While traveling in Iraqi Kurdistan last week, I had the opportunity to give a talk at the University of Duhok on the problem of twentieth century statehood. The question of what will become of the project of rule we know of as the “nation-state” seemed particularly apt in the city of Duhok, given the raging civil war in neighboring Syria, mounting Turkish air strikes on the PKK along the Iraqi border and chilling developments in Iran to the east — all, rather disconcertingly, within easy driving distance of this ancient Kurdish town.
Yet even with Kurdish refugees from Syria streaming daily into Duhok as a reminder of the precariousness of contemporary statehood, the faculty and scholars I met with, both in the capital Erbil and in Duhok, were most animated by questions concerning the flip side of statehood — that is, the more humdrum business of governing and everyday practices of rule. How can the abundant natural resources of the region be best developed and their social benefits better distributed? In what ways can Kurdish language use in higher education be further advanced? What might be some prospects for global partnerships in cooperative research and strategic policy studies?
These questions pointed to an extraordinary achievement. With little fanfare, Iraqi Kurdistan has become a fully autonomous political entity within a reconfigured Iraqi state. Legally recognized as the Kurdistan Regional Government (KRG) since the revision of the Iraqi constitution in 2005, the autonomous region has proven its mettle over the past seven years, navigating the treacherous geopolitics of the region while attracting major foreign investment from neighboring Turkey, formerly the loudest detractor of even the idea of an autonomous Kurdistan region within the state of Iraq.
Turkey, of course, has its own unaddressed Kurdish question, with a good part of its southeastern territories being composed of Kurdish lands, and its population of 15 million Kurds having been resistant to Turkish rule throughout the twentieth century. Indeed, the remarkable success of the Kurdistan autonomous region in Iraq only underscores the larger Kurdish question that remains unanswered in Turkey, Iran and Syria. Not only have Kurdish areas been subsumed within these states, the Kurds themselves have long been locked in a bitter struggle for their right to exist as a people. Longer term regional stability will require a political commitment to address the issue far beyond Erbil and Baghdad.
But after a history of unspeakable tragedy, the very possibility of the Kurdistan Regional Government seems extraordinary. From its boomtown capital of Erbil to the shiny glass towers rising along the sun-burnt hills of Dohuk, it’s clear that the Kurdish authorities are pursuing their hard-won freedom to self-govern with a steely resolve and a determined will to rule. In the process, the autonomous region of Iraqi Kurdistan has proven itself not only the most secure, functional and best governed part of the Iraqi state, but also something of a model for rational self-governance for the rest of the Middle East.
On September 27, 2012, Dr. Tashi Rabgey gave a talk on “The Limits of Sovereignty and the Twentieth Century State: Tibet and the People’s Republic of China” at the University of Duhok in Iraqi Kurdistan. Dr. Rabgey is a visiting scholar at the Institute for Global and International Studies at the Elliott School of International Affairs.