Vladimir van Wilgenburg of From Holland to Kurdistan asked me for an interview to discuss my experiences in Iraq. Vladimir maintains a tremendous awareness of events and issues in all of Kurdistan from a very insightful outsider's perspective.
What do you do for a living? Are you a professional journalist?
I think of myself primarily as a consultant with journalism skills. My business partner Michael Totten primarily thinks of himself as a journalist with consulting skills. Consulting is something I love because my diverse experience and capacity to master new knowledges is tested strongly. Journalism is something I do with a professional outlook, but not what I consider my primary occupation. I am more proud of my part time profession as a US Navy Reservist. They don't court martial disgraceful journalists who abandon honor or are destructively incompetent. Sailors are held to a higher standard than journalists, and are also more respected.
Patrick S Lasswell Taking Pictures in the Kurdish Mountains.
How you got the idea to go to Kurdistan? And why did you do it?
Michael Totten and I each worked at Enron in the 1990s and were disgusted that nine out of ten of the really guilty jerks who engaged in massive fraud got away without any prison time. It bothered us that decent people couldn't put their hands on significant money doing honest work. We were talking about this when Michael remembered that he knew somebody who might be willing to pay us for going to Kurdistan to work for an acceptable rate. We asked if there was work and the answer was “How soon can you be there?” I was available and interested, Michael's schedule was open, so we did it.
Michael Totten Capturing Suliamaniya on Video. We sort of sneaked up onto the roof of the Suliamaniya Palace Hotel to take pictures. Michael was more nervous about doing this than going to Kirkuk.
I just finished re-reading Neal Stephenson's Cryptonomicon which deals rather extensively and well with the experiences of people coming from a high technology viewpoint dealing with the developing world. That book resonates with me at a number of depths, especially the decision to compete outside the traditional districts of US involvement.
Have you also been in other parts of Kurdistan then Iraqi-Kurdistan? And what do you think about it?
Iran and Syria are blocked to me. They are distinctly unkind to sailors in Iran, despite what the British hostages said with guns to their heads. Syria is also a problem because I have a military security clearance I'd like to keep intact and they might hand me over to Iran. Is it hubris to think of yourself as worth at least a truckload of Katyusha's? Eastern Turkey is arguably less attractive than Kirkuk in a variety of dimensions, and the time to go there hasn't been available in the trips I've taken. I have talked extensively with Iranian Kurds and found them to be charming.
Mosque in Biarra, Iraq in the foreground, mountains of Iranian Kurdistan in the background. This is the closest Patrick can get to Iranian Kurdistan for now.
A recent UN report talked about corruption, nepotism, lack of press freedom and honor killings in Kurdistan. Do you think this report is correct? What are your negative experiences with Kurdistan? And what are your positive ones?
The notion of the UN calling anybody else corrupt and nepotistic is somewhat surreal, and their relationship to honor and death is it's own category of disgrace. Regrettably, the report is probably also an understatement. I will be writing on this more extensively soon.
Burned Memorial in Halabja.
My most negative experience in Iraqi Kurdistan was Halabja because the place looked like Saudi Arabia with all the repression. The poverty wasn't a big helper, the roads were a disaster, the market was as vibrant as a tomb, and the burned down memorial was ghastly. But the women wearing severe Islamist clothing were terrifying after living in liberal and safe Suliamaniya for a couple of weeks. It didn't surprise me at all to find that Ansar Al Islam was from there, violent fundamentalism thrives on misery. Halabja is a living celebration of misery past, present, and future.
Market in Halabja.
Almost everything, every day in Kurdistan is a positive experience for me. I love the Souks. I love being greeted as a friend everywhere I go. I love meeting with interesting people and discussing their experiences, even the horrific ones. I love the lack of conspiracy theories in regular conversation. I love seeing the changes in cities, the countryside, and my friends. I love being able to leave my wallet on a counter and turn my back secure in the knowledge that nobody will steal it. I love the consulting work I do, that I regrettably can't talk about here. I love coming up with better solutions that my friends can use that they would not have thought of for years.
Older Brother Helping Little Sister in Halabja. It is not all bad, even in the most grim place in Iraqi Kurdistan.
Talking about honor killings, what do you think about the recent stoning of the Yezidi girl for converting to Islam? Did you notice anything of it in Kurdistan? People talking about it, etc.
I am talking to my Kurdish Yezidi friends about this in an effort to come up with something in the next couple of days. The cities are a lot more free of this sort of thing than the countryside, but there is some. One of the struggles for Iraqi Kurdistan, all of Kurdistan, is to become more cosmopolitan while retaining their cultural identity. The Arabs have largely lost their minds in the attempt with the help of insane fundamentalism. I'm hoping that the natural sanity of the Kurds will allow them to better survive this transition.
Kurdish Girls in Primary Colors, Biarra, Iraqi Kurdistan. The girl in red hides her face because she is reaching puberty. This self-destructive fear of female sexuality is holding Kurdistan back in a host of ways, even in the most liberal regions. Ansar Al Islam controlled this city and their intolerance did lasting damage.
Why did you risk your life by going to the dangerous city Kerkuk? Recently the International Crisis Group released a report about Kerkuk and called on the Kurds to cancel the referendum and compromise on their national ambitions. Do you think the referendum will cause chaos in Kerkuk? What's your general impression of Kerkuk compared to other Kurdish cities?
The name of my blog is Moderate Risk because that is what I do, go places with some known danger and accomplish tasks. After careful investigation and consideration it became clear that going to Kirkuk was a moderate risk. I was trapped by my own blog title.
Up on Gara Mountain Discovering Iraqi Kurdistan. Understanding danger is the key to deciding what is and is not a Moderate Risk. This shell was unfired and probably unfused, nothing to play with but fairly safe to approach.
I wonder who funds the International Crisis Group? About ten years ago the rapacious criminals at Enron hired a Harvard economist to explain away their wholesale fraud. In suitable academic prose Dr. Jan Paul Acton would explain away any number of outright swindles as sound economic practice. Investigating the Enron fraud for my own reasons, I became somewhat less impressed with the integrity of think tanks and their pronouncements. If you are willing to be dishonest for pay, you can make a lot of money coming up with pompous garbage to spew on credulous news organizations and juries. Personally, I can't stand to do that, so I am consulting for less money.
More than a dozen a car bombs exploded in the month that I was considering going to Kirkuk, four in one day. Chaos has already broken out in Kirkuk, and the only places where it is under control is where the Kurds are keeping the peace. I suspect that the referendum will cause stability in Kirkuk and indigestion in Baghdad, Ankara, and Tehran. Imperial powers hate free Kurds. The oil wealth in Kirkuk gives the Kurds a chance at lasting freedom.
Kirkuk itself is a nasty place with ugly homes walled against casual attacks. It is also a lot hotter than the rest of Kurdistan without significant hills to protect Peshmerga. I wouldn't want to live there if it was safe. I am happy to live in the rest of Iraqi Kurdistan.
You have met a lot of party officials, how do you think about the main Kurdish political parties, like the PKK, KDP and PUK?
I do not consider the PKK a political party. I see it as a criminal conspiracy to extort funds from Kurds in Europe and anyone else who will pay for violence. Their influence in Iraqi Kurdistan is pernicious, but not dominant. I much prefer the social democrat Iranian Komala to the Turkish PKK. There is a reason that the dissident Iranian Komala is easy to reach, with a sign out front, from Suliamaniya and the PKK hides in some of the most rugged and inaccessible terrain in Central Asia. The PKK works to oppress and control decent people. The Iranian Komala works to liberate decent people.
Iranian Komala. Formerly Communist, they are now social democrats and have some of the most sane modern politics in the world. The Islamic Republic of Iran regularly tries to infiltrate their organization and kill their leadership.
I have been treated with nothing but courtesy and cooperation by the KDP and PUK parties and the KRG. I look forward to the day that they regularize their finances and start providing the civil service with a living wage, preferably merit based. The security apparatus of the individual parties are getting in the way of a secure Kurdistan with their excesses, and that is starting to show. I have more to say on this topic, but it will have to wait for another post to be dealt with properly. A glib answer would be a disservice to the situation.
I've been lucky in that all of the senior party officials I've met are tremendous men. Almost all of them are old Peshmerga with at least a decade of campaigning, by which I mean surviving military attacks, under their belt. These guys can really take care of things. I know there are political functionaries out there who aren't worth much, but I've never talked with them. The politicians I know make the characters on “The West Wing” seem like inarticulate incompetents, so my experience is abnormal. I am honored to know gentlemen like Abdullah Mohtadi, Falah Mustafa, General Mam Rostam, and Judge Rizgar Mohammad Ameen. I also know these brave individuals are not flawless, even though their greatest flaw may be that they aren't everywhere.
What's your view on the Kurdish economy?
Young Men Standing Around in Iraqi Kurdistan. Oddly unemployed, the large number of idle young men is not good, but their condition is not wretched. Perhaps it is pride keeping them together in good order.
The diaspora and the cash basis makes it very hard to get a grasp on what is going on. There are a lot of healthy young men standing around not doing much, which is bad. But they are all fairly well fed and clothed, which is good, if difficult to explain. In the last seven months there are a lot more new cars and other signs of wealth. One day we ran across a man in the Souk carrying more than $100,000 in various paper currencies in stacks from one money changer to...someplace. Where was he going? What did the money come from? Free cash economies are the antithesis of transparent.
Man Carrying Stacks of Cash in the Suliamaniya Souk. Nobody will ever be able to trace this transaction.
I have a theory that the natural position of the economy in any free place with energy is irrational exuberance and success. The scope of opportunities and connections that happen in free economies is incoherently large. Energy makes it much easier to do anything worth doing. Fairness is non-existent, but the number of parties trading to their mutual advantage is staggering. The lack of fairness is starting to grate on a lot of honest people in Iraqi Kurdistan, especially because the cash economy is so susceptible to corruption. I think there will be an adjustment in the next two years, but not an actual crash as long as Iraqi Kurdistan remains free.
Should America protect Kurds against a possible Turkish invasion? As suggested by some American politicians?
Patrick S Lasswell in the Navy Reserve. Reflection in a thermal imaging camera used by his command. Carp face not typical of Patrick's expressions on duty.
In 2005 I rejoined the military, in the US Navy Reserve where I am competent, to protect free people. Of course I want to keep Iraqi Kurdistan free. I think free people should protect each other and I certainly wish the European Union was interested in protecting more than the privileges of senior bureaucrats. The United States should certainly discourage the kind of blundering that Israel conducted last year and has a lot more options for doing so. There is no need to crater the runway at Erbil International Airport in order to control the PKK. If Turkey is serious about controlling the PKK, they'd be better off interdicting the Frankfurt airport, Dubai banks, or just shooting heroin dealers in Paris. The PKK is a persistent problem because they are exceptionally well funded through extortion and other criminal activities taking place in Europe. There are also indications that other Central Asian powers are providing the PKK with support as a distraction for Turkey.
I have no love of the PKK. Their supporters sound just like Hezbollah stooges and they have lied about my friends. I suspect the PKK of all kinds of villainy and vice and know that they have used terror on a regular basis. I also understand why my Iraqi Kurdish friends are sympathetic to the oppressed Kurds of Turkey. What most of my Iraqi Kurdish friends don't know is the reason why their sympathies are not divided is that the PKK attacks rival and divergent groups with much greater vigor than they ever attack the Turkish state. The PKK has a monopoly on Kurdish insurrection in Turkey and they murderously suppress anyone who tries to compete with them. What kind of government do you think they will make if they are ever put in charge...or even allowed a seat at the table?
I'm hoping that the hotheads in Ankara will keep in mind the results of China's invasion of Vietnam in 1979. I have a good friend from Viet Nam who told me about his part as a machine gunner fighting against them. The Chinese lost 50,000 troops in six weeks. I doubt that Turkey would make as poor a showing as the politically secure People's Army made, but I know it will cost them heavily and not just in loss of lives. The political cost of stepping on Kurds has gone up significantly in the last twenty years, and the last one to do it with real effort ended his days at the end of a rope. It would be cheaper and better for Ankara to support Kurdish intellectuals and politicians who denounce the PKK and support Kurdish culture. They'd have to start sharing power in the National Assembly, but they are about to lose power to the fundamentalists. They just have to take Ottoman Imperialism off life support ninety years after it should have died.
Smooth Terrain Compared to Where the PKK is Hiding. Amedy in Duhok Province, Iraqi Kurdistan.
The problem that Turkey faces is that the PKK in Iraqi Kurdistan is situated in one of the best bandit hideouts in the world. I've seen long service Peshmerga go pale at the suggestion that they attack into that location. Peshmerga hid from Saddam Hussein for decades in this area before they left it in 2003 and the PKK fighters moved in. I refuse to call the PKK fighters Peshmerga because they are educated in a different doctrine and follow a different ideology. I trust my family with Peshmerga and I don't trust the PKK with anything. The Turks know exactly how vicious a fight it's going to be to clear the PKK out, which is why they are using means other than direct action against them.
Thanks for your time, the last words are yours.
I have great hopes for Iraqi Kurdistan and a strong interest in helping it stay free. Fifteen years ago I helped impose UN sanctions as part of my duties in the US Navy. That deeply flawed effort to control Saddam Hussein through non-violent means dissolved in farce as every measure was twisted to the dictator's advantage. The UN's reverence for state sovereignty punished the people it should have protected and instead benefited the most bloody handed thug of his day. I cannot pull rabbits out of hats or work greater magics like restructuring the United Nations into an honest, decent, and effective organization. I can do something for the people who I once helped starve in Iraqi Kurdistan. The best way I know to help people is to keep them free. At my age and level of fitness, that involves a lot more drinking tea than carrying rifles. The greatest threats I see to Iraqi Kurdistan today are Honor Killings and corruption, two forms of rot that are doing more harm from within than any external foe.
Patrick S Lasswell in the Snow in Iraq with Remnants of a Saddam Palace in the Background.
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Email address is mrs.risk at gmail dot com