Why Iraqi Kurdistan won’t have unified army any time soon / Mehmet Alaca
Under international pressure, the Kurdistan region of Iraq has over the past few years made some progress in reforming and institutionalizing its armed forces. But despite the efforts, unification appears a distant prospect as the Peshmerga remains under political influence. Known as the Peshmerga—meaning “those who face death”—the two main Iraqi Kurdish parties, the Kurdistan Democratic Party (KDP) and the Patriotic Union of Kurdistan (PUK), command different sections of the regional army. The lack of integration of the disparate forces has long been a matter of intense debate and controversy, with Minister of the Peshmerga Shoresh Esmail, from the PUK, even threatening to resign over the ruling parties’ interference within the ministry.

The history of the Peshmerga is complex. It has a multifaceted identity, and at different points through history has seen its members being referred to as rebels, militiamen, and now soldiers. Following a revolt against the Ba’ath Party and Saddam Hussein’s regime in 1991, the KDP and PUK established a semi-autonomous region in northern Iraq and mobilized troops under the umbrella of the Peshmerga. After the fall of Saddam in the aftermath of the 2003 US-led invasion, the 2005 Iraqi Constitution gave the Kurdistan region the right to organize its own security force, of which the Peshmerga became an integral part.

To reiterate, the Peshmerga is not a unified entity. The Kurdistan regional parliament passed a law in 1992 which banned the mobilization of an army by any political party. But the KDP’s Unit 80 and the PUK’s Unit 70 continue to exist separate from a regional force. These units, often accused of abuse, are part of the struggle for political influence. In the 1994-98 civil war between the main parties in Iraqi Kurdistan, Peshmerga forces were used by the KDP and the PUK against one another.

The total number of soldiers in the Peshmerga is today estimated at around 150,000. All receive their salaries from the Kurdistan Regional Government (KRG), but only 18 units—consisting of approximately 42,000 troops—operate under the Ministry of the Peshmerga. Yet officers in the units under the Ministry ultimately answer to respective party leaders. The number of Peshmerga affiliated with the KDP and the PUK remain above 100,000, with each party thought to have around 60,000 soldiers.


Western-backed unification process

Western states support the unification of the Peshmerga as part of broader security sector reform. The victory of the Islamic State group (IS) in areas of KRG control in 2014 revealed the Peshmerga's weakness, caused by a muddled identity, politicization, and unstable funding. These issues were heightened in the aftermath of the Kurdish independence referendum in 2017, when political disagreements between the KDP and the PUK contributed to Peshmerga loyal to the latter withdrawing from territories that both Kurds and Baghdad claim as their own. The withdrawal brought to light the risks of the Peshmerga being affiliated with a specific party instead of the whole region, while reversing previous Kurdish gains.

Following the territorial defeat of ISIS in 2017, Britain, Germany and the US helped the KRG to design and unveil a reform program to unify and reorganize its forces within a five-to-ten-year period. The three western countries have provided training, equipment, and crucially financial backing for these efforts. The initiative established the Regional Guard Brigades (RGB), which aims to bring together the KDP and the PUK’s units under the Peshmerga Ministry. The process was due to be completed in 2022 but the current goal is to merge forces by 2025.

Purging the Peshmerga of its party-militia characteristics is vital for the institutionalization of the KRG, which has been run as a duopoly since the 1990s.  The reform initiative could help somewhat change the balance of power in the Kurdistan region, but both ruling parties are adamant about securing the status quo and protect their privileges. Thus, the trajectory of reform needs to be kept independent of the KDP-PUK rivalry.


Barriers to unification

The biggest obstacles to reform are distrust between the two ruling Kurdish parties and the domination of the military and political elites within the Peshmerga forces. In other words, reform is stymied by power dynamics between the two parties.

The PUK is worried that the KDP—the dominant power in the Kurdistan region—will use unification to take full control over the Peshmerga, leaving the PUK with reduced influence. Of note, the KDP currently controls strategic posts in the KRG such as the presidency, premiership, interior ministry, and the chairmanship of the Kurdistan Region Security Council.

Against this backdrop, the PUK believes that integrating its Peshmerga forces into the Ministry would leave it vulnerable to the decision-making mechanisms dominated by its main rival. This has led to a lack of cooperation. As Peshmerga Secretary-General Lieutenant Colonel Bakhtiar Mohammed has noted, the KDP and the PUK “lack a clear mutual vision for the future of the Peshmerga forces.”

Military elites and those who control the respective Peshmerga units also hamper unification efforts. Despite their mission to defend the Kurdistan region, the units are routinely employed to maintain party control over land and economic resources—exploiting the financial and political power of the Peshmerga. The reforms and unification process threaten to undermine this established influence of the parties, and thus has been resisted by elites from both sides.

The security sector reform is not restricted to integration and unification of the Peshmerga forces, but also aims to increase transparency and accountability in the Kurdistan region. Thus, the endeavor is crucial for the image of the KRG in the west. This is reflected in how Iraqi Kurdish officials are seen as accelerating the reform process as a function of western pressure, aware that western-backed military support could be cut if it fails to press ahead with the changes. For instance, the US reportedly provides 20M USD per month to the Peshmerga Ministry for the salaries of Peshmerga units, but this support is conditional on continuing unification. Acknowledging these dynamics, KRG President Nechirvan Barzani on Sept. 21 made a commitment that, “We will not give up [on Peshmerga unification] and we will continue to work on it politically.”

Yet it remains unclear just how sincere Kurdish politicians are in embracing security sector reform. The structures of the KDP and PUK affiliated-Peshmerga forces differ from the Peshmerga units under the control of the Ministry. The latter performs as a singular army—even as its officers ultimately answer to party leaders—while the former are outright accountable and loyal to their own parties and thus act in their interest. Therefore, the success of the reform process depends on the political will of the ruling parties rather than international support.

Expecting the ruling Kurdish parties to give up their established power is perhaps overly optimistic. The KDP and the PUK protect their positions in the political order by mobilizing their own security forces against any opposition. Even if Peshmerga unification takes place, party affiliations will likely remain at the fore when it comes to certain positions in the Ministry. Moreover, the two ruling parties will still have separate intelligence and counter-terrorism forces, which the Peshmerga unification project does not cover.

Importantly, the absence of party-affiliated Peshmerga may help democratize the region. The two ruling Kurdish parties should turn the security sector reform into an opportunity to strengthen their relations with international actors and maximize the image of the Kurdistan region as a haven of stability. The KDP and the PUK could show sincerity by not only uniting the Peshmerga, but also preventing political influence over the Kurdistan region’s intelligence and counter-terrorism apparatus. But this remains unlikely, and reform continues to look largely as a western-backed process in which the KDP and the PUK superficially take part in to secure financial and military support.


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