In the war against IS, the Peshmerga forces fought on the same side as the Iraqi army for the first time in history. Indeed, the Peshmerga originated from Kurdish opposition to the Iraqi state, and fought many battles against it.‍[58] But when they faced a common threat, the Peshmerga ‘had to go from fighting the Iraqi government to fighting for it.’‍[59] However, they did not feel an obligation to protect Iraqi territories other than their own. Hence, they acted as a formal state security organisation only in defence of those objectives that suited them.‍[60]

Despite their shared military successes in the war against IS, the Peshmerga harbour a lot of resentment against the Iraqi government. Throughout the war, the Peshmerga forces felt completely unsupported and believed that Iraq failed to uphold its promises towards them because they did not receive any equipment or financial support.‍[61] Adding to their frustration was their perception that the Hashd al-Sha’abi – a range of largely Shi’a militia groups that rapidly grew to prominence in their defence of Iraq against IS – were immediately armed, equipped, and paid by the Iraqi government.‍[62]

Moreover, while the newly established collaboration between the Peshmerga and the Iraqi Security Forces required a drastic change in mindset, the reality on the ground remained unaltered. The Iraqi government had no control over the Peshmerga forces. Coordination of operations took place in the context of the global coalition against Islamic State, but the Peshmerga and the Iraqi army operated completely independently of one another. It was the US that divided labour between them, while both forces maintained their own chains of command.‍[63] Hence, despite the fight against IS presenting a historical novelty, it also featured a high degree of continuity. While their role as formal state security organisation enabled the Peshmerga to solicit international assistance and resources, they also retained their functions as anti-regime and hybrid security organisations.

Table 2 below depicts the priority of the three different roles that the Peshmerga play and demonstrates which factors dominated their orientation and performance between 1960 and today.

Table 2
Evolution of the different security organisation functions the Peshmerga represent at different points in time






Looking ahead

Primary function

Anti-regime security organisation

Anti-regime security organisation

Hybrid security organisation

Hybrid security organisation

Anti-regime security organisation

Hybrid security organisation

Secondary function

Anti-regime security organisation

Formal state security organisation

Formal state security organisation

Formal state security organisation

Tertiary function

Anti-regime security organisation

Hybrid security organisation

Anti-regime security organisation


Turning point at start of period

Arab nationalist discourse

Creation of the PUK

Kurdish uprising

Unification agreement

Rise of IS

Independence referendum

Factors influencing the shift

Political marginali-sation

Identity suppression

Intense regime violence

Splits in Kurdish nationalism

Internal Kurdish violence

Elite solidification and elite capture in Erbil and Sulaymaniyah

US overthrow of Hussein

Need for one voice in Baghdad

Opportunity to enlarge Iraqi Kurdistan

Threat of Islamic State

Cooperation with Baghdad

Internal Kurdish infighting

Tough response from Baghdad

This brief overview and the preceding analysis allow for a few initial observations with regard to the relevance and impact of the Peshmerga on both governance in Kurdistan and relations with the Iraqi state. Key among these is the observation that political disunity among the Kurds appears to be their greatest obstacle. This means that there is an urgent need to face the shortcomings of present governance systems and habits, the dynamics of political dialogue, and the nature of authority structures within the Kurdish region.‍[64] At present, the Peshmerga help to maintain rather than confront Kurdish political disunity and entrench KDP/PUK control of the KRG. Because the parties retain an oligopoly over the use of armed force in the KRI, a return to violence – or the use of violence to underline political demands – remains an option.‍[65] More importantly, it acts as a barrier to challenger parties like Gorran – which could capitalise on popular discontent with poor KDP and PUK governance, and quite possibly corruption – and prevents them from gaining more political influence.‍[66]

A second observation is that the KRG and PUK have cleverly pooled their armed Peshmerga resources just enough to attract foreign support and investment via the Ministry of Peshmerga Affairs while also retaining their own party-affiliated Peshmerga forces. This has enabled them to gain access to new resources while not surrendering any of their existing power base. Buoyed by the international focus on the fight against IS, they have better equipped themselves for a potentially violent future without having to make concessions in areas like democratisation or the quality of governance. Unconditional support by the global coalition thus unintentionally strengthened the oppressive policies and attitudes of the KDP and PUK, enabling the traditional Kurdish political elites to maintain power and suppress opposition groups. The crackdown on popular demonstrations in the KRI in December 2017 – resulting in at least six dead and 70 injured – was a case in point.‍[67]

A third and final observation is that the episode of Peshmerga withdrawal after the Kurdish independence referendum – from Kirkuk in particular – suggests that intra-Kurdish mistrust and division at both the political and military level remain rife. In fact, this episode is bound to have further deepened such feelings and appears not only to define relations between the two key parties, but also those within them.‍[68] Looking to the future, this suggests that Prime Minister Al-Abadi’s strategy to bring the KRI back into the Iraqi fold might succeed if he manages to pull the right strings, for example by insisting on direct payment of Peshmerga salaries on condition that the forces are downsized and brought under Baghdad’s control.‍[69] The lack of a united political and military front in the KRI offers an opportunity for re-unifying Iraq, but only if financial incentives are combined with a more positive narrative of socio-political inclusion of Kurdish society in the Iraqi polity. A consistent reconciliation policy needs to be initiated from the centre that avoids the stalling-for-time and start-stop pitfalls that plagued similar initiatives in the past under Iraqi Prime Minister Abd al-Karim Qasim and President Ahmad Hassan al-Bakr.‍[70]

For an excellent analysis of the history of the Peshmerga, see Chapman 2009. Op. cit.
Interview with a Kurdish civil society activist, 10 September 2017, Erbil, Iraq.
Interviews with senior officials from the Ministry of Peshmerga Affairs, 10 and 13 September 2017, Erbil/Sulaymaniyah, Iraq.
Interview with a senior official from the Ministry of Peshmerga Affairs, 17 September 2017, Erbil, Iraq.
Interview with a Kurdish researcher, 11 September 2017, Erbil, Iraq.
See also: Hassan 2015. Op.cit.
Farhan 2018. 'Reality Versus The Rules: Kurdish Parties Bend Iraq's Electoral Rules On Politics With Guns.' Niqash. link (Accessed 21 February 2018).
An example of the use of armed force to obstruct opposition political activity was when security forces loyal to the KDP prevented Yusuf Muhammad (the former speaker of Parliament from Gorran) from entering Erbil in October 2015 because of the party’s resistance to the extension of Barzani’s presidential term. See: Hama 2017. Op. cit.
CNN 2017. ‘At least 6 killed during violent protests in Iraqi Kurdistan,’ 19 December. link (Accessed 24 January 2018).
Workshops at Clingendael on 21 November 2017 and at the EastWest Institute on 8 December 2017 suggested that particularly the PUK is internally divided - to the point of paralysis. See also: Sayigh 2017. Past the Crossroads. Beirut: Carnegie Middle East Center. link (Accessed 3 November 2017).
Iraqi Prime Minister Al-Abadi no longer wants to accept the Peshmerga as an autonomous element of Iraq’s national defence system. Instead, he wants all forces to be controlled by the Iraqi government, and said that he was prepared to pay only those Peshmerga under the control of the federal state. Cockburn 2017. ‘Iraq to end decades-old policy of semi-independent rule in Kurdistan, says PM,’ The Independent, 30 October, link (Accessed 30 October 2017).
For a more in-depth analysis: Denali 2005. Op. cit.