The Peshmerga Regression
The Peshmerga Regression

The Peshmerga Regression

How U.S. Aid Is Undermining Years of Progress Professionalizing the Force

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.   

The Wild 90s

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.

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. 

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