Politics in the Iraqi region of Kurdistan has generally been shaped by the Kurds’ desire for greater political autonomy. Since the 1960s, Kurdish nationalism has played its part in several intra-Kurdish conflicts and various rebellions against the Iraqi state in which Peshmerga forces clashed with the Iraqi army. The fact that the Peshmerga originated from the Iraqi Kurds’ nationalism in opposition to the regime in Baghdad means that, at their core, they are an anti-regime security organisation (see Table 1).
However, political disagreement about the nature and orientation of Kurdish nationalism soon added another layer to the Peshmerga as a security organisation. After the defeat of the Iraqi Kurds in their 1974–1975 revolt, dissenting factions within the KDP, the main Kurdish political party at the time, formed a new Kurdish political party, the PUK. This development divided Kurdish society and Kurdish nationalism, and gradually institutionalised two main currents. In turn, this political development set the scene for the Peshmerga – a collection of guerrilla forces at the time – to become divided along party lines (as militia to the KDP and PUK) in addition to remaining an anti-regime organisation (as ‘freedom fighters’).
A second pivotal moment in the development of the Peshmerga was the 1991 Kurdish uprising. Following the defeat of Iraq in the Gulf war, both the Kurds in northern Iraq and Shi’ite groups in the south rose up against the regime of Saddam Hussein. A brutal crackdown resulted in the death of between 30,000 and 60,000 Shias in the south, and some 20,000 Kurds in the north. Shocked by the unfolding humanitarian crisis, the United Nations Security Council passed Resolution 688 condemning Iraq’s repression of its civilian population. This resolution was subsequently used as a pretext for the creation of a ‘safe haven’ in northern Iraq, protected by US, British, French and Dutch forces.
The protection resulting from this measure, as well as Iraq’s military and political withdrawal from the region, created a power vacuum that enabled the formation of a de facto Kurdish state in northern Iraq. It was also an essential precondition for the development of the Peshmerga into a professional armed force. At an operational level, the Peshmerga could now organise, train and operate freely without fear of attack from Hussein’s forces. At a political level, it allowed for the creation of regional security institutions. The initiation of the state-building process in Iraqi Kurdistan thus went hand in hand with the first moves towards the formalisation and professionalisation of the Peshmerga, which allowed them to become a formal state security organisation at a later stage. Importantly, this happened completely independently of the Iraqi government.
In parallel to the efforts to institutionalise the Peshmerga, however, both the KDP and PUK retained a high degree of control over their own Peshmerga forces, which they used not only to fight the Iraqi government but also each other. Attempts at unifying the different Peshmerga branches have swayed according to the political tide, largely in relation to the quality of relations between the KDP and PUK.
After gaining de facto autonomy in 1991, the Kurdistan region held its first general elections in May 1992, in which the KDP and PUK gained a roughly equal share of the vote. The parties agreed on a 50-50 power-sharing agreement and created a unified government under the leadership of President Masoud Barzani. Subsequently they passed Law No. 5 on the Peshmerga, transforming them – on paper – from party militias into a regular armed force under KRG authority. They also passed a law prohibiting political parties from maintaining private militias or armed groups. Finally, they created their own proto-defence ministry: The Ministry of Peshmerga Affairs.
However, because the Ministry of Peshmerga Affairs had little real clout during the first years of its existence, the Peshmerga operated as a hybrid security organisation vis-à-vis the KRG, alternating between competition and collaboration. The loyalty of the Peshmerga continued to lie with the KDP and PUK, and the forces therefore answered to their party leaders rather than the Minister. This lack of unity was painfully exposed when clashes broke out between different party-aligned Peshmerga forces in 1993, deteriorating into a low-intensity civil war that lasted until 1998. The war, referred to in Kurdish as the ‘brotherhood fight,’ created a division in Kurdish society that has yet to be overcome. As Van Wilgenburg and Fumerton explain, ‘The KDP’s temporary alliance with Saddam Hussein to expel the PUK from Erbil in 1996 is still remembered as a grave betrayal; conversely, many KDP members recall being driven out of other territories by the PUK. In part for these reasons, each side keeps a portion of its own forces under direct party control as a final guarantee to maintain the balance of power.’ 
A US-brokered peace agreement signed by the PUK and KDP in September 1998 brought an end to intra-Kurdish fighting, but failed to reconcile the political parties. The KDP and PUK each set up their own government and administration in Erbil and Sulaymaniyah, respectively, and guarded their areas of control with separate security forces. Importantly, this separation applied not only to the Peshmerga, but also to Iraqi Kurdistan’s internal security apparatus. The PUK and KDP each established their own security, intelligence, gendarmerie and counter-terrorism units in addition to their Peshmerga forces.
This dual political and security structure persisted until the KDP and PUK signed a Unification Agreement in 2006, at which time they renewed their commitment to the integration and depoliticisation of their Peshmerga forces. The key factor that ensured the persistence of the Peshmerga as a hybrid security organisation (i.e. party militia) rather than its transformation into a unified anti-regime organisation that could be mobilised against Baghdad was the distrust between the different Kurdish political parties.
One of the main drivers behind the 2006 Unification Agreement was the radically changed political landscape in Baghdad. After the fall of Saddam Hussein’s Ba’ath regime in 2003, the Kurds needed to have a ‘united voice’ in the new Iraq. The 2005 Iraqi constitution recognised Kurdistan as a federal region along with its existing authorities, creating a legal basis for the Peshmerga as a formal security organisation of the state of Iraq. This was further stipulated in Article 117 of the Iraqi constitution, which states that federal regions are responsible for ‘the establishment and organization of the internal security forces for the region such as police, security forces and guards of the region.’  Since the adoption of this constitution, the KRG has therefore carried sole responsibility for the protection of the Kurdistan region, in which the Peshmerga forces are a key instrument. Arguably, therefore, it was the risk of losing Kurdish political influence in a new Iraq with an emergent democracy that enabled the Peshmerga to adopt a new role of formal state security organisation – without, incidentally, discarding their two other roles.
The Iraqi constitution thus ‘formalised’ the Peshmerga, allowing them to be nationally and internationally recognised as an official state security force. They are not typical of a formal state security organisation, however, since the Peshmerga forces do not execute the state’s authority. The Peshmerga’s command structure operates at the regional level and has remained completely separate from the national security institutions. As a result, the Iraqi Ministry of Defence exercises no control over the Peshmerga’s operations.
After the 2006 Unification Agreement, significant progress was made in unifying Peshmerga forces under a single command. A crucial step was the organisational reunification of the parties’ separate Peshmerga ministries into the single KRG Ministry of Peshmerga Affairs in 2009. In the following years, 14 integrated Peshmerga brigades were created under the Ministry’s command, together comprising around 40,000 fighters. Recruitment for the integrated brigades was not conditional on party membership, which marked an important initial step towards depoliticisation of the forces. It appears, however, that the loss of the disputed areas in October 2017 is causing a reversal of this process, with integrated brigades being repartitioned along party-political lines of command.
Despite the positive steps made to decrease the influence of party politics, they continue to play a decisive role in the Peshmerga’s organisation. The command structure of the Ministry of Peshmerga Affairs’ integrated brigades remains structured according to party affiliation as each brigade is equipped with a commander from one party and a deputy from the other. In addition, the majority of Peshmerga forces has not yet been institutionalised. There are around 100,000 Peshmerga fighters outside the Ministry’s 14 brigades, divided roughly equally between the PUK (the 70s Force) and the KDP (the 80s Force). Both parties’ Peshmerga forces maintain their own organisational and financial structures, and are geographically confined to their party’s traditional sphere of influence. Moreover, the KDP and PUK have retained their own security, intelligence and counter-terrorism forces, whose politicisation is even further entrenched. They are not just divided along party lines, but also by personal loyalties to powerful individuals from the ruling Barzani and Talabani families. The Peshmerga thus retain a clear profile as a hybrid security organisation in relation to the KRG, despite their official status as a formal state security organisation. Their role as an anti-regime security organisation faded into the background in the post-Saddam period, but did not disappear.
The process of Peshmerga reform came to a sudden halt when IS swiftly and unexpectedly invaded Kurdish-controlled areas in northern Iraq in August 2014. While the Kurdish leadership blamed the Peshmerga’s inability to repulse IS on poor equipment, the KRG itself was partly responsible. Despite IS’s rapid advancements in Iraq’s Sunni Arab-populated areas earlier that year, the KRG leadership had not prepared for serious conflict.
One of the main reasons for this lack of preparation was that the Kurdish parties had different perceptions of IS. While the PUK advocated that it was a terrorist group that had to be fought – arguably under pressure from Iran and the Iraqi government – the KDP did not think that IS was their problem. It saw the group as an anti-Baghdad force and was ready to accept IS as its new neighbour, confident that it would not attack Kurdish territory. The KDP leadership saw the chaos created by IS as an opportunity to increase its influence and control in the disputed areas, and realise Kurdistan’s national ambitions, rather than as a threat. An important factor underlying this difference in perception was the fact that the KDP and PUK each had its own intelligence services, which relied on different sources of information. The parties shared intelligence only selectively, creating gaps along the frontline that allowed IS to invade. Indeed, some view the inability or unwillingness to share evidence indicating that IS was about to attack as a primary factor behind the Peshmerga’s defeat in Sinjar in August 2014.
In addition to the lack of preparation, divisions within the Peshmerga forces also obstructed their response. Because the party forces had not yet been integrated, they fell back on their traditional command structures and responded along party lines. Kurdistan’s military operations were territorially divided into eight sectors, four of which were commanded by the KDP and four by the PUK. Many of the commanders were older-generation Peshmerga, creating a schism in the armed forces that was not just political but personal. Most older officers were directly involved in the 1994–1998 Kurdish civil war, and still bear a grudge against their former opponents. As one interviewee put it, ‘The civil war of 1998 is still too fresh in the memories of many of the commanders. They are too much aware of who killed whom. This is also why the old commanders can only command people from their own party, not everybody.’
As a result, the KDP and PUK effectively fought separate wars against IS in their respective territories, hampering coordination, communication and the sharing and use of intelligence. However, it was arguably the best the Peshmerga could do at the time given their existing constraints. As one interviewee asked, ‘When the enemy is on your doorstep, would you wait for the perfect organisation to exist? The Peshmerga had to respond immediately, so they organised around the structures that were there.’ Although not ideal, this was sufficient to achieve the primary goal of their mobilisation: the liberation of Kurdistan’s territories from IS.
Despite the many challenges faced in the early phases of the conflict, Kurdish military officials considered the war against IS a blessing in disguise for the Peshmerga. It was a wake-up call that painfully exposed their lack of professionalism: they were unprepared, disorganised, untrained, and under-armed. There were several reasons for these gaps: the Iraqi government did not meet its commitment to allocate 17 per cent of the federal budget to the KRG, obstructing payment of the Peshmerga forces; the KDP and PUK were reluctant to relinquish control over their party-aligned forces, thus inhibiting the centralisation of command and control; and the KRG failed to invest in professionalising its armed forces, because it made the mistake of thinking that the Kurds had fought their last war in 1998.
The war with IS rapidly forced the Peshmerga to overcome these hurdles, at least in part. It also generated momentum for the Peshmerga to get organised more as a formal state security organisation. The Peshmerga only had experience in guerrilla warfare, and now learned how to fight a war with more traditional frontlines in defence of territory. In the course of a few short years, the Peshmerga transformed from a defensive into an offensive force that pushed back IS – aided by air support, equipment, military training and operational advice from the global coalition against the Islamic State.
Perhaps most importantly, the IS war also instilled the KRG’s political and military leadership with a renewed commitment to reform the Peshmerga forces, and expand the limited progress they had made. Together with an advisory group from the US, UK and Germany, in 2017 it agreed on a 35-point reform plan. One of the main priorities of the plan is to unify the PUK and KDP’s 70s and 80s Forces under the Ministry of Peshmerga Affairs. Among other changes, it further seeks to reduce the size of the overall fighting force, streamline its bureaucracy, and tackle problems of corruption. One of the more pertinent issues appears to be the issue of ‘ghost soldiers’, i.e. Peshmerga fighters who are either deceased, do not exist or fail to show up for duty. Some sources estimate that ‘ghost soldiers’ make up well over half of the Ministry of Peshmerga Affairs’ payroll.
What is of interest from the perspective of this report is whether the proposed reforms will reduce the Peshmerga’s role as a hybrid security organisation in favour of its role as a formal state security organisation, or rather its role as an anti-regime security organisation. The answer to this question could potentially have far-reaching consequences for the future of the Iraqi state.
While Kurdish officials are well aware that the planned changes are vital to the Peshmerga’s ability to confront future challenges, the obstacles to their implementation are many. At the party level, it is questionable whether the KDP and PUK have the political will to relinquish authority over their armed forces. The parties harbour deep mistrust of each other and have come to see their guns as a means of survival. This is particularly true for the PUK, whose armed forces allow it to punch above its political weight. As one opposition member explained, ‘The PUK is afraid that Peshmerga institutionalisation will effectively bring all the Peshmerga under the control of the KDP. That would be an existential risk to the PUK: the party currently operates from a position of weakness and needs its armed force to hold onto power. Without its Peshmerga, they cannot maintain the status quo.’
Considerable resistance is also to be expected at the command level. The eight sector commanders were politically appointed, and most are also members of their party’s leadership. Few have enjoyed formal military training; they are either older officers or younger party figures who lack military experience. A professionalised Peshmerga bureaucracy will be based on merit rather than patronage, and is therefore likely to exclude those commanders who owe their positions to their connections. Afraid to lose their status and means of subsistence, they are likely to use their political network to obstruct the reform process.
The KRG is also likely to face opposition from the Peshmerga’s rank-and-file, whose size will have to be reduced significantly. Emblematic of the embeddedness of clientelist politics, the political parties have long used Peshmerga employment as a vehicle to obtain political support. This policy has resulted in a bloated and inefficient armed force that is financially unsustainable. With few other job opportunities available, the reorganisation of the Peshmerga forces may well lead to popular unrest among the young and unemployed.