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.‍[71] As many civil servants were already struggling to make ends meet, this is likely to cause further social unrest.‍[72] 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:

Develop an integrated security sector reform (SSR) strategy that considers support for the Iraqi Security Forces and the Peshmerga in relation to each other. Today, all eyes are on the Hashd al-Sha’abi, especially as some of these outfits are seen as Iranian proxies in the highly salient frame of regional geopolitical conflict. It tends to be overlooked that the Peshmerga are of similar size and could create a larger problem if a new civil war were to break out. An integrated strategy should take account of the consequences of strengthening different forces in relation to each other, and take on the need for joint command structures and operational mechanisms. This would avoid encouraging one armed force to think it might prevail over the other in a situation of active conflict.
Ensure that such an integrated SSR strategy is embedded in a broader political strategy for re-including Iraq’s Kurds in the Iraqi polity on favourable, inclusive and reconciliatory terms without, however, accepting a continuation of the entrenchment of the KDP and PUK in the KRG. Above all, this requires finding a satisfactory solution to the ‘disputed areas’ after the 2018 Iraqi elections. External help, for example from the UN, will need to be solicited as the levels of trust between Iraq’s political parties (including the Kurds’) are, in all likelihood, too low.‍[73] It also means that withholding payment from the Peshmerga forces without an adequate transition plan must be avoided, as it will leave the KRI with a large pool of armed and desperate men who are likely to create societal unrest. Iraq has been in the same situation before when, in 2003, the Coalition Provisional Authority achieved the same effect by different means.
Consider the need for reform and reconciliation within the Kurdistan region to prevent further intra-Kurdish conflict. As a result of the pervasive social, political and economic crisis in the KRI, disappointment with a failed independence referendum, and anger over the use of armed force against protesters, disillusionment and distrust of Kurdistan’s political and security institutions are at an all-time high. Conditional international support and oversight can play a positive role in rebuilding popular trust in the KRG’s institutions, and its Peshmerga forces in particular. International actors should use their leverage over the KRG – the KDP and PUK in particular – to push for greater transparency, political neutrality and more democratic control over the Peshmerga forces. A good start would be a clear call by the international community to the KDP and PUK to abstain from using Kurdish internal security and Peshmerga forces to influence the results of the upcoming Iraqi parliamentary elections. As much Peshmerga equipment and many of its weapons are provided by the same international community, it has a legitimate stake in the question as to how these will be used in the post-IS era.
Rudaw 2018. ‘Salary, pension reform bill introduced in KRG parliament,’ 10 January. link (Accessed 24 January 2018).
Hama 2018. Systemic Crisis in the Kurdistan Region of Iraq. Philadelphia: Foreign Policy Research Institute.
Van Veen et al. 2017. Op. cit.