Foreign Policy Blogs

Politically-backed Fighting Forces: The Key to Kurdistan’s Future?

Soldiers of the Kurdish military (peshmerga) stand guard on the outskirts of Kirkuk in June 2014. The current status of peshmerga forces controlled by different political parties is a major obstacle to a stable Kurdistan. Photo credit: REUTERS/Ako Rasheed

Kurdish peshmerga stand guard on the outskirts of Kirkuk in June 2014. Photo credit: REUTERS/Ako Rasheed

Iraqi Kurdistan is protected by its fierce and respected military forces, the peshmerga. Yet, each of the two main political parties in the Kurdistan Regional Government—the Kurdistan Democratic Party (KDP) and Patriotic Union of Kurdistan (PUK)—controls its own peshmerga regiments.

The peshmerga only answers to the party they are tied to, with both the KDP and PUK using its control of the peshmerga to gain influence over other political agencies.

As examined by Mario Fumerton and Wladimir Van Wilgenburg for the Carnegie Endowment for Peace in December 2015, plans have existed for decades to merge and unify all peshmerga forces under one Kurdistan government agency that could effectively command all soldiers.

Calls for this were made in 1991 after the region separated from Saddam Hussein’s Iraq, and were renewed in 2014 as ISIS advanced towards Kurdistan’s capital Erbil. However, it hasn’t happened yet and significant roadblocks remain.

Fumerton and Van Wilgenburg delved into the complicated history of, and challenges to, successfully consolidating the peshmerga. Especially given ISIS advances in Iraq, a strong and united peshmerga is critically important to the stability of Kurdistan and the region at large.

What is more, without a unified peshmerga unplagued by political partisanship, “Iraqi Kurdistan cannot become a consolidated democracy, preventing it from eventually winning international recognition as an independent state.”

The authors also recommended that the U.S.-led military coalition in Iraq dissolve its current party-based peshmerga training academies and in their place initiate a single training facility for all peshmerga.

Dealing with peshmerga armies separately is just one indication of how Kurdistan “politics are dominated by militarized parties.” Kurdistan is unlikely to gain much support for recognition as an independent state if this political environment persists.

Given the ongoing reliance on peshmerga in the fight against ISIS, strengthening the peshmerga organizational structure and unifying their oversight would provide a much more stable basis of operations. Coalition forces would be wise to make this a priority.



Scott Bleiweis

Scott Bleiweis writes on international relations topics for FPA. He has a M.A. in democracy studies and conflict resolution from the University of Denver, and a B.A. in Politics/International Studies from Brandeis University. Scott was formerly a Fulbright education scholar in Bulgaria (views in this blog are his own, and do not represent those of the Fulbright organization or U.S. government).

Scott supports Winston Churchill's characterization of the complex form of government known as democracy: “Many forms of Government have been tried and will be tried in this world of sin and woe. No one pretends that democracy is perfect or all-wise. Indeed, it has been said that democracy is the worst form of government except all those other forms that have been tried from time to time.”