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Obama Wants to Defeat ISIS–But Not That Badly

The Obama administration recently announced a policy of limited intervention in Iraq, using drone strikes to stave off conquest of Kurdish autonomous areas by ISIS. The main US ally on the ground is Massoud Barzani’s Kurdistan Regional Government, and US support against ISIS is limited to Kurdish areas inside Iraq.

Barzani’s main competitor for the loyalty of the Kurdish people is Abdullah Ocalan, leader of the Kurdish Workers’ Party (PKK), which is active in all four nations with substantial Kurdish minorities.

While leading the originally Marxist-Leninist PKK from inside a Turkish prison, Ocalan studied the work of anarchist Murray Bookchin and adopted a form of his “libertarian municipalist” philosophy (which he renamed “democratic confederalism”). Bookchin’s philosophy came to Ocalan’s attention as part of a larger wave of interest in libertarian socialist thought among Kurdish nationalists after the fall of the USSR. Ocalan saw democratic confederalism — also influenced by horizontalist struggles like Mexico’s EZLN — as an alternative to both Western corporate capitalism and the Soviet command economy.

Democratic confederalism became the basis for the Group of Communities in Kurdistan, a PKK attempt at territorial administration in Kurdish areas.  It adheres closely to Bookchin’s model of federated direct democracies on the model of the Paris Commune, the soviets that emerged in Russia after the February Revolution, and local anarchist bodies in the Spanish Revolution. The economy is governed by a mixture of worker self-management and participatory planning. Women figure prominently in its municipalities and militia units, and have fought valiantly — for understandable reasons — against ISIS.

PKK is still listed as a terrorist organization because of its violent insurrection against the Turkish government, although it has maintained a truce with Turkey for the past year and gained significant regional autonomy for Kurdish areas in eastern Turkey. Since the truce the PKK moved the bulk of its fighting forces into Iraqi Kurdistan this April.

Supporting the PKK would arguably be far more effective if Obama really wants to stop ISIS penetration of Iraqi Kurdistan, especially given the party’s peace with Turkey and de facto independence of Kurdish areas in northeastern Syria. The PKK and allied militia in Syria have been more successful militarily against ISIS forces than the Western-backed Free Syrian army. PKK defended the Yazidi areas of Iraqi Kurdistan and relocated endangered civilians, when Barzani’s Peshmerga forces melted away. PKK fighters from Turkey have prevented the fall of Kobane in Syrian Kurdistan, which sits across lines of communication between ISIS areas in Syria and Iraq. Ocalan and the PKK, unlike Barzani, have popular support throughout Kurdistan — not just the Iraqi part.

But that’s unlikely to happen. The one thing worse than an ISIS victory, from the American state’s perspective, would be the demonstration effect of an alternative to both corporate capitalism and state socialism, based on decentralism, direct democracy and self-management.

Kurdistan has much in common with postwar Korea. In the power vacuum left by the retreat of Japanese forces from the Korean peninsula, as William Gillis writes (“Mass Graves,” reproduced at Austro-Athenian Empire, May 25, 2008), “something amazing happened. The Korean Anarchists, long the champions of the resistance struggle, came out of the woodwork and formed a nationwide federation of village and workers councils to oversee a massive project of land reform.” Soviet occupation authorities in the north quickly put a stop to this, liquidating the anarchist project and installing the Kim regime. American forces were considerably slower to arrive, giving southern Korea a respite of peace and freedom. When they did arrive, though, American military commanders “had no protocol for dealing with regional federations and anarchist communes.” Accordingly they restored land to the dispossessed aristocracy and helped the landlords set up a military government. With the start of the Korean War the military regime’s murder of anarchists and other leftists, already underway, kicked into high gear. At least 100,000 suspected anarchists, socialists and communists or sympathizers were buried in mass graves.

The American state would rather ISIS not win. But as with the farmers in Orwell’s Animal Farm, the men have one interest in common with the pigs that trumps all others: they don’t want the “animals” — ordinary people — to rule themselves.

Kevin Carson is a senior fellow of the Center for a Stateless Society (c4ss.org) and holds the Center’s Karl Hess Chair in Social Theory. 

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Kevin Carson is a senior fellow of the Center for a Stateless Society (c4ss.org) and holds the Center’s Karl Hess Chair in Social Theory. He is a mutualist and individualist anarchist whose written work includes Studies in Mutualist Political Economy, Organization Theory: A Libertarian Perspective, and The Homebrew Industrial Revolution: A Low-Overhead Manifesto, all of which are freely available online. 

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