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.