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Marianna Charountaki

Ph.D., Lecturer in Kurdish Politics and International Relations, University of Leicester

The study of the peshmerga in Iraq is highly pertinent to wider debates surrounding the interrelation of foreign policy and security and the contemporary nature of conventional and unconventional war, both in terms of conflict typology and the relevant actors. This debate has been further stimulated by the rise of Islamic State (IS), as both state and non-state entities fight ‘small wars’ which have become inextricably linked to the concept of ‘hybrid war’. This increasingly common type of warfare involves both conventional military force and the employment of irregular tactics utilizing technological advancements.

The transfer of conflict from the international and global level to the national and even local level, asymmetric warfare between non-state entities (other than state and non-state conflicts), and the transition from conventional methods and means of war to advanced technological tactics pursued even by non-state actors, including armed extremist groups such as Islamic State, are indicative of this conceptual shift. The change has been also reflected in the tactics of war, as evidenced by the Kurdish armed forces in Iraq. This environment compelled the peshmerga to confront a new type of irregular warfare as an interesting case of an organised non-state military force. The war against Islamic State united the peshmerga forces for, possibly, the first time and effected a radical change in the Kurdish use of military tactics, including the shift from defensive to offensive strategies.

The Middle Eastern context offers an effective frame through which to study such changes. Here, the nature of various insurgencies has resulted in the fighting of many different types of war. For example, “America’s reluctance to get involved in these complex internal struggles” has led the US to favour airpower as an effective counterinsurgency practice over deployment of on-the-ground forces.

The change of tactics employed by the peshmerga in order to combat IS provides an important case study of modern war, with the operations in Makhmour and Shingal offering detailed examples. This change is also significant because it is linked to the evolution of the peshmerga as a significant, organised non-state military force. Their role in defence assumed in response to the crisis in Iraq led to increased territorial control and thereby enabled the Kurdistan Regional Government (KRG) to increase its bargaining power in foreign policy (at least, until October 16th 2017).

A study of the changing nature of the peshmerga in Iraq thus highlights the role of the army, even in the case of a de facto state entity like KRG, as critical in the facilitation of foreign policy. As such the role of the army becomes increasingly important as a key factor itself in the facilitation of regional foreign policies.


Introduction

The study of the peshmerga in Iraq is highly pertinent to wider debates surrounding the interrelation of foreign policy and security and the contemporary nature of conventional and unconventional war, both in terms of conflict typology and the relevant actors [1]. This debate has been further stimulated by the rise of Islamic State (IS), as both state and non-state entities fight ‘small wars’ which have become inextricably linked to the concept of ‘hybrid war’. This increasingly common type of warfare involves both conventional military force and the employment of irregular tactics utilizing technological advancements.

The transfer of conflict from the international and global level to the national and even local level, asymmetric warfare between non-state entities (other than state and non-state conflicts), and the transition from conventional methods and means of war to advanced technological tactics pursued even by non-state actors, including armed extremist groups such as Islamic State, are indicative of this conceptual shift. The change has been also reflected in the tactics of war, as evidenced by the Kurdish armed forces in Iraq. This environment compelled the peshmerga to confront a new type of irregular warfare as an interesting case of an organised non-state military force. The war against Islamic State united the peshmerga forces for, possibly, the first time and effected a radical change in the Kurdish use of military tactics, including the shift from defensive to offensive strategies.

The Middle Eastern context offers an effective frame through which to study such changes. Here, the nature of various insurgencies has resulted in the fighting of many different types of war. For example, “America’s reluctance to get involved in these complex internal struggles” has led the US to favour airpower as an effective counterinsurgency practice over deployment of on-the-ground forces [2].

The change of tactics employed by the peshmerga in order to combat IS provides an important case study of modern war, with the operations in Makhmour and Shingal offering detailed examples. This change is also significant because it is linked to the evolution of the peshmerga as a significant, organised non-state military force. Their role in defence assumed in response to the crisis in Iraq led to increased territorial control and thereby enabled the Kurdistan Regional Government (KRG) to increase its bargaining power in foreign policy (at least, until October 16th 2017).

A study of the changing nature of the peshmerga in Iraq thus highlights the role of the army, even in the case of a de facto state entity like KRG, as critical in the facilitation of foreign policy. As such the role of the army becomes increasingly important as a key factor itself in the facilitation of regional foreign policies.

Background: Phases of Evolution

The term ‘peshmerga’ is a combination of two Kurdish words: ‘pěŝ’, meaning in front of, and ‘merg’, meaning death. When discussing the concept of ‘peshmerga’ it should be noted that the term first and foremost connotes every single member of the Kurdish armed forces. While the Kurdish movement was officially established in 1961, the existence of the ‘peshmerga’ has a longer history. For example, the Mahabad Republic of the early 1940s was reliant on around two thousands of Mullah Mustafa Barzani’s fighters, many of whom followed him into exile in the USSR when the republic fell in 1946.

During that period, the Kurdish movement was primarily military and revolutionary but with the same objective of self-determination vis-à-vis the Iraqi regime.

The evolution of the peshmerga should be divided into six stages:

The first stage can be considered as a preparatory phase of the organisation of the peshmerga in Iraq. During the period from 1961 to 1974, the peshmerga were an irregular army rather than a regular force, performing multiple duties and comprehensive roles, from political and judicial to social functions. This is because in the early days of their development, in addition to organizing the Kurdish movement, the peshmerga also managed society by inspiring and facilitating revolution (rapareen) and the Awakening.

The following period (1976–1979) was devastating for the Kurdish movement. A series of developments had a highly adverse effect: the collapse of the Autonomy Talks; the Algiers Agreement; inter-Kurdish political fragmentation; and the death of the leader of the Kurdish movement, Mullah Mustafa Barzani, in 1979. At the same time, the activities of the peshmerga – despite their limited number – were intensified; they continued to employ their strategy of ‘attack and return’ to the mountains, waging a partisan war which was characterised by insurgency tactics and aimed at increasing popular awareness.

The period from 1979 onwards witnessed a series of events such as the First Gulf War (1980–1988) and the Anfal Campaign (1986–1988), the reorientation of Iraq’s foreign policy towards the West, and other elements which contributed to the evolution of the Kurdish movement into a military force and the adoption of a variety of policies and strategies. There was therefore a gradual evolution in response to, and in consequence of, external structural changes and domestic developments. While this did not impact upon the grand strategic vision of the peshmerga, it naturally affected their tactics.

It was not until the fourth stage beginning in the 1990s that a rapid shift occurred away from the ‘mountains and resistance’ phase towards a new, institutionalized form of governance within a federal context. The aftermath of the Washington Agreement was important since it signalled the start of the process of direct and rapid institutionalization of the Kurdish armed forces. Other developments during this time, such as the imposing of economic sanctions on Iraq and similar events, determined the pace of progress of the Kurdish movement; nevertheless they did not affect its orientation, aims and objectives.

The impact of structural changes within the peshmerga reached its peak with the 2003 Iraq War and subsequent “regime change”. During this fifth phase, the institutionalization of the peshmerga was acknowledged and enshrined in KNA Law 38 (2007) [3] , in several articles of the draft Kurdish Constitution [4] , and in the Transitional Administrative Law (2004) [5]. With international recognition, the military movement developed into a more organized force with the potential to transform into a state army.

Even though the KRG Unification Agreement of 2006 has not yet been fully implemented (albeit remains in process under NATO supervision), peshmerga operations in their recent conflict with IS do not appear to have affected their fighting power. On the contrary, one could argue that for the first time in recent history the peshmerga appeared as a single united force rather than as factions linked only by a common enemy.

Thus the significance of the peshmerga as the main security apparatus of the Kurdistan Region was demonstrated throughout the Kurdish resistance against the Iraqi regime, and more recently in the US policy of ‘regime change’ in Iraq. Lately, this significance has been confirmed in the global fight against IS.

IS’s offensive against Mosul and the Sunni areas in Iraq (9 June 2014), and the group’s brief advancement towards Kurdish territory southwest of Erbil (1–15 August 2014), transformed the conflict into a unique type of war that initially undermined the morale of the peshmerga. This sixth phase is identified by the gradual consolidation of the peshmerga’s status as an internationally reliable force, as well as by their implementation of new strategies in order to phase in new structural changes such as the confrontation of a new type of war (i.e. against IS). In this, they have been supported by the use of advanced weaponry.

Interestingly, the emergence of IS and the elevation of the Kurdistan Region’s significance for international security has brought it closer to European powers such as Germany and France. This has been made possible through the role played by the peshmerga and their military cooperation with international forces, including with the US, a fact that has strengthened strategic US-Kurdish relations. Foreign aid and support also appear to have been a critical factor in facilitating the peshmerga’s military operations.

Indeed, the 21st century witnessed the critical role of the peshmerga in Iraq, and revealed their further transformation into a powerful force with international support. The rise of IS in the broader region of the Middle East highlighted Kurdish fighters as the main frontline troops against IS. Iraq’s Kurds have thus received the opportunity to advance their strategy and policies. This has not been easy, however, following a lengthy period of non-involvement in hostilities.

Defence remains the long-term posture of the KRG and the Kurdish armed forces. Up until the 2003 Iraq war, the Kurds were mainly involved in defending the Kurdistan Region, including protecting regional oilfields and struggling against the Iraqi regime. Compared with the structure and capacity of the Iraqi army, they saw only limited improvements to their own resources. However, the war against IS engendered radical change in Kurdish military tactics. Following the IS offensive, the Kurds had to alter their strategies in order to confront an organized military force, and the Kurdish armed forces had to reshape themselves to face a frontline war.

If sufficient manpower, adequate standards of training, armaments based on new technology, and morale are important elements of an army– then it is the morale that has been the prime feature in determining the Kurdish fight against IS. Affected by almost a decade of Kurdish non-involvement in any real battles as well as IS propaganda based on images circulated through social media (then a relatively new way of confronting the enemy via non-military methods), this operation proved devastating for the Kurdish and Iraqi armies. This was because, in a very short period of time, IS was able to occupy vast areas of land, exploiting terror as their main tool. Morale and loyalty have therefore proved to be essential elements for the effectiveness of the Kurdish campaign.

As the peshmerga transitioned successfully from defensive to offensive strategies, low morale was quickly overcome, with the tipping point occurring when the peshmerga regained control of Makhmour and the surrounding areas. The Kurds struck an entirely unexpected blow in this case. Since IS was following its own planned advance, the peshmerga attack, which occurred simultaneously from three different directions (front, rear and side) caught it by surprise and both Gwer and Makhmour were liberated [6].

The Makhmour operation was also important because this area had previously been the responsibility of the Iraqi army rather than peshmerga forces. However, when IS captured Mosul and the surrounding areas, Iraqi troops fled to Baghdad through Erbil and Kirkuk. The Makmour operation was also significant as one of the first times communication with the enemy was achieved through social media, i.e. images.

The Makhmour and Gwer operations, which represented a landmark in terms of boosting the peshmerga’s then relatively low confidence, changed the course of Kurdish combat on the ground.

The Shingal operation — the second attempt of its liberation — was also a success, considering that IS had destroyed almost 80 percent of the area under their control before its liberation by the peshmerga forces. This was due to its geostrategic location as an “island” separated from the rest of the Kurdistan Region and interspersed with a smattering of approximately 100 Arab villages whose populations were occasionally supportive of IS [7]. Success was achieved in this operation through the adoption of new tactics such as ‘encirclement’ (attacking the opponent from the side or rear with a flanking manoeuvre). The Kurds also faced difficulties in this anti-IS conflict because the enemy had no clear line of defence. Furthermore, the 20 per cent of the federal budget allocated to the peshmerga by the Constitution was never distributed and, partly as a result of this, their equipment was insufficient [8].

In the Kurds’ gradual ‘learning of war’ against IS, the short-term goal has obviously been the defeat of the enemy. The long-term goal, by and large, is to defend and protect the Kurdistan Region, including its natural resources, along a border that extends for more than 1000km.

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The case of the peshmerga is important for the research, not only because of the limited number of scholarly works devoted to the subject but also due to the concentration of analysis through the lens of intra-Kurdish dichotomies and party differences and an over-reliance on historical accounts. Today the peshmerga have evolved into political and military players in their own right, especially since the onset of the brutal war by IS (through which the latter aims to establish its own structures). Therefore the role of the peshmerga represents one of the unique cases of a non-state army of a de facto state entity in interaction with regional, European and other international powers, as well as highlighting its status as one of the main forces in the confrontation with IS. The gradual development of the peshmerga into a globally recognised force, as the main victims of, and the frontier against, IS, becomes even more important when the scope of their operation and their inadequate access to external (or even internal) aid are considered.

Conclusion

The case of the peshmerga in Iraq informs the analysis of the role played by the military forces of non-state actors. The peshmerga help to implement foreign policy objectives and protect the Kurdistan Region’s interests, including its oil fields. In the context of warfare between non-state entities, these practices are in addition to their role in situations of asymmetric engagement.

The Kurdish armed forces’ objectives as part of the apparatus of foreign policy are necessarily entangled with the ultimate goal of independence. This goal is now finding expression in a range of constitutionally recognized modes, from decentralization to autonomy, and from federalism to potential confederal modes of governance. Presently the Kurdistan Region has sustained around 1,529 “martyrs” (شُهَدَاء) as well as 8,977 wounded and 62 peshmerga lost in the fighting against IS [9].

The emergence of IS as a factor in the formulation of regional policies changed the way the Kurds were hitherto fighting but also upgraded their role into an international force. The gradual evolution of peshmerga forces from an irregular to a regular army was confirmed after 2014 and the IS onslaught which began in Syria and subsequently expanded into Iraq. Thus, the rise of IS pushed both regional and international powers to cooperate with Iraq’s Kurds and in particular with their military apparatus as important figures in international counter-terrorism. Historically, peshmerga forces operated from the mountains and had the sole aim of attacking Iraqi forces in order to force their agreement to constitutional guarantees for rights and claims to self-determination. However, they have since undergone a phased development.

New asymmetrical threats, despite their devastation, have enabled the Kurds to gain experience in waging wars of different types, develop a diverse range of tactics (as determined by the needs of asymmetric fighting), and operate with more precise strategies than was hitherto the case.

Therefore the role of the peshmerga as an asset and a potential regular force (dependent on the constitutional form the KRG will take in the future) will also determine the orientation of local/regional conflicts. Iraq’s geostrategic position and the peshmerga’s ability to control border lines with both Syria and the rest of Iraq will prove key factors to the defeat of new insurgents, and safeguard the broader region in which Kurdistan is situated.

1. Dr. Sebastian Gorka, “How America will be attacked: irregular warfare, the Islamic State, Russia, and China”, Military Review, (September-October 2016) in https://oversight.house.gov/wp-content/uploads/2018/01/Gorka-IWP-Statement-1-17-NS-ISIS.pdf (last accessed March, 2018).

2. T.X. Hammes, “The Changing Character of War”, The Journal of International Security Affairs, No26, (Spring/ Summer 2014) in http://www.securityaffairs.org/issues/number-26/changing-character-war#3 (last accessed March, 2018).

3. According to KNA Law No38 (2007) Law of Service and Retirement of Peshmerga – article 1 section 9: ‘…person who participated in Kurdistan liberation revolution to achieve the democratic and national rights of Kurdistan people or may join the peshmerga force...’. More details in http://cabinet.gov.krd/uploads/documents/Kurdistan%20Oil%20and%20Gas%20Law%20English__2007_09_06_h14m0s42.pdf (last accessed March, 2018).

4. More information in http://www.iqilaw.com/draft-constitution-of-the-iraqi-kurdistan-region/ (last accessed, March 2018).

5. See http://www.au.af.mil/au/awc/awcgate/iraq/tal.htm (last accessed March, 2018).

6. Interview with Commander Najat Ali Salih, (Black Tiger Camp, Mala Qara, 2 April 2016).

7. Interview with Commander Sheikh Jafar Mustafa, Former Minister of Peshmerga Affairs [2006, 2009, 2012], Former Deputy Minister of Peshmerga Affairs [1997], (Kirkuk, 5 April 2016).

8. Interview with Commander Sirwan Barzani. (Black Tiger Camp, Mala Qara, March 30, 2016).

9. Ibid.


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