Somalia Syndrome

Patrick Cockburn on the extinction of independent nation-states

In 1996 I visited Penjwin, an impoverished village in Iraqi Kurdistan close to the Iranian border, where people were trying to make a little money through what must be one of the most dangerous occupations in the world. They would walk through the extensive minefields around the village – laid during the Iran-Iraq War – in search of a particularly lethal Italian-made anti-personnel mine called the Valmara. A Valmara mine is usually buried in the ground, apart from five prongs which project from its top. These prongs, often attached to tripwires, are difficult to detect because they look like dry grass. But if one of them is disturbed a small charge is detonated which makes the Valmara jump into the air to about waist height – where a larger charge explodes and sprays 1200 steel fragments at high velocity in all directions.

‘I defuse the mine with a piece of wire,’ explained Sabir Saleh, a middle-aged villager who went into the minefields every day. ‘Then I unscrew the top and take out the aluminium around the explosives. When I have taken apart six mines I have enough aluminium to sell for 30 dinar to a shop in Penjwin.’ Thirty dinar is about 75p. Over the previous few years he reckoned that he had defused some 2000 Valmaras, earning enough to feed his family of eight. ‘I make enough money to buy food for them, but not enough to buy clothes or anything else,’ he said. Sabir had survived so far, but everybody in the village knew somebody who had been killed by a Valmara or had stepped on a small pressure mine and was missing a foot or the lower part of a leg.

I used to tell this story as an illustration of the resilience of ordinary Kurds in their long struggle against poverty and oppression. For almost a century the Kurds had been savagely treated: first by the British in the 1920s, when ‘Bomber’ Harris, who later led the air war against Germany, carried out air strikes targeting Kurdish towns and villages, and then by Saddam Hussein, whose extermination campaign resulted in the deaths of 180,000 Kurds and the destruction of 3000 villages. Few national liberation movements could match the Kurds’ long record of resistance to foreign rule and dictatorship. After the American overthrow of Saddam in 2003, it at last looked as if they were coming close to de facto independence under the Kurdistan Regional Government (KRG). They had become a crucial component of the Iraqi government in Baghdad, fielded their own army – the peshmerga – and were expanding their oil production. Instead of poverty and military occupation, the five million Kurds in KRG territory experienced an economic boom, with luxury hotels, shopping malls and apartment blocks springing up in Kurdish cities. KRG leaders spoke of Iraqi Kurdistan becoming an oil state and a trading entrepôt with enough money to underpin political independence. They boasted that they had done more in a few years to achieve self-determination thanks to oil than in decades of fighting with Kalashnikovs.

The failure of this dream was sudden and almost total. In 2014 the Kurds came under attack from Islamic State and the price of oil fell. The peshmerga fled even faster than the Iraqi army had a few weeks earlier. Unable to defend itself, the KRG had to appeal to the US and Iran for help. The government today is bankrupt and few of its employees are getting paid (the US agreed in April to pay $415 million for the upkeep of the peshmerga). ‘There are two failed states in Iraq,’ Mahmoud Othman, a veteran Kurdish leader, told me soon after disaster struck. ‘One is national in Baghdad and the other is regional in Kurdistan.’

The failure to create a truly independent secular Kurdish state is part of a pattern that has emerged in the Middle East and North Africa over the last 25 years. The history of the KRG is simply a recent and dramatic example. Secular nationalism is an ebbing force. Countries like Egypt, which gained independence sixty years ago when Nasser survived British, French and Israeli attack during the Suez crisis, are once again the dependencies of global or regional powers, a fact underlined earlier this year when Egypt handed over to Saudi Arabia two islands in the Red Sea which it had long held as part of its national territory.

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