Jonathan Randal: After Such Knowledge, America and the Kurds

Writer, former WaPo and NYT foreign correspondent
author_image Yadgar Fayeq

ERBIL (Kurdistan 24) – Jonathan Randal is a highly regarded foreign correspondent, who wrote for The Washington Post and The New York Times. After a career spanning 45 years, Randal is now mostly retired—but not entirely, as Kurdistan 24 spoke with him last week, while he was visiting Kurdistan to update his book, After Such Knowledge, What Forgiveness? My Encounters with Kurdistan.

Yadgar Fayeq sat down with Randal in Erbil to discuss that book, as well as his view of contemporary events affecting the Kurds.

After Such Knowledge includes Randal’s astonishing experiences in the spring of 1991, as the US allowed Saddam Hussein to crush the uprisings that followed the Gulf War. Although President George H.W. Bush had famously called on “the Iraqi military and the Iraqi people” to “force Saddam Hussein, the dictator to step aside,” what Bush really wanted—and expected—was a military coup.

The cover of Jonathan Randal’s After Such Knowledge, What Forgiveness? My Encounters with Kurdistan.
The cover of Jonathan Randal’s After Such Knowledge, What Forgiveness? My Encounters with Kurdistan.

Randal was in Iraqi Kurdistan at the time, he explained, at Bush’s "specific request.” With Iraqi forces driven out of Kuwait, on February 28, Bush, unilaterally, called for a ceasefire. Within days, widespread, popular revolts began in the Shi’a south and the Kurdish north.

Over the following month, the US watched as Saddam’s forces ruthlessly suppressed the uprising in the south, and then toward the end of that month, began to turn north. On March 26, as Saddam was shifting his attention northwards, the White House essentially gave him the green light to suppress the uprisings.

As Randal’s own paper, The Washington Post, reported, out of Washington, three days later, citing a senior US official, “Bush believes ‘Saddam will quash the rebellions,’” and then “the Ba’ath military establishment and other elites” will blame him for the vast destruction “and install a new leadership.”

Of course, that was nonsense.

Randal was then in Kurdistan. “I watched in horror,” he told Kurdistan 24, “as Saddam’s army was allowed by the United States government to come back into Kurdistan and crush the rebellion and kill a lot of innocent people.”

Fearing that Saddam would use chemical weapons, as he had done previously, virtually the entire population of Kurdistan fled to the Iranian and Turkish borders, believing that Saddam would be inhibited from using poison gas, where the world would see it. The weak and the vulnerable died in the cold and the mud.

With journalists, including Randal, reporting on the humanitarian catastrophe that Bush had unleashed, he was soon forced to reverse course, and he initiated “Operation Provide Comfort.”

That, along with the second Iraq war, is how, 28 years later, Jonathan Randal could be sitting comfortably in a fashionably appointed house in Erbil, discussing his book with Yadgar Fayeq.

Denouncing the Bush administration’s "unconscionable behavior" in 1991, Randal explained the motivating factor behind his book, “I wanted to set down the record of what I still consider to be American treachery.”

Particularly sad for a people who are basically pro-American, the Kurds of Iraq have a history of being repeatedly betrayed by Washington.

In 1975, as Secretary of State, Henry Kissinger endorsed the Algiers accord between Iran and Iraq, in which Iraq ceded to Iran control of half their riverine border, the Shatt al-Arab, and both sides agreed to cease support for the other’s domestic opponents. Saddam ended his support for the Baluch rebellion in Iran, and the Shah dropped his support for Iraq’s Kurds.

Explaining Kissinger’s decision, Randal said, “It was simply off-hand,” adding that Kissinger didn’t know or care about the Kurds and “called them a hill tribe, which is what the British called people in British-India.”

US support for the Kurds had begun in 1972, in an off-hand manner. Kissinger and President Richard Nixon had just left Moscow, and they stopped in Tehran to see the Shah, who “was working on Nixon to help the Kurds,” Randal explained.

This was no friendly gesture from the Shah to the Kurds, however. The Iranian ruler, as Randal explained, only “wanted to use the Kurds against Baghdad, against Saddam.”

“I don’t think Kissinger and Nixon thought two seconds about it,” he said. “It was simply: the Shah asked them for a favor.”

But, as Fayeq protested, “He was national security adviser.” And as Randal responded, “That is precisely the point.”

And when US support for the Kurds ended in 1975, after Gerald Ford had become president, it was just as casual a decision.

Asked about 2017—when the US opposed the independence referendum and then turned a blind eye, as Iraqi forces attacked the Peshmerga in Kirkuk and other disputed territories in an operation masterminded by Qasim Soleimani, head of the Quds Force of Iran’s Islamic Revolutionary Guard Corps—Randal explained that decision had been significantly different.

It “would seem to me, a much more complicated affair,” he said. “There were policy considerations that were extremely complicated for the Kurds and for the United States.”

Randal also suggested that US President Donald Trump bears responsibility. He “may have some virtues,” Randal said, “but analysis and careful research is not one of them.”

However, one can scarcely excuse those most responsible for the conduct of US foreign policy, including the National Security Advisor, H. R. McMaster, and the Secretary of State, Rex Tillerson, widely considered to be one of America’s worst secretaries of state in recent time.

Tillerson left Iraq policy in the hands of relatively low-level bureaucrats, and their primary reason for opposing the Kurdistan Region’s independence referendum, as they told Kurdish officials, was to ensure the election of Iraqi Prime Minister Haider al-Abadi—a calculation that failed spectacularly.

Indeed, Ryan Crocker—a former US ambassador to Iraq, an old Middle East hand of long experience, and Gen. David Petraeus’ diplomatic partner during the “surge” in Iraq—in late September, before the assault on Kirkuk, criticized the strident US opposition to the referendum. Congressmen, including Senate Minority Leader, Chuck Schumer, called on the US to recognize its results, as did John Bolton, then a private citizen, and now Trump’s National Security Adviser, having replaced McMaster last April.

With different advisers, Trump might have made a different decision.

 

 

Randal worked in many countries over his long career, but he noted that the resources available to him had never been as rich as they were in Kurdistan, where he developed good relations with Kurdish leaders, including Masoud Barzani, President of the Kurdistan Democratic Party (KDP), and the late Jalal Talabani, head of the Patriotic Union of Kurdistan (PUK.)

“I have never-ever, as a journalist, had access of a kind I’ve had with the Kurds,” he stated. “I don’t think anybody directly lied to me. I don’t think anybody withheld anything from me.”

“I can remember times, when I wanted to go to the other side, and I would get a written note allowing me to pass” through checkpoints, said Randal, referring to demarcation lines that existed between different parts of the Kurdistan Region controlled by the KDP or PUK, whose disputes culminated in armed clashes, a dark chapter in Kurdish history.

In a part of the world where repression of journalists is commonplace, the Kurdistan Region’s respect for the profession remains a true marker of Kurdish values. Although occasional instances of breaches and violence occur, journalistic freedom is nevertheless incomparable with neighboring states.

“The Kurds have this incredible ability to tolerate access to their enemies,” Randall explained. “We never were told that’s none of your business” when he was in Kurdistan, along with other international correspondents.

 

Kosar Nawzad contributed to this report

Editing by Nadia Riva