Having the right friends in US intelligentsia is perhaps the most important asset an aspiring independence movement could wish for. For the Kurds of Iraq, who are to hold an independence referendum on September 25, one such friend is Peter Galbraith, a leading US diplomat who has publicly backed the independence effort.
On September 19, Iraq’s highest court ruled that the Kurdish referendum should be suspended, and the Iraqi prime minister demanded it be called off. But despite this, and opposition from Iraq, Iran and Turkey, as well as the United States, Kurdish leaders insist the vote will go ahead.
Galbraith’s ties to the region go a long way back. In the late 1980s, when the Iraqi regime under Saddam Hussein faced little criticism from the US or even the UN while it massacred many of its own Kurdish citizens, Galbraith was one of the first who drew attention to its deadly use of chemical weapons. Saddam’s massacre of the Kurds on Bloody Friday, when his forces launched a chemical attack on the border town of Halabja on March 16, 1988, has since become a watershed moment in Kurdish history. Years later, when Iraq was invaded by the United States and the Saddam regime was toppled, Galbraith acted as an advisor to the Kurdish Regional Government.
Galbraith was also good friends with a progressive icon of the region, Prime Minister Benazir Bhutto of Pakistan, whom he knew from their time together at Harvard and Oxford. He later used his influence to push for the release of Benazir from prison, when she was held under the Islamist dictatorship of General Zia ul-Haq. In addition to many European languages, Galbraith is known to speak Persian, which probably has something to do with his role, in 2009, as UN’s Deputy Special Representative for Afghanistan, tasked with overseeing the 2009 presidential election.
But perhaps most pertinent to the Kurdish question is Galbraith’s front-row seat to the dissolution of Yugoslavia in the 1990s. He served as the first US ambassador to independent Croatia, from 1993, just months after Washington DC had strongly urged the Croats to not pursue independence. Lesser known is Galbraith’s role in the secession of another oil-rich state from a Muslim-majority country: East Timor. Galbraith served as a cabinet member in East Timor’s first transitional government and is hailed by many Timorese for his role in re-negotiating oil and gas contracts with Australia.
Galbraith is currently in Croatia, where a documentary is being made about his role in the country’s first few years. He spoke to IranWire on the phone about his thoughts on Kurdistan and the referendum.
The Kurds have agitated for independence for decades but you’ve argued that the time is now right for holding a referendum. Why now?
The Kurds have aspired for independence for 100 years. They are a people in a geographically defined area who overwhelmingly want this, and sometime has to be the right time for it. They have a de facto state and army. The world’s attention is centered on the Kurds in a way that it has never been, which is due to their fight against ISIS — which has also won them many friends in the United States. Many remember that when the Iraqi army behaved liked cowards and ran away, it was the Kurds who stood and fought ISIS.
You’ve argued that countries in the region and on a world scale, including even Iran, might oppose the Kurdish referendum now, but in practice, they will come to work pragmatically with an independent Kurdistan. How do you explain this?
What typically happens in these situations is that you have a referendum, independence is declared and then the world basically adjusts. Twenty-eight countries have become independent since 1991 and US initially opposed all of them, except for South Sudan. For example, the US was totally opposed to the way that Croatians went about and declared independence in June 1991. Back then, the US was the absolute king of the world in a way that we are not anymore. James Baker, Secretary of State and a friend of President Bush, came to Belgrade, met with the presidents of six republics and warned them against the break-up of Yugoslavia. But Croatians and Slovenian presidents announced independence of their countries shortly after. The Bush administration also opposed the break-up of the Soviet Union. The president went to Kiev in August 1991 and gave what became known as the Chicken Kiev speech. Yet, at the end of the same month, Ukraine was independent and we recognized it, as we did with Croatia and Slovenia. Europe was also opposed. But Germany and the Vatican came around to recognition and on January 15, 1992, the EU [then the European Community] recognized the independence of Croatia and Slovenia as did the US on April 4, 1992. So within nine months, all this was achieved.
Iran has concerns because it has a Kurdish population which it has treated pretty badly, but on the other hand the choice that it faces is either a hostile relationship or a good relationship with an independent Kurdistan. You see, there is a logic to this. Once the referendum is held and independence declared, how do you put the genie back into the bottle? You can’t!
Why has Israel so adamantly supported an independent Kurdistan?
A lot of it has to do with the specific friendship that they’ve built with Iraqi Kurds. Jews were exiled out of Iraq after 1948, but Kurds have always protected them. Jews who left for Israel have a very positive view of Kurdistan, as opposed to Jews who come from Arab countries, who are very hostile to Arabs, and their embittered experiences makes them anti-Arab and extreme. Jews from Kurdistan, who remember the diversity of the place, have pushed for the recognition of Kurdistan.
To what degree is your take on Kurdistan informed by your experience of the break-up of Yugoslavia?
It is significantly informed because there were never was a chance of holding Yugoslavia together once Slovenia and Croatia voted for independence. You can say it was a tragedy but it’s irrelevant whether it was good or bad. It did break up and it couldn’t be held together. Iraq can’t be held together either. Kurdistan has been de facto independent for 26 years; most of the people who will vote have no memory of living under Iraqi rule. They’ve never seen the Iraqi army in their country, they’ve never had Iraqis control their borders or doing the customs or setting up the school curriculum. Many don’t speak Arabic. How would it be possible to put Kurdistan back in Iraq? Only by massive force, which I am sure the international community doesn’t want — and Iraq doesn’t have the strength to do it anyway. Whether you like it or not, this is the reality and you have to accept it.
The other thing that is informed by my experience in Croatia is that you couldn’t hold Yugoslavia together but you could have prevented war. The great mistake of US diplomacy was that it didn’t focus on preventing the war, which was possible, and we have a tragic result.
This time around, the US, Russians and Iranians should not focus on the mission impossible of holding Iraq together. They should make sure the separation is not violent and the two new countries have good relations.
Read the other interviews in the series:
The Timing of the Kurdish Referendum is Bad for the Kurds and the US (Interview with Professor Daniel Serwer)
What Can Israel do for the Kurds? (Interview with Professor Ofra Bengio)
"Yazidis See the Referendum as Kurdish Betrayal” (Interview with Yazidi expert Idan Barir)
"Israel has a Moral Commitment to the Kurds” (Interview with Colonel Dr. Jacques Neriah)