Present developments in the Kurdistan Region are rooted in events 25 years ago, as the 1991 Gulf War came to an end: President George H.W. Bush’s call for a ceasefire; the popular uprisings that followed; Saddam Hussein’s brutal repression of the uprisings; the mass exodus that followed; and the refugees' return under the protection of another US-led military operation, “Provide Comfort.” These events and the ways in which Kurds responded laid the foundations for the Kurdistan Regional Government (KRG) and what is happening in the Kurdistan Region today.
Even for those who lived through these events, it is easy to forget all the details and lose perspective. A new generation has arisen, not even born then. For many, Kurds as well as non-Kurds, a recounting of events will likely appear as fresh news, so thoroughly have key aspects been lost and buried in the quarter century since.
History is written by the victors; contemporary history is written by the powerful. Mistakes made in the context of the 1991 Gulf War were soon glossed over to become forgotten entirely. Indeed, more errors were piled on top of the old, in flagrant violation of the counsel of the renowned strategist, Albert Wohlstetter: “We should not make our mistakes hereditary.”
Kurdistan24 is beginning a series of articles to mark the 25th anniversary of these events. To understand the future, one should know the past. How did we get here? What should we do next?
The old order—Sykes-Picot—is falling apart, as Lt. Gen. Jay Garner (Ret.) recently told Kurdistan24 in a fascinating and illuminating discussion. What will replace it and when? Will it lead to an independent Kurdish state in the relatively near future? Or will the Kurdistan Region formally remain part of a fraying Iraq for an extended period?
Americans, as well as others, may be astounded at some decisions made at the end of the 1991 war and the disputes surrounding them. The “system” has a way of burying error. One example: during World War II, the Allied forces landing at Normandy used “Higgins Boats,” an unconventional landing craft built by an unconventional figure named Andrew Jackson Higgins, a “hard-fisted, hard-swearing and hard-drinking man” who built good boats. Higgins’ landing crafts were so effective that Gen. Dwight Eisenhower hailed them as the boats that “won the war for us.” But how many people know that they were almost not even built because the Navy opposed Higgins and his boats?
History is littered with such embarrassments, and we certainly find them in America’s Iraq policies over the past 25 years.
This series of articles is based, above all, on interviews conducted in the summer of 1993 in the Kurdistan Region. They include discussions with the Kurdish leadership as well as others. It certainly was not obvious then that two decades later, the Kurdistan Region would prove an enduring and successful enterprise.
Gen. Jay Garner (Ret.) headed the post-war relief operation “Provide Comfort.” As he explained to Kurdistan24, he left Kurdistan in the early fall of 1991 with two other officers, walking across the Khabur Bridge into Turkey. He looked back and said sadly, “They don’t have a chance.” As Garner put it, “Five thousand villages had been destroyed. The people had just been relocated from the mountains. A good, large portion of Erbil had been destroyed” and the same happened in Dohuk and Zakho. “There was no economy. We had barely managed part of the wheat harvest. I just did not think it was possible to survive that.”
But, as Garner continued, “I don’t think you can find a case in history, where a group of people has gone from [such] devastation to where they are now in 25 years. That is an amazing, incredible story.” He concluded, “It’s the courage and the skill of the people, [and] the leadership they have that has gotten them where they are.”
In crucial respects, that amazing and incredible story begins tomorrow, 25 years ago. On Feb. 28, after a mere 100 hours of a ground war, President Bush’s call for a ceasefire took effect. The battered remnants of the Iraqi Army were in panicked flight from Kuwait, leaving behind some 600 blazing oil wells, creating a very image of hell in the desert and an environmental disaster—the biggest oil spill in world history. As the BBC's, John Simpson wrote, “It was an act of premeditated vengeance on the instructions of a man who guessed his gamble might not pay off and wanted to make everyone pay.”
Laurie Ann Mylroie, Ph.D., taught at Harvard University and the US Naval War College. Most recently, she served as a cultural advisor to the US military in Afghanistan.