Nechirvan Barzani must professionalize his office

Michael Rubin

By Michael Rubin:

That the Kurdistan Regional Government functions far differently in reality than it does on paper is no secret. Every Kurdish official, foreign businessman, or diplomat, knows that regional leader Masud Barzani and his immediate family have far greater power than Kurdistan’s constitution indicates. Foreign investors cannot navigate Kurdistan’s labyrinthine bureaucracy unless they partner with a ruling family member, or pay facilitators to ensure that approvals are granted.

The discrepancy between theoretical and real power permeates down to the ministerial and parliamentary levels. While Barzani has allowed some ministers—Interior Minister Karim Sinjari and Natural Resources Minister Ashti Hawrami, for example—to wield real power, most others simply posture. Ministers may enjoy honors and draw large pensions, but they contribute little to policymaking let alone Kurdistan’s development. Despite hopes that Gorran’s rise would rejuvenate parliament, that body remains largely fallow. Whatever meaningful policy debate there is occurs not in parliament, but rather behind closed doors on Sar-e Rash.

Perhaps nothing illustrates the charade of Kurdish politics than the premiership. While Barham Salih became prime minister two years ago, he has neither power over his cabinet nor does he control much of his staff. Prior to obeying Barham’s directives, his theoretical subordinates will seek approval from Masud Barzani or one of his trusted lieutenants.

Undercutting Barham’s power further are internal fissures within his own party: Over the last decade, Iraqi President Jalal Talabani has declined to support Barham at key moments, and the antipathy of Talabani’s wife Hero Ibrahim Ahmad toward Barham is long and deep.

Foreign officials, at least in the Middle East, recognize Barzani and Talabani’s desire to humiliate Barham. When the Kurdistan Regional Government needs to undertake sensitive diplomacy, be it in Ankara or Turkey, it more often turns to Barham’s  predecessor Nechirvan Barzani. During these trips, foreign officials treat Nechirvan as prime minister in all but name. They and Kurds alike recognize that it is only a matter of time until Nechirvan again claims his former title and resumes his premiership.

Among Western officials, Nechirvan has perhaps the most positive reputation of any Barzani. He is more gregarious than Masud, has more self-control than Masrour, is more stable than Mansour, and more mature than Mullah Mustafa “Babo” Barzani.  Certainly, intelligence analysts and more experienced diplomats recognize that Nechirvan also blurs the lines between personal interests and politics.  He may not purchase a $10 million dollar home, but Kurds in the Washington, DC, region say he does use a multimillion residence while in Washington.

Documents seized in Baghdad during the war also suggest that Nechirvan enjoyed an uncomfortably warm relationship with Saddam Hussein and his sons, a collaboration which Kurdish officials prefer not to discuss or will, if necessary, justify in pre-war pragmatism.

Most importantly, however, Nechirvan enjoys a reputation for competence. Officials may not always agree with his decisions, but Nechirvan is willing to debate and defend them civilly, and understand how to implement them.

However, if Nechirvan is to advance Kurdish governance when he formally returns to the premiership, he must get his office in order. It is a characteristic of Kurdish politics, and Iraqi politics more broadly, that citizens seek to cash in on connections. Wasta is as important in Erbil as it is in Baghdad and Basra. When officials come to him with ideas, Nechirvan finds it easier to embrace them as advisors than be direct with disapproval of their vision. Nechirvan’s largesse may be tactical. The famous Chinese general and strategist Sun-Tzu, for example, taught that officials should keep their friends close and their enemies closer.

As prime minister, Nechirvan appears to have retained dozens of advisors. Many received perks—housing, office, and salary. Some enjoyed modest power within Nechirvan’s inner circle, and most sought some prestige, comically elbowing each other to be seen behind Nechirvan on television or be interviewed by party or government media in their own right. Several duplicated the function of Kurdish ministries.

The system was not good, however. The problem was not duplication or inefficiency, but rather abuse of power and corruption. Some would write letters and make declarations in Nechirvan Barzani’s name about Nechirvan may never have been aware. When advisors would demand the firing of critics who were neither Kurdish nor worked in Kurdistan or in Kurdish offices, Nechirvan would look ridiculous, as would other Kurdish representatives. It is hard for Kurdish diplomats to say that Kurdistan is a democracy, when Kurdish officials are seeking to muzzle not only Kurds, but foreigners as well.

Advisors can also erode the reputation of both Nechirvan and more broadly the Kurdistan Regional Government. In the United States, the Special Inspector General for Iraq Reconstruction (SIGIR) has recommended an increasing series of prosecutions for those accused of corruption during the U.S. presence in Iraq. While it is not possible to know in advance for whom SIGIR will recommend charges, corruption among American officials, both military and civilian, in Iraqi Kurdistan was a problem. The Kurdistan Regional Government would sometimes bribe American officers for information; some retired military officers and even diplomats would betray their positions and America’s reputation in order to curry advantage in business.  Those Americans who stayed behind in Kurdistan after retiring from military service were often those who had acted the least honorably or honestly in their pre-retirement posts.

Nechirvan Barzani and other Kurdish ministers like Karim Sinjari may have embraced some of these Americans as advisors or consultants. Should Nechirvan do this when he resumes office, he may face a quandary: It is hard to claim that the Kurdistan Regional Government is serious about rooting out corruption when it shields fugitives wanted on charges of corruption.

Ultimately, the best strategy for Nechirvan is to pre-empt such scenarios by professionalizing his office. The budget of the Prime Minister’s office should be transparent, and its size should be modest. Ministers should be the advisors and the masters of their fields, and so the role of the Prime Minister’s advisors should be that of ombudsmen, who can talk bluntly to the prime minister to increase efficiency and report problems about which the prime minister, living inevitably in a bubble, is unaware.

Barham Salih was never strong enough to reform the system, but Nechirvan is. Reform is never easy. It ruffles feathers. Nechirvan’s rivals within the Barzani clan—most prominently Masrour Barzani—will seek to capitalize on any discord reform causes. But, if Kurdistan is to advance to the next level, the prime minister must finally rein in an unwieldy government. His own office would be the most logical place to start.