The Peshmerga Regression

Opinion Articles

The West, believing that Iraq’s Kurdish forces, known as the peshmerga, are its best hope in Iraq, has been sending them millions of dollars in weapons and training. But because of the way in which those weapons have been channeled to the Kurds, the assistance is undermining the U.S.-led campaign and threatening to undo a decade of progress in turning the peshmerga into a professional force. Ultimately, it will render the Kurds a less effective partner.

The military aid is uncoordinated, unbalanced, unconditional, and unmonitored. Because of the lack of oversight on weapons’ allocation, and because the weapons come with no strings attached, officials can direct them to their own affiliated peshmerga forces, empowering loyalist officers and entangling the rest of the officer corps in petty rivalries. All this distracts the peshmerga from the real task at hand: assessing, preparing for, and countering terrorist threats. To fix the problem, the U.S.-led coalition should place any assistance under a single command, under civilian control and away from political rivalries.   



Efforts to reform these peshmerga into a professional defense force had been long underway by the time ISIS took over swathes of territory along the border with Iraqi Kurdistan in June 2014. In the 1990s, after the Kurdish region gained de facto autonomy from Baghdad, and following several years of internecine conflict, the two strongest Kurdish parties, the Patriotic Union of Kurdistan (PUK) and the Kurdistan Democratic Party (KDP), established rival military academies in their respective territorial strongholds of Qala Chwalan and Zakho.


Both parties enrolled Kurdish former Iraqi army officers, who broke away from the Iraqi army during Saddam Hussein’s rule. They helped organize peshmerga fighters into battalions and the top staff leadership into military ranks. Each force focused on defending their own territories from the Iraqi army incursions, which increased Kurdistan’s autonomy from Baghdad—and their independence from (and enmity toward) each other.  


A Kurdish peshmerga fighter guards a checkpoint close to the frontline, east of Kirkuk where Iraqi government troops are stationed in the north of the country on March 31, 2003.

After Saddam was ousted in 2003, the peshmerga began to take on the trappings of a real army. Qala Chwalan and Zakho turned into new Iraqi army military academies, providing an entire generation of Kurdish officers with a military education and even integrating some of them into the new Iraqi army. Peshmergaleadership began to include both senior party militants as well as junior officers who, even if they entered the academies through party connections, were not necessarily party members. The end result was a new generation of Kurdish officers who were loyal to the KRG as a whole rather than to either of the competing parties. Younger Kurds’ rising criticism of the parties’ grip on KRG institutions furthered the trend.  


Reforming civil-military relations was far more challenging. Officers—regardless of whether they were party members—were expected to take orders from the party leaders to whom they owed their careers. In 2009, the KDP and PUK agreed to create a joint Ministry of Peshmerga Affairs to centralize administrative tasks, establish joint KDP–PUK brigades commanded by academy graduates, and increase cooperation between their respective intelligence agencies. However, despite the new institution, party politics continued to dictate officer recruitments, promotions, force deployments, and the handling of sensitive information.


Western policymakers might shrug, believing divisions among the Kurds will at least prevent them from successfully joining together to press for an independent Iraqi Kurdistan; in reality, these divisions prevent Kurdish parties from effectively participating in the Iraqi state.ISIS’ surprise attack last June exposed these deep-rooted problems and created new ones. It catapulted a combination of senior officers and younger party figures to command positions on the front lines, marginalizing those academy graduates who did not enjoy similar party-connections. Meanwhile, with both parties’ leaders aging, the two factions are embroiled in internal succession struggles. Emerging contenders are soliciting external support, notably from Turkey and Iran, to help them secure land and resources in territories disputed with the central government and to arm their own forces that operate under the peshmerga umbrella. For instance, in the oil-rich city of Kirkuk, prominent KDP and PUK leaders have deployed their network of affiliated commanders—each pursuing a different agenda.  

The West has failed to consider both the evolution of the peshmerga and Kurdish politics in general. It has conditioned weapons deliveries to the KRG on the approval of Baghdad, a policy designed to keep the Iraqi capital sovereign and to discourage total Kurdish independence. But the policy is outdated. Today, the PUK is ascendant in Baghdad, so channeling weapons to the Iraqi government has only further alienated the KDP from the central government. In turn, KDP officials have made increasingly provocative calls for independence and solicited direct arming to cut out Baghdad, which it views as being dominated by Iran. Western policymakers might shrug, believing that such divisions will at least prevent the parties from successfully joining together to press for an independent Iraqi Kurdistan; in reality, these divisions prevent Kurdish parties from effectively participating in the Iraqi state.

Things get more complicated after Baghdad approves Western aid. After the coalition receives Baghdad’s approval, military assistance is channeled through the KRG’s Peshmerga Ministry, with no follow-up on where the weapons actually go. Not surprisingly, party figures use the weapons to build up their private vigilantes’ corps, or to empower loyal officers at the expenses of the most professional ones.

Smoke rises from the Khabbaz oilfield, behind Kurdish peshmerga forces, on the outskirts of Kirkuk, February 2, 2015.

All this undermines the West’s fight against ISIS and the KRG’s goal of preserving its region’s relative security. The more intelligence agencies remain divided, the less information reaches the frontline on time. A break in the information chain can lead to miscalculations and cause major setbacks, as happened last August, when ISIS forces overran the KDP frontline, approaching the Iraqi Kurdistan’s capital of Erbil. KDP leaders were quick to place the blame on the younger officers’ inexperience, or lack of sufficient armory, but the root cause was these leaders’ internal rivalries. Last August, failures to share intelligence (within the KDP and between KDP and PUK) about impending ISIS attacks in Sinjar and Ninewa’s eastern territories, allowed fighters to catch KDP peshmerga forces unprepared, paving the way for jihadist militants to advance towards Erbil.


That’s why the West should tie military aid to reform of the civil-military relationship. Weapons must be exclusively delivered to the joint KDP-PUK brigades that were established in 2009—and in a way that re-empowers academy-graduated officers and builds on the party leaders’ previous efforts to set aside their differences and integrate their forces. To date, Baghdad’s approval over weapons deliveries has only served to keep the capital nominally sovereign without preventing Kurdish forces from unilateral operations in the disputed territories. A “one Iraq” policy should begin with a common KDP-PUK strategy in Bagdad, coordinating the central government military operations with Kurdish forces and encouraging a sustainable political order in the country.

The coalition has focused too narrowly on the long-term risk of Kurdish independence, neglecting the extent to which intra-Kurdish divisions nurture conflicts within Iraq’s borders now. A fragmented Kurdish polity will inevitably pave the way for personality-based fiefdoms, which resort to private militias and compete with each other and with other Iraqi factions over land and resources. At a time of political flux, the KRG should invest in a generation of peshmerga officers that stays clear of party intrigues. A fragmented, competitive, and personality-driven security apparatus will undoubtedly put Iraqi Kurdistan at a far greater risk than ISIS ever did

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