Peshmerga in Kirkuk. File photo: Rudaw
The Ministry of Peshmerga's move to reunify
troops under its command after the fall of Kirkuk is indeed a positive step which needs to be followed by a gradual and incremental unification of all Peshmerga under a single central command – the standard setup for any army. However, this is easier said than done since neither of Kurdistan's two most powerful parties want to risk relinquishing command-and-control over their forces.
"Given the current dispute between the Patriotic Union of Kurdistan (PUK) and the Kurdistan Democratic Party (KDP) over the fallout of the September independence referendum, I don't think the Peshmerga will unify anytime soon," analyst and Musings on Iraq author Joel Wing told Rudaw English.
"The two parties agreed to do this years ago, and while the Peshmerga Ministry had some mixed units the best ones were kept under party control," he elaborated. "The two are simply unwilling to give up command of their best forces."
The Ministry of Peshmerga Affairs has roughly up to 42,000
Peshmerga under its command, according to pre-Kirkuk statistics, but the primary forces in the region remain evenly divided between the KDP and PUK. The KDP's 80th Brigade has at least 58,000 Peshmerga troops as does the PUK's 70th Brigade, both of which fall under separate commands of the respective leaderships in Erbil and Sulaimani. Past efforts to unify all of the Peshmerga under one central command overseen by the Kurdistan Regional Government (KRG) have failed.
Lack of a unified command over the Peshmerga is ultimately bad for Kurdistan since it is likely to render a force of as many as 150,000 troops far less formidable on the battlefield. Furthermore, it substantially limits the power of elected leaders in Kurdistan since they do not have control over all of their region's armed forces. For example, when Masoud Barzani was Kurdistan's president he was officially commander-in-chief of all of Kurdistan's Peshmerga forces but in reality his command only applied to the KDP Peshmerga in Erbil and Duhok. (Barzani sought to place the Peshmerga "under a single, unified command" in August 2014
, in light of the ISIS threat, but this hasn't yet happened.)
Senior PUK official Mala Bakhtiyar recently told Rudaw that his party expects to suffer losses in upcoming elections. This, he affirmed, doesn't really matter to them since they will retain control
over the intelligence and Peshmerga forces in their areas to consolidate their strength and influence.
"We will be the Patriotic Union of Kurdistan if we win one seat, and we will be the Patriotic Union of Kurdistan if we win 100 seats," he said. "Neither in Iraq can anyone make a decision about the fate of the Kurdistan Region without the Patriotic Union of Kurdistan, nor in the Kurdistan Region can any one party make a decision without the Patriotic Union of Kurdistan."
A state-of-affairs whereby either the PUK or KDP can retain complete control over their respective powerful Peshmerga brigades regardless of how much electoral support they have is problematic for many salient reasons.
The Kirkuk debacle last October, which saw the Kurds lose the entire province in a single day, is widely blamed on elements within the PUK leadership who allegedly made a secret Iran-brokered deal with Baghdad. The PUK were the predominant military force in the province between June 2014 and October 2017 and had several thousand Peshmerga ready, and willing, to fight in defense of the province.
"A lot has been said about what happened on October 16th and the humiliating Kurdish withdrawal from Kirkuk," Yerevan Saeed, a Kurdish affairs analyst at the Middle East Research Institute, told Rudaw English. "The general conventional thinking and agreement is that some elements within PUK leadership did collude with Iraqi government. Obviously the PUK had feared the KDP's increasing influence in Kirkuk, especially after 2014. Thus this wing of PUK thought that withdrawal from Kirkuk will thwart KDP's efforts to control Kirkuk in the future."
This completely backfired, Saeed explained, since the PUK evidently "hoped that Baghdad would allow them to return to do business as usual. But they were mistaken. Now the PUK is not allowed to go back to Kirkuk. Like the KDP it lost all its military, political and intelligence influence in the province."
Lack of Peshmerga unity clearly played a major role in that humiliating loss of Kirkuk. It was also a striking reminder of the risks and pitfalls that continually retaining the region's armed forces under different commands by different political parties with different, even diverging, agendas and objectives poses to the region.
"Unfortunately, lack of a unitary vision by Kurdish leadership and double-dealing have always been the Achilles heel of the Kurds historically," Saeed concluded by lamenting. "What happened in Kirkuk was just another episode."
Although the KDP leadership did publicly allude to betrayal in Kirkuk, it rarely mentioned the PUK by name. Kurdistan's incumbent leader, Prime Minister Nechirvan Barzani of the KDP, has consistently stressed the importance of unity under the subtle understanding that a civil war between the two powerful armed parties, like the one in the mid-1990s, would prove calamitous for them and for Kurdistan as a whole.
One way to insure against such an outcome is the long overdue unification of the Peshmerga which will help them realize their full capability and potential as a standing army ready to defend against any future threats to their nation.