Of course, we didn’t deliver; we probably never could have. During my four and a half years at the embassy, we protected the election process by building consensus among squabbling politicians, calmed confrontations between Barzani’s peshmerga and the Iraqi army, and ensured the inclusion of Sunni Arabs in the national government. On top of this, we also had a major insurgency and terror campaign on our hands.
We knew that our failure to address the disputed territories and conflicting Kurdish-Arab claims to places like Kirkuk was dangerous. When I was back working in Iraq again from 2008 to 2010, Ambassador Ryan Crocker predicted in a senior staff meeting that our leaving the Kirkuk issue unresolved “would destroy Iraq.” Distracted by each new crisis du jour, we never mounted a sustained, determined effort to bring Erbil and Baghdad together to resolve the smoldering problem of the disputed territories.
Events in the disputed territories now serve as a painful microcosm of how Iraqis handle major political disputes. In 2014, the Kurdish Region took advantage of Baghdad’s military weakness in the face of ISIS’s blistering advance to send peshmerga to seize Kirkuk and its adjacent oilfields. There was no political discussion or dialogue between the Kurds and the weak government in Baghdad; the Kurds just used force of arms. To be fair, had the Kurds not done this, ISIS would surely have seized the territory and its oil. It was a serious overreach for the Kurds, however: Taking the oilfields and ruling the ethnically mixed city of Kirkuk further poisoned Kurdish relations with many in Baghdad. The Americans said nothing, instead insisting that the Iraqis to set aside their old grievances for the sake of the struggle against ISIS.