Analysis & Opinions - Foreign Affairs

What Iraq's Kurdish Peshmerga Believe

| August 25, 2017

And How It Will Affect the Country's Post-ISIS Future

With the liberation of Mosul in July, Iraq again finds itself at a crossroads. The Islamic State (or ISIS) has lost its crown jewel, the seat from which it declared its so-called caliphate in 2014. For that, the credit goes to Iraqi government forces, the militias that make up the Popular Mobilization Forces (PMF), and the Kurdish peshmerga. A side effect of the peshmerga victories in the war against ISIS, however, has been an increase in the territory held by the Kurdistan Regional Government (KRG) by around 40 percent since 2014. And, in turn, the Kurds have been further empowered to challenge the territorial integrity of Iraq.

Legally, the KRG continues to operate as a federal unit of the Iraqi national government, but a September 25 referendum for independence could set the Kurds on a trajectory toward sovereignty, something Iraqi Kurds overwhelmingly wanted in an unofficial referendum held in 2005. Both the upcoming referendum and issues of territorial control are already being hotly contested. Peshmerga views of the post-ISIS regional order—and the extent to which these views are unified—are therefore key to Iraq’s political future.

Experts often question the degree to which the Kurds of Iraq and their various peshmerga groups are united politically. The Kurdistan Region is split between the Kurdish Democratic Party (KDP) and the Patriotic Union of Kurdistan (PUK). These parties fought a civil war against one another in the mid-1990s and have since maintained separate military and security forces. Despite recent moves toward integration, separate KDP- and PUK-aligned forces continue to predominate the peshmerga. These political armies add another layer of complexity to the already Byzantine mix of territorial struggles, hydrocarbon disputes, and militia politics playing out in the Kurdistan region. Complicating things further, the KDP and PUK have since fractionalized, most dramatically with the emergence of the Gorran (change) movement in 2009, which claims to disavow the entrenched and corrupt politics of the two traditional parties.

In an effort to better understand the attitudes of peshmerga serving in both integrated and political units, we surveyed 2,339 of them earlier this summer with a research team that we built together with Dr. Muslih Irwani from the Center for Peace and Human Security. Besides working in the four de juregovernorates of the Kurdistan Region (Duhok, Erbil, Halabja, and Sulaimaniya), our teams also surveyed peshmerga in the Kirkuk and Ninewa governorates, which are part of the disputed territories between the KRG and the Iraqi government. Because our aim was to better understand post-conflict Kurdish politics, we drew our respondents from a selection of bases directly supporting either defense against ISIS or guarding the border with the Iraqi government. Security and privacy considerations understandably prevented us from obtaining a complete list of peshmerga personnel serving at such bases. Nonetheless, we were able to reach a reasonably representative group by surveying integrated and political peshmerga units at51military camps of varying sizes. The camps stretched across the geography of the KRG borders, from Sinjar in the west to Halabja in the east. Seventy-four percent of peshmerga we spoke with reported having served in territories recently liberated from ISIS. The respondents predictably identified overwhelmingly as Kurdish (98 percent), male (98 percent), and Muslim (97 percent), but varied in their age, socioeconomic status, political affiliations, and hometowns.

Our survey covered a range of topics, focusing on three specific issue areas. First, we asked questions to better understand recruitment patterns and individual-level motivations for joining peshmerga units, as well as peshmerga combat experience. Second, we inquired about peshmerga views of military integration and the processes used to achieve it. Third, and finally, we included a number of questions designed to gauge peshmerga attitudes about post-conflict reconciliation and civil-military relations in territories liberated from ISIS.

For more information on this publication: Please contact Middle East Initiative
For Academic Citation: Fabbe, Kristin E. and Matthew Franklin Cancian.“What Iraq's Kurdish Peshmerga Believe.” Foreign Affairs, August 25, 2017.

The Authors