The defeat of IS has allowed longstanding contradictions to re-emerge in Iraq’s security landscape, while new ones have been added. Combined with the Kurdish independence referendum of 2017, these two events have significantly raised the stakes of the Peshmerga’s triple hatting as a formal state security organisation, hybrid security organisation and anti-regime security organisation.
Theoretically, the Peshmerga could never be both a formal state security organisation and an anti-regime organisation at the same time. Yet regional autonomy and US-support between 2006 and 2014 and the fight against IS from 2014 to 2017 made that paradox a reality. That reality is now under serious pressure, interestingly as a result of Kurdish actions themselves and in particular those of Masoud Barzani. It appears that the Peshmerga have reached a fork in the road: they must choose between being a formal state security organisation and an anti-regime security organisation. For them to perform successfully in either role, they must shed their function of also being a hybrid security organisation that serves distinct political parties and powerful members of the Kurdish political elite. Such transitions will happen very gradually as the current situation is the result of decades of politics, events and sentiments.
Practically, the KRG – and the Peshmerga – will face an acute financial dilemma in the short term. The loss of Kirkuk’s oilfields to Baghdad in October 2017 slashed the KRG’s revenues in half, exacerbating an already mounting economic crisis. In response, the KRG drastically cut the salaries of public employees, including security personnel. As many civil servants were already struggling to make ends meet, this is likely to cause further social unrest. This means that the KRG must either bow to demands from Baghdad to bring the Peshmerga under central government ‘control’ as a quid pro quo for financial support, or that the KRG must itself initiate substantial downsizing.
In the former scenario, central government control will inevitably remain notional for a while, as distrust between the Shi’a political parties that dominate it and the Kurds runs high and old Peshmerga loyalties will die slowly. However, if accompanied by a positive political initiative of reconciliation and inclusion that capitalises on the poor governance track record of the KRG, some progress on the matter of identity and loyalty might nevertheless be made. An important question here is whether Al-Abadi can gather enough support among Iraq’s Shi’a political parties and the Hashd al-Sha’abi to offer positive inducements in addition to negative threats.
In the latter scenario, the economic prospects of many Kurds will decline further, and this will inevitably raise questions about the quality of KRG leadership and governance. It might boost the rise of other political parties and accelerate the transition towards a coercive apparatus that is under more democratic and transparent control, and less based on revolutionary credentials and legacies of larger-than-life leaders.
For either of these scenarios to unfold with as little friction and violence as possible, it is important that those countries of the international community currently supporting either the Peshmerga or the Iraqi Security Forces take three recommendations to heart: