The two 9/11’s in modern Kurdish history

Mullah Mustafa Barzani (on horseback) is pictured among a group of Peshmerga fighters. (Photo: Archive)
Mullah Mustafa Barzani (on horseback) is pictured among a group of Peshmerga fighters. (Photo: Archive)

WASHINGTON DC (Kurdistan 24) – For Kurds, September 11 has long meant the September revolution: the revolt against the regime in Baghdad led by the legendary Mustafa Barzani, which over the past sixty years has culminated in the Kurdistan Region, its government, and its society, as we know them today.

President Masoud Barzani, head of the Kurdistan Democratic Party and formerly long-time president of the Kurdistan Region, affirmed that point on Saturday, September 11.

“All the achievements and political progress in Kurdistan are an extension of the sacrifices and struggle of our nation in the September Revolution,” he stated.

Prime Minister Masrour Barzani echoed this sentiment in a tweet in which he called on the Kurdistani peoples to “come together to defend our gains.”

The September revolution began in 1961, under Iraq’s first military dictator, Abdul Karim Qasim, who, in 1958, overthrew the Hashemite monarchy that the British had installed in Baghdad following World War I.

The revolution continued on and off for the next 30 years until Baghdad lost control of the Kurdistan Region after the United States-led Operation Provide Comfort began. The central feature of that military operation, as conducted over the decade that followed the 1991 Gulf War, proved to be the no-fly zone, which kept Saddam Hussein from attacking the Kurdistan Region.

In those years, the Kurdistan Region, in effect, prepared for what was to come. 

As Masoud Barzani explained earlier this year, on the 30th anniversary of Operation Provide Comfort, “The people of Kurdistan were able to manage their own affairs, to establish institutions, hold elections, and establish a parliament and a regional government,” laying the basis for the flourishing of the Kurdistan Region today.

The Second September 11

For Americans, September 11—which they have come to refer to as 9/11—has a very different meaning. It is the day of the most lethal single strike on US soil: nearly 3,000 Americans died on that day, and it triggered the so-called Global War on Terror that continues to this day.

However, despite the expansive rhetoric, only two countries saw a major US military response: Afghanistan and Iraq.

The US action provided enormous benefit for the Kurds, as Bayan Sami Abdul Rahman, the Kurdistan Regional Government (KRG) representative in Washington, recently explained.

“The US decision to intervene in Iraq led to our liberation from a genocidal dictator, Saddam Hussein, who was responsible for the murder of hundreds of thousands of Kurds, Arabs, and others,” she wrote in The Dallas Morning News.

“In 2001, our region had a handful of universities, restricted access to the outside world, and while protected by a no-fly zone, still was not completely free of Saddam’s wrath and whims,” Abdul Rahman explained.

The Kurdistan Region was subject to the same harsh international embargo imposed on the whole of Iraq. In addition, Saddam imposed his own internal embargo against the Kurdistan Region.

Over the past 20 years, however, as Abdul Rahman went on to note, “Our landlocked territory opened two international airports, established over 30 universities including two American institutions, and developed an oil industry with investments by US companies.”

“We formed democratic, inclusive governments with women’s representation and put into place laws that aim to protect their rights,” she stated, and “we formed diplomatic ties with almost 40 countries and today host international companies and organizations in our region, safely and freely.”

Sen. Tammy Duckworth (D, Illinois) expressed similar sentiments following a Senate fact-finding mission she led to Iraq in 2019. 

During Operation Iraqi Freedom (OIF), Duckworth was an army helicopter pilot. In 2004, her helicopter was shot down, and she lost both legs. Her 2019 trip was her first visit to Iraq, including the Kurdistan Region, in 15 years.

Duckworth was enormously impressed by the changes that she saw in the Kurdistan Region. 

“When I used to go up to the Kurdish Region, there was one fancy hotel on top of a hill and that was it,” she said, recalling the early days of OIF. “We landed on a hillside and parked our helicopters and walked up to the one hotel.” Now, there are “high-rises, it’s gleaming, it’s modern”—in sum, “an international cosmopolitan city,” Duckworth explained.

Read More: Sen. Duckworth: Kurdistan is model for Iraq; ISIS not defeated

Duckworth also suggested that the Kurdistan Region “sets an example” for the rest of Iraq, which has been far less successful in taking advantage of Saddam’s overthrow, 

History’s Irony

The reasons why the George W. Bush administration overthrew Saddam and his regime after the 9/11 attacks have become very confused. Many have come to see OIF as part of an ill-advised campaign to transform the Middle East through democracy.

That was, indeed, an ill-advised objective, as it was unattainable. Had senior US officials been more knowledgeable about the Middle East and other cultures more generally, they would never have espoused it.

Aside from exceptional circumstances such as World War II, societies do not change overnight. After that global conflict, following protracted military occupations, Germany and Japan were, indeed, transformed. But, of course, no such intense, focused effort went into the war on terror. 

Transforming the Middle East did become a US goal—but only after May 2003, when Bush, believing he had won in Iraq, gave a televised address from the deck of a US aircraft carrier under the banner “Mission Accomplished,” and proclaimed the end of major combat operations.

The agenda of transforming the Middle East arose, in part, because the White House believed that it had won quick, easy victories in Afghanistan and Iraq.

But the decision for war in Iraq long preceded the emergence of that agenda. Already on September 26—just 15 days after the 9/11 attacks—Bush called Secretary of Defense Donald Rumsfeld into his office and directed him to start reviewing his Iraq war options, as Rumsfeld relates in his memoirs.

That decision would prove quite controversial. Bill Clinton, who had been president for the previous eight years, had not wanted to deal with Saddam. He discounted the threat from Iraq, as it emerged during his presidency, and the US bureaucracies accommodated Clinton. Accordingly, those agencies saw no serious threat from Saddam—certainly not one that would justify a full-scale war—and resisted Bush’s decision after the 9/11 attacks.

In addition, many of the so-called neocons had misunderstood the collapse of the Soviet Union and the ideology that had legitimized its rule, namely communism.

They saw those events as representing the transformation of the Soviet bloc from dictatorship to liberal democracy—in the fashion of the US and Western Europe. However, as would become evident, the demise of communist rule meant that the earlier, pre-communist form of governance and society came to the fore—liberal in some countries, less liberal, even quasi-dictatorial, in others, like Russia itself.

After it became evident that Bush would go to war in Iraq, various neocon figures endorsed that decision but did so on the grounds that Washington should fulfill an American “mission”--and not for the traditional national security concerns that prompted Bush to direct Rumsfeld to prepare for that conflict.

Now such figures, at least some of them, are uncertain about whether OIF—which they had urged and which cost nearly 4,500 American lives—was worth it!

OIF was, indeed, worth it, even as the Bush administration failed to make a good case for that war. Indeed, as one senior Pentagon aide remarked, with some ruefulness, to this reporter a decade ago, “We should have argued that the Iraq war was necessary, not that it would be easy.”

Yet none of the US infighting should diminish recognition of this historical irony: the Kurds’ modern history has been decisively shaped by two major 9/11 events, occurring 40 years apart, in two different centuries: the September revolution that began on 9/11/61, and the ouster of the dictator, as triggered by the attacks of 9/11/01, who had blocked the progress and development of that revolution.