While Kurdish officials often describe Iraqi Kurdistan region as a democracy, both the region's reputation and its democratic trajectory took a huge leap backwards last week with President Barzani's creation by fiat of the National Security Council.
In theory, coordinating security and policy is noble and can be the hallmark of good governance rather than totalitarianism. Kurdish governance has for too long been bifurcated as neither the Patriotic Union of Kurdistan nor the Kurdistan Democratic Party (KDP) has wanted to give up the power and trappings of office, in effect, leading to a bloated, inefficient bureaucracy which persists to the present. Government downsizing, with more money spent on vital infrastructure rather than state salaries and pensions, could set Kurdistan on the path to be a regional economic power.
Kurdistan's National Security Council, however, appears directed more toward confirming Masud Barzani's autocratic tendencies than reform. The problem with the new Council is two-fold, however. First, it reaffirms nepotism. Regional leader Masud Barzani appointed his eldest son Masrour to head the body. Just as with the Assad family in Syria, the Qadhafi clan in Libya, and Saddam Hussein's sons in Iraq, Masud Barzani now sheds any pretence of democracy as he seeks to use trusted family henchmen regardless of competence or character to control all aspects of power and commerce.
Masud, of course, shows no intention to step down when his second term as president ends next year. His nephew Nechirvan is again officially prime minister, after managing government affairs only behind-the-scenes during Barham Salih's interlude. Masrour is now not only the head of the National Security Council, but he also heads the KDP's intelligence service. It is probably no coincidence that Falah Mustafa, a prominent spokesman for the KDP's government, did not even bother to recycle the usual talking points about Kurdistan being a democracy in a recent essay published by The Huffington Post's United Kingdom edition. That Masud apparently believes that there are no Kurds more capable than his own son to head the new Council reflects the disdain Barzani now engenders for the people he claims a birthright to represent. Masud, who already suffers a poor reputation in Washington, a city whose officials listen far more to Barham Salih, has simply confirmed the worst suspicions regarding his personality and intent.
Far more dangerous is the fact that the appointment means that the National Security Council will be powerless to coordinate and demand accountability for Kurdish security forces and elite military units which, under the leadership of Masrour and unstable second son Mansour, have run amok. Masrour's security forces are widely believed complicit in the deaths of journalists and civil society activists. A true national security advisor would be independent of the bureaucracies he or she was to supervise to ensure that security forces and elite military units fought only terrorists and external threats rather than university students and newspaper editors critical of Masud's corruption. In effect, Masrour's career now mirrors the trajectory of Qusay Saddam Hussein, whose father appointed him to supervise the Iraqi Republican Guards and head the Special Security Organization. Like Qusay, Masrour is the heir apparent to Kurdish leadership, and like Qusay, Masrour has cultivated a reputation for quiet cruelty.
A final insult inherent in the new Security Council is its budget. Its reported $265 million budget purse is more than 20 times greater than the budget of the United States' National Security Council, which in 2010 operated on just $12,231,000. Alas, as Masud's grip tightens, he increasingly seems to set Kurdistan down a trajectory traveled by Arab autocracies. That he would sacrifice Kurdish aspirations for the ability of profligate sons to acts with impunity is simply the latest misfortune in a Kurdish history already beset by too much tragedy.