During the past three years, Kurdish Peshmerga forces have played an essential role in the fight against Islamic State (IS) in Iraq. Seemingly forgotten by the international community until 2014, the Peshmerga (‘those who face death’) turned into heroic Kurdish fighters overnight by resisting the IS-terrorist onslaught with courage and determination, despite a lack of arms, training and equipment. Or so the story goes. But there is more to the Peshmerga than meets the eye. In fact, the period 2014–2017 offers a rich case study of the Peshmerga as multifaceted security phenomena, their impact on governance in the Kurdish Region of Iraq (KRI), and Kurdish relations with the Iraqi state.
It is beyond dispute that the Peshmerga were pivotal in bringing about the ultimate defeat of IS and that they suffered heavy losses for the safety of the Kurdish region and the state of Iraq. In this sense, the Peshmerga discharged their national duty as constitutionally mandated security forces to protect Iraqi lives and property from death and destruction. However, in the process of doing so, the Peshmerga also took the opportunity to occupy a string of territories that have long been disputed between Erbil and Baghdad, which centre on the oil-rich city of Kirkuk. In a masterstroke, the Peshmerga enabled the creation of an independent Kurdistan region by almost doubling its territory and wealth. Yet parts of the Peshmerga withdrew equally fast from these disputed territories in the face of the advancing Iraqi army and paramilitary forces after the controversial Kurdish independence referendum in September 2017. This painfully exposed the longstanding and continued lack of direct control by the Kurdistan Regional Government (KRG) over the majority of Peshmerga forces. More precisely, it showed that the Peshmerga remain divided into three different branches. Two of these are not commanded by the KRG, but by the main Kurdish political parties: the Kurdistan Democratic Party (KDP) and the Patriotic Union of Kurdistan (PUK). Peshmerga forces affiliated with the latter were among the first to pull back from the disputed territories, underlining a longstanding cleavage within the Peshmerga.
These events occurred against the backdrop of a triple crisis that simultaneously affected both Erbil and Baghdad, the political centres of the Kurdish community and the Iraqi polity respectively, namely: the illiberal turn of their ‘democratic systems’ between 2005 and 2014; the escalation and subsequent reduction of sectarian violence between 2004 and 2008; and the chronic political nepotism and largescale corruption since 2007/8. The current political situation in Iraq is further complicated by the post-Kurdish referendum crisis, as well as the continued existence of an array of emboldened security organisations that operate outside of the country’s formal security institutions.
This brief report discusses the different security functions of the Peshmerga and how these relate to the development of governance in the KRI on the one hand and political dynamics between the KRI and the Iraqi state on the other. What factors determine which security function dominates the Peshmerga at a particular point in time? And what effects have these had? Section 1 examines the ‘Peshmerga security paradox’ in the broader context of violence in crisis states. Section 2 analyses the evolution of the Peshmerga as a security organisation, paying particular attention to their fight against IS. Section 3 discusses the effects of how the Peshmerga have prioritised and discharged their different security functions on the development of the KRG and the Iraqi state. Finally, Section 4 offers three key recommendations on how external actors should consider supporting the Peshmerga in the near future in light of the available evidence.