“There’s not even 1% chance that Kurdistan will have a national army”

Surkew Mohammed

The two partisan forces claim that they support the Coalition-supported reform effort, but in reality show no interest in building up the ministry and ceding power to it, according to an investigation by Peregraf.

In the face of continued pressure by the International Coalition to reform and unify the armed forces of the Kurdistan Region under the Ministry of Peshmerga Affairs, both the Kurdistan Democratic Party (KDP) and the Patriotic Union of Kurdistan (PUK) are increasing their military strength outside of the control of the ministry.

The two partisan forces claim that they support the Coalition-supported reform effort, but in reality show no interest in building up the ministry and ceding power to it, according to an investigation by Peregraf.

This information relies on publicly available reports about meetings and official decisions, as well as interviews with five people close to the matter who requested anonymity because they do not have permission to speak freely.

“The Coalition says that there should be no partisanship, but the PUK and the KDP are acting in partisan ways and there is no trust between them. They have neglected the Ministry of Peshmerga Affairs and they are developing their parties’ power,” one source said.

As a result, the behavior of the KDP and the PUK is completely contrary to the stated agendas of both parties and the Kurdistan Regional Government’s (KRG) ninth cabinet. All three entities play important roles in the success of the reform process since they are responsible for implementing the reorganization and unification procedures in coordination with the Region’s foreign partners.

The International Coalition, in particular the US, UK, Germany, France, and the Netherlands, has actively supported this latest round of Peshmerga reform over the last seven years with training, equipment, coordination, and money. The ultimate goal is to improve the capacity of the Peshmerga and to bring partisan-affiliated units under the control of the Ministry of Peshmerga Affairs.

Another factor in pursuing Peshmerga reform is to ensure that the Kurdistan Region’s military fits in with the Iraqi Security Forces under Article 121 of the 2005 Constitution.

A memorandum of understanding to outline how the process would unfold was first signed between the US and the KRG in 2016 and was renewed in September 2022.

The International Coalition, in particular the US, UK, Germany, France, and the Netherlands, has actively supported this latest round of Peshmerga reform over the last seven years with training, equipment, coordination, and money.

One of the sources told Peregraf that, in reality, the ministry is merely a façade and that the real power over the future of the Peshmerga rests with the KDP and the PUK. Problematically, party officials working in the ministry continue to work in service of partisan interests, rather than cooperative ones.

“What the allies are doing is just a useless effort,” one of the sources said. “There’s not even one percent chance that Kurdistan will have a national army.”

KDP and PUK controlled areas in South Kurdistan. Source: USAID/IEA/Drilling Maps/IHS Markit Conflict Monitor

Peshmerga reform has long been on the KRG’s agenda. In 2006, the fifth cabinet promised to create a united military, but since then four cabinet and three prime ministers have failed to deliver a non-partisan force.

While there have been steps towards the goal, including the formation of the ministry itself, the majority of Peshmerga forces remain under party control.

According to unofficial statistics, the KDP has 50,000 Peshmerga soldiers under its control without any influence from the ministry, while the PUK has about 42,000.

Most of the KDP’s forces are organized under the 80th Brigade and the Zerevani. Additionally, it functionally controls the Roj Peshmerga, a group of Syrian Kurds. The PUK runs the 70th Brigade. Both parties also have various support, intelligence, and counterterrorism units. All of these are outside government control.

Meanwhile, KRG says that there are about 60,000 Peshmerga controlled by the ministry, organized into 22 brigades.

While a primary goal of reform is to reduce these numbers of partisan soldiers and increase the percentage of Peshmerga under ministry control, the sources told Peregraf that the trend might actually be going in the opposite direction. Instead of bolstering the ministry, the parties are trying to increase their partisan military strength.

“The Barzan Army has been assigned to the Barzan Command, receiving personnel and training them at three bases in Erbil and Duhok,” said one source, noting that the unit “directly belongs to Barzani’s house.”

The KDP is not solely to blame for this trend. Particularly since July 8, 2021 when Bafel Talabani ousted his co-president Lahur Sheikh Jangi and took sole control of the party, the PUK has also increased the size and activity of its armed units.

“The Barzan Army has been assigned to the Barzan Command, receiving personnel and training them at three bases in Erbil and Duhok,” said one source, noting that the unit “directly belongs to Barzani’s house.”

“The PUK’s Counterterrorism Group and commandos are maneuvering even inside [Sulaimaniyah] city and Bafel Talabani continues to appear with them and has given a lot of visibility to the military forces and commanders,” one of the sources said.

These developments have not gone unnoticed. The military delegations from the International Coalition and member countries have held at least ten meetings in recent weeks with Kurdish officials and, in most of their meetings, the challenges facing the reform process have been the main topic of conversation.

For example, Coalition and US military officials held meetings with Peshmerga officials on July 5 and 6 to discuss implementation of the year-old MOU.

PUK leader Talabani told a Chatham House event on July 12 that “the reform and unification of the Peshmerga has stopped.” He argued that the US would likely reevaluate its financial support for the Peshmerga in the near future. The Pentagon currently spend $20 million per month on stipends to pay Peshmerga salaries.

“They’re spending money for the Peshmerga to reform and unify and they will ask where are the results. When it’s not clear, they may make a different decision,” Talabani added.

On the whole, the KDP and the PUK blame each other for the failure to reform the Peshmerga.

“The unification and joint brigades are only a façade because the ministry does not have authority and changes are made outside the ministry. The ministry has no authority,” one source told Peregraf.

Joint brigades are formed when “the KDP and the PUK each send their own list and then they make any changes they want as a party,” the source continued.

“If the KDP changes a brigade general, the [Peshmerga affairs] minister, who is PUK, must sign it, and if the PUK makes a change, the deputy minister, who is KDP, has to sign it blindly,” they added.

“The unification and joint brigades are only a façade because the ministry does not have authority and changes are made outside the ministry. The ministry has no authority,” one source told Peregraf.

Although the Ministry of Peshmerga Affairs is the only official entity with legal control over the military, the majority of those who are under arms in the Kurdistan Region receive orders from either the PUK or the KDP, who are often at odds.

Sometimes, their disagreements become serious. For example, when Iraqi forces retook Kirkuk on October 16 in the aftermath of the 2017 independence referendum, some members of the KDP accused PUK Peshmerga units of withdrawing too easily and not defending the city.

“The joint brigades agreed on October 16th to be disbanded. This is the best example of the failure of the joint brigades,” one of the sources told Peregraf.

The source added that the parties view the Peshmerga largely in internal terms, rather than as a defense force to protect against external threats.

“They want the Peshmerga to protect themselves from internal elections and votes and to suppress local protests، so they consider it a risk to give up” control of Peshmerga units, they said.

In the past, Peshmerga units were deployed to deter widespread protests, much to the dismay of human rights groups.

“No force, including the Kurdistan Regional Government، has full control over all Peshmerga forces. Not even the forces of the KDP and the PUK are under the control of one person,” one of the sources said, indicating a decentralized command and control structure within the parties.

One of the main principles for the Ministry of Peshmerga Affairs has been an equal split between the KDP and the PUK, but adherence appears to be slipping with the KDP trying to impose a 57-43 percent split in its favor, one source told Peregraf.

They cited an order issued by Isa Uzer, a KDP Peshmerga commander, to that effect.

A further example is a June 2023 statement by Kathak Abdulkhaliq, the deputy minister and a member of the KDP, who said that, “now and for the future, the phenomenon of a 50-50 division will not be applied in terms of personnel, logistical, administrative, and financial aspects because there is no basis in the applicable laws of the Ministry of Peshmerga Affairs.”

One of the main principles for the Ministry of Peshmerga Affairs has been an equal split between the KDP and the PUK, but adherence appears to be slipping with the KDP trying to impose a 57-43 percent split in its favor, one source told Peregraf.

Abdulkhaliq was able to issue the statement because the minister, Shorsh Ismail of the PUK, has not been active in his position for the past ten months due to internal conflicts within his party.

Nevertheless the PUK reacted strongly against the KDP moves to dilute its influence.

A day later, Lieutenant General Bakhtiar Muhammad, the general secretary of the Peshmerga ministry for the PUK responded that his party would not comply.

The deputy minister does “not have the power to issue ministerial orders like this,” he said, adding that such decisions need to be taken by the parties together.

While the Kurdistan Region’s foreign partners have said that support for the Peshmerga is related to the success of the reform program, this pressure seems to have had little effect on the KDP and the PUK.

In 2019, then-British Consul-General Martyn Warr told Peregraf that “the United States and Germany will no longer support the Peshmerga forces if the ministry does not comply with the reform that was started in the Peshmerga ranks several years ago, but may take up to 10 to 15 years.”

That length of time was necessary because these are radical changes and “the culture of the Peshmerga is deeply rooted,” Warr argued.

Asked if it would be easy for the PUK and the KDP to give up their forces, which may not be in their interest, Warr said this was the “heart” of the matter.

“But that has to happen. This is in the context of responsibility. The Peshmerga should take orders from the government, not the parties, and this is the precondition of the support program. That’s why it’s going to be difficult and it’s going to take a lot of time,” he added.

Some officials appear to recognize this. Last year, Kurdistan Region President Nechirvan Barzani said that the parties must not interfere in the Peshmerga, “otherwise…what has been implemented will be lost.”

Nevertheless, half the time envisioned in Warr’s extended timeline has elapsed and Peregraf’s sources involved in the Peshmerga reform process say that it is getting worse not better.

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This article was originally published by Peregraf

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