America Can't Afford to Support an Independent Kurdistan or Taiwan
The Kurdish case is a little less clear cut, but there is still a credible basis for an independent homeland. Kurds have a language and culture quite distinct from Arabs or Persians, and they have a history of being mistreated by both. Saddam’s brutal rule was undoubtedly the worst, culminating in the 1988 poison gas attack that killed thousands of Kurdish civilians. But the Turkish government’s conduct over the decades has been harsh, and Iran’s behavior, especially during the Shah’s reign, has been little better.
However, the world is not fair and just, and powerful geopolitical realities argue against either population’s achieving its goal. Indeed, attaining independence would lead to major regional disruptions and the likelihood of catastrophic wars. Even a geographically limited Kurdish state would redraw the map of the Middle East, fragmenting both Iraq and Syria, with unpredictable consequences. A comprehensive Kurdish homeland would have to include most of southeastern Turkey, since roughly 50 percent of all Kurds reside there. That development would truncate Turkey, thereby greatly reducing the viability and influence of a major U.S. NATO partner. The existing countries are unlikely to accept either version of a Kurdish homeland without a fight.
The consequences of the push for an independent Taiwan could be even worse. Chinese leaders are implacable in opposing such an outcome, and there are indications that their patience with Taiwan’s continued unwillingness to negotiate an agreement for reunification is wearing thin. The Taiwanese themselves see evidence that Beijing is setting an implicit deadline of 2020 or 2021 to resolve the island’s political status to China’s satisfaction or use of force to do so will be a viable option. An outbreak of war in the Taiwan Strait would be calamitous for both the security of East Asia and the global economy.
Both Kurdish and Taiwanese political ambitions put the United States in an awkward and potentially dangerous position. Washington regards Kurdish fighters in Iraq and Syria as capable, reliable allies against ISIS, and both the Obama and Trump administrations provided material assistance to those forces. The nature of the dilemmas for U.S. policy, though, is evident as Turkey’s military has repeatedly attacked those same Kurdish units. U.S. officials are caught in a severe bind. Despite substantial domestic admiration (especially among neoconservatives) for the Kurdish war effort, and for the overall Kurdish political agenda, two key U.S. allies, Iraq and Turkey, adopt the opposite stance. The Trump administration desperately tries to square the circle—continuing to support Kurdish anti-ISIS actions but opposing the independence referendum and the agenda of an independent Kurdistan. It may well prove to be a stance that satisfies no one.
Washington’s plight with respect to Taiwan has the potential to be even worse. Under the 1979 Taiwan Relations Act, the United States is obliged to regard any Chinese attempt to coerce the island as a grave threat to the peace of East Asia. Washington is also committed to continue selling Taiwan weapons “of a defensive nature.” Beijing objects strongly to both provisions as unacceptable interference in China’s internal affairs. The stage is set for a U.S.-China military showdown at some point. It is hard to see how the impasse between Taiwan’s insistence on maintaining at least de facto independence and China’s insistence that the Taiwanese commit to reunification can turn out well.
U.S. leaders need to put America’s interests first regarding both of these situations. One can legitimately empathize with the goals of both the Kurds and the Taiwanese. But the United States should not risk becoming entangled in armed conflicts to support those objectives. Instead, we need a prompt strategy to reduce our risk exposure.
Ted Galen Carpenter, a senior fellow in defense and foreign policy studies at the Cato Institute and a contributing editor at the National Interest, is the author of ten books, the contributing editor of ten books, and the author of more than 650 articles on international affairs.
Image: A member of the Kurdish security forces takes up position with his weapon as he guards a section of an oil refinery, which is being brought on a truck to Kalak refinery in the outskirts of Arbil, in Iraq's Kurdistan region, July 14, 2014. REUTERS/Stringer