdistan. Yet, the problem in the region is more fundamental, and rooted in a failing government structure that cannot accord to the needs of Kurdish society. It is not enough for Kurdish policymakers to justify the present through past successes. Kurds today need better services, accountability, and greater transparency in the way public finances are managed.

A root of the crisis in Kurdistan is that the region’s main political parties have been in power for far too long. During this period, Kurdish society and global realities have changed. Nearly 70 percent of the population in Iraqi Kurdistan is under the age of 30, and they have no recollection of Saddam Hussein’s regime. Although most are appreciative of their region’s history, they have higher expectations and demand better answers from their political elites. Kurdish youth aspire to equality before the law and oversight over the spending of public funds. They do not like the corruption and nepotism that is currently afflicting the system of government. The stakes are very high for the Kurdish people to succeed; what has been achieved in Iraqi Kurdistan is precious, and cannot be squandered. The stakes are very high for the international community, too, which wishes to see a beacon of hope in this troubled part of the world.

To ensure the Kurdish political project continues successfully, politicians cannot be complacent. They must instead take effective steps to deal with corruption, nepotism, the perception of abuse of power in government. Iraqi Kurdistan has been at the forefront of the fight against ISIS — and the Peshmerga should be recognized for their bravery and sacrifices — but this reality is all the more reason to enact fundamental reforms now. Only by pursuing such an agenda can Kurdish leadership protect past successes and keep the region from making the same mistakes of neighboring countries. It is impossible to justify today’s governmental ills— by simply pointing the war with ISIS or the collapsing oil prices. People expect and demand change, and this is normal.

The Iraqi Kurdish economy has suffered under low oil prices since mid-2015, precipitating a financial crisis. Erbil’s response has been to boost production to make up lost revenue, and implement a complementary series of reforms to address waste and corruption. Are such economic efforts sustainable over the long term — how do political divisions within Iraqi Kurdistan impact the implementation of these measures outside the context of immediate crisis? 

I applaud the KRG for its initiatives, such as the biometric registering of public employees and cutting of waste. However, there needs to be a more comprehensive and fundamental agenda for reform. The KRG today is caught in a difficult position, which represents the culmination of almost 20 years of mismanagement and domination of political structures by the region’s parties, as well as the over-reliance on oil. The political model that has developed inside Iraqi Kurdistan when oil was priced at $100 per barrel simply cannot be sustained when this price drops to $50 per barrel.

The most important aim of the region’s reform agenda today should be to restore the public’s confidence in their government, particularly by pursuing transparency. For example, Kurdistan’s work with the Extractive Industries Transparency Initiative (EITI) — a global standard to promote open and accountable management of oil, gas, and mineral resources — as well as other non-government organizations like Transparency International, the World Bank, and the International Monetary Fund (IMF) to pursue structural reforms in the economy is important. In addition to these internal projects, the KRG must reach an arrangement with the federal government in Baghdad to eliminate the sense of uncertainty in that relationship, which has until now destabilized the Kurdish economy and handicapped Erbil’s ability to work with international partners. While efforts, for example, to reduce so-called “ghost employees” through biometric registration programs are important, it is far more crucial to address the longer-term domination of political parties, and their interference in public finances must end.

Increased transparency can be achieved in several ways. Erbil should implement the standards developed by the EITI, and continue to develop working relationships with other NGOs to promote this effort. The KRG has recently tasked Deloitte and other major accounting firms to audit its finances — an important development. Nevertheless, the Kurdish public needs reassurances that this work will continue and will be serious.

The KRG Parliament has not convened since 2015, after the Speaker was prevented from entering Erbil. How will the KRG’s lack of a mechanism for addressing grievance, drafting legislation, and resolving disputes impact the region’s response to significant economic and political challenges? 

There is undeniably a political crisis and impasse in Kurdistan today. The suspension of the KRG Parliament is an important impediment to some of the reforms that are needed. I hope that the major political parties will reengage in a serious dialogue to resolve this challenge. The key players in the KRG need to come into an arrangement about how to restart the Parliament, resolve the presidency issue, and perhaps even address the need for a restructured government that can take care of affairs until the next elections. The details of these negotiations should be left to the political parties, but simply put, the current situation is unacceptable, unjustifiable, and does not help Kurdistan’s legitimacy as a democratic experiment. Kurdistan is faced with serious security and economic challenges, as well as the prospects for instability in the post-ISIS era. The region must live up to its potential.

Political divisions among the KRG’s political parties are shaped by external actors, including Turkey and Iran, as well as non-state groups like the Turkish Kurdistan Workers Party (PKK). What mechanisms exist to de-escalate these tensions, absent an impartial regional actor? 

The dynamics of competition that are unfolding across Iraq and the Kurdistan Region are deeply concerning. Kurdish leaders in Iraq and movements beyond Iraq’s borders must all come to an understanding of how to work with each other. The basic principles underlying any such arrangement should be respect for each other’s situation, an agreement not to interfere or exercise dominance over regions of factions, and an appreciation of the plurality of Kurdish societies. Every Kurd identifies with Kurds of other regions, but the political movements across the region must recognize and respect the fact that Iraqi Kurds, Syrian Kurds, Iranian Kurds, or Turkish Kurds each have their own unique situations. In this sense, Kurdish leaders have many lessons to learn from the experience of Arab Nationalism in the last century — chiefly that it is important to avoid exercising control across diverse regions, and instead recognize the plurality of identities and experiences across various areas and societies. Today, the emergent divisions between many Kurdish groups is extremely disconcerting, and has caused complications in places like Sinjar where fighting has occurred between Kurdish parties.

Iraq’s Kurds can learn much from their own history. Above all, we must not blame others for our own problems. No one political party can dominate Kurdistan’s society. Kurdish society, like any other, has a plurality of identities, opinions, and affiliations — and the region’s politicians should develop a set of national institutions that can transcend domestic political rivalries.

Minority communities across northern Iraq have, since 2014, established “self-protection forces,” in response to feelings of abandonment and vulnerability after ISIS’s advances. Yet, regional parties have funded competing local groups, potentially laying the groundwork for intra-communal conflict. How can policymakers create a post-ISIS arrangement in northern Iraq, given this troubled recent history?

Policymakers in the KRG must pay attention to these emergent divisions. While they are trying to get rid of ISIS, it is crucial not to create a post-ISIS situation in which competing militias will fight for control of terrain. I believe that it is necessary to strengthen the communities in the Ninewa Province, but it is equally crucial that any such a process is not done to create proxies for one political party or another. Instead, there must be a security architecture rooted in the empowerment of local populations to defend themselves against the threat of terrorism, and to stabilize their home territories without creating potential armed groups that can vie against each other in the future. Based on the lessons learned after ISIS’s onslaught in 2014, any future security arrangement for the Ninewa Plain and other disputed areas must involve both the KRG and Iraqi Government, and be based on the basic premise of empowering local communities. If every actor instead rushes to arm its allies in these turbulent regions, this could be a recipe for instability and violence in the future.

Although the fight to liberate Mosul from ISIS appears to be entering its final stage, other areas in northern Iraq remain under the militants’ control — including parts of Sinjar, Hawija, and Tal Afar. In these areas, competition between regional actors is more pronounced. Who will liberate these zones, and how might the operations there differ from the fight in Mosul? 

Hawija will be a very important battle, as it represents an important operations and command center for ISIS. Personally, I would not like to see Kurdish forces to enter Hawija; instead, the Iraqi military and local armed groups must lead this operation. Instead, the Peshmerga should fill a supporting role — similar to what they have done in the Mosul operations. Kirkuk Province, as well as Iraq more generally, cannot be stabilized as long as Hawija remains under ISIS control.

In Sinjar, although the environment is different, there is a similar need to develop a security architecture that does not exclude one group or force in preference for another. Actors like Haydar Shesho — the commander of the Yezidi Self-Protection Forces (HPE), which has been incorporated into the Peshmerga — should be supported moving forward in favor of more partisan groups. In the case of Sinjar, local HPE forces embedded within the KRG structure have done a good job of representing communal interests rather than those of an outside patron. Such local, community-based efforts are crucial for the stability of these regions in Iraq after ISIS is defeated. Yet, it is difficult to say how these efforts will evolve, and whether they can be successful in the current political climate — but it will be important to monitor and support their progress.

Ultimately, it is vitally important in terms of post-ISIS stability for the KRG to come to terms with Baghdad regarding a security framework for these disputed zones. Tensions and rivalries in liberated areas will not simply disappear over time, and cannot be ignored.

Since June 2014, Kurdish forces have seized territories historically outside the Kurdistan Region’s mandate in northern Iraq. Policymakers in Erbil have refused to return this land, sparking vitriol on both sides. Do Iraqi Kurds have an interest in working with Baghdad?

Two things must be considered in relation to this question. First, Kurds have an historic claim to the land seized after 2014, which is documented in Kurdistan’s statements, politics, demography, and heritage. Second, the battle with ISIS is not yet over. The Peshmerga have entered and liberated these territories; the government of Iraq appreciates — or, at least, should appreciate — what the Peshmerga have done there. As a Kurd, I affirm that in Kirkuk must be part of the Kurdistan Region, but Arabs and Turkmen in these areas have different views. Of course, the KRG should engage in negotiations with Baghdad over the status of this territory, and many politicians there may disagree with Kurdish claims; this is their prerogative.

However, as the Iraqi Prime Minister Haidar al-Abadi said at the 2017 Sulaimani Forum, nobody wants these areas remain as “disputed territories.” Instead, they must become “areas of common understanding.” Since 2014, these zones have become “areas of common understanding” by default, as it was the Peshmerga that advanced into them, supported in many cases by the Iraqi military. The process by which the borders of these new regions will be delineated must be subject to negotiations, but Kurds will not easily give them up. They have paid a dear price for liberating these areas, and many Kurdish communities have suffered greatly under ISIS occupation.

In many intra-Kurdish and Kurdistan-Baghdad disputes, the United States has supported actors on both sides of conflict. How can policymakers in Washington respond to rising tensions among various regional actors? 

The United States is an integral player and has considerable leverage over Iraqi and Kurdish politics. Given the stakes involved, Washington should become more engaged to foster a better understanding between the KRG and Baghdad, as well as help resolve Iraq’s fundamental political problems. As Policymakers across Iraq contemplate the situation after ISIS’s eventual defeat, it is crucial to understand the root causes of radicalism and extremism in the country. American leadership and assistance will be important if Iraqi leaders are to reach the much-needed political settlement that can end the cyclical violence to which the country has been subjected.

This interview was also posted at the Post-War Watch.