Iraq War 20 Years On: How the US Failed Kurdish Politics

By Theo Mitchell

Twenty years ago, American-led forces launched their fateful invasion of Iraq: a campaign of devastating shock and awe that shattered the Iraqi state and overthrew Saddam’s dictatorship in under two months. The story, one of Iraqi disintegration, sectarian conflict, and ultimately American failure to produce a flourishing democracy, is by now well known. However, the painful legacy of the invasion in ‘Arab’ Iraq is very different from how it is remembered positively in the north of ‘Kurdish’ Iraq (Southern Kurdistan / Bashur).

An unprecedented level of Kurdish autonomy was institutionalized in the Iraqi constitution, and while Arab Iraq fractured and fell into civil conflict, the Kurdistan Region of Iraq (KRI) experienced rapid economic development and enjoyed relative stability. Hence, the US invasion and subsequent US policy towards the KRI thereafter, is perceived by many in Bashur to be a net positive. The emergence of a Kurdish quasi-state on the global stage with a flag and foreign dignitaries paying visits, is also seen by many long-oppressed Kurds as the stepping stone to a one-day independent Greater Kurdistan of all four occupied regions.

Despite this, polling shows that in recent years, Kurds living under the Kurdistan Regional Government (KRG) are more pessimistic about the future, while also believing that their government is less democratic, less free, and less accountable compared to Iraqis in any other regions of the country. The democratic deficit and growing economic inequality of the KRG is well-documented, yet the role of the US and the West since the 2003 invasion in creating and amplifying these conditions is under-analyzed. The US has a long history of invasions and half-hearted efforts at neo-liberal post-conflict reconstruction where democratization and nation-state building is often the least important agenda on their policy objectives. The examples of post-WWII reconstructions of Japan and Germany are often seen as the epitome of US neo-liberal state-building, yet these success have not been replicated – partly owning to the homogenous nations within these states – and since the geopolitical terrain of post-WWII is significantly different to the previous eras. Indeed, US neo-liberal state-building has demonstrated that they often undermine the organic process of post-conflict stabilization, development and democratization and leave harmful long-term and counter-productive residues. The colossal  failures in neo-liberal US interventionism and the subsequent state-building failures in cases such as Afghanistan, across the African continent, as well as Latin America are all evidence of similar dynamics.

This is very much the case in the KRI post-2003 invasion of Iraq, where the US interference and outright self-interested policy agendas resulted in crippling the democratic capacity of the region. Perhaps it is not surprising that the US – a hyper-capitalist two-party state beholden to business interests, that does not allow for political third parties – would replicate and prefer that blueprint in the KRG. Resultingly, the purpose of this article is to examine the post-war political processes in the KRI and the extent to which the US is responsible for their emergence.

Institutionalized Autonomy

By the time of the 2003 American invasion, the KRI’s autonomy had already existed for 12 years, with relatively free (though perhaps not entirely fair) elections in 1992 and an economy increasingly decoupled from the rest of Iraq. Removing Saddam’s brutal regime undoubtedly removed the threat of another Anfal Genocide – which had destroyed thousands of Kurdish villages, left tens of thousands dead, and infamously saw chemical weapons dropped on the Kurds in Halabja. But what immediate politico-economic and institutional impact did the invasion have on Kurdish Iraqi politics?

While the KRG existed in practice from 1991-2003, following the mass devastation of the Anfal campaign, the invasion changed the institutionalization of Kurdish Iraqi autonomy, as the rule KDP-PUK duopoly was made into a legal reality with international recognition. As a result, the Kurdistan Democratic Party (KDP) and Patriotic Union of Kurdistan (PUK) would essentially each geographically control half of Southern Kurdistan in their ‘yellow’ and ‘green’ zones respectively. This process of local actors taking advantage of power vacuums to consolidate their personal gains is however not unique to the KRI and tends to be reproduced widely across the field following post-conflict reconstructions. Indeed, according to academics:

“Local actors who assume leadership of shadow states tend to profit personally from institutional weakness of the state and through corrupt means gain extensive personal wealth at the cost of a weakened society.”

The Americans had not intended on giving such far-reaching autonomy to the Kurds, and Coalition Provisional Authority (CPA) head Paul Bremer had promised both Ayatollah Sistani (Iraq’s Shia spiritual leader) and the provisional Iraqi Governing Council (IGC) that the new constitution would give Baghdad control over security, natural resources, the economy, and borders in Peshmerga-controlled areas. Hearing this news, Talabani and Barzani closed ranks and Bremer, unwilling to turn on the only pro-American military force in Iraq, gave in. Thus, was born an autonomous region that held an unprecedented level of autonomy bordering on de-facto independence, including local control over natural resources, security, foreign relations, and economic policy.

It is understandable, therefore, that a positive mythology surrounding the invasion of Iraq would persist among many Kurds – if not least of all for the removal of the threat and terrorism of the Ba’athist regime on the Kurdish people of north ‘Iraq’. After suffering so long under Saddam, it is understandable that they would be deeply appreciative of any nation willing to overthrow him. Yet a deeper analysis of the logic driving the American invasion and its subsequent effect on the development of Kurdish self-governance in the past 20 years reveals another side to the story, that is often left out of the positive headlines. As it could be argued that the invasion of Iraq and the subsequent American engagement with the KRG has also purposefully fostered immense economic inequality, an undemocratic system of governance, endemic corruption, and total dependence on external patrons.

The Duopoly Made Permanent

The peace agreement made after the 1994-97 Iraqi Kurdish Civil War (Şerê birakujî) formalized the already-existing dominance of two political parties, the KDP in the west and the PUK in the east. Both parties were organized around family connections: the Barzanis and the Talabanis respectively. Both families held an iconic and romanticized place in the imaginations of the Kurds in their respective areas, which made them the seemingly ‘obvious’ choices to assume control. It would be inaccurate to say the primary mode of political organization is ‘tribal’ in the sense of a territorialized localized group in which the kin-based organization considers itself culturally distinct. The elder patriarch Mustafa Barzani may have been a true tribal leader, Masoud Barzani and Jalal Talabani’s leaderships were closer to what Francis Owtram calls “dynastic republicanism.”[1] Power is ‘privatized’ within a semi-familial network whose legitimation comes not from a localized cultural similarity or through their family name, but because of their status as a sort of vanguard of Kurdish autonomy whose leader acts as a ‘father of the nation’. The legacy of the old tribal mode of organization was vast networks of financial and political patronage and nepotism stretching out into every crevice of Kurdish Iraqi society, through which the authority to govern was maintained materially through a bloated civil service. In these respects, the PUK and KDP were indistinguishable.

Consequently, rather than a single unified Kurdish Iraqi government, there became, in effect, two separate governments run by the two parties in their respective regions, including separate armed forces (Peshmerga), governing bureaucracies, and welfare systems. A shared parliament facilitated flimsy co-operation over monetary policy and natural resources, but for the most part the KRI had evolved into two separate administrations by the time the US invaded Iraq in 2003.

While it is true that the US could never have fully turned against its Kurdish allies while lacking any other coherent or friendly military force in post-invasion Iraq, it could also be argued that a US government interested in democracy-promotion held considerable leverage over both the KDP and PUK with which it could have induced political reforms.

This is because from 1992-2003, the Kurdish Iraqi economy was wholly dependent on American aid. Pre-invasion aid programs, led above all by the US and UN (the latter often funded by other wealthy states) were vital in reconstruction and replacing the old welfare system, and provided much of the region’s food. Despite this, the American ‘democracy mission’ in the KRI neglected to focus on political liberalization, while exerting great effort to encourage economic liberalization. This economic liberalization took place, first, through the promotion of foreign capital, particularly contractors working for the US government, to the neglect of supporting local and small businesses in the KRI. Though significant funds were invested by the US, UN, and other states in constructing infrastructure for the KRG, these projects were either operated by foreign companies (as was the case for the oil industry), or by firms very close to the duopoly’s leadership.

Owing to the lack of legal limits regarding nepotism, the domestic development of indigenous private industry post-2003 was fraught with corruption. Figures close to the KDP and PUK leadership – often members of the Barzani and Talabani families themselves – acted as de facto business arms of the two-party state. For example, the Korek cell phone company, owned by the nephew of then-KDP leader Masoud Barzani, was given an instant monopoly on cell phone infrastructure by the KDP. Rival companies had their towers outright demolished by KDP security officials. Korek, using public funds from the KRG, later purchased rights to operate throughout Iraq (a deal worth $1 billion), then in 2015 sought a publicly-funded bailout when it accrued $375 million in tax debt.

Despite such conditions clearly not being conducive to healthy economic growth, much less a liberal society, the US has continually increased its involvement in the KRG’s economy and has never used its continuing leverage to encourage the implementation of anti-nepotism laws or serious anti-corruption regulations. Evidently, the direct influence Washington has over the KRG leadership and opportunities for capital accumulation stemming from markets open to foreign exploitation are too valuable to upset.

The dominant position of foreign capital as well as the systemically embedded corruption in post-war KRI had major consequences. Though the development of infrastructure and the injection of foreign investment led to statistically impressive growth rates until the 2016 financial crash, it simultaneously promoted vast economic inequality in which a burgeoning number of millionaires co-exist amongst increasing poverty. So intense is the lack of opportunities that by the 2020s many would rather risk death trying to reach Europe through dangerous pathways than stay in Kurdish ‘Iraq’. Though the increasing Turkish military occupation and attacks on various mountainous areas of Bashur also deserves some of the blame for this exodus.

Nevertheless, just as the US failed to use its sizeable influence over the KRG to create a just economy, it chose not to encourage political liberalization. Resultingly, the KDP-PUK duopoly has built a façade of democracy; it runs moderately free (but not fair) elections, and yet suspends or delays them when it is politically expedient. Ministries are run by family allies, which then grab public lands for private real-estate ownership and use party-managed security services to clear out the poor who get in the way. Human rights activists and journalists are regularly and arbitrarily arrested and sometimes tortured or even killed. Protestors who object are beaten and tear gassed by police (no different than in many Western nations it should be said). The media, ostensibly free, is in practice monopolized by the duopoly and a small number of well-connected businessmen (which also mirrors the corporate stranglehold on the media in many Western states).

Gorran as the Canary in the Coal Mine

One is free to take part in Kurdish Iraqi democracy if it is in support of the duopoly, but opposition is another matter. The example of the Gorran Movement (Change) is illustrative. Founded in 2009 by Peshmerga veteran Nawshiran Mustafa, Gorran was built on a platform of opposing the dynastic republicanism of the duopoly. It proposed to reform the KRG to a parliamentary rather than a presidential system, to remove the Peshmerga from party control, and to make KRG income and spending transparent. At first, Gorran achieved rapid growth, winning 25 seats in the 2009 KRG parliamentary elections and becoming the official party of the opposition.

For its efforts, the Gorran Movement faced repression, principally from the KDP. Eventually, a KDP-controlled court in Hewlêr (Erbil) issued an arrest warrant for Gorran leader Nawshirwan Mustafa after his attempt to oust Masoud Barzani from the Presidency when the latter had remained in his post after his legal mandate expired. Gorran members were expelled from parliament (including the parliament’s speaker) and were banned from the entire city of Hewlêr. Gorran members then received both threats and physical assaults, as pro-Gorran demonstrations faced police brutality from KRG security forces (armed and trained by the west, notably without any focus on security sector reform).[2]

Gorran’s ultimate demise, however, would come from co-optation rather than repression. Following the 2013 elections, Gorran joined a coalition government with the KDP and PUK, yet lacked the institutional control of the duopoly to enact reform. Gorran’s reformist credentials were thus compromised, and public belief in its ability to reform the KRG was shattered. Meanwhile the duopoly, retaining its expansive patronage networks and security monopoly, could show its surface-level inclusion of Gorran (until the expulsion of its MPs from parliament) as evidence of its democratic credentials.

The final blow to the Gorran Movement came by its own hand. After Nawshirwan Mustafa died in 2017, the weak party structures and personalist leadership of Gorran became clear. Mustafa’s sons seized control of the party. They held no formal position but controlled all major party decisions through their control over the party’s finances inherited from their father.[3] In the end, Gorran fell into the same dynastic politics as the duopoly, and lost its potential as a vehicle for reform. The US played a key role in seeing off the challenge of Gorran to the duopoly.

Of note, not only did Washington support Masoud Barzani extending his Presidency beyond his legally mandated term, they also gave a free license to the KDP to expel Gorran from parliament.[4] The priority of maintaining coherent command structures in the KDP and PUK Peshmerga at a time when ISIS threatened American security in Iraq superseded any faux commitment to democracy, though this pattern would be matched both before and after the Islamic State’s territorial ‘Caliphate’.

Honesty & Accountability 

Many have highlighted the lack of democratic credentials in the KRG. However, at a time when Iraq War revisionism is on the rise (even David Frum and Paul Bremer have recently written articles trying to spin the invasion in a more positive light), it is vital to closely analyze the role that the US in particular had in creating the current conditions of the KRG following 2003. It is not removing responsibility from the KRG’s Kurdish political elite to argue American policy, driven by the core logic of its 2003-present misadventure in Iraq, is directly responsible in driving and enabling the aforementioned processes.

As in ‘Arab’ Iraq, US policy varied between inaction towards the authoritarianism and corruption of the new political leadership to outright opposition to democratization. US behavior towards the KRG instead shows a consistent tendency towards prioritizing the maintenance of the conditions for capital accumulation and towards supporting politically pliable politicians. The KRG may have negotiated unprecedented and institutionalized Kurdish autonomy as a result of the invasion, yet the US simultaneously supported the duopoly in establishing a dysfunctional and corrupt system of governance. Of course, it is the Kurds of Southern Kurdistan who deserve better, as their choices should not exclusively be between homicidal Ba’athism or Kurdish family nepotism. In this, the thousands of Peshmerga who have died over the decades to live in freedom are owed more accountability from their most vital ‘ally’ in Washington.


  1. Azeez, H. (2010). Reconstructing Iraq: Iraq State-building, Nation-building, and Violence.Nebula . Dec2010, Vol. 7 Issue 4, p77-87. 11p. Available at: 
  2. Owtram, F. (2012). The Kurdistan Region of Iraq: Ethnic Conflict and the Survival of Dynastic Republicanism in a De Facto State. In Artens, H. (eds). De Facto States and Ethnic Conflict. Pax Online Bulletin, 21, Centre for Social Studies, available at:[email protected]
  3. Aziz, S., and Cottey, A. (2021). The Iraqi Kurdish Peshmerga: Military Reform and Nation-Building in a Divided Society. Defence Studies, 21(2), pp.226-241
  4. Hama, H., and Abdullah, F. (2021). Political Parties and the Political System in Iraqi Kurdistan. Journal of Asian and African Studies, 56(4), pp.754-733
  5. Hama, H. (2022). The Rise and Fall of Movement for Change in the Kurdistan Region of Iraq (2009-2018). Asian Journal of Comparative Politics, 7(3), pp.539-558


  • Theo Mitchell

    Theo Mitchell holds a BA in Politics and International Relations from the University of York and is currently completing an MA in Global Politics at the London School of Economics. In 2021, he worked with Think Pacific to help develop an environmentally conscious education system in Fiji. His main areas of research include Kurdish politics, Middle Eastern Studies, Conflict and Genocide Studies, and Critical Political Economy.

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