My October 22, 2012 column "Is Masud Barzani Really a Nationalist?" sparked debate among Kurdish writers in a number of publications. Most prominently, Delovan Barwari, president of the American Kurdish Council, responded with an Ekurd.net essay which substituted personal disparagement for factual defense of Masud Barzani's decades-long record as leader of the Kurdistan Democratic Party and the Kurdistan Regional Government. Any leader—and especially one confident about their record—should welcome debate about their legacy, and so I will oblige:
Barwari writes, for example, "Throughout his life, he [Barzani] has fought for greater Kurdish rights for all parts of Kurdistan." This is exaggeration. Barzani did fight for Kurdish rights throughout much of his career in Iraq, but his broader track record suggests that he prioritized personal power above Kurdish nationalism. After all, why else would Barzani risk everything the Kurdish nation had achieved in Iraq when, in August 1996, he invited Saddam Hussein's forces into Erbil? It is difficult to accept that Barzani acted to protect Kurdish rights when he made this alliance with a man who, just eight years previously, had used chemical weapons against Kurdish civilians. While Barzani certainly wanted to counter rival Jalal Talabani, who had admittedly cut a devils' bargain with Iran, to date, Barzani has never fully explained his actions, not only in 1996, but also afterward.
Likewise, it is difficult to see Barzani as a defender of Kurdish rights in Turkey when, at the height of the Kurdistan Workers Party (PKK) struggle against the Turkish Army in the 1990s, Barzani accepted both a Turkish passport and, according to Turkish officials who served during the administration of the late president Turgut Özal, a $35/month Turkish subsidy for every peshmerga under his command.
Barwari also writes that, "Amongst the abundant pool of evidence confirming that Barzani is a true nationalist leader… [is] his resilience and determination to stop the Turkish threat of occupation in 2003, as he promised to turn Kurdistan into a graveyard of Turkish soldiers." Alas, Barwari may be misinformed about the compromises which Barzani offered prior to the Bush administration's decision to oust Saddam, discussions to which I was privy if not involved, due to my capacity at the time in the Pentagon. In the months leading up to the war, Masud and Nechirvan Barzani agreed to allow Turkish troops to enter Iraq through Kurdistan. True, both Masud and Nechirvan opposed any Turkish presence in Kirkuk and the Turkish desire to open a second border under the Turkish army's exclusive control. But, in return for promises of substantial financial assistance, Barzani acquiesced to cooperate with the Turkish army. Such assistance went not to the Kurdistan Regional Government budget, but to Masud himself. This episode highlights again the divergence between Barzani's rhetoric and his actions, a pattern about which politicians and diplomats not only in Washington, but also in Tehran and Ankara are familiar.
Barwari credits Barzani directly for the establishment of the "American Kurdish Congressional Caucus (AKCC), an organization that involves over 50 members of US House of Representatives that was established under the leadership of Barzani to strengthen the relations between the Kurds and the Americans, primarily for influencing the US policy." Alas, here Kurdish partisanship may also color Barwari's understanding. Masud Barzani had very little to do with the founding of the Kurdish Caucus in the U.S. Congress; that was Qubad Talabani's work; at least, Qubad claims credit for it. Regardless, neither is it—nor any other congressional caucus—under the leadership of a foreign leader. Nevertheless, if Barwari does believe the Kurdish Caucus to be under Barzani's control, he might elaborate on why, when the Pentagon served notice of its plan to ship advanced weaponry to Turkey, Barzani refused to ask the caucus to intercede during the 15-day period to do so. That silence—two months before the Roboski massace—is a silence that historians are going to ponder when they consider Barzani's legacy.
Perhaps Masud has an explanation for his past cooperation with Saddam, Turkish Generals Doğan Güreş and İsmail Hakkı Karadayı, and his silence on issues important to Kurds and Kurdistan at both the White House and in the U.S. Congress. Such episodes should be fully and openly debated if Kurdistan is as much of a democracy as Barzani claims, and if its universities enjoy the academic freedom which its students deserve. Alas, such a topic is still too sensitive even for even the American University of Iraq, Sulaimani, the most progressive university in the region but one in which politics continue to overshadow the campus to a greater extent than its corollaries in Cairo and Beirut.
Nevertheless, Masrour Barzani, Falah Mustafa, and Fuad Hussein are frequent visitors to Washington; a holding company apparently acting on behalf of Masrour still retains his palatial villa in McLean, Virginia. Accordingly, a challenge: With a month's notice, let any of these figures openly and publicly debate Barzani's nationalism and his legacy. Let such a debate be open to Kurdish journalists and television stations. If they are confident of Masud's legacy, they should not fear further discussion of it.