It is amazing how Henry Kissinger has been able to retain his aura of invincible genius in international relations, continuing to counsel presidents, foreign governments and major global businesses, while occasionally writing lofty Op Ed pieces advising the U.S. on what it should or should not be doing next. This mind you, despite Kissinger’s own history of monumental cynicism and duplicity when he was guiding foreign policy for President’s Nixon and Ford. Indeed, it’s a tribute to the ability of mainstream American media to forgive and forget.
The latest example is an Op Ed piece Kissinger just wrote for the New York Times warning American leaders that they are no longer giving Iraq the attention it deserves.
The fact is, however, when Kissinger was in charge of U.S. policy for Iraq, the results for its people, particularly the Kurds, were disastrous. I wrote about it in my book “Web of Deceit-the History of Western Complicity in Iraq, from Churchill to Kennedy to George W. Bush.”
Over the decades, the Kurds quixotic struggle for some form of independence doomed them to a seemingly endless cycle of rebellion followed by incredibly vicious repression. Those uprisings were usually encouraged by enemies of Iraq’s rulers who made use of the Kurds to destabilize the regime in Baghdad. It was a ruthless, deceitful process, which resulted in hundreds of thousands of Kurds being slaughtered and displaced over the years. And it was an ideal playing field for Kissinger.
For years, the Shah of Iran had been secretly supporting the Iraqi Kurds to put pressure on Baghdad. So were the Israelis, who hoped to distract Iraq’s increasingly virulent leader from joining an Arab attack on the Jewish state. In 1972, Henry Kissinger and Richard Nixon, motivated by fear that Iraq was becoming too cozy with the Soviet Union, agreed to a request from the Shah to help back the Kurds.
For the sake of deniability, the U.S. supplied the Kurds with Soviet arms seized in Vietnam, while Israel provided Soviet weapons that it had captured from the Arabs. According to the Washington Post’s Jon Randal, the clandestine operation was kept secret even from the U.S. State Department, which had argued against any such support. The Kurd’s news friends, however, did not want their protégées to win their struggle. An independent Kurdish state would be much too disruptive for the region, they felt. Their support was carefully doled out—enough to keep the revolt going, but not enough to take it to victory.
The Kurdish leader, Mustafa Barzani, was hard-headed enough to understand his people were being used by Iran, but not worldly enough to comprehend that his American backers could be equally duplicitous. “We do not trust the Shah,” Barzani told reporter Randal in 1973. “I trust America. America is too great a power to betray a small people like the Kurds.”
It was to be a fatal error of judgment. In 1975 the Shah and the leaders of Iraq abruptly agreed to settle their disputes and signed a treaty of friendship. A key part of the agreement was that Iran would immediately cease its support of the Iraqi Kurds. Overnight, Iranian army units that had been supporting the Kurds—with artillery, missiles, ammunition, and even food—retreated across the border into Iran. The U.S. and the Israelis similarly called a sudden halt to their support. At the same time, Iraqi troops began a massive offensive against the hapless Kurds.
Thus, without any warning, the Kurds were abandoned; not just their fighting men, the pesh merga, but their villages, wives, and children, were exposed to a ferocious Iraqi onslaught. Barzani sent a desperate plea to Kissinger for aid. “Our movement and people are being destroyed in an unbelievable way with silence from everyone. We feel, Your Excellency, that the United States has a moral and political responsibility towards our people, who have committed themselves to your country’s policy. Mr. Secretary, we are anxiously awaiting your quick response.”
Twelve days later, a U.S. diplomat in Tehran cabled CIA director William Colby, noting that Kissinger had not replied and warning that if Washington ”intends to take steps to avert a massacre it must intercede with Iran promptly.”
Meanwhile, a quarter of a million Kurds fled for their lives to Iran. Turkey closed its borders to thousands of others seeking refuge. Many of the militants left behind—especially students and teachers—were rounded up by the Iraqi, imprisoned, tortured, and executed. Some 1,500 villages were dynamited and bulldozed.
Over the following weeks and months, as the killing continued, Barzani issued more desperate appeals to the CIA, to President Gerald Ford, to Henry Kissinger. No one answered. Kissinger not only refused to intervene but also turned down repeated Kurdish requests for humanitarian aid for their thousands of refugees.
This duplicity of American officials might never have surfaced but for an investigation in 1975 by the U.S. Congress’s Select Committee on Intelligence headed by New York Democrat Otis Pike. The Pike report concluded that for Tehran and Washington the Kurds were never more than “a card to play.” A uniquely useful tool for weakening Iraq’s “potential for international adventurism.” From the beginning said the report, “The President, Dr. Kissinger, and the Shah hoped that our clients [Barzani’s Kurds] would not prevail.” The Kurds were encouraged to fight solely in order to undermine Iraq. “Even in the context of covert operations, ours was a cynical enterprise.”
The report’s damning conclusions continued: Had the U.S. not encouraged the Kurds to go along with the Shah and renew hostilities with Iraq, “the Kurds might have reached an accommodation with [Iraq’s] central government, thus gaining at least a measure of autonomy while avoiding further bloodshed. Instead the Kurds fought on, sustaining thousands of casualties and 200,000 refugees.”
One of the officials who testified before the committee in secret session was Henry Kissinger. When questioned by an appalled congressman about the U.S.’s decision to abandon the Kurds to their bloody fate, Kissinger chided the committee, “One should not confuse undercover action with social work.”
Barry M. Lando, a graduate of Harvard and Columbia University, spent 25 years as an award-winning investigative producer with 60 Minutes. The author of numerous articles about Iraq, he produced a documentary about Saddam Hussein that has been shown around the world. He lives in Paris. His latest book is “Web of Deceit: The History of Western Complicity in Iraq, from Churchill to Kennedy to George W. Bush.” He can be reached through his blog.