Born out of the struggle for Kurdish independence in the 1940s, the Peshmerga are the military force of Kurdistan, an autonomous region in Northern Iraq (and also semi-autonomous/disputed in Turkey, Iran, and Syria). Founded by Mustafa Barzani (a central figure in the fight for Kurdistan’s sovereignty), the group seeks to continue the Kurdish warrior’s tradition to protect their region. The group has played vital roles in fighting terrorism in Iraq, helping to defeat al-Qaeda and playing a key role in the fight against ISIS (5). Despite their commitment to fighting regional insurgents, the group is plagued with financial irregularities and internal corruption, which are a limiting factor in achieving international legitimacy (10). The group’s name translates to “those who face death” and exemplifies their commitment (as they see it) to the cause of an independent Kurdistan and the protection of its people.
History & Foundations
Originally comprised of independent guerilla groups, the Peshmerga was consolidated under the control of Mustafa Barzani in 1946 and designated as the national army of the Republic of Mahabad (1). While the Republic of Mahabad proved to be short-lived as it ended a year after its inception, the Peshmerga remained in place as Iraqi Kurdistan’s primary military force (4). After a period of relative inactivity, the Peshmerga emerged again during the Second Iraqi-Kurdish War, where they suffered a defeat that fractured the group along party lines.
The two parties -- the Kurdistan Democratic Party (KDP) and the Patriotic Union Kurdistan (PUK) -- were substantially different, with the left-leaning PUK splitting from the big-tent tribalist KDP (3). This split would erupt in violence with the start of the Iraqi-Kurdish Civil War in 1994, with the KDP and the PUK at the center of the conflict. The international community took sides, with the KDP receiving support from Israel and Iraq and the PUK supported by both Iran and the United States. While the conflict lasted three years, the fault lines have remained intact and the Peshmerga henceforth continues to experience internal divisions.
Despite ongoing internal political tensions, the group has played a prominent role in every Iraqi conflict since their inception, most notably the Iraq War and the Iraqi-ISIS War. The United States’ toppling of Saddam Hussein’s regime was thoroughly supported by the Peshmerga, as the group provided intelligence and military support in the mission to capture the Iraqi leader (13). Moreover, the Peshmerga aided the assassination of Osama Bin Laden; by working directly with the CIA, Peshmerga forces captured Hassan Ghul, an al-Qaeda member who worked directly with bin Laden. Through interrogations led by the Kurds, Ghul revealed the identity of bin Laden’s personal courier, Abu Ahmed al-Kuwaiti (11). After interrogating the latter, the CIA then learned the location of Bin Laden’s compound which enabled the US to carry out a successful raid on his Abbottabad house. Another instance where the Peshmerga fought against terrorism includes the Iraqi-ISIS War, where Kurdish forces fought on the front lines to repel their attacks in Northern Iraq (3). Widely being considered as the most effective force fighting against ISIS, the Peshmerga continue to work with international organizations such as Center for Civilians in Conflict to eliminate what remains of ISIS (7).
Despite their success fighting the ISIS insurgency, the Peshmerga continue to be steeped in corruption and fraud, in particular the use of “ghost employees”. This term is used to describe the group’s use of fraudulent soldiers that are used for the purpose of inflating the size of their forces, which results in excess funding. These funds are often then divided amongst group leaders, which leads to less real support for their troops (10).
Objectives & Ideology
Since its very early roots, the Peshmerga have existed as both the Kurdish defense force and as a sort of ambiguous rebel group with nationalist interests. This duality was a major cause of the strife that has politically and geographically divided the group. Since the 1991 Gulf War, however, Kurdistan has mostly been respected as an autonomous region operating under a unified government. After the first Kurdish general election in 1992, the PUK and KDP each received roughly half of the votes, with both parties agreeing to a power-sharing arrangement (6). As a result of this arrangement, the Peshmerga would no longer act as a fragmented militia (on paper), but instead as a united Kurdish defense force. The real outcome of this arrangement, nonetheless, was quite different as made clear by the 1994 civil war that saw the Peshmerga at war with itself. While fighting ended in 1998, the Peshmerga remains solidly split between the KDP and PUK, with each party commanding their own forces (6).
Political & Military Capabilities
Although officially designated as the Kurdish military, very little has changed in the operations of the Peshmerga forces since their days as a militia group. For instance, loosely-organized units aligned by political parties make up the decentralized group, which poses significant challenges in fighting against major threats. Much like the Peshmerga, Kurdistan is currently divided into two zones; a KDP-controlled “yellow” zone and a PUK-controlled “green” zone (7). As a result of this arrangement, there is no central leadership within the group, and each zone has their own commanders that operate without communicating with the other party. This hampers the ability for the Peshmerga to respond effectively to outside threats and makes them especially vulnerable to intrastate conflict.
Due to the group’s internal and political separation, funding is limited. This forces the Peshmerga to cut down on the training of its troops and on the purchasing of modern equipment. Since the majority of the Kurdish territory is still legally and constitutionally a part of Iraq (and the other nations through which the geo-cultural region spreads) the Peshmerga have been required to purchase their weaponry through the Iraqi government, which is often complicated by internal politics (6). Most Peshmerga soldiers relied on weapons left behind by the fleeing Iraqi military after their failed attempts to expel ISIS from Mosul in 2014 (7). In 2016 the group began to receive modern arms from the United States and its coalition, but support was often unfairly divided amongst the units (11). Consequently, the group is at a great disadvantage in dealing with more substantial threats, such as Iran for instance.
Approach to Resistance
Since their formal designation as the Kurdish defense forces, the Peshmerga have been engaged in multiple significant disputes, most recently the Iraq-ISIS conflict and the ongoing strife with Iran. While the fragmented structure of the group presents challenges, the Peshmerga have been successful in all of their recent battles, most notably defeating ISIS in 2017. Initially, the group was unprepared for an assault from ISIS, but in conjunction with the United States the group was able to emerge victorious. Because of their experience engaged in battle locally, the group was able to use their knowledge of the environment in order to launch a guerilla warfare campaign against ISIS fighters (5). Recently, the Peshmerga have had to revitalize their approach to fighting, as the Iranian military has begun firing on Kurdish cities with missiles (2). Although Peshmerga forces have not yet responded to this attack, they remain alert, notably in the areas surrounding the shared border.
While many world powers are hesitant to formally align themselves with the Peshmerga due to Kurdistan’s nation status, the United States has remained committed to the group for almost two decades. While their relationship became solidified after the successful military operations against ISIS strongholds, the alliance began during the Iraq War (13). Peshmerga intelligence was vital in the war against the Iraqi government, and proved invaluable in toppling Saddam’s regime. In September of 2022, the United States renewed both their financial and military commitment to the group, and met with top Kurdish officials to reaffirm their relationship in fighting ISIS splinter cells (8). The newly signed memorandum lays out the guidelines for this support and sets a four year timetable for their joint operations. Though the future remains unknown, it is probable that the United States will continue a contingent alliance with the group as Western powers struggle to maintain regional influence.
Works Cited (Chicago-style)
(1) - Abdulla, Mufid. “Mahabad – the First Independent Kurdish Republic.” The Kurdistan Tribune, 12 June 2011, https://kurdistantribune.com/mahabad-first-independent-kurdish-republic/.
(2) - AFP, Staff Writer. “Seven Dead in Iran Strikes on Iraqi Kurdistan: Ministry.” The Defense Post, 28 Sept. 2022, www.thedefensepost.com/2022/09/28/iran-strikes-iraqi-kurdistan-2/
(3) - “Kurdish Peshmerga: Divided from Within.” Harvard Political Review, 5 Sept. 2015, https://harvardpolitics.com/kurdish-peshmerga-divided-within/.
(4) - Aziz, Sardar, and Andrew Cottey. “The Iraqi Kurdish Peshmerga: Military Reform and Nation-Building in a Divided Polity.” Taylor & Francis, 15 Feb. 2021, https://www.tandfonline.com/doi/full/10.1080/14702436.2021.1888644
(5) - Charountaki, Marianna. “From Resistance to Military Institutionalization: The Case of the Peshmerga versus the Islamic State.” Third World Quarterly, vol. 39, no. 8, 20 Apr. 2018, pp. 1583–1603, 10.1080/01436597.2018.1449633.
(6) - Council on Foreign Relations. “Timeline: The Kurds’ Quest for Independence.” Council on Foreign Relations, www.cfr.org/timeline/kurds-long-struggle-statelessness.
(7) - Fliervoet, Feike. “The Evolution of the Peshmerga | Fighting for Kurdistan?” Clingendael.org, Mar. 2018, www.clingendael.org/pub/2018/fighting-for-kurdistan/2-the-evolution-of-the-peshmerga/
(8) - Garamone, Jim. “DOD, Kurdish Peshmerga Continue Partnership to Fight ISIS.” U.S. Department of Defense, 27 Sept. 2022, www.defense.gov/News/News-Stories/Article/Article/3171097/dod-kurdish-peshmerga-continue-partnership-to-fight-isis/
(9) - Hamasaeed, Sarhang, and Garrett Nada. “Iraq Timeline: Since the 2003 War.” United States Institute of Peace, 29 May 2020, www.usip.org/iraq-timeline-2003-war.
(10) - Helfont, Samuel. “Getting Peshmerga Reform Right: HelPing the Iraqi Kurds to Help Themselves in Post-Isis Iraq.” 2017.
(11) - “Kurdish Peshmerga.” The Kurdish Project, 2 Aug. 2016, https://thekurdishproject.org/history-and-culture/kurdish-nationalism/kurdish-peshmerga/
(12) - Muhammedally, Sahr. “Peshmerga: 'We Must Uphold Our Values and Protect Civilians in Defeating Daesh'.” Center for Civilians in Conflict, 17 Aug. 2016, https://civiliansinconflict.org/blog/peshmerga-we-must-uphold-our-values-and-protect-civilians-in-defeating-daes/.
(13) - Robson, Seth. “Kurdish Peshmerga Getting Heavy Weapons for Mosul Push.” Stars and Stripes, 13 Apr. 2016, www.stripes.com/news/kurdish-peshmerga-getting-heavy-weapons-for-mosul-push-1.404284.