In August 2014 the Islamic State (IS) decided to break a tacit truce and attacked the Kurds in Ninewa and Diyala. The Kurds were caught off guard and gave ground before rallying their forces. The war with IS exposed the institutional flaws with the peshmerga. In January 2015 Dr. Michael Knights of the Washington Institute for Near East Policy analyzed these problems, which are due to the political divisions within Kurdistan.
The Kurdish security forces are broken up into three groups, one is under the Peshmerga Ministry, and the others are run by the two main political parties the Kurdistan Democratic Party (KDP) and the Patriotic Union of Kurdistan (PUK). There are 15 Regional Guard Brigades under the Peshmerga Ministry. Each unit is around 2,500 strong. Before 2014, most of these were not up to strength as the fighters regularly got two weeks off duty to every one on. The Kurdistan Democratic Party (KDP) and Patriotic Union of Kurdistan (PUK) have their own units as well. The KDP has the Yakray 80 with around 25,000 men. It is made up of the Hezakane Gulan, a guard for President Massoud Barzani, the Hezakane Barzan, and 10 regional brigades of around 20,000 fighters. The KDP also has a paramilitary police called the Zerevani. The PUK has the Yakray 70, which is also around 25,000 strong. One brigade is for Jalal Talabani’s protection, another is in Kirkuk, plus there is the Dizha Tiror counterterrorism unit. By late 2014 there was roughly 100,000-120,000 Kurdish men under arms. That was larger than the Iraqi Security Forces at the time, which had lost a third of its forces after the fall of Mosul and Tikrit. All of the Kurdish forces were supposed to have been integrated, and placed under the Peshmerga Ministry. The KDP and PUK gave up some of their units, but kept the best ones under their command.
The fighting with the Islamic State exposed the lack of experience and leadership within the Kurdish forces. The Kurds had built up a reputation as some of the best fighters in Iraq. This was largely based upon their history of guerrilla fighting against the central government over the previous decades. That was a long time ago however. Many of the peshmerga were young recruits with no combat experience. No commander had taken part in modern conventional warfare either, which was what they faced with the Islamic State. As John Drake from AKE Group told Reuters, the peshmerga were a checkpoint army not used to real fighting. After the August 2014 IS offensive, the KDP and PUK accused each other of whose fault it was that they had lost ground to IS. The long standing rivalry between the two along with the shock of the IS attack led the two to largely go their separate ways.
Rather than unifying their forces to meet the threat the KDP and PUK continued with their own independent policies. Neither the Peshmerga Ministry nor the Kurdistan Regional Government (KRG) were included in the early decisions on how to take on IS. That was in part due to the fact that the Change List now runs the Interior Ministry. Its relationship with the other two parties ranges from cordial to strained, which probably was the reason why it was cut out. Instead, the political parties put their top party members and relatives in charge of each front. In Ninewa for example, Deputy Premier Rowsch Shaways and Shirwan Barzani, Pres. Barzani’s nephew, were in command. In effect, the two parties were running their own wars against the Islamic State, and not the regional government, which they had spent so much time attempting to develop over the last few decades.
The Islamic State revealed many of the problems existing within Kurdistan. The two main ruling parties took it upon themselves to battle IS. The KDP and PUK came up with their own war plans, and deployed the peshmerga like private armies rather than those of Kurdistan. When faced with the threat of IS, the Peshmerga Ministry and KRG were actually ignored. Despite all the talk of the region heading towards statehood the actual institutions are still quite weak. The parties have maintained their hold over important levers of power including the security forces. If they are serious about moving towards independence they need to stop with the partisan politics, unify the peshmerga, and come up with a joint command to defeat the Islamic State.
Coles, Isabel, “Outgunned and untested for years, Kurdish peshmerga struggle,” Reuters, 8/13/14
Knights, Michael, “The Long Haul Rebooting U.S. Security Cooperation in Iraq,” Washington Institute for Near East Policy, January 2015