Hitchens’ Kurdish Sojourn

by , April 21, 2007

Christopher Hitchens “had a perfectly swell time” in “Iraqi Kurdistan,” as he calls it, where he spent the Christmas holidays, and he tells us all about it in the current issue of Vanity Fair. He has always been sympathetic to the Kurdish cause, and to say that Hitchens lionizes the peshmerga would not be putting it too strongly. “I confess,” he writes,

“To a slight lump in the throat at revisiting the area and seeing thriving, humming towns with multiplying construction sites, billboards for overseas companies, Internet cafés, and a choice of newspapers. It’s even reassuring to see the knockoff ‘MaDonal,’ with pseudo-golden arches, in the eastern city of Sulaimaniya, soon to be the site of the American University of Iraq, which will be offering not only an M.B.A. course but also, in the words of Azzam Alwash, one of its directors, ‘the ideas of Locke, the ideas and writings of Paine and Madison.’ Everybody knows how to snigger when you mention Jeffersonian democracy and Iraq in the same breath; try sniggering when you meet someone who is trying to express these ideas in an atmosphere that only a few years ago was heavy with miasmic decay and the reek of poison gas.”

No one sniggers at Locke, Paine, Madison, and Jefferson, but only the uses to which they are put by defenders of a foreign policy that would have appalled each and every one of these worthies. Nor does anyone hereabouts snigger at Kurds who express liberal or even libertarian ideas: far from it. Yet when these ideas are applied to the political reality of Kurdistan, such expression could be dangerous for those who dare to speak. As Michael Rubin, hardly an opponent of the war, pointed out on the National Review blog recently:

“An Iraqi Kurd writes that ten days ago, KDP security forces kidnapped and tortured the journalist Nabaz Goran, a writer at the independent weekly Hawlati after he wrote critical articles about corruption in the ruling Barzani family (He sent photos which I do not pass along). Both the KDP and PUK have taken to targeting journalists from the only two independent papers, and there have been other instances of kidnapping and torture of anti-corruption activists at the hands of KDP security forces. Masrour Barzani, head of KDP intelligence and Masud Barzani’s son, is the subject of one human rights law suit in Vienna for alleged abuses under his command in the case of Kamal Said Qadir, another whistleblower. Iraqi Kurdistan may seem like a success compared to the rest of Iraq but, when it comes to rule-of-law, it’s important to recognize that the trajectory is, unfortunately, backwards.”

I covered the horrific persecution of Kamal Said Qadir in this space over a year ago: Antiwar.com also published Dr. Qadir’s piece on the rather interesting history of the ruling Barzani clan, as well as an article by Aaron Glantz on his case. Hitchens doesn’t deign to mention Qadir, the suppression of the free media, or the thuggish kleptocrats who have seized control of Kurdistan, controlling both the economy and political life by the sheer threat of intimidation. Kurdistan is peaceful because the peshmerga, valorized by Hitchens, have kept the population in subjection with the threat of brutal force. Dissidents – and nosy journalists who stick their noses into the shady business dealings of the two big Mafia-like families who control the region – are likely to find themselves in jail, beaten to a pulp, or forced to flee abroad.

Mr. Goran’s case didn’t receive all that much publicity: a few Kurdish websites, Reporters Without Borders, Michael Rubin, and that’s pretty much it. We certainly didn’t hear anything from Hitchens, who is too busy painting a rosy portrait of this overseas paradise of Lockean virtue, which he holds up as a vision of what might have been and might yet still be: “Kurdistan continues to demonstrate how things could have been different, and it isn’t a place from which the West can simply walk away.”

Kurdistan’s peshmerga bully-boys resemble their comrades in Hitchens’ Hall of Heroes – the Kosovo Liberation Army. That drug-dealing, human trafficking gang of thugs has also seized control of a jurisdiction – with the invaluable assistance of the Americans – and imposed its Mafia-like rule over a war-weary and beaten-down populace, intimidating critics and potential rivals into silence, shaking down middle class businessmen, and employing an army of young hoodlums to do their bidding, all of it made possible by multi-millions in military and economic aid from the U.S. government. “Liberated” Kosovo, under the heel of the KLA, has become a haven for smugglers, arms-dealers, drug kingpins, and traffickers in human bodies, and Kurdistan is swiftly following its example.

One of Kurdistan’s chief exports is terrorism. On the long border with Turkey, the PKK (Kurdish Workers Party) conducts a campaign of bombings and assassinations that often reaches deep into Turkish territory, and has taken many thousands of lives over the years. The Turkish military has responded with its usual disregard for human rights – and human life – and the latest eruptions are threatening to break out into full-scale warfare. Another possible front in the next war may well be the Kurdish-Iranian border, across which “Pejak,” the Kurdish insurgent group that seeks to “liberate” their Iranian brothers, regularly crosses in order to carry out attacks. Seymour Hersh recently reported in The New Yorker that both the U.S. and Israel are funding and supporting Pejak.

Hitchens doesn’t want to know about any of this: it would interrupt the flow of his Panglossian narrative, filled, as it is, with ecstatic descriptions of the Kurdish national airline, monuments to fallen U.S. soldiers, women without headscarves, as well as tall tales of the alleged lack of “intercommunal mayhem.”

This latter claim is astonishing, given the large number of Arabs and others who are being forcibly evicted from their homes, especially in Kirkuk, where a struggle for control of the city – the center [.pdf] of the region’s oil riches – is currently in progress. Saddam Hussein moved in a large number of Arabs, years ago, to dilute the ethnic homogeneity of the area, in the belief that this would make it easier to keep Kurdistan under his thumb: now hundreds of thousands of Kurds are being moved back into Kurdistan, and many of them are heading for Kirkuk to reclaim land and homes. The Barzani and Talabani clans, which control the Kurdish Democratic Party and the Patriotic Union of Kurds, respectively, are actively encouraging this ethnic cleansing campaign in a bid to consolidate their power.

Perhaps what blinds Hitchens to the reality of Kurdistan as just another Third World kleptocracy is what he refers to in his piece as “this intoxicating ‘birth of a nation’ emotion” that gripped him for the duration of his trip. Certainly Hitchens is no stranger to intoxication. Yet one has to wonder if this is just a case of the old sandalista syndrome, in which a Western ideologue overlooks the more sinister aspects of his hosts’ political arrangements to warble about the glories of the Kurdish workers paradise – or if something else is at work here.

Kurdish independence would be among the most unfortunate results of U.S. intervention and the subsequent break-up of Iraq for the simple reason that the Kurds would use their newly won nationhood to give sanctuary and support to Kurdish insurgencies from Turkey, to Syria, to Iran, and beyond – a strategy bound to provoke a military response from those governments. This is already starting to happen.

Hitchens and his fellow neocons hail Kurdistan as a model for the rest of the region, and quite openly overlook its blemishes, knowing full well that its value – to them – lies in its status as a staging ground for the next round of wars in the Middle East. This is an eventuality most of the American people fear, and yet the neocons – especially Hitchens – rejoice at the prospect of it.

Like the sort of radical tourist who used to visit Sandinista Nicaragua, and still sometimes go to Cuba, Hitchens returned from yet another trip to “liberated” Kurdistan full of praise. However, in a nod to the Gorans and Qadils – without, of course, having to mention their names or the details of their persecution – he writes:

“There is no need to romanticize the Kurds: they have their own history of clan violence and cruelty. But this flag at present represents the closest approximation to democracy and secularism that the neighborhood can boast.”

So this is what Americans, in the end, came to Iraq to do: install in power a gang of thugs whose cruelty is relatively mild in comparison to others in a rough neighborhood, and whose “secularism” is perhaps encoded in their complete ignorance of Catholic “just war” theory. No, there is no need to romanticize the Kurds, unless, perhaps, you have an agenda that has nothing to do with Locke, Madison, Paine, or Jefferson, and everything to do with creating yet more trouble in that war-torn part of the world.

Read more by Justin Raimondo