Generally, situations of state fragility and conflict tend to go hand in hand with the presence of security organisations outside of the state’s formal institutions.‍[7] The absence of a monopoly on the use of force creates opportunities for alternative security organisations to exist and thrive in the same territory. While the dynamics in the development and nature of such organisations are explored elsewhere in greater detail, two insights about security organisations that exist outside of formal state institutions are particularly relevant for the discussion in this report.‍[8]

To start with, once security organisations exist that have a more ambiguous or adversarial relationship with the state and enjoy a measure of autonomy, mitigating the risk of conflict and progressing state development become more complex endeavours. This is due to the expanded range of political agendas and material interests that such security organisations manifest, as well as the attractiveness of maintaining a parallel coercive capacity as a hedge against political uncertainty, and as a vehicle for augmenting political and economic power.

In addition, it is inaccurate to treat all security organisations outside of formal state institutions as a single, broad category. Rather, a continuum of security organisations can be discerned that ranges from those that are close to the state to those with anti-state orientations. This continuum is depicted in the form of a rough typology in Table 1. Naturally, where security organisations fall along this continuum is not static and develops over time. For example, Hezbollah developed from an anti-regime security organisation during the Lebanese civil war into a hybrid security organisation with ambiguous relations with the Lebanese state that alternate between dominance (e.g. its occupation of West Beirut in 2008), competition (its efforts to subdue the militia of sheikh Al-Assir in Sidon in 2015) and cooperation (its joint offensive with the Lebanese army in Arsal against Jabhat al-Nusra in 2016). All security organisations on this continuum are the armed manifestation of a political project of one sort or another, but obviously vary in the degree of legitimacy, strength or currency of their political undertaking. The nature of a security organisation’s political project both shapes its relationship with the state and is shaped by its relations with local political actors or parties, regional actors and other non-state groups.‍[9]

What is interesting about the Peshmerga is that they simultaneously represent a number of the types listed in Table 1, with the prominence of primary, secondary and tertiary functions depending on time and circumstance. To begin with, the Peshmerga are a constitutionally mandated Iraqi security organisation, although they receive little financial or material support from the state. Moreover, the Peshmerga are also an anti-regime security organisation in relation to the Iraqi state because they are the armed manifestation of the Kurdish desire for greater independence from the government in Baghdad.‍[10] Finally, the Peshmerga are a hybrid security organisation in relation to the KRG, since they work for and compete with it as armed wings of the political parties that run the KRG, the KDP and PUK. Put plainly, a sizeable portion of the Peshmerga is loyal to their party first, to influential politburo leaders of both parties second, and to the KRG third. This results in cooperation, competition, chaos and further fragmentation within both parties along the lines of personal loyalties to individual leaders.‍[11]

Table 1
A short typology of different security organisations in fragile states

Type of security organisation




1. Formal state security organisations

Organisations that are nationally and internationally recognised as official state security forces (Syrian Arab Army, Iraqi Security Forces)

Part of the state’s coercive apparatus

Publicly execute and enforce state authority under direct command and control

2. Informal state security organisations

Paramilitaries, state-sponsored militias and regime-linked armed groups (Shabiba (Syria), Basij militia (Iran)

Extension of the state’s coercive apparatus

Support formal state security organisations and/or advance state interests with plausible deniability under indirect command and control

3. Hybrid security organisations

Popular militias and armed wings of political parties (Hashd al-Sha’abi (Iraq), Hezbollah (Lebanon)

Both autonomous of, and linked with, the state and its (in)formal security forces

Cooperate and/or compete with the state depending on overlap of interests between these organisations, their broader political platforms (if any) and the state

4. Anti-regime security organisations

Rebel groups and freedom fighters (PKK (Turkey), Brigades of the Martyrs Al-Nasser Mohiuddin (ASMLA, Iran)

Armed actors operating in opposition to the regime, but recognising the state (in full or part)

Overthrow of the regime and/or establishment of their own autonomous territory

5. Anti-state security organisations

More extremist groups that do not recognise the state as an entity (Islamic State, Al Qaeda)

Transnational groups with an ideology that transcends state boundaries

Dissolve one or several states to replace them with a more universal project and ideological identity

Definition of security organisations:

Actors with the capacity to exert violence on a large scale against outsiders, and to control violence within their respective strongholds or constituencies.[12]

Source: Van Veen and Fliervoet 2018. Hybrid security actors in the Levant: The politics and force of competition and cooperation, The Hague: Clingendael (forthcoming).

Box 1 below illustrates these ‘three types of the Peshmerga’ through the use of micro-case descriptions at different points in time within a single year. It hints at the many pull-and-push factors that influence which type of organisation prevails and when. To make sense of the Peshmerga in relation to both the KRG and the Iraqi state, these factors need to be inventoried and analysed in the context of decades of Kurdish sociopolitical life in Iraq.

Box 1
The Peshmerga as different types of security organisation

Monday 17 October 2016: The Peshmerga as a formal state security organisation

After months of preparation, the Iraqi army and Kurdish Peshmerga forces launch a joint offensive to liberate the city of Mosul from IS. The operation marks a historic development in Iraqi military relations. While formally part of the same security structure, the Peshmerga and the Iraqi armed forces have never before coordinated their actions, or fought a common enemy. It is also the first time since the KRI came under the exclusive control of the Peshmerga in 1992 that Iraqi federal forces are allowed to enter its territory. Both Iraqi Prime Minister Haider al-Abadi and President of the Kurdistan Region Masoud Barzani hail the unique alliance between their armed forces and stress the significance of their rapprochement.


Source: Rudaw 2016. ‘President Barzani hails historic coordination between Kurdish and Iraqi forces,’ 17 October. link; Rudaw 2016. ‘PM Abadi hails Kurdish, Iraqi forces ‘working for one single Iraq’,’20 October. link; Business Insider 2014. ‘Iraqi Kurds Prepared For ISIS Offensive For A Year And Expanded Their Territory By 40% In Hours,’ 13 June. link; Abdulrazaq 2017. ‘Iraq's reconquest of Kirkuk checks Kurdish secession,’ Aljazeera, 17 October. link (All accessed 25 November 2017); BBC 2017. ‘Court in Iraq orders arrest of Kurdistan VP Kosrat Rasul, 19 October. link (Accessed 24 January 2018); Van Wilgenburg and Fumerton 2015. Op. cit.

Iraq is no exception. What are today the Hashd al-Sha’abi and Peshmerga long existed next to the Iraqi Security Forces as manifestations of unresolved, political issues of ethno-sectarian marginalisation and repression.
Van Veen and Fliervoet 2018. Hybrid security actors in the Levant: The politics and force of competition and cooperation, The Hague: Clingendael (forthcoming).
Gaston, Derzsi-Horvath, van den Toorn and Mathieu-Comtois 2017. Backgrounder: Literature Review of Local, Regional or Sub-State Defense Forces in Iraq, Berlin: Global Public Policy Institute.
The fact that the Peshmerga are also an anti-regime security organisation helps explain why the Iraqi state is hesitant in providing them with financial or material support. This topic is further explored in Section 3.
In addition, influential members of each party control security forces of their own. See: Hama 2017. ‘KRG Politicized Forces Pose Threat to Human Security.’ link (Accessed 22 January 2018); Van Wilgenburg and Fumerton 2015. Kurdistan’s Political Armies: The Challenge of Unifying the Peshmerga Forces. Beirut: Carnegie Middle East Center.