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The Peshmerga Regression

How U.S. Aid Is Undermining Years of Progress Professionalizing the Force

A military officer from coalition forces demonstrates a tin-can telephone during a training session with Peshmerga in the outskirts of Dohuk province, April 7, 2015. Ari Jalal / Reuters

The West, believing that Iraq’s Kurdish forces, known as the peshmerga, are its best hope in Iraq, has been sending them millions of dollars in weapons and training. But because of the way in which those weapons have been channeled to the Kurds, the assistance is undermining the U.S.-led campaign and threatening to undo a decade of progress in turning the peshmerga into a professional force. Ultimately, it will render the Kurds a less effective partner.

The military aid is uncoordinated, unbalanced, unconditional, and unmonitored. Because of the lack of oversight on weapons’ allocation, and because the weapons come with no strings attached, officials can direct them to their own affiliated peshmerga forces, empowering loyalist officers and entangling the rest of the officer corps in petty rivalries. All this distracts the peshmerga from the real task at hand: assessing, preparing for, and countering terrorist threats. To fix the problem, the U.S.-led coalition should place any assistance under a single command, under civilian control and away from political rivalries.   

THE WILD 90S

Kurdish Peshmerga fighters conduct war exercises near the Iraqi town of Dohuk in this April 1991 file picture.
Kurdish Peshmerga fighters conduct war exercises near the Iraqi town of Dohuk in this April 1991 file picture. Reuters
Efforts to reform these peshmerga into a professional defense force had been long underway by the time ISIS took over swathes of territory along the border with Iraqi Kurdistan in June 2014. In the 1990s, after the Kurdish region gained de facto autonomy from Baghdad, and following several years of internecine conflict, the two strongest Kurdish parties, the Patriotic Union of Kurdistan (PUK) and the Kurdistan Democratic Party (KDP), established rival military academies in their respective territorial strongholds of Qala Chwalan and Zakho.

Both parties enrolled Kurdish former Iraqi army officers, who broke away from the Iraqi army during Saddam Hussein’s rule. They helped organize peshmerga fighters into battalions and the top staff leadership into military ranks. Each force focused on defending their own territories from the Iraqi army incursions, which increased Kurdistan’s autonomy from Baghdad—and their independence from (and enmity toward) each other.  

A Kurdish peshmerga fighter guards a checkpoint close to the frontline, east of Kirkuk where Iraqi government troops are stationed in the north of the country on March 31, 2003.
A Kurdish peshmerga fighter guards a checkpoint close to the frontline, east of Kirkuk where Iraqi government troops are stationed in the north of the country on March 31, 2003. Nikola Solic / Reuters
After Saddam was ousted in 2003, the peshmerga began to

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