Wednesday, October 25, 2017

Thoughts on the Kurdish Independence Referendum

Having spent a fair bit of time in Iraqi Kurdistan over the past several years, a number of people have asked me for my opinion about the recent independence referendum. Of course, there's an entirely separate post to be written about why there is a dearth of news and analysis on this relatively major global political moment available to these people such that they don't have to ask me, but this post turned out to be far too long already.

So to cut to the chase, do I support the independence referendum? Well, it really is a case of short answer: "yes" with an "if," long answer: "no" with a "but."

Ideologically, ethically, and morally it makes sense for Kurds to have their own nation (although I'm generally opposed to states defined in large part by ethnicity, but again, that's another post). There's not nearly enough room to go into all the history of it here, but the Kurdish people have been, to put it very mildly, quite poorly treated in most every nation they've been a part of.

At one point in time, Kurds were promised their own nation after the break up of the Ottoman empire and the end of the first World War, but instead they were partitioned into 4 separate nations (Iraq, Iran, Syria, and Turkey) by the major world powers of the time (Britain being most guilty for the, again to put it quite mildly, poor conception and design of what is now the Iraqi state). There have been many times throughout the history of Iraq when the Kurds might have had a chance at gaining independence had everything broken exactly the right way, but world history is complicated and things are always easier to figure out in hindsight.

But importantly, there have been more than a few times the West in general and America specifically have either strongly implied or outright promised to help build an independent Kurdistan, which is a bit more relevant for the purposes of this conversation. Iraqi Kurds were very much led to believe that their assistance in the first Gulf War in 1991 was going to earn them if not their outright independence at the moment, at least US support in gaining it eventually. After all, the genocidal Anfal campaign Saddam carried out against the Kurdish people was a major selling point of the war to the American public (indeed, as a third grader at the time, I remember the phrase "gassed his own people" as being used nearly every time Hussein's name was mentioned).

Instead, the US more-or-less abandoned the Kurds as soon as the war was declared over. Sure, they maintained a No Fly Zone above Kurdish airspace, but that was far from enough to stop Saddam from enacting all sorts of revenge against the Kurdish people. So instead they had to settle for the Kurdistan Regional Government (KRG), the semi-autonomous state-within-a-state they continue to occupy to this day. Although there was supposed to be a referendum regarding Kurdish independence completed by 2007 as part of the original federal agreement, for a laundry list of reasons this never happened. Most recently, as by far the most effective force in fighting the Islamic State, again Kurds hoped to earn their independence by successfully ousting the group from their territory as the central government forces had been unable to do.

This thumbnail sketch is obviously a woefully too short summary of the various trials and tribulations of the Kurdish people within Iraq, but I think it's more than sufficient to demonstrate why I said at the top there are so many reasons to support immediate Kurdish independence.

The but, however, is one of practicality.

As the KRG currently stands, it's somewhat difficult to envision where a lot of the basic necessities of a functional state would come from. There's little industry or agriculture in the area, and the KRG as a whole imports the vast majority of what it consumes. This is already a big enough problem before you realize that an independent Kurdistan would immediately be surrounded by four nations that are strongly opposed to its very existence, two of which (Turkey and Iran) are currently the KRG's biggest trading partners, who would likely immediately cut them off upon independence. Not to mention that land-locked Kurdistan's only trading routes would be through Iran, Iraq, and Turkey, all of whom again are strongly opposed to the existence of a Kurdish state. That's...not ideal.

Independence could be somewhat feasible with meaningful support from the United States, but that support was not forthcoming from the Obama administration and will not be coming from the current administration, either. Pretty much the only nation that supports an independent Kurdistan is Israel, and I probably don't need to give you an extended primer on Middle East politics to know why that's not super helpful.

Again, I want to make it clear that I fully support Kurdish independence. Pointing out the many reasons it's largely not feasible right now is not at all to say it shouldn't happen, just that its prospects for success right now are dangerously slim.

Somewhat ironically, the Kurdish people get a fairly good deal  in the current Iraqi constitution. For instance, the region gets significantly more in its share of the nation's oil revenues, at least in the context of what the KRG itself actually produces. Which is yet another reason independence will be quite difficult -- the only way the KRG could survive as a nation is if they control Kirkuk, a disputed city on the edge of the region which is also the only oil-producing area within/near the KRG.

Kirkuk has a long and interesting history (Mary, as in the mother of Jesus, was said to stay at a temple there for a period of time), but that is again another post for another day. What is relevant now is that Kirkuk used to be a Kurdish city. However, in the 1980s, Saddam began a campaign of Arabization in Kurdish areas, giving the cities Arabic names and offering large sums of money to Arab families that would move from the South into homes of displaced Kurdish people. It was a concerted campaign to break up the large Kurdish majority in the city, and it largely worked, as the city is now quite multicultural. Which is generally a good thing, but in this case was done specifically in an attempt to thwart Kurdish claims to the city.

So the current Government of Iraq will never just cede Kirkuk to the KRG without a fight, and sure enough, immediately after the independence referendum, Iraqi troops and tanks began massing on the border of Kirkuk. While tensions are still fairly high, at this point it doesn't look like any major fighting is going to happen, but it almost assuredly would if the KRG actually declared independence and officially severed ties to Baghdad.

All of these practical problems are not lost on the people of Iraqi Kurdistan. Having spent the majority of this past summer there and spoke to a lot of people about the referendum, opinions were pretty mixed. More than a few people felt it to be a political ruse, an attempt to distract people from the corruption of the KRG's current ruling regime (and there's quite a bit of that!) and the current economic crisis the region is experiencing. Others felt it to be a useless exercise, given all the issues I've laid out here and the many others that could have been brought up. Indeed, there was a concerted political campaign called "No for Now" that made many of these arguments. Of course, a number of the leaders of this movement have been receiving death threats and facing violent retaliation. Which I'm sure is completely unrelated to the aforementioned corrupt political leaders who would greatly benefit from independence.

Of course, many people were more than happy about the referendum, and the fact that it passed with something like 85% indicates whatever problems most people had with it, they still voted yes. And really, how could you blame them? You live all of your life under a brutal dictator and then a violent occupation from a world super power and you get a chance to declare that you should finally be allowed to rule yourselves? Even with all I've written about the actual practical problems of trying to create an independent Kurdistan right now, I'd have voted yes if given the opportunity.

So to drastically oversimplify it: Of course the Kurds deserve independence, but it's hard to see how an independent Kurdistan would be able to survive for long under current conditions. So, do I support Kurdish independence? As the Right Reverend Lovejoy would say "Yes, if they can grow a domestic economic base and secure more regional political cooperation" or "Not but that's only because there's so many seemingly insurmountable challenges right now." Which is  fancy way of saying I can't really say whether independence should happen right now or not.

What I can say is that there is no doubt the United States owes the Kurdish people some meaningful assistance in this matter. The Kurds have been the only allies the US has actually had in Iraq or probably even the wider Gulf region, and the US has constantly leaned on their assistance in a number of important and serious issues, not least of which the number of Kurdish fighters who have died defeating IS and securing the nation they don't even want to be a part of. And for all of their decades of loyal assistance, we've done...well, pretty much nothing for them.

So I guess I'd say independence is not really advisable right now from a cold realpolitik standpoint, but that's really easy for me to say when it's not my life and freedom on the line. And ultimately, that's really the point -- this is a question for the Kurdish people, who have pretty clearly laid out their preference. And despite the long odds, if they want independence, I want their independence. And, really, the United States should, too.

Monday, October 02, 2017

Las Vegas and the Meaninglessness of "Terrorism"

The ol' blog has been silent for some time now, assuredly bringing great disappointment to its tens of readers. But I was overseas all summer and had more important shit to do. More important than rant on the internet? I know, crazy but true. Anyway, it's fitting to come back on something somewhat related to the work that kept me away for so long.

By now, you have of course heard of the shootings in Las Vegas. As per usual, we know the identity of the killer, but none of their motivations or much other reasoning.

But one thing we do know: this is definitely not an act of terrorism. Or it is obviously an act of terrorism, and not referring to it as such is an injustice. I'd be willing to wager I could predict which of these responses you'd chose if I asked you how you feel about Colin Kaepernick. My take? It's not an act of terrorism because there is no meaningful conception of what an act of terrorism is.

As many before me have thoroughly demonstrated, the term "terrorism" is completely meaningless. Well, actually it does have a meaning (which I'll get to in a minute), but it's not the meaning everyone is thinking of when they argue about whether the Vegas shootings are or are not examples of it.

Take a trip with me in ol' wayback machine to the heady days of late 2001. Truly, a simpler time: Donnie Darko gave college sophomores the rare opportunity to pretentiously espouse about the state of, like, the world man, Shaggy was instructing us in the ways of gas lighting our lovers, and of course, Joe Piscapo remained a national treasure. But they weren't all happy days, as the US government was busy readying a War on Terror.

Except there's a problem -- if you're going to declare war on an abstract concept, you need to define that concept in some way. So Top Men Of The Day set to work on what exactly "terrorism" is and they came up with something about using force or the threat of force to try to push people into following particular political/governmental dictates. Except these same folks were also busy reading the invasion of a sovereign nation in the event that nation's head of state didn't quit and leave the country. Which would pretty directly be the threat of force to push people into following our political dictates, which would be our literal definition of terrorism. So they worked it a bit more and added some stuff about the targeting of innocent people. Except the entire concept of Shock and Awe, which was going to guide this invasion of a sovereign nation, was premised entirely upon hitting civilian-heavy areas so the cowed people would do what you want them to. Which, again, was literally terrorism according to their own definition.

So long story short, they gave up on trying to define it and we went to war against a concept we couldn't even define. It is not going particularly well, in case you haven't had a chance to check the news in the last 14 or so years.

Because the problem in trying to define terrorism is that terrorism isn't really a thing that exists. War exists. Mass murder exists. But the concept of "terrorism" isn't a thing. Seriously, try it for yourself, I'll wait. In fact, take all the time you need, as I am not literally speaking to you, so I'm not actually waiting on you...

Are you back? Here's a test for your definition -- would any "legitimate" act of war not fall under your definition of terrorism? Because pretty much every definition I've ever seen of the word is something about using force or the threat of force to get some group of people to follow your political dictates. Which would describe every war ever. Which, if you want to go the super-radical route and declare all wars acts of terror, hellz yeah, I'm down for that. But that still makes the term rather useless, as it describes not only every war, but really the majority of acts of violence. And again, I'm totally down if you want to call all acts of violence terrorism, but that again renders the term pretty meaningless.

But I said earlier there is a meaning to the term. And that meaning is "violence committed by Brown People against white people." Think about that big act of terrorism that kicked all this off -- the 9/11 attacks. Remember the places they attacked? The World Trade Center, which housed various CIA offices, the Pentagon, the central command center of our armed forces, and reportedly the last plane was headed for the White House, the seat of our executive authority. The problem? Those pesky definitions again! According to our own military's guidelines for attacking other nations, those would all be considered legitimate military (not civilian!) targets. Which would mean that, again, by our own official definitions, the 9/11 attacks were not terror attacks. Well, they wouldn't have been if we had done it to someone else. Take, for instance, our ongoing drone wars (Thanks Obama!) -- the Pentagon fully admits that we don't know the identity of 90% of our drone strike victims. 90%! 9 out of 10 people we kill with a drone are likely innocent people.  If a suicide bomber killed 10 soldiers and 90 innocent people, we probably wouldn't consider that a justified act of legitimate warfare.

And therein lies the rub -- what distinguishes "terrorism" from acts of war or just regular ol' violence is that it is violence done to us by "them." And of course, the "them" in this equation is largely Arabs and/or Muslims, though it can be expanded to other Brown peoples as the situation warrants.

The point of the term is to heighten the "otherness" of the violence of brown people; that is, it serves to make their violence somehow different than our violence (which, of course, it is not). This allows you to drone innocent people all day and chalk it up to breaking freedom eggs for a democracy omelette, while at the same time locking up a child in an indefinite torture center for the "terrorist" crime of allegedly throwing your own grenade back at you.

So it's a super meaningless word, one that falls apart pretty much the second you put any thought into it. Why do so many people want it applied to the Vegas case?

My guess would be out of some sense of fairness -- if every time someone with any level of melanin above 0 kills someone it instantly gets labeled terrorist, well then it's only fair that when a white person kills a bunch of people we also reflexively label that terrorism. It strongly reeks of trying to bargain some benefit out of resigned acceptance of this horrid, racist term: "Sure, you created that term as an excuse for you to murder and torture by the thousands. We'll let you keep it as long as you let us call the people we don't like by it as well."

But where does that argument go? As in, what do we possibly gain from calling Vegas an act of terrorism? Are we going to secretly extradite the shooter to Bulgaria so he can be tortured in a secret location? Are we going to ban all white men from getting on planes? Are we going to launch a war on this guy's hometown? Because that's what happens when we successfully label something a terrorist act. In all seriousness, what do we gain other than a false sense of equality by getting a white guy called a terrorist on the news?

Because I submit that warm fuzzy of useless equality that comes from the (meaningless!) label of terrorism finally being applied to a white person for once is the only outcome of that. That's about it. Which not only is not a terribly gainful outcome in and of itself, but would serve to only further justify the use of the term, what with all these voices of people calling for the label to be used, even though I strongly suspect those same people would not be so happy to use this label in most other contexts.

What I humbly suggest would be a better tact would be to fight to get rid of that term. Vegas was certainly bad, but calling it terrorism does nothing to help us stop it from happening again. Just as the 9/11 attacks were very bad, but calling them terrorism has gotten us no closer to (and indeed, it could be argued, much further away from) preventing more instances of this particular form of violence.

Unless the term terrorism helps us understand and prevent further violence (and it most assuredly does not), then there's little utility in spreading its use.