The Peshmerga forces of Iraqi Kurdistan are a complex and multi-faceted security organisation, their loyalty divided between the Iraqi state, the Kurdistan Regional Government (KRG), different political parties and powerful individuals. At different times – and sometimes simultaneously – they can be characterised as national, regional, party and personal forces. This report explores the dynamics and consequences of these various roles in the broader political context of the relationship between Erbil and Baghdad.

Kurdistan’s political and military leadership is aware of the pitfalls of the divisions within the Peshmerga, and realises that integration and depoliticisation of these forces is vital to their ability to confront future (external) challenges. Nevertheless, while the KRG recently adopted a 35-point reform plan that seeks to unify and professionalise the Peshmerga, there are many obstacles to its implementation. Most crucially, it is questionable whether the region’s most powerful parties – the Kurdistan Democratic Party (KDP) and Patriotic Union of Kurdistan (PUK) – have the political will to relinquish authority over their armed forces, because these remain their key sources of power. The two parties harbour deep mistrust of one another, and have come to see their guns as a means of survival.

The political disunity in Kurdistan signals that there is an urgent need to face the shortcomings of its governance and authority structures. At present, the Peshmerga help to maintain – rather than overcome – Kurdish divisions and entrench KDP/PUK control of the KRG. This has been further reinforced by the global coalition’s unconditional support for the Peshmerga during the war against Islamic State. It has unintentionally strengthened the policies and attitudes of the KDP and PUK, enabling traditional Kurdish political elites to maintain power and suppress opposition groups.

The lack of a united political and military front and the mounting economic crisis in Iraqi Kurdistan offers an opportunity for Baghdad to reassert control. Prime Minister Al-Abadi’s current strategy to bring the region’s forces 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 – but only if financial incentives are combined with a more positive narrative of sociopolitical inclusion of Kurdish society in the Iraqi polity.

For relations within the KRG, as well as between the Kurdish Region of Iraq (KRI) and Baghdad, to develop as constructively and as peacefully as possible, it is important that international partners currently supporting the Peshmerga and/or the Iraqi Security Forces take three recommendations to heart:

Develop an integrated security sector reform (SSR) strategy that considers support for the Peshmerga and the Iraqi Security Forces in relation to each other. An integrated strategy should take account of the political consequences of strengthening the different forces and address the need for joint command structures and operational mechanisms.
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. This requires, above all, finding a satisfactory solution to the ‘disputed areas’ after the 2018 Iraqi elections.
Consider the need for reform and reconciliation within the Kurdistan region to prevent further intra-Kurdish conflict. 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, especially during the upcoming elections.