US neo-colonialism and democracy

The defeat of Saddam Hussein's regime has, as many have observed, opened up a Pandora's box for the US-British coalition. Now that Saddam has gone and the Iraqi central state effectively disintegrated, Kurdish national aspirations, brutality suppressed by the Ba'athist regime, now confront find the new occupiers. In the hands of the imperialists, the oppression of the Kurds in Iraq was, with the utmost cynicism, made to play the role of a propaganda weapon against Saddam Hussein. But that is not possible any more; the US imperialists themselves are now responsible for administering Iraq, and they will have to deal with the Kurdish question. The expectations of the Kurdish population are understandably high in this situation. They expect the imperialists to provide them with effective self-government at the very least, or that the process of 'democracy' the Americans are promising will give them the possibility of seceding from Iraq completely and establishing their own state of Kurdistan, something the nationalistic-minded among them certainly see as essential. The problem is that the Kurdish question does not just affect Iraq. It also affects Syria, Iran and Turkey, all of which contain distinct areas, contiguous to each other, where the dominant population is Kurdish. The Kurds have a linguistic unity, a distinct territory where they clearly are the dominant group, and a national consciousness formed by many years of persecution in the states that control Kurdish territory. For the Americans, Kurdish self-determination is problematic because the largest chunk of Kurdish territory by far is situated in Turkey, one of America's most important regional allies. The modern Turkish ruling class has ferociously oppressed the Kurds ever since a distinct Turkish national state was founded in the aftermath of the defeat of the Ottoman Empire in World War I; before then they were one of many subject peoples of that decaying multinational empire. Indeed the denial that Kurds are even a distinct people at all has historically been regarded as central to Turkey's stability and viability as a nation. The large area of Kurdish territory that makes up Eastern Turkey is complemented by the often large Kurdish minorities that constitute militant sections of the working class in some of Turkey's major cities. (The same, to a greater or lesser extent, is true in the other states that overlap Kurdistan.) The prolonged guerrilla war waged in Turkish Kurdistan by the Kurdish Workers Party (PKK), in which many thousands of Kurdish civilians were slaughtered mainly by the Turkish state, only came to an end with the capture of PKK leader Abdullah Ocalan. Indeed, many believe that American intelligence helped them to ensnare him and bring him back to Turkey. Certainly, US (and British) imperialism has characterised the PKK as a 'terrorist' organisation, something which was given a certain credence by the PKK's often brutal reprisals against Turkish civilians for the acts of the Turkish army. But in any case, this record ought to be enough to clarify that US imperialism is no friend of the Kurds. Despite this, however, the leaders of the two main Kurdish organisations in Iraqi Kurdistan, the Kurdish Democratic Party (KDP) and the Patriotic Union of Kurdistan (PUK), are pro-western and willingly collaborate with US imperialism against Iraq. While Saddam Hussein's terrible regime survived, many of their followers, understandably in many ways, believed this was the only policy that could ensure Kurdish survival as a people, particularly with the bloody terror and genocidal mass repression that were used to put down Kurdish rebellion at the end of the Iran-Iraq war (including of course the chemical attack on Halabja) and again after the Kurdish rising at the end of the 1991 war with America. But now those political conditions are gone. A continued alliance, given the Americans' plans for Iraq, will simply mean Kurdish nationalist leaders betraying the Kurds' national aspirations to a US-run puppet state. So the Turkish rulers are very afraid of the coming into existence of any kind of Kurdish state in Northern Iraq; they have been threatening to use military force for quite a few years to make sure this never comes about. But with the Americans in charge in Baghdad, and given the propaganda use of Halabja and the Kurdish question in prosecuting the war, for American troops to simply suppress Kurdish aspirations to keep the Turkish rulers happy would be very damaging to America's fraudulent pretence to have 'liberated' Iraq. The Iraqi Kurds' struggle for liberation has enormous prestige around the world; the US would suffer a major propaganda defeat if it were to treat them as they recently treated the Iraqi armed forces, for example. Conversely, not to secure Kurdistan against the Kurdish people themselves would damage US interests in a different way, by damaging relations with Turkey and perhaps leading to some kind of three-way military imbroglio, if Turkey were to intervene. The only thing the American neo-colonialists are able to rely on at the moment is the pliable leadership of the Iraqi Kurds. After the taking of Kirkuk by the peshmerga guerrillas on April 10 (apparently without consulting the US military leadership on the ground), under American pressure and Turkish threats the KDP/PUK leaders of the peshmerga agreed voluntarily to vacate the city. A day later, Mosul was taken by the peshmerga, apparently acting in unison with some American special forces, though the upshot of this victory may well be that control of the city passes to the Americans and the peshmerga simply end up playing the role of a surrogate American police force. The problem with this kind of thing is, again, now that Saddam has gone it is not just the Kurdish nationalist leaders who are face to face with the Americans. So are the Kurdish masses and, in the current climate of raised expectations, if the pro-American leadership do not deliver real and tangible political gains for the Kurds, in terms of self-government and at least the possibility of real self-determination (ie, the right to independence), then such leaders could easily be pushed aside from below. The Kurdish right to self-determination is a democratic question, one of many complex democratic and national questions that provide a particular challenge for Marxists when trying to address the problems of the Middle East. The fact that the Kurdish population, though being centred in the distinct territory of Kurdistan that overlaps four Middle Eastern states, also has a large semi-diaspora population that often constitutes militant sections of the working class in major cities in Turkey particularly (but also elsewhere), means that the Kurdish question is not just going to be solved by separation. In fact, while Kurdistan must be fought for in terms of its elementary right to unify and constitute a distinct national entity of some kind, socialists should not be in favour of separation for separation's sake. Such a thing could severely damage the working class in Turkey, potentially damaging working class organisations and tearing apart hard-won unity between Kurdish workers and the workers of those countries that each rule part of Kurdistan. National borders, in the Arab world particularly, have an artificial aspect, where such countries as Iraq and Syria really are the product of lines arbitrarily drawn on a map by colonial dignitaries (the Sykes-Picot agreement during World War I). These somewhat artificial divisions have acted in the last century as a serious impediment to the creation of a viable Arab nationalism, as evidenced among other things by Nasser's ill-fated project of the 'United Arab Republic'. But paradoxically, this could also have benefits, in giving a certain potential plasticity to national relations, and in particular in making more possible some kind of federal solution for the Middle East, which could resolve the Kurdish question without tearing apart the interpenetrated sections of the proletariat. Turkey, of course, has a consolidated national existence and a relatively coherent form of nationalism, courtesy of the legacy of the Young Turks and Ataturk. Iran less so, particularly with the rise to power of the Shi'a form of political islam two decades ago; though at a popular level who knows what is happening now that the hold of the Ayatollahs is in decline among the masses. Objectively, however, given the dispersal of the various populations throughout the region, a federal solution would be the most progressive in terms of giving real rights to the various fragments of each people that inhabit the nations dominated by others. It seems to me that not only are the Kurdish workers often the most militant sections of the proletariat of the countries in which they are an oppressed minority "“ their shared consciousness could, harnessed to a socialist project of democracy for all peoples, act as a bridge to the formation of such a federation. A bridge that could be reinforced by the plasticised national existence of the Arab people, divided into states whose objective national character is problematic and unconvincing, and thereby crying out for some kind of broader solution. On a region-wide level, of course, these questions will be necessarily intertwined with a consistently democratic resolution of the Israeli-Palestinian question (among others). But in this regard a genuinely broad democratic-federal entity in the Middle East, acquiring stability and then transcendence under a global socialist order, finds important points of support in the relations between these peoples in the here and now. Ian Donovan