Retired US Army General: Kurds are closer than ever to Independence
Ernie Audino, Retired Brigadier General in United State Army, spent a year in Kurdistan fighting alongside the Kurdish Peshmerga forces, getting to know the Kurds very well. In this exclusive interview with BasNews, Audino talks about his time in Kurdistan and his views on the future of Kurds and US polices toward the Kurdish government:
BasNews: How did you become so close to the Kurds and their cause?
Ernie Audino: I began studying Kurdish issues and Kurdish history at the US National War College in 2002- 2003. My professor was a man very well known to the Kurds, Ambassador Peter Galbraith.
More than anything else, his example sparked my academic interest, and the Kurds themselves, their history and their current situation have held my interest ever since. A couple of years after my graduation from the War College the US Army embedded me and my teams in the peshmerga. For a year we lived with Kak Anwar Dolani's brigade based in Sulaymaniyah.
I regard that assignment as one of the most significant missions of my military career. I am forever grateful for the privilege to have served with the Peshmerga and the Kurds. Frankly, that year changed the second half of my life.
BasNews: Can you describe your time in the Kurdistan Region?
Ernie Audino: First, I must sadly say we lost 22 brave Peshmerga and suffered 60 wounded during that year. I attended most of the funerals, and to this day I keep the names of those martyrs on my bookshelf in my office. Their memory is always with me. I pray for comfort for their families.
Second, the Kurdish people daily convinced me they work diligently to make today better than yesterday and tomorrow better than today. I once remarked to a Kurdish friend how impressed I was at the peace, progress, freedom and developing prosperity within the Kurdish controlled areas. He told me that it was because anything else would mean that the blood spilled by the Peshmerga and their American allies would have been wasted. I will never forget that.
Sure, challenges remain and there are more challenges every day, but the Kurds are trying, and their doing so has set the example for the rest of Iraq.
Third, my Peshmerga comrades displayed a clear and enduring will to protect all good people within the Kurdish region. This is a major reason why such great numbers of people displaced from other regions in Iraq seek refuge with the Kurds. With the Kurds they are much safer and are treated much more fairly than they were in their hometowns elsewhere in Iraq. This is very important.
|L-R: Audino with one of his peshmerga comrades, Azad, which is a Kurdish name that translates to "Freedom." Sadly, sometime after this photo was taken, Azad lost his brother in combat against jihadists.|
BasNews: What do you think of Kurds?
Ernie Audino: They have my respect, and they inspire me. I tell whoever will listen to me that no American has ever died at enemy hand on any Kurdish-controlled soil. Ever. The Kurds have literally lifted themselves from the ashes of Anfal and the decades of tragedies prior to that. They have seen real evil and are determined to never return to that. As a result they have now created the most peaceful, prosperous and freedom-loving region in Iraq. There are likely more businesses, more playgrounds, more soccer fields, more new roads, more schools, more new construction, more art galleries, more news organizations in the Kurdish region than anywhere else in Iraq. These things cannot exist in the absence of security and good governance.
The Peshmerga and other security organizations have set the conditions for this success, and the KRG and the Kurdish people themselves maintain those conditions and make them enduring.
Still, nothing is perfect, and Rome wasn't built in a day, but the Kurds have the belief they can do it and are clearly trying to do so.
BasNews: Do you think Kurdistan is close to achieving independence?
Ernie Audino: Yes, I do. Still, "close" is a relative term. Closer than ever before? Absolutely.
However, it is because the rest of Iraq is leaving Kurdistan, rather than Kurdistan leaving Iraq. During my time with the Kurds I routinely saw Kurdish efforts to make the Iraqi Constitution work the way it was intended. The Kurds have consistently struggled to implement the Constitution, and even to this day, the day of the Islamic State, I continue to watch Kurdish efforts to make the Constitution work. The problem is it is not working well in the rest of Iraq. This means what was originally intended to be a truly representative form of government for all Iraqis has not truly materialized.
For the Kurds that means their Constitutional share of the Iraqi federal revenues has routinely been withheld. That also means Article 140, which sets forth the clear, 3-step process for the peaceful resolution of the status of Kirkuk, was repeatedly blocked from implementation. That President Barzani has asked UNAMI to help implement a referendum on Kurdish independence is, in my opinion, not unexpected as a referendum was also the third and final step of Article 140.
BasNews: Should the Kurds try to form a state or stay within Iraq?
Ernie Audino: First, this is a question for the Kurds, not me. However, simply urging the Kurds to support a "unity government" in Baghdad begs the question - why? What is the purpose for a unity government? If someone can articulate a compelling purpose I would be much more inclined to promote it.
However, if, as I frequently hear, the purpose is to better enable the effective opposition to ISIS and the so-called Islamic State, then I submit a unity government arguably existed prior to the ISIS advance, and we all can see how effective that was. What is the evidence another attempt at a unity government will work better this time? I just don't see it. Of course, there is also the new geopolitical reality that now exists along 1,000 kilometers of Kurdish controlled areas. That is the Kurdish border with ISIS/Islamic State, and it is a much, much longer border than the border the Kurdish region has between it and the rest of Iraq.
My guess is less than 100 kilometers now exist between the Kurdish region and the non-ISIS remainder of Iraq. The KRG would be unreasonable to ignore this fact, and I know they are not. So, having said that, we are witnessing the execution of a very sound, Kurdish reaction to the military advances of ISIS, and that is the Kurdish securing of its areas to prevent further, decisive penetration by ISIS. This is indisputably the first, necessary step.
Imagine how sorry we all would be today if two weeks ago the Peshmerga had not stepped forward to deny ISIS entry into Kirkuk. So, engaging smartly with ISIS/Islamic State means engaging from a position of strength. The Kurds are consolidating their strength for that reality. Mustafa Barzani was once quoted as saying, "The poets and the philosophers of the world speak of justice. They speak of kindness and goodwill, but in the lives of nations it is only strength that counts." He did not intend that to mean justice, kindness and goodwill are not important. No, they are supremely important, but strength is the necessary step to enable them to flourish and endure.
So, to me, Kurdish strength is necessary to secure the conditions that will in turn enable long-term freedom, liberty, education, representative government and prosperity, which in the long run are the enduring counters to ISIS.
BasNews: Why has US always been against Kurdish independence?
Ernie Audino: This is a difficult question to answer, in part because the way it is worded suggests all of us in the US are against Kurdish independence. That is not true, of course. Still, I recognize that many, especially those in government today, are making statements to discourage Kurdish independence.
I believe the reason is partly based on some very old thinking. Frankly, most of the Americans who have studied Middle Eastern history have had little to no access to materials covering Kurdish history. This continues to this day. I am sorry to say, American exposure to Kurdish history, culture, issues and language is extremely limited. So, the prevailing positions here are likely the product of a large body of study reflecting a very narrow range of perspectives. Unfortunately, rarely has a Kurdish perspective been included. Some of us, especially those who have lived with the Kurds and served with them on the battlefield, are trying to change that.
BasNews: Will you ever come back to Kurdistan?
Ernie Audino: I hope so! I would love to return and visit my old friends and comrades and then visit some of the areas I never had the chance to visit before. Places like Rawandz and Hawler. Also, I would love to bring my family and friends with me. Imagine their faces if they could see the beauty of Ahmed Awa or the happiness of Nawroz!