Iraqi Kurdistan has been relatively stable in an otherwise troubled region. Unhappy with Iraq as their home, Kurds have fought successive Iraqi regimes since being annexed to the new state in 1926. The war against ISIS has produced a new crop of young military commanders, emboldened both by their bravery and international military support. Yes, the Kurds can fight, but can they govern as efficiently? The next generation of leaders should not just be picked on the basis of its war record, but instead for its ability to fight “the other war” against lack of economic opportunity and development.
Kurdistan’s governing record pales in comparison to its fighting record. The semi-autonomous Kurdistan Regional Government (KRG) emerged from elections held in 1992, in a Kurdish safe haven provided by the international community. The leaders chosen in the first Kurdish election derived their legitimacy from having fought the Baath Party. Freedom fighters were rewarded with significant government positions, such as city mayorships and hospital manager positions.
These decisions created weak governance that now holds the Kurds back. Instead of investing in state institutions and capacity, political parties that made up the KRG invested in patronage networks to remain supreme. For example, Kurdish Peshmerga commanders’ loyalty is not to the KRG but to the ruling parties. The economy is chronically dependent on oil and wealth is concentrated in a public sector marred with inefficiency and cronyism.
Government representatives are quick to blame everyone and everything but their reflection in the mirror. Often, they are right—the KRG inherited a Baathist model of centralized administration. Government revenues ebb and flow depending on international oil prices and relations with Baghdad. The KRG has amassed billions of dollars in debt and is months behind on public payrolls.
With the end of ISIS in Iraq in sight and the election season approaching, the Kurds could face a choice similar to what they had in 1992 elections, candidates with fighting prowess or candidates with governing credentials.
That young Kurds stood up to ISIS maintains Kurds’ reputation as fierce fighters and extends it to the current generation. However, as older fighters age, a younger generation of Kurdish leaders has emerged that has amassed political capital by delivering policies and services. This has defined the successes of post-Saddam and pre-ISIS Kurdistan. The result has been the emergence of a secure environment conducive to a petroleum sector, airports, and new universities. With elections scheduled for the fall, the Kurds are again faced with a choice between electing administrators or soldiers from the young cohort of military commanders.
The way forward is to build the capacity to govern – through institutions that ensure inclusive governance and rule of law and by creating opportunities for economic growth and human development. For Kurdish democracy to thrive, its Peshmerga forces should be accountable to a civilian government, not political parties.
Washington has a choice too, to leave Iraqi and Kurdish politics to its own means or nudge it in the right direction. Nation-building has become a radioactive term in Washington, but making an exception for its anti-ISIS partners in Iraq would serve U.S. values and interests. The perception of the government as corrupt, illegitimate and unrepresentative fed into the rise of ISIS and will continue to create opportunities for proxy wars that serve Iran and extremist groups. Indeed, getting governance right is a matter of Iraqi and American national security to counter warlords and terrorism. It is not U.S. money that Iraq and the Kurds need, but guidance on how to spend their petrodollars in a way that will lead to a stable and a sustainable economy. Addressing oil revenue volatility and rebuilding the war-torn cities make for great starts.
The Kurds want to prove it to the world that they deserve to join the world community as an independent state. The way forward is a democratic, well-governed nation that taps into its youth not only to fight but to lead and build too.