Efforts to reform the Iraqi Kurdish security forces known as the Peshmerga are at serious risk of failing. Tensions between the ruling parties of Iraq’s Kurdistan Region are not new, but the working relationship between the leaders of the Kurdistan Democratic Party (KDP) and the Patriotic Union of Kurdistan (PUK) has collapsed over the past year. As a result, officials within the Ministry of Peshmerga Affairs (MOPA) are no longer capable of preventing the politics of partisan self-interest from consuming the reform project. The prospects for the depoliticization and unification of the Peshmerga have rarely seemed more remote.
The first anniversary of the renewed memorandum of understanding (MoU) between the U.S. Department of Defense and the MOPA is coming up in September. According to multiple people familiar with the situation, the Peshmerga is not living up to the agreement. Therefore, with three years left in the deal, it is a good time to be clear-eyed about the state of reform. There is still an opportunity to salvage the program, but not in the likely event that current dynamics continue.
There will be significant consequences if the Kurdistan Region’s political leaders fail to get serious about implementing Peshmerga reform. Reassurances and playing for time are insufficient. There is a pervading feeling of disappointment among Western military officials working on reform. They recognize that historic tensions between the KDP and the PUK are real, but worry that Kurdish leaders are allowing a golden opportunity to slip away after years of enthusiastic foreign support.
The military dimension is just one part of the relationships between the Kurdistan Region and its foreign partners, but it is an important one. If the Kurdish political parties fail to live up to their responsibilities, it will have knock-on effects for political and economic links with longtime supporters. A splintered Kurdistan Region within an increasingly centralized Iraq holds much less geopolitical relevance for the international community than a united entity within a federal system.
This piece reflects the open political dynamics in the Kurdistan Region and conversations with Peshmerga officials from both parties, as well as former and current military officials from the Kurdistan Region’s foreign partners, all of whom spoke on background.
A golden opportunity
The modern Peshmerga — which means “those who face death” in Kurdish — was born out of the various armed groups that fought for Kurdish rights in Iraq during the second half of the 20th century. Of these, the KDP and the PUK were the most powerful. The legacy of this initial division matters, but there have been three distinct opportunities to set aside partisan differences in the interests of Kurdish unity. The first two — when self-governing institutions were established following the 1991 Kurdish uprising and in the wake of the 2006 KDP-PUK strategic agreement — were not realized. Institutions remained divided. Within the Peshmerga, the KDP and the PUK each maintained partisan units, known respectively as the 80s Unit and the 70s Unit, while half-heartedly engaging with ostensibly joint institutions like the MOPA.
The third opportunity came as a result of the war against Islamic State (ISIS), in which the Kurdistan Region played a frontline role starting in 2014. More than 1,300 Peshmerga were killed and thousands of others were wounded in operations against the militant group. Members of the International Coalition to Defeat ISIS provided support and training to the Peshmerga, but both Kurds and foreigners realized that its divided structure hampered its military effectiveness. Military needs could service political goals. With the full commitment and support of the international community, Kurdish political leaders had an opportunity to unify, with the Peshmerga as both the symbolic and practical vehicle.
In 2017, the U.S., the U.K., and Germany formally launched the Peshmerga reform program; the Netherlands later joined the group in 2019. They reached a 35-point agreement with the Kurdistan Regional Government (KRG) to create a “robust and professional” defense force. It included developing an official security strategy for the KRG, bringing partisan KDP and PUK units under the MOPA, eliminating so-called “ghost employees” (who exist only on paper but receive a salary), instituting new recruitment practices to eliminate patronage, and implementing new logistics and equipment procedures. At the time, officials predicted that it would take between five and 10 years to complete the process. Recognizing the Kurdistan Region’s dire financial straits, the U.S. began providing stipends to pay the salaries of MOPA-controlled Peshmerga around 2017; currently, Washington provides $20 million per month.
Some progress has been made. The ministry has also started using a biometric payroll system to crack down on ghost employees. Twenty brigades are now organized under the MOPA, involving approximately 54,000 Peshmerga, according to the most recent lead inspector general report for Operation Inherent Resolve (OIR). KDP and PUK officials both insist that several other units stand ready to be integrated in the near future. Oftentimes, announcements of progress are premature and a way to deflect pressure to show results. For example, the MOPA announced on Aug. 15 that KRG Prime Minister Masrour Barzani has authorized the formation of three more brigades under the ministry taken from the PUK, but the process of switching them over is not yet complete, according to a PUK source.
Yet, many of the big-ticket items remain unaddressed. There is no agreed security strategy and required lists of available equipment have not been delivered. Approximately 50,000 KDP Peshmerga, which are organized under the 80s Unit, and 50,000 PUK Peshmerga, under the 70s Unit, remain outside MOPA control. These partisan units perform the majority of counter-ISIS operations, leaving ministry Peshmerga to conduct “control of area” operations in the Kurdistan Region. “Some of the most effective counter-ISIS capability, including aggressive patrolling, raids, and ambushes, still lies with the commando forces in the 70s and 80s Units,” the lead inspector general report found.
On Sept. 21, 2022, the U.S. and the KRG signed a new, four-year MoU with strict timelines and deliverables for Kurdish officials to meet. In interviews, Kurdish officials conceded that they were behind schedule in meeting those deadlines. The OIR lead inspector general’s report, which was published on Aug. 3, found that the coalition is “still uncertain how and when [the KDP and the PUK] will transfer the remainder of their forces to the MOPA” and blamed “political tensions” between the parties for this uncertainty. Moreover, the joint brigades “showed no progress in developing key warfighting functions” and the MOPA “continues to lack a long-term plan,” including a defense strategy.
Political dynamics in the Kurdistan Region
Asked why Peshmerga reform is in trouble, most people interviewed for this piece blamed the refusal of the political leaderships of the KDP and the PUK to work together. While acknowledging that many Peshmerga, particularly in the older generations, maintain strong partisan loyalties, they felt that the majority of military officials were committed to the reform program and recognized its benefits. Militarily, Peshmerga reform will yield a unified command and control system, simplified logistics and equipping, and reduce patronage in recruiting. But given the history of the Kurdistan Region, taking guns out of the hands of individual political parties and making security affairs apolitical would be a huge boon for Kurdish democracy. Increasingly, however, these officials are unable to deflect the extreme partisan behavior of their political masters away from MOPA operations. Without even this imperfect symbol of shared commitment to unity, the Peshmerga reform process is surely doomed.
Within the KDP, KRG Prime Minister Masrour Barzani has taken over the day-to-day running of the party from his father, Masoud Barzani, and largely sidelined his cousin, Kurdistan Region President Nechirvan Barzani. Before entering frontline politics, Masrour was deeply involved in running the KDP’s intelligence agency, known as the Parastin. This background influences his approach to governance: opaque, partisan, and focused on internal security. Human rights violations against activists and journalists are common in KDP-controlled Erbil and Duhok governorates. He sees the KDP as the most powerful party in the Kurdistan Region and is therefore reluctant to compromise or cooperate with others. From his position, Masrour Barzani is able to wield significant state resources in furtherance of his political ambitions.
The PUK has the opposite problem. Its leader, Bafel Talabani, is a political neophyte who never held an official position within the party before coming to power. His main qualification is that he is the eldest son of the PUK’s longtime leader, the late Jalal Talabani. Initially elected as the party’s co-leader, Talabani removed his cousin Lahur Sheikh Jangi from power in July 2021. Although Sheikh Jangi no longer poses a real challenge to the party’s leadership, the episode alienated many party members. Talabani lacks grassroots support within the factional party and therefore relies heavily on the security forces to project an image of strength. The KDP uses its control of KRG finances to restrict the transfer of money to the PUK’s homebase of Sulaymaniyah governorate.
To compensate for these weaknesses, Bafel Talabani has turned to Baghdad and the Shia Coordination Framework for support. He clearly sees the future of his party and Sulaymaniyah as better served by focusing on federal Iraq, rather than the Kurdistan Region. The PUK also maintains close ties with Iran, which has an important mediating influence within the party. Moreover, the PUK is reliant on income collected from Sulaymaniyah’s border crossings with its neighbor to make up for what it loses as a result of tensions with the KDP.
In interviews, Kurdish officials acknowledged that tensions between the KDP and the PUK have become worse over the past six years, often citing the withdrawal of the Peshmerga from Kirkuk on Oct. 16, 2017 as a significant event. The KDP accused members of the PUK of betraying the Kurdish people by allegedly making a deal with the government in Baghdad in the aftermath of the 2017 independence referendum to withdraw from the disputed city without bloodshed. But many also argued that the relationship has gotten worse since the new Barzani and Talabani generations came to power after 2019. The result is a profound lack of trust that has destroyed the working relationship between the parties.
For example, the PUK decided to boycott KRG cabinet meetings for six months in response to specific security incidents and a sense that Sulaymaniyah is not getting its fair share of revenues relative to Erbil and Duhok. Although that boycott ended under heavy pressure from the U.S. State Department, the two parties are hardly reconciled. Their differences remain on full display across a range of issues, including over Iraq’s federal budget law and elections. Following a contentious meeting between the parties on July 9, a reporter asked Bafel Talabani if the parties’ relationship was back on track. “Does it look like we’re on good terms,” the PUK leader growled before storming off.
Tensions escalate within the MOPA
The MOPA, which is the heart of the Peshmerga reform process, is increasingly influenced by these dynamics and is currently without permanent leadership. In October 2022, the PUK decided that it wanted to replace Minister of Peshmerga Affairs Shorsh Ismail, who is a member of that party. PUK and international sources explained that there were concerns within the PUK that Ismail had grown too close to the KDP and Masrour Barzani during his tenure. He was also the subject of corruption allegations. Asked about this, a senior KDP Peshmerga official praised Ismail’s performance and argued that all parts of the force benefitted from his work as minister.
Under the KDP-PUK agreement, both parties must consent before switching out high-level officials. The KDP also wanted to change some of its own officials, including Kurdistan Parliament Deputy Speaker Hemin Hawrami, who had recently been given a new party position. However, not all of the necessary pieces fell into place and the parties were unable to implement the changes. As a result, Ismail has not been replaced, but is also no longer active in his position. Both PUK and KDP Peshmerga officials lamented the lack of leadership at the top of the MOPA, but disagreed whether Ismail should return to his position.
Partisan tensions within the MOPA exploded in July when the deputy Peshmerga minister, who is from the KDP, issued an order redistributing official positions within the ministry. Traditionally, posts have been divided evenly between the parties — a principle known locally as 50-50 — but the new order changed this to 57-43 in favor of the KDP and replaced PUK officials from the leadership of four department positions. Moreover, promotions of PUK Peshmerga officers have allegedly been held up, adding a personal dimension to the ministerial tensions. In the weeks that followed, documents were leaked online in order to embarrass high-level KDP and PUK Peshmerga officials with corruption accusations.
In an interview, a senior PUK Peshmerga official denounced the order establishing the 57-43 ratio as “illegal” and against the KDP-PUK strategic agreement. He questioned why it was made without apparent regard to the MoU with the U.S. Moreover, he accused KRG Prime Minister Masrour Barzani of directing Peshmerga officials to issue the order.
A senior KDP Peshmerga official defended the deputy minister’s order in a separate interview, calling it a “correct decision” that reflected what he argued are the greater geographic responsibilities of the KDP-affiliated 80s Unit. KDP-controlled areas border northern Kirkuk, Makhmour, and Nineveh, while PUK forces are mostly responsible for areas in eastern Kirkuk and northern Diyala. Asked where the decision to change the ratio originated, he conceded that ministry officials cannot issue such a decision “without receiving an order,” implying a political source. “I hope my answer is clear,” he said.
Former and current Western military officials involved in the Peshmerga reform process expressed their disappointment at the lack of progress. In interviews, they said that Kurdish leaders have been given a valuable opportunity, but are failing to take advantage. In their eyes, bringing the Peshmerga together as a unified force is politically fraught, but achievable. Ultimately, however, this is a Kurdish process and Kurdish political leaders are responsible for whether it moves forward or not.
In interviews, the Peshmerga officials stressed the importance of continued Western engagement, but gave starkly divergent assessments of whether Kurdish leaders and institutions would live up their responsibilities. The KDP Peshmerga official expressed confidence that the process would get back on track following recent meetings with the coalition and promised results in the autumn. In contrast, the PUK Peshmerga official said that things would only improve if there are significant — and, frankly, unrealistic — political changes in the Kurdistan Region in the near term.
One Western military official said they still have enthusiasm for the Peshmerga reform project, but echoed a military adage: hoping that Kurdish political leaders suddenly change their demonstrated behavior is not a strategy. If the KDP and the PUK fail to change tack, current levels of support may be reconsidered. This may already be starting to happen. According to multiple sources, a stern message has been delivered to Kurdish officials that the U.S. is weighing whether to reduce its stipend payments for MOPA salaries from $20 million to $15 million this autumn in response to the lack of progress. Geopolitically, the Kurdistan Region will undoubtedly remain relevant, but foreign capitals will become increasingly hesitant to involve themselves with the Kurdish parties.
Peshmerga reform stands at a junction that speaks to more general dynamics. Will the political leadership put aside their mutual mistrust and advance a unified vision in service of all people and institutions of the Kurdistan Region regardless of political affiliation or will they crawl deeper into partisan self-interest as their foreign partners gradually tune out? Opportunity remains, barely and not for long.
Winthrop Rodgers is a journalist and researcher based in Sulaymaniyah in Iraq's Kurdistan Region. He focuses on politics, human rights, and political economy. He is an editor for The Nesar Record and past work has appeared in Rest of World, the Columbia Journalism Review, Al-Monitor, and the Los Angeles Review of Books.
Photo by SAFIN HAMID/AFP via Getty Images
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