This post appeared originally at The Washington Note.
Graeme Wood has a fascinating piece in the current edition of Foreign Policy about his travels in the "limbo world" of unofficial or unrecognized states. These statelets, which control territory and have at least passably functional governments, range from those teetering on the edge of irrelevance--like Somaliland and Nagorno-Karabakh--to international flashpoints like Palestine and Iraqi Kurdistan.
Wood writes that these faux states are united by certain characteristics, and that, "totems of statehood are everywhere in these wannabe states: offices filled with functionaries in neckties, miniature desk flags, stationery with national logos, and, of course, piles of real bureaucratic paperwork designed to convince foreign visitors like me that international recognition is deserved and inevitable."
Yet of all the non-states that Wood visits, only one is now less sure than ever of the utility of independence: Kurdistan.
Kurdistan is perhaps the most official of the non-official states, with long-standing autonomy, strong security forces and a growing revenue stream. But as Wood points out, Kurdistan and the Kurdish Regional Government (KRG) have benefited from their leverage and autonomy within the Iraqi state; Kurdistan has established itself within the Middle East as a safe place for investment and a potentially large market for the import of goods and the export of oil. In fact, Turkey, despite its large and historically restive Kurdish population, has emerged as a key economic partner for Kurdistan. The ruling Turkish AKP party sees a viable Kurdish region as a way to tie Turkey into the world's oil market while also maintaining a buffer against a potentially unfriendly or unstable Iraq. And as an International Crisis Group (ICG) report from November 2008 argued, the AKP now hopes to get help from the KRG against the Kurdistan Worker's Party (PKK), which has engaged in sporadic terrorism in Southern Turkey for the past 30 years. This potential cooperation comes less than two years after Turkish forces invaded northern Iraq in a bid to wipe out PKK sanctuaries, and even as Turkey sporadically bombards Iraqi Kurdistan.
Wood also intimates that independence no longer holds as much sway as it once did with Kurds, as many realize the benefits of a strong Kurdistan within an Iraqi state. And in an off-the-record briefing I attended last month several Kurdish officials sought to confirm this view, consistently affirming their desire to be a part of a democratic Iraq (albeit a federated one with strong regional administrations and generous revenue sharing).
And at the moment, the KRG has achieved grudging acceptance of its autonomy from the Iraqi central government. Despite previous efforts to blacklist any oil companies who signed contracts with the KRG, this past spring the Malaki government began allowing the KRG to export oil from two fields, providing needed revenue to the central state and helping integrate Kurdistan more thoroughly into Iraq's economic and political structure.
Furthermore, Kurdistan's current relationship with its neighbors and the rest of Iraq are to the KRG and Kurds' benefit. A landlocked independent Kurdistan, even with the revenue from the disputed city of Kirkuk's massive oilfields, would aggravate tensions with neighboring states while still remaining dependent on these same states for trade and protection.
But it is unclear how long this tenuous calm might last, as several unresolved problems could upset Kurdistan's delicate balance and lead to future conflict or an irredentist resurgence.
The ICG's Joost Hiltermann, an Iraq expert, has argued that despite a realization among Kurdish leaders that independence is not viable, Kurdish nationalist aspirations live on and are in fact focused on the city of Kirkuk. However, the recently-passed Iraqi election law failed to deal with the status of Kirkuk or the long overdue (and constitutionally-mandated) census of Kirkuk, instead putting these issues off until next year. And despite progress in exporting oil and gas from Kurdistan, Iraq still has no agreement governing hydrocarbon revenue sharing, an issue to which the final status of Kirkuk, with its estimated 13% of Iraq's proven oil reserves, is central.
Moreover, the planned 2011 departure of American combat forces from Iraq continues to loom large; as Iraq's army grows stronger (in part due to an influx of American equipment) there is a greater risk of confrontation between Kurdish forces and the Iraqi army, as occurred in 2008 in parts of Diyala province as well as Kirkuk, where the Iraqi Army has strengthened its presence. And unlike 2008, American forces might not be around next time to keep tensions between the opposing sides from escalating.
Unsteady but real progress has been made in Iraq, as Kurdistan continues to integrate itself into Iraqi state institutions while maintaining partial autonomy from the central government and control over its resources. But care must be taken in the coming months and years, lest Kurdistan fail in its transition from limbo to province.