Peter Galbraith is a former US diplomat who advised the Kurds during constitutional negotiations with Baghdad. In this interview with Rudaw, the author of The End of Iraq: How American Incompetence Created a War Without End, says that the United States should realize that the Kurdistan Region is Washington’s best ally in the Middle East. He also says that he believes there could be an independent Kurdistan in 10 years, and that it is better for the Kurds to compromise on northern Iraq’s disputed territories and negotiate independence from Baghdad, because ‘a smaller independent Kurdistan is better than to be stuck in Iraq forever.’ Here is his interview:
Rudaw: In your opinion what impact will Iraqi President Jalal Talabani’s absence have on Kurds in Iraq?
Peter Galbraith: Thanks for his part the Kurds are in a strong position, neither the KRG nor (Iraqi Prime Minister) Maliki can impose their will on the other, and this strength of the Kurds is the result of the contribution Talabani has made over his lifetime.
But the really important things have been since 2003 when the cooperation with (Kurdistan Region President) Massoud Barzani became very strong and unified the Kurdish government and unified Kurdistan’s position during the American invasion and during constitutional negotiations. I think Talabani’s absence will be more felt by those people who are not in a strong position like the Sunnis and the many minorities such as Christians.
Rudaw: If another Kurdish leader is chosen to become Iraq’s president, in your view who is capable of replacing Talabani?
Peter Galbraith: There are many Kurdish leaders, who would make a good president, but the position of president does not have much power and Talabani’s special achievement was that even though the position didn’t have much power, because of who he was and because of his personality he was able to play the unifier or a mediator and a peacemaker and there isn’t anybody who has the same status as him. I think one of the issues for the Kurds is whether to keep the presidency or negotiate a deal to get a new prime minister who is going to honor and respect the Constitution, especially in regard to the disputed territories and the oil issue.
Rudaw: Do you think after Talabani there will be a problem between the two Kurdish ruling parties?
Peter Galbraith: No, I don’t think there would be any problem, because this partnership has a strong foundation and I think Talabani and Barzani’s roles were important in building the partnership and the best example for this is that Talabani’s elder son Qubad works with Kurdistan’s Prime Minister Nechirvan Barzani.
Rudaw: Do you think Maliki will appoint a Sunni politician, someone who is close to him, as Iraq’s president?
Peter Galbraith: I don’t think choosing the next Iraqi president is his decision. It is Parliament’s decision. And his bloc is only one of the blocs in Iraqi parliament and in the future Parliament might choose another prime minister.
Rudaw: Will Maliki try to take control of everything in Baghdad after Talabani, especially now that the Syrian situation is getting worse and Maliki’s government has been accused of helping the Syrian regime?
Peter Galbraith: I think Maliki is helping the Syrian regime and it’s clear that the Iraqi government hasn’t taken any serious steps to prevent those Iranian planes that use Iraqi airspace to send support to the Syrian regime.
Rudaw: Through your and other American officials’ experience with Talabani, how does Washington view him and his character?
Peter Galbraith: Both the Bush and Obama administrations respect Talabani’s efforts and struggle, and they have seen that almost every Iraqi respects him. That’s why he has been a very important character. It is also a big change from (Coalition Provisional Authority head) Paul Bremer’s time when he told Talabani that the Iraqi president cannot be a Kurd and that it should be a Sunni. I’m glad they ignored his advice.
Rudaw: Right now the Kurds aren’t happy with the US. They say the US doesn’t support them enough. For instance, they say that the US is letting Maliki send troops to the disputed territories and pressuring Turkey not to help the Kurds to export their oil and gas. What do you think of this US policy?
Peter Galbraith: I’m really disappointed in the US policies and I think the US should recognize that Kurdistan is its best ally in the Middle East and that it’s the only region in Iraq that has the same values and aims regarding democracy, versus Maliki who is the closest ally of Iran in the world.
That’s why if it was up to me, I won’t work to make the Iraqi government stronger and instead I’ll support Kurdistan more. In my opinion, one of the big mistakes the US is making is selling F-16 planes to the Iraqi government. It’s interesting that Iran is very happy with Iraq getting F-16s, even though the US is giving it to them. I hope the US changes its policies and supports Kurdistan more.
Rudaw: In Kurdistan there is this perception that US is worried about getting closer to Kurdistan.
Peter Galbraith: I think the US administration’s concern is that if they get closer to Kurdistan they will lose influence in Baghdad.
Rudaw: But people believe that the US has already lost influence in Baghdad and it’s clear that Iran is the main player in Baghdad not the US?
Peter Galbraith: It’s an American trade thing that takes your friends for granted. But I think the best thing to do is to support our friends. The US should not obstruct Kurdistan in exporting their oil through those pipelines the KRG and Turkey want to build.
Rudaw: You were one of those people who advised Kurds during constitutional negotiations with Baghdad. Do you think the Iraqi Constitution will allow another dictator in Iraq?
Peter Galbraith: According to this Constitution, it’s very hard for Maliki to become a dictator. He can only become a dictator in one way, and that’s to violate the Constitution. That’s why it’s in the interest of Kurds and other Iraqis to respect and implement the Constitution.
Rudaw: Do you think, now that the US elections are over and there is a new secretary of state, John Kerry, the US will change its policies in Iraq?
Peter Galbraith: I don’t think changing of personals will have any impact on US foreign policy, because the policies are set by the US president. But I hope to see changes because now the situation is changed.
Rudaw: There is always this view that the US doesn’t have a clear policy towards the Kurds. What should the Kurds do to make Washington more interested in the Kurdish cause?
Peter Galbraith: I think the Kurds are doing the right thing by having a good relationship with Turkey. Turkey has influence on the US, but the Kurds should be more active diplomatically in the US as well. They have an active representation in Washington and that should continue.
Rudaw: At the moment there are serious tensions between Erbil and Baghdad and both sides were very close to clashes in the disputed territories. What are your predictions for Iraq in 2013 and the next few years?
Peter Galbraith: I don’t think there would be a great deal of change in Iraq, but I expect the relationship between Shia and Sunni to get worse.
Rudaw: In an interview with Time magazine, KRG Prime Minister Nechirvan Barzani said that more than any other time, the Kurds are closer to independence. Are you of the same view?
Peter Galbraith: Yes, I have the same view, and I think it will happen in my lifetime.
Rudaw: How close?
Peter Galbraith: Maybe in the next ten years. In think the best way for that to happen is to have an agreement with the Iraqi government. Why should Baghdad govern a region that doesn’t want to be part of that country? That’s what is important. Also, the issue of the disputed territories should be solved because it’s very hard to achieve independence if you don’t know which territory you are going to control. Both sides — Baghdad and Erbil — need to compromise.
In my opinion, a smaller independent Kurdistan is better than to be stuck in Iraq forever. It might have been important in the 19th century to have borders, but we are in the 21st century and borders are not important anymore. That’s why it’s important that both Baghdad and Erbil compromise on this issue.
Rudaw: Nechirvan Barzani also said ‘if we could make one of our neighboring countries accept an independent Kurdistan, we would go for it.’ Do you think that country is Turkey?
Peter Galbraith: Of course it’s Turkey, because Turkey has been positive toward the reality that does exist in the Kurdistan Region, and we see it now that Turkey is KRG’s partner in terms of trade and investments and Turkey is trying to build some pipelines that will make Kurdistan independent economically and both of them have the same goal in Syria as well.
Rudaw: If the KRG was forced to choose between Iran and Turkey in the future, which one should they choose?
Peter Galbraith: For a small country like Kurdistan it’s important to have good relations with everybody, but logically and in terms of politics as well as economy, it’s better for Kurdistan to be closer to Turkey, because Turkey is a secular country and it’s close to the Western world, and Kurdistan sees itself in the same bracket.
Rudaw: There are talks that Kurdistan is a democracy, but there are people who say Kurdistan is not a democracy and that it is ruled by two families. What do you think of Kurdistan’s democracy?
Peter Galbraith: Kurdistan has free elections and people are free to make decisions. It is a traditional society and it is no surprise that the well-known leaders get a lot of votes. This occurs in most countries. We in America, not long ago, had two presidents who were father and son.