Over the past few years, the Kurdistan Region of Iraq (KRI) has made good progress in reforming, unifying and institutionalizing its military, the Peshmerga forces. However, the lack of government control over the Peshmerga forces has always been a major weakness and barrier to the consolidation, institutionalization and accountability of governance in the KRI. The reform of Peshmerga includes several elements and stages, including unification, which is the most difficult step.
Current state of Peshmerga
The major goal of the Peshmerga reform is to unify all forces under the Kurdistan Regional Government’s (KRG). There are two types of Peshmerga forces in the KRI: those who are under the control of the KRG’s Ministry of Peshmerga, and those who respond to the leaders of the Kurdistan Democratic Party (KDP) and the Patriotic Union of Kurdistan (PUK). There are no 100 per cent reliable statistics on the number of Peshmerga fighters and members, but different reports indicate around 144,000 Peshmerga members.
Currently, 18 units of Peshmerga are unified and operate under the Ministry of Peshmerga, with their numbers estimated at around 50,000. This means that around 100,000 fighters and their units do not respond to, and are not regulated by, the Ministry. Though different groups of Peshmerga respond to different authorities, they are all paid by the KRG and registered as public employees. Therefore, reforming Peshmerga does not only concern the military and defence sectors, but also the broader issues of transparency and accountability in the Kurdistani entity.
Peshmerga Units 70 and 80, which are the largest units, are loyal to the KRI’s two ruling parties, the PUK and KDP respectively. The internal organization and structure of the Peshmerga units which currently operate under the KDP and PUK leadership differ to those under the control of the Ministry. Adding another layer of division, Peshmerga within these units also respond to certain individuals, particularly the case with the PUK.
The first and most important step is reintegrating them into the Ministry, and the second step is mixing KDP and PUK Peshmerga in a new unit. When units integrate into the Ministry, their structure will be changed. The KDP’s Unit 80 recently brought its own Support Forces 1 under the Ministry’s command, and Support Forces 2 of the PUK’s Peshmerga Unit 70 is expected to integrate into the Ministry. These two units are estimated to have 10,000 well-equipped members, and their action will pave the way for further unification.
Among other positive developments, the KDP and PUK’s party activities within the Ministry offices are decreasing, and the Ministry is also developing job descriptions and recruitment measures, especially for senior administrative posts. In the past, if a senior Peshmerga commander retired, they were entitled to keep an official car, weapons and guards. Now, the number of officials’ guards is being reduced, with a corresponding fall in expenses. In 2020, the Ministry returned 7 billion IQD of its allotted budget to the government, after making these and other savings. There is also a progress of digitization: the units under the Ministry’s control respond to and inform the Ministry electronically of their activities in minute-by-minute updates. These are all positive reforms within a difficult system of KDP-PUK duopoly.
The international pressure
The most important driver of reform in the Peshmerga sector is the concerted and continuous pressure and support of the KRI’s international partners, such as the US, France, Germany, UK and the Netherlands. The members of the Global Coalition against Daesh have provided various support to the Peshmerga, including training, logistical support, consultancy, weapons and equipment. Yet the message of these international partners today is clear: international military support is conditioned upon unification of Peshmerga. The US has been straightforward about its conditional support dependent on the unification of the forces. They know it will take time, but they are determined to see that the Kurdish leadership is serious about the reform.
The coalition’s support to the reform of Peshmerga is planned to continue until 2025, in the hope that all Peshmerga units will be unified within the next four years. Washington currently pays the Ministry of Peshmerga 20 million dollars monthly to cover the salaries of unified Peshmerga units which include fighters loyal to both the KDP and the PUK. Paying salaries has been an incentive for reform, but the greater will and incentive should come from local leaders. The major concern of the Global Coalition members is that the reform so far has been slow, and more courage and transparency from the KDP and PUK leaders is required to quicken the process. A positive assessment of the Peshmerga reform is important for the coalition member to extend their military mandate and support in the KRI. The Kurdish leadership should realise that the international support will not only reflect on reforming their military, but is also a great opportunity to strengthen their international engagement in a very uncertain region.
The numbers of Peshmerga forces who respond to KDP and PUK leaders are still three times higher than the number of the Ministry’s Peshmerga. This shows that the reform process requires continuous international engagement and pressure, and above all, the political will of the KDP and PUK leadership. The major barriers to the reform are the limited trust between the KDP and PUK, and the vested interests that powerful individuals and military elites have in the status quo: unifying the Peshmerga means that many of these figures will lose their leverage and power.
To address these barriers, a strong political commitment and agreement between KDP and PUK, which currently only partially exists, is fundamental. Arguably, the political support for Peshmerga requires a balance of power between the two centers. A change in the balance of power will create fear and uncertainty about the consequences of Peshmerga reform on the parties’ territorial control. In addition, the current government is dominated by the KDP, and is likely to remain so for the near future. The posts of President, Prime Minister, Minister of the Interior and Head of National Security Council are all held by the KDP. For some PUK leaders, integrating their Peshmerga into the Ministry means more vulnerability to the KDP-dominated decision-making.
To protect the current achievements and future progress of Peshmerga reform, it should be kept autonomous from the KDP-PUK rivalry. Otherwise, it will remain limited, constrained and reversible, which is the main concern of the Kurdish people and international partners. The Kurdish leadership should use the success of Peshmerga reform as an opportunity to deepen relations and increase their interests with their international partners, beyond the Peshmerga sector.