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Struggle for Independence: What Kurdistan can Learn from the American Experience

The following article was originally published in Rudaw.

The people of Kurdistan have voted overwhelmingly for independence.  But that is only the beginning. And so far, the reaction of the outside world has been a disappointment to them. The U.S., a country that Kurds regard as a close friend and an ally to whom they have been very loyal, had tried to stop the referendum, sending diplomats to persuade Kurdistan to change its mind and cancel it. Once it had taken place, Baghdad instead of accepting the offer to begin constructive negotiations, instead rushed to take steps intended to punish and intimidate the Kurds. They have closed them off from the world by shutting down the airports, issued threats and have encouraged Turkey and Iran to assist in making life difficult for Kurdistan. In Kirkuk, war cannot be ruled out as Baghdad, together with Iranian trained units, has already seized some Kurdish territory.

The Kurds are disappointed by these reactions and by the failure of the world community to support them – but they should not be. All of this, while unpleasant and frightening, is absolutely normal. In this difficult time, it’s important to realize that the path to independence is almost always rocky and painful, but that success comes to those who persevere and show courage and endurance. Those are traits for which the Kurds are famous.

The Kurdish people should know that while these coming times will probably be difficult, this is normal and the same thing has been experienced by others – including the United States.

The United States, of course, initially began as a property of Great Britain. People worked hard, and the land was rich, so over time these 13 American colonies were profitable for England, and they taxed them heavily while giving them few rights. The American War of Independence started out as a demand for more autonomy and better, fairer treatment. But the British were not interested in negotiating, and instead decided to squash these upstarts. The Americans fought back – a struggle that eventually created the United States of America. But this was an outcome that was far from certain in those early days, in the 18th century. Quite the opposite – often it seemed that the Americans would certainly be defeated and had no chance.

So, from the perspective of the American experience – here is what to expect from a struggle for independence, which will not be easy, but can certainly succeed if you don’t lose your nerve.

The country from which you want to separate will be angry, will threaten you and will try to stop you by force. If you think about it, this is understandable from their point of view. They feel insulted that you want to leave. They are afraid of being embarrassed if the world sees that they couldn’t stop you.  Plus, they don’t want to lose the oil, money, land, and other resources that you will be taking with you when you go. It’s like telling someone that you want to divorce them. Maybe they will be friendly and reasonable and let you keep the house and agree with you about who gets the children – but probably not. Later you can be friends again, but for a while, things are likely to be tense.

Your own leaders and people will be split over the issue, especially once the problems start. Different parts of your country, different political parties, and even family members are likely to disagree and become divided against each other during the difficult, bumpy period of transition. Some of them will see a personal advantage in betraying your cause. Just know that this is not unique to your situation – it happens every time. Benjamin Franklin, one of the most famous advocates of American independence, broke with his son over this – his son was an official in the British administration of the colonies. The Southern part of America was originally pro-British – though this changed later on and they, too, fought for independence. George Washington, the Founding Father of the U.S., our first president and biggest hero, was continuously being undermined and insulted by his political rivals. It’s not good, but remember – it’s normal.

You will suffer a period of difficulty. The country from which you are separating will try to punish you and scare you into changing your mind. This will usually start with economic punishments, legal steps and if that is not enough, military force. You will have shortages of food and fuel. Your soldiers will not have enough equipment or ammunition and will not get paid for long periods of time. During the U.S. revolution, the soldiers in George Washington’s army didn’t have medicine or blankets or enough food. For a while, the only thing they had to eat was chestnuts. Morale was low. During the terrible winter in Valley Forge, Washington estimated that one third of his soldiers had no shoes or boots. They had to wrap cloths around their feet to protect them against the snow. It has hard to find enough recruits. Food shortages were widespread. Farming was difficult because the men were away at war and it was hard for the women to manage alone.

The other side will have many advantages because they are an established power. George Washington never had more than 18,000 soldiers, while the British had 47,000 trained and well-armed men. When the British used economic pressure against the American rebels, the Americans issued their own paper money, the Continental Currency – but it had no actual banking system and no assets behind it, and soon failed, became valueless.

There were also problems of leadership. George Washington was greatly respected and had charisma, but he had no actual military experience and, being afraid to make mistakes, was very slow to come to any decisions.  Rivals, who were jealous, challenged his position and instead of concentrating on fighting the British, he had to spend much time dealing with critics and opponents within his own ranks.

Militarily, things were very difficult for the Americans, especially at first when they lacked training and experience. Out of 25 of the most important battles, only one was a clear American victory. In one battle, more than 1,000 men were killed and in another, 2,000 were taken prisoner. Only gradually did the situation begin to turn around.

Of course your opponent has a huge diplomatic advantage – they are a recognized nation with ties to the other governments. Benjamin Franklin traveled all over Europe, desperately trying to find a country that would recognize and assist the Americans. Germany was on the side of Britain and sent its highly trained Hessian troops to fight alongside the British. Both Spain and France refused to recognize the Americans, especially after their big defeat in which they lost New York and it was occupied by British forces. But eventually, as the Americans just did not give up, France changed its position and decided to help them.

You have advantages too. You know your own terrain much better than the other side does. The Kurds refer to the mountains as “their only friends,” but the same was true for the American colonists. They knew the valleys, rivers, mountains and forests of their country much better than the British ever could, and were able to hide there or to launch attacks from secret places. They also had an “army” of civilians to help them – ordinary citizens who gave the soldiers food, shelter and the most valuable thing, information. If the people who lived along a road, or in a town, overheard British soldiers talking or if they saw troops moving, they would send a message to the neighboring towns to warn them. In that way, the much smaller American militia could be ready for a British attack that was supposed to catch them by surprise.

Every American schoolchild knows the poem “Listen my children and you shall hear, of the midnight ride of Paul Revere” about one such messenger, but other famous ones became legendary as well. Sybil Ludington was the young daughter of a militia leader. She and her horse, Star, often took messages under dangerous conditions. Her most famous mission was in 1777 when people in her town learned that the British were sending 2,000 soldiers to attack a town thirty miles away. Just 16 years old, she rode 40 miles, all night long, through dark forests and unpaved wilderness to carry the warning.

The ability to conduct guerrilla warfare and the support of the civilian population made all the difference in finally turning things around. Another factor was help from friends. Germans helped with training, and the French provided arms and other critical direct support.

The time of difficulty can last for a long time. The American revolutionary war went on for seven years, and two more years after that before an agreement was finally reached with Britain. Even then, the British sometimes did not respect the agreement and occasional fighting took place. Perseverance is essential.

Along the way, there will be times when things look very bad, even hopeless. The American independence forces had many serious setbacks and at times it seemed that all was lost. The British won many important battles. For example, they took the city of New York.

If you persist, eventually other countries will help you and in the end, the world will recognize your independence. It can take a long time for other countries to shift gears and decide to help you. You must wait this out.

This article was originally published in Rudaw.

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