Home / Articles / Peshmerga Reforms: Navigating Challenges, Forging Unity
Iraqi Kurdistan Peshmerga reform has made some progress, but major steps still need to be taken.
Internal Kurdish divisions and tensions with Baghdad have slowed down the process, preventing further professionalization of the Peshmerga and a stronger relationship with the international coalition.
The consequences of failure would impact regional security from external threats and increase chances of intra-Kurdish conflict, erode US-Iraq/Kurdistan relations, and cast a pall on the economy of Iraq’s Kurdistan region, due to lack of confidence from international investors.
The Peshmerga—“those willing to face death”—a term resonating with Kurdish valor, traces its origins to the twentieth-century struggle for Kurdish rights in Iraq. Amidst this fight, the Kurdistan Democratic Party (KDP) and the Patriotic Union of Kurdistan (PUK) emerged as powerful entities, each with its own Peshmerga forces. The major contemporary parties of Iraqi Kurdistan, the KDP and PUK developed their separate Peshmerga forces when they were in the opposition fighting the pre-2003 regimes in Iraq. Over the decades, relations between the KDP and PUK have fluctuated between armed conflict, alliance, and political tensions. More recently, despite pivotal moments that could have unified them, persisting divisions have prevented this. The Peshmerga remained fragmented due to partisan units such as the KDP’s 80 Unit and the PUK’s 70 Unit operating outside the Kurdistan Regional Government’s Ministry of Peshmerga Affairs (MoPA) that came into existence after the Kurdish uprising in 1991. Today, Iraq’s Kurdistan Region is divided between de facto Yellow (KDP) and Green (PUK) security zones patrolled by partisan Peshmerga units as well as MoPA Peshmerga forces.
Peshmerga’s Crucial Role in the Fight Against the Islamic State
In 2014, the Islamic State posed a global threat sweeping across Iraq and Syria, necessitating a united front. The Kurdistan Region’s Peshmerga stood as a frontline defense, with Islamic State scouts within a thirty-minute drive of Erbil. Over 1,300 Peshmerga fighters made the ultimate sacrifice, and upwards of 8,000 were wounded, defending their homeland against the terrorist onslaught. During the Battle of Mosul, with US-led Coalition support, Peshmerga joined the Iraqi Security Forces, Counter-Terrorism Service, Mosul SWAT, and Hashd al-Shaabi (Popular Mobilization Forces) to liberate the city. However, long-term Peshmerga effectiveness was hampered by internal divisions. Recognizing this challenge, the international community acknowledged the need for a unified and professional Peshmerga force.
Genesis of Peshmerga Reforms: 2017 and the Memorandum of Understanding
The talk of creating a unified Kurdish Peshmerga forces goes back to the very beginning of KRG’s formation in 1991 and was revived following the end of the Kurdish civil war and unification of the KDP-PUK administrations in 2005. The year 2017 marked a transformative initiative. The United States, United Kingdom, Germany, and the Netherlands launched the Peshmerga reform program, seeking to create a strong and unified defense force. The KRG entered into a thirty-five point agreement with its international partners that emphasized institutional reforms. A key aspect was bringing partisan KDP and PUK units under the MoPA, fostering unity. Financial support, training, and equipment divestments from the US-led Combined Joint Task Force-Operations Inherent Resolve played a crucial role in spurring and sustaining these reform initiatives.
The 2022 Memorandum of Understanding: A Renewed Commitment
In 2022, a pivotal moment arrived with the signing of a new, four-year memorandum of understanding (MOU) between the US Department of Defense and MoPA. This MOU outlined stringent conditions and strict timelines, highlighting the international community’s unwavering commitment to the Peshmerga reforms.
A joint statement released by the Pentagon and MoPA stated, “the MOU outlines progress achieved on critical institutional reforms and the Ministry of Peshmerga Affairs’ commitment to undertake additional reforms to advance the professionalization of its forces.”
Under the MOU, the MoPA undertook comprehensive reforms crucial for continued US Department of Defense support:
Integration of Partisan Units: The MOU emphasized the integration of partisan units associated with the KDP and PUK into the unified Peshmerga structure under MoPA. This integration aimed to dissolve historical political divisions, fostering cohesion and unity within the armed forces.
Biometric Enrollment of Soldiers: A critical reform mandated by the MOU was the biometric enrollment of all Peshmerga soldiers into the MoPA personnel system. This step ensured accurate records, preventing fictitious employees and enhancing transparency in the allocation of resources.
Transition to Electronic Funds Transfer: The MOU set a stringent deadline, requiring the ministry to transition to electronic funds transfer for paying Peshmerga soldiers by October 2024. This shift streamlined the payment process, reducing the risk of financial irregularities while ensuring that funds reached the intended recipients efficiently.
Stipend Payments and Compliance: A significant aspect of the MOU was the provision related to stipend payments. The Department of Defense committed to providing financial assistance to the MoPA, subject to specific conditions. MoPA forces were required to adhere to US laws and regulations, as well as international human rights laws, ensuring that the assistance provided was utilized responsibly and ethically. The MOU outlined a gradual reduction in stipend payments, with the US Department of Defense intending to cease payments by September 2026. These stringent conditions underscored the Department of Defense’s commitment to supporting the Peshmerga reforms, emphasizing accountability and transparency.
Examples of Progress for Peshmerga Reforms
In the past year, MoPA has made important steps toward achieving reforms.
A total of twenty-eight Regional Guard Brigades have been unified, including Brigades 15, 17, 18, 19, 21, 22, 23, 24, 26, and 30. Brigades 25 and 27 are nearing completion. This process, overseen by the coalition forces and MoPA, involved meticulous assessments and categorizations, ensuring a streamlined, cohesive force.
Two division headquarters have been established, enhancing command and control over regional guard brigades. (Note: Staffing shortfalls remain due to intransigence about how many partisan Peshmerga officers will fill critical roles)
The Ministry of Peshmerga Affairs and partisan Peshmerga units provided a comprehensive list of military equipment for each brigade.
Biometric enrollment of Peshmerga personnel exceeded 85 percent, emphasizing the commitment to accurate record-keeping, security, and transparency.
MoPA has submitted a four-year budget request to KRG for a single line of accounting to sustain a 125,000 unified Peshmerga force structure. (Note: Funds are not allocated yet)
Prime Minister Masrour Barzani has also initiated the “My Account” KRG-wide program for electronic funds transfers for salaries.
Critical reforms are stalled or behind schedule including:
Plans for two additional MoPA division headquarters are not yet approved–including the headquarters physical location and span of control (or operating area).
No final agreement on reorganizing 70s and 80s force structure into MoPA Peshmerga.
The United States, KRG, MoPA, and 70s and 80s Peshmerga are in the final stages of creating an annual assessment model.
Conclusion: A Path Forward
The journey of Peshmerga reforms embodies a collective commitment to unity and professionalization, vital for a stable Iraq and Kurdistan region. Despite challenges, these reforms signify determination to overcome historical divisions and build an effective defense force. With international support and unwavering dedication, the Peshmerga continue safeguarding the Kurdistan region, contributing to the enduring defeat of the Islamic State, and paving the way for a secure future. But, in many ways, the delays in implementing reforms magnify the ongoing intra-Kurdish political disputes as well as historic differences and friction between Iraq’s central government in Baghdad and the Kurdistan Regional Government. Amid all this, it is important to keep in mind that Pentagon leaders are keeping score, and American lawmakers may grow weary and wary of continuing to pump millions of dollars into MoPA’s budget without seeing more progress with reforms .
Author’s note: Since retiring from the US Army, I have met formally and informally with leaders of the Ministry of Peshmerga, as well as members of 70s and 80s Peshmerga in cities across Iraqi Kurdistan, Washington, D.C., and the US Army War College. Regardless of affiliation, each of the Peshmerga officers conveyed the urgency for implementing reforms; however, political impasses remain. Compounding these issues are budgetary disputes between Baghdad and Erbil, friction with Hashd al-Shaabi in the Article 140 disputed areas, and ongoing pressure from neighboring countries. The rank-and-file Peshmerga units are the most hindered by the slow pace of reforms; however, the elite Counter-terrorism Group, Counter-Terrorism Directorate, and Asayish are also impacted by uncertainty with budgets and lack of centralized command and control for operations. My former US government colleagues have expressed growing frustration with the snail’s pace of Peshmerga reforms, but the strong advocacy from the KRG’s Washington, D.C. office has resulted in continued congressional support. Amidst the volatility in the Middle East, it’s likely America will deepen its presence and partnership with KRG in the near term.
The views expressed in this article are those of the author alone and do not necessarily reflect the position of the Foreign Policy Research Institute, a non-partisan organization that seeks to publish well-argued, policy-oriented articles on American foreign policy and national security priorities.