Iraqi Kurdistan’s house of cards is collapsing

The region once seemed a bright spot in the disorder unleashed by U.S. regime change. Today, things look bleak.

Chamchamal is a dry, dusty city with a rough-and-ready reputation. Midway between Kirkuk and Sulaymaniyah in Iraq’s semiautonomous Kurdistan Region, the city—known sometimes by its nickname “Texas”—lies near significant reserves of natural gas. But locals hardly benefit from the lucrative resource buried beneath their homes. Most get by on a few hundred dollars a month, and unemployment is widespread—particularly among young people.
Twenty years after the U.S.-led invasion of Iraq, Iraqi Kurdistan is often held up as an island of democratic promise and economic development in an otherwise illiberal Middle East. Iraqi Kurds strongly supported the United States’ toppling of Iraqi leader Saddam Hussein and continue to regard it as a positive development.
Iraqi Kurds have long fought Baghdad for self-determination—efforts met mostly with cruel oppression. During the genocidal Anfal campaign in the 1980s, Saddam’s army used chemical weapons against Kurdish civilians. Since the 1990s, Iraqi Kurds have been close partners of the United States and other Western countries, working together to topple Saddam and then the Islamic State. While most observers agree that the Iraq War did not make Iraq more prosperous or democratic, Iraqi Kurdistan seemed a bright spot in the disorder unleashed by regime change.
But today, things look bleak. The region’s political institutions are riven by partisan divisions and leaders who regularly deny citizens freedom of expression. Entrenched economic inequality and lack of opportunity are driving waves of migrants to seek a better life abroad. The day-to-day experience of most Iraqi Kurds, especially in smaller cities such as Chamchamal, is a far cry from that of the politically connected elite who live in luxury residential developments in Erbil and Sulaymaniyah. This distinction is often overlooked by Western diplomats and visitors who meet regularly with party officials, business leaders, and young people educated at private universities.
If the Iraq War and its aftermath have taught us anything, it is that Western relations with the region should reflect the interests of its people rather than those of its political leaders. Democracy, unity, and self-determination are deeply held ambitions of the Kurdish people—and three decades of intense foreign support have so far not helped them fully achieve these goals. As Iraqi Kurdistan faces a crisis of democratic legitimacy, the West must use its considerable leverage and capabilities to hold Iraqi Kurdish leaders accountable for corruption and human rights abuses rather than reinforcing them through unyielding military and political support.
While Western governments largely ignored Saddam’s Anfal campaign in the 1980s, they were more supportive of Iraqi Kurds in the aftermath of the Gulf War, instituting a no-fly zone to protect them against aerial attacks. Kurdish self-governing institutions were established during the early 1990s.
The U.S.-led invasion of Iraq enabled the emergence of Iraqi Kurdistan on the world stage, free from the yoke and shadow of Saddam’s dictatorship. Established in 2005 under the new Iraqi Constitution—which was developed with extensive U.S. and foreign support—Iraqi Kurdistan has its own parliament and judiciary. The Kurdistan Regional Government (KRG) also has a full range of ministries with significant devolved powers, and the region enjoys its own foreign relations, security forces, and military, known as the Peshmerga. Nearly all matters of governance are handled by KRG institutions rather than those in Baghdad.
But in reality, power rests with the region’s two ruling parties: the Kurdistan Democratic Party (KDP) and the Patriotic Union of Kurdistan (PUK). The KDP controls Duhok and Erbil governorates—the latter of which is Iraqi Kurdistan’s capital—and the PUK dominates Sulaymaniyah. In each zone, party officials are responsible for setting policy. Party connections are viewed as key to getting a job, starting a business, and winning legal disputes. The Peshmerga and security forces in each zone have partisan affiliations, too.
According to KRG law, “the political parties should not have armed forces,” said Niyaz Abdulla, a journalist from Erbil. But this prohibition is flagrantly ignored in practice. “When any conflict arises between political parties, there is an immediate risk of armed conflict,” she added.
The partnership between the KDP and PUK has always been complicated. The PUK originated as a splinter faction of the KDP in the 1970s—a split that resulted from a mix of personal and political factors—and fought a civil war and operated separate statelets during the 1990s. During this time, the Iraqi Kurdish population suffered from the so-called “double embargo,” whereby the international community restricted trade with Saddam’s regime, which then blocked aid and investment to Iraqi Kurdistan.
The KDP and PUK ostensibly agreed to set aside their decades-long rivalry following the end of Saddam’s dictatorship to unify under the new KRG. The United States was key in mediating the end of this civil war and encouraging Kurdish unity in post-Baathist Iraq. But this marriage of necessity has always yielded mixed results. The two parties’ working relationship has become increasingly dysfunctional since the last regional election in 2018, which saw the rise of a new generation of leaders less interested in pragmatism and more in factional self-interest.
Farhad Mamshai, who grew up in Chamchamal and is now a doctoral candidate in planning, governance, and globalization at Virginia Tech, told Foreign Policy that while the KDP and PUK used to split power and positions evenly at the regional level, the KDP since 2018 has sought to become the undisputed power in Iraqi Kurdistan.
The two parties recently have had several major disagreements, according to Mamshai, including over how to share internal revenues from border crossings and taxes, how to manage the oil and gas industry, and relations with Baghdad. These rifts have also stalled the process of reforming the Peshmerga to make it into a unified, apolitical, and modern fighting force.
Unable to come to an agreement over a new electoral law, the KDP and PUK delayed regional elections scheduled for October 2022 and controversially extended the term of the Kurdistan Parliament. As of this writing, the Kurdistan Parliament has not taken up a new draft electoral law.
“Failure to hold elections means a lack of legitimacy for government and parliamentary bodies. They can no longer be genuine and legitimate representatives of the people,” Mamshai said.
These elite-level squabbles have real consequences, particularly as Iraqi Kurdistan experiences a prolonged financial crisis. Since 2014, the region has borne the brunt of extreme fluctuations in oil prices, budget disputes with Iraq’s federal government, the war against Islamic State, and the COVID-19 pandemic. Last year, authorities in Sulaymaniyah had difficulty paying public sector salaries, leaving angry government employees lining up outside distribution centers for cash. Several pensioners died waiting in line to collect benefit payments.
The KRG and other government institutions are by far the region’s most important employer, and efforts to diversify the economy are slow-moving. A 2018 report by the International Organization for Migration estimated that 47 percent of households in Iraqi Kurdistan included at least one person working in the public sector. Three-quarters of working women are government employees.
According to the International Labour Organization, average unemployment in Iraqi Kurdistan stands at almost 16 percent. But this number is much higher among young people: About a third of people age 15 to 24 are not in education, employment, or training. Women are significantly more likely to be unemployed than men among all age groups.
Iraqi Kurds are limited in how they can respond to the dysfunctional KDP-PUK duopoly. Iraqi Kurdistan’s opposition parties are divided and extremely weak. The Change Movement, known under its Kurdish name Gorran, advocates for a more powerful parliament and a dismantling of the ruling duopoly and threatened to displace the PUK in Sulaymaniyah a decade ago. But Gorran is now a shell of its former self amid infighting and a decision to enter into government with the KDP and PUK. More recent upstarts, such as the New Generation Movement, offer little hard policy detail alongside populist gimmicks. Fears of electoral fraud are pervasive among voters, and opposition parties exploit these when they do poorly.
Both the KDP and PUK restrict freedom of expression within their zones of control, forcibly preventing protests from taking place. Iraqi Kurdish journalists are regularly arrested or otherwise blocked from covering the news; a local watchdog catalogued at least 431 violations last year.
Faced with restricted political freedoms and a lack of economic opportunity, many Iraqi Kurds feel their best option is to migrate. According to the Summit Foundation, a nongovernmental organization based in Sulaymaniyah, tens of thousands of people leave Iraqi Kurdistan each year, many heading for Europe. Tragically, many migrants from Iraqi Kurdistan have gotten stuck on the Belarus-Poland border or drowned in the English Channel.
In February, the U.S. consul general in Erbil warned of “backsliding in the areas of human rights, gender-based violence, the rule of law, equal treatment for women, [and] equal opportunities for members of Kurdistan’s minority community.” The result is profound political disillusionment among Iraqi Kurds.
Sherko Azad Ali was born in 2002, just before the U.S.-led invasion, and lives in Chamchamal. He said people in Iraqi Kurdistan want to work for the advancement of the region, but “most citizens hate politics and do not think about it because [the authorities] don’t even give citizens basic rights.”
Ali spends his mornings studying to become a physical education teacher at a local institute and volunteers as a soccer referee in his free time. While he is excited about his career, he knows it will not be an easy road.
“Most of my peers do security work or are employed with the help of an authority figure. Middle-class and poor people, even if they can find a job, can’t make a living,” Ali told Foreign Policy. “I think the people in power in this region only care about their own interests. The rich work for themselves and oppress the poor.”
Iraqi Kurdistan’s democratic deficit and economic dysfunction are a result of its self-interested political leadership. These leaders are enabled by Western officials, who routinely hail their “special and strong” relationship with Erbil but rarely and only mildly publicly rebuke their partners’ abuses and poor governance. These sorts of statements conflate the interests of the region’s political leadership and those of the Iraqi Kurdish people, to the latter’s detriment.
The United States and its Western partners have tremendous leverage over the KRG but seem unwilling to use it. For instance, they have put a great deal of weight behind Peshmerga reform—which the ruling parties support rhetorically but resist in practice because partisan security forces are key to their patronage networks. Washington supplies funds to pay some Peshmerga stipends and could make these conditional on reform to break the logjam. Some prominent Kurdish leaders and their business associates also have significant assets in Western countries that could be targeted to deter corruption.
A lower-cost approach would be for Western diplomats to vocally and publicly call out abuses within Iraqi Kurdistan as soon as they occur—and show solidarity with front-line rights defenders such as women’s rights activists and jailed journalists. Doing so would be in Western governments’ interest: It is well established that poverty, lack of opportunity, and restrictions on freedom of expression and assembly are incubators of instability and conflict. It would also help European countries tackle some of the root causes of migration. Although Iraqi Kurdistan has been relatively more stable than other parts of Iraq since 2003, that stability is not guaranteed.
Without such a change in approach, Mamshai foresees “more division and fragmentation” and “the further decline of political freedoms, democratic values, and violation of human rights principles” in Iraqi Kurdistan. This would be a grave injustice for the Iraqi Kurdish people, who have made many sacrifices in the past 20 years in the fight against dictatorship and extremism in Iraq.
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