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Should a national army be KRG’s prerequisite for statehood?

By Paul Iddon 26/10/2015
Peshmerga soldiers hoist the Kurdistan flag over the mayor's office in the town of Makhmour after its liberation from ISIS militants, August 2014. Rudaw photo
Peshmerga soldiers hoist the Kurdistan flag over the mayor's office in the town of Makhmour after its liberation from ISIS militants, August 2014. Rudaw photo

In recent months the building of a unified non-politicised Peshmerga army in Iraqi Kurdistan has been advocated by analysts. Writing recently in the New York Times, journalist Aliza Marcus and analyst Andrew Apostolou summed up how the One Iraq policy has, absurdly, seen Iraq's Kurds being provided only small amounts of weaponry and training while they fight to defend a lengthy battlefront against ISIS.

They put forward the case that closely supporting a Ministry of Peshmerga program aimed at building a nonpartisan Peshmerga army is the best policy for Washington to pursue. They point out the drawbacks of having a fighting force essentially split along the lines of the two major parties in Iraqi Kurdistan and the benefits of something resembling more of a national army for defeating ISIS. So far this program has seen under a thousand volunteers joining three new Peshmerga brigades the U.S. is sponsoring. Washington has provided the Ministry of Peshmerga at least $180 million worth of arms after a year of fighting ISIS.

In the wake of the calamitous fiasco that was Washington's $500 million train-and-equip program for Syria however, one is hesitant about advocating the establishment of an entirely new force instead of working with the forces already there for the simple reason that establishing a new army is invariably much easier said than done especially in the midst of a challenging war.

Nevertheless the notion of a unified quasi-state Kurdish national army is an interesting one and is well worth evaluating. And it is definitely something that needs to be understood if the Kurdistan Region does opt to cede completely from the rest of Iraq and declare independence in the not-too-distant future.

There is an apt historical analogy that is worth considering whereby a newly polity had to merge paramilitaries into a unified national army under the command and control of a civilian government. That polity was the State of Israel.

Shortly after Israel declared independence in May 1948 the new government immediately sought to consolidate its control through the establishment of a singular state army which replaced the plethora of different armed Jewish paramilitary groups which existed before Israel became a state. The predominant one, the Haganah paramilitary, along with the right-wing Irgun and the Lehi paramilitaries, were merged into the new Israeli Defense Forces (IDF) and their independent organizational structures dismantled (some were not even allowed to gather to hold commemoration ceremonies).

This difficult process took place as the newly independent Israeli state fought off five invading Arab armies. That single incident saw the first Israeli government under Prime Minister David Ben Gurion forcibly assert its authority when it directly confronted Irgun fighters importing arms from France aboard the cargo ship Altalena. The government shelled the ship and IDF soldiers and Irgun militia briefly engaged in a firefight leaving three soldiers and sixteen militiamen dead. Had things escalated or deteriorated further it could possibly have led to more destabilizing infighting or perhaps even a civil war.

Retrospectively the government's reigning in the militia groups is viewed as a decisive moment in Israel's foundation and its ability to survive since then. Many former members of those paramilitaries would go on to be the elected leaders of the Jewish state and political rivalries have been fought out both democratically and diplomatically in the Israeli parliament. Some Israelis argue to this day that if the Palestinians are to get an independent state of their own they will need to have a similar 'Altalena moment' to ensure that state isn't convulsed by infighting or a civil war of its own.

If Iraqi Kurdistan becomes an independent nation state in the near future something like the kind of military force Marcus and Apostolou proposed should replace the two Peshmerga forces that exist today. However for the meantime the U.S. should seek to support, and deal primarily with, the existing forces in the pre-state KRG region today rather than waiting for the establishment of a more favourable on-the-ground military force to work with tomorrow.

Paul Iddon is a freelance journalist and political writer who writes on Middle East affairs, politics, developments and history.

The views expressed in this article are those of the author and do not necessarily reflect the position of Rudaw.


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kurt basar | 26/10/2015
Kurds of the berjer should have done that long time ago, if they are truly sincere to have an independent sovereign Kurdistan. It is sad & surprising that Kurds who are from cradle of civilization, still to these days don't have an united army under one command, one capital which is Erbil & working an elected parliament under Mr. Barzani, who is well known & respected internationally. Kurds instead of fighting among themselves should let & help the Mr. M. Barzani to accomplish his quest, which is an independent sovereign Kurdistan at these historical times for their future, even if he is a dictator or feudal lord.
M Gonzales
M Gonzales | 26/10/2015
Kurdistan made two huge mistakes years ago that are haunting you today and could effect your very survival. When the modern Iraq was created after Saddam's fall you agreed to 17% of the budget but left it to Baghdad's good Grace's to be honest (Could not be helped at the time). The second was to agree too leave it too Baghdad too arm the constitutional Peshmerga. What ended up happening then AND NOW, was the Arabs not equipping or paying for your "army" like how they were supposed too. The Arabs figure correctly that if they don't equip the Peshmerga overtime there tanks, artillery and munitions would become more and more decrepit until at some point you are back to having only old rifles like in the past and pose less of a threat too "there" oil. A modern Army that's the constitutional appointed protectors of Kurdistan should be able too buy and maintain a modern force. Modern Tanks, Atgm, Sam's, Sam's, Attack Helicopters, Munitions ect. Before ISIS Baghdad had you under a Arm's embargo and right now grudgingly allow limited Arm's but make no mistake after ISIS Baghdad will go back to a Arm's Embargo and let the Peshmerga wither away to nothing then roll in. Yes you need a Army with one Uniform, one flag, no political allegiance that can purchase, maintain itself independently.
Snowbird | 26/10/2015
The Kurds are the best allies the Americans have. They've known it for a while but because of their NATO commitments are finding it difficult to reconcile with the NATO obligations. Its a tight rope they have to negotiate, but I believe in the end the Kurdish Connection will be the winner. They know it, we know it , the world knows it. There is no other alternative but to have a Kurdish State.
Unified | 26/10/2015
Good Article! The KRG must form one national army, that is one main topic in the coming years. The peshmerga troops must be organized to one army and involved in the Nationbuilding and State millitary structures as a unified representative of executive state power, besides police, in KRG. Israel, USA, Europe will be partner and allies of Kurdistan! They can support this process, Israel has managed it, KRG will too!
dutchnational | 26/10/2015
One army for one nation is a sound principle. Giving the PUK militia to the KDP is no olution as it then remains a party militia. The whole connections between politics and militia should be cut, including the KDP. Army should be controlled by the government and government stands or falls depending on parliamentory support. That is the only way. In theory in Rojava they have the better structure.
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