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What can American independence teach the Kurds?

By Paul Davis 5/8/2017

As we get closer to the independence referendum much has been written about the history of other independence movements and attempts. Let us then look at the grandfather of all independence movements, the United States.

By the late 18th century the British colonies in North America were suffering under the heel of a dictatorial monarch in London. Treated as second class citizens, taxed beyond reason, with little to no return from the central government, the colonists met in congress in Philadelphia, Pennsylvania to determine a course of action.

During this time, the militias of the colonies had clashed with the regular forces of Great Britain and the congress had raised an army to provide mutual defense to all the colonies.

There were in fact two separate congresses that met over the course of about two years. Independence was not the first order of business as most of the members wanted a peaceful reconciliation with the mother country and felt independence was not only unnecessary but likely unachievable.  

As conditions worsened, more and more of the delegates began to accept the inevitable: they must declare independence. Two actions almost ended the independence movement however. First it was decided that before independence was declared the vote would have to be unanimous, all colonies must agree. Making matters worse was a paragraph Thomas Jefferson had put in the draft declaration:

“He has waged cruel war against human nature itself, violating its most sacred rights of life and liberty in the persons of a distant people who never offended him, captivating & carrying them into slavery in another hemisphere or to incur miserable death in their transportation thither…” 

Slavery was considered by half the nation as a moral abomination and a necessary part of the economy by the other half. Without a resolution, the southern states walked out of the congress in protest. In order to achieve an agreement, the rest of the delegates had to agree to ignore the question of slavery in order to get the declaration passed and signed. It took years of warfare and an alliance with the French to finally archive independence but it took a major concession to get the process started.

Within his arguments for independence, Jefferson laid out the reason for separation, saying among other things:

“Governments are instituted among Men, deriving their just powers from the consent of the governed. That whenever any Form of Government becomes destructive of these ends, it is the Right of the People to alter or to abolish it, and to institute new Government…”

A similar thought was given in an editorial by Masrour Barzani, Chancellor of the Kurdistan Region Security Council, when he wrote:

“Iraq was, and is, a forced coexistence of peoples whose identities remain unreconciled a century after the breakdown of the Ottoman Empire, which spawned the modern state... We, as leaders whose ultimate responsibility is the welfare of our people, need to acknowledge that the model is not working.”

What lesson do the problems faced by the American colonies teach the Kurds? How important is your independence to you? If you desire independence, some concessions need to be made. There are those in the Kurdish community that point out all the problems inherent in becoming an independent country and others who say that major changes need to be made to the current social structure and government before independence can be considered. Think of the problems faced by the American colonists who were about to declare independence from the most powerful nation on the face of the earth at the time.

Another lesson however is also to acknowledge those problems and plan to work them out. The new United States ignored its worst problem, slavery, and ended up fighting a major civil war 85 years afterwards.

Other lessons learned by the young United States is that you will make mistakes and do not need to live with them but that they can be corrected. As pointed out by retired US Army BG Ernie Audino at a recent conference in Washington DC, "When we won our independence in 1776, we argued with each other for 13 years until we had a Constitution. Don't forget that. It takes work. It takes direction and it takes vision. We are seeing that in the Kurdistan region of Iraq right now, and they will polish this democracy over time."

Governments are instituted by people and can be changed to serve the people. The government you have at independence is not the one you have to keep.

Currently the official stand of the United States is to ask the Kurds to wait, but this is not the lesson American history should have taught. Our strongest allies are those who share our fundamental beliefs. According to Falah Mustafa Bakir, the head of the Kurdistan Regional Government’s Department of Foreign Relations, “The people of Kurdistan do hope that the United States would stand by the values, the principles, and also the friendship that we have developed.” The Kurds share more with the US and the west than they do with Iraq.

No matter what course is chosen, the future is never assured. If, however, we accept that past is prologue, reviewing the historical analogies presented can help set the direction and avoid predictable pitfalls.

Paul Davis is a retired US Army military intelligence and former Soviet analyst. He is a consultant to the American intelligence community specializing in the Middle East with a concentration on Kurdish affairs. Currently he is the president of the consulting firm JANUS Think in Washington D.C.

This article was amended on August 29, 2017 to correct the position of BG Ernie Audino.


Pliny The Kurd | 5/8/2017
Absolutely true that "the Kurds share more with the US and the West than they do with Iraq " . From the beginning the Kurds have rejected Iraq which was a colonial imposition by the brute force of chemical attacks carried out against the Kurds by the British R.A.F. in the 1920 s. The Kurds are neither iraqis nor Arabs; they are a proud and an independent nation .
Robbie | 5/8/2017
Thanks for this great and teaching article.
Ba | 6/8/2017
American policy is cancer

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