Kamal Said Qadir has an interesting piece in Middle East Quarterly that says that Iraqi Kurdistan is on a downward spiral of corruption and terrorism:
There was renewed hope in the wake of Saddam’s fall that the bifurcated Kurdistan Regional Government could fortify its democracy. Such hope was dashed. On January 30, 2006, Kurdish authorities held new elections—the two dominant parties ran on the same list so as not to compete—and divided power equitably according to their leaderships’ pre-election agreement. KDP leader Masoud Barzani assumed the presidency of the Kurdistan region, and his nephew Nechervan Barzani became prime minister, overseeing a unified, albeit inactive, parliament. They preside over more than forty ministers, all of whom receive hefty salaries, perks, and pensions.
Because Iraqi Kurdistan lacks a constitution, Barzani and other senior political leaders can exercise unchecked, arbitrary power. The absence of accountability and a free press has enabled corruption, abuse, and mismanagement to increase.
Nepotism is widespread. Not only is the prime minister the nephew of the president, but the president’s son, Masrour Barzani, a scarcely-qualified 34-year-old, heads the local intelligence service. Another Barzani son is the commander of the Special Forces. And Masoud Barzani installed his uncle, Hoshyar Zebari, as Iraq’s foreign minister when the political party heads were distributing patronage. Other relatives hold key positions in ministries or executive offices. PUK leader Jalal Talabani has only one wife and two children and so has less patronage to distribute. Still, one son oversees PUK security and the other is the Kurdistan Regional Government’s representative to the United States. When the major Iraqi political parties divided up the ministry portfolios in Baghdad, Talabani awarded the PUK’s slot to his brother-in-law. Another brother-in-law is the Iraqi ambassador in Beijing.
Other Barzani and Talabani relatives have monopolized telecommunications, construction, and trade. Those who have no relatives in power sit at the bottom of every hierarchy. Merit is seldom a factor in promotion. While it is possible for non-family members to become ministers, they must have a long record of submission to the Barzani or Talabani families. Many Iraqi Kurds welcomed Iraq’s liberation, calculating that the presence of U.S. forces would also help solidify democracy in the Kurdistan region. They now question whether more than 3,000 U.S. troops sacrificed their lives to enable oligarchy.
We should be assisting the Kurds in their efforts to create an enclave of security in Iraq — but that support should also be conditioned on democratic reforms. It isn’t surprising that Kurdistan is having trouble with corruption and patronage — that’s a common feature of most developing democratic systems, even those that have had more time to develop than Kurdistan has. That doesn’t excuse what’s going on in Kurdistan, nor should the United States be passively enabling such behavior.
The Kurdish people owe much to the United States, and the US remains wildly popular throughout Kurdistan. We need to use that influence to ensure that the KDP and the PUK do not allow Kurdistan to become yet another Middle Eastern oligarchy. That means making funding conditional on democratic reforms, supporting responsible and democratic opposition parties, and working to restore responsible governance at the local level. All of those things can easily be done, so long as the United States is willing to push the Kurds towards democratic reform rather than sliding back towards autocracy.
We also need to ensure that Kurdistan is not becoming a hotbed of terrorism. We promised the Turkish government that the PKK would not have free reign in Iraqi Kurdistan — and the Turks have responded to recent PKK attacks by violating Iraqi territory. That is not an acceptable development on either side. The US must make it clear to the Kurds that support for terrorism is not acceptable, and if the peshmerga will not restrain the PKK, we will. That will be a difficult sell, but unless we want to see the one island of stability Iraq turn into yet another battleground, we have little choice.
Kurdistan remains 10 years ahead of the rest of Iraq, but that doesn’t mean that we can’t still work with the Kurdish people and the international community on reinforcing democratic values such as transparency and the rule of law. Kurdistan can be a democratic outpost in the Middle East that will positively effect the region — but they need the US and the international community to reinforce the values that will get them there. The development of Iraq as a nation requires a long-term commitment both in terms of security and in development. What happens in Kurdistan is a barometer for what will happen in the rest of Iraq in the future — and if Kurdistan becomes yet another kleptocratic state, the rest of Iraq will likely follow.