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The Iraqi Kurdish Security Apparatus: Vulnerability and Structure
Hamzeh Hadad and Brandon L. Wallace
Cooperation between the Kurdistan Regional Government of Iraq (KRG) and the United States has for years provided advantages on several lines of effort by coalition forces. Iraqi Kurdish forces were essential to the efforts to defeat Saddam Hussein in 2003 and such cooperation has proven effective in the war against the Islamic State of Iraq and Syria (Daesh). During the liberation of Mosul and the surrounding Nineveh province, the Nineveh Operations Command was in the Makhmour, Kurdistan region of Iraq. This operations command is significant, as it provided a rare moment of joint efforts between the Kurdish Peshmerga and the Iraqi Security Forces (ISF). Both Iraqi and American military leadership commended the level of cooperation. The joint effort was critical in the offensive to liberate Mosul beginning in October of 2016. [i]
The security apparatus of the KRG continues to provide noteworthy intelligence, combat forces, and security forces. In turn, this partnership has produced a familiar perception of the KRG’s security apparatus as homogeneous, uniformly motivated, and stable.
The KRG embraces this mythos and brands itself as the most effective force against jihadist insurgents. To some in the West, it is seen as a liberal and relatively successful de facto state- a center of tolerance and stability.
However, as a central non-state partner for the U.S., it is important to recognize the underlying fragility and divisions within the KRG defense structure along multiple faults. Moreover, it is essential to recognize the growing risk for intra-state conflict within the Kurdish Region of Iraq (KRI).
Historians debate the etymology of the term Peshmerga- an argument in which Iraqi Kurds disagree. However, in a long, complicated, and often polemic history of the Iraqi Kurdish peoples, the modern Peshmerga can be thought of as a standing, professional force forward from September 11, 1961- the beginning of the First Iraqi-Kurdish War.
Prior to the Frist and Second World War, Kurdish fighters organized under a tribal model. Their allegiance was to tribal chiefs and religious leaders rather than formal military commanders. Serious development was enacted after the founding of the modern, dominant political parties in the KRI- the Kurdistan Democratic Party (KDP) and later the Patriotic Union of Kurdistan (PUK). These organizations transformed Kurdish politics and governance throughout the mid-twentieth century.
Occasional clashes between the Iraqi army and loosely organized Iraqi Kurds persisted throughout the Iraqi monarchy from 1921 to 1958. For a brief period, under the founder of the Republic of Iraq, Abdul Karim Qasim, Iraqi and Kurdish relations witnessed peaceful coexistence and cross-ethnic identity building. Qasim’s efforts to promote Iraqi nationalism over both Arab and Kurdish nationalism burgeoned in the KRI. This effort from Baghdad was initially welcomed by Iraq’s Kurds under the leadership of Mulla Mustafa Barzani (father of current KRG President and KDP leader, Masoud Barzani). However, relations began to deteriorate again as aspirations for Kurdish independence grew stronger than Iraqi identity. This sparked the First Iraqi-Kurdish War as a low-level insurgency from 1961 to 1970. [ii]
By 1970, Kurdish nationalism saw another opportunity to secure independence as Barzani this time entered negation with a young Saddam Hussein and the Ba’athists at the helm in Baghdad. The two struck an autonomy accord that won favor with Barzani’s base supporters. Though like previous efforts, the accord was quickly wasted and fighting continued under the Second Iraqi-Kurdish War. In 1975, The United States, through Iran, stopped providing support for Barzani against Saddam Hussein under the Algiers Accord- a treaty in which Iran and Iraq agreed to cease supporting rival insurgent networks in the other’s territory. Fearing reprisal from the Ba’athists, Barzani’s followers fled to Iran while those aligned with another leader Jalal Talabani (former President of Iraq and PUK leader) fled to Syria. [iii]
In exile, Iraqi Peshmerga fighters aligned themselves with the KDP and PUK while those in Iraq were driven underground. When Talabani returned to Iraq in 1977 from Damascus, the PUK had its own standing Peshmerga under the command of the respected veteran, Ali Askari. Growing tension between the parties was staved off by the Iran-Iraq War from 1980 to 1988. In response to Iraqi Kurdish resistance to Saddam Hussein’s army, the Ba’athist commander Ali Hassan al-Majid led the al-Anfal campaign north. The ensuing Kurdish genocide devastated the KRI.
However, Iraqi Kurdish territory and Peshmerga remained essentially split between concentrations in the North (KDP in the Kurmanji-speaking Erbil and Dohuk) and the South (PUK in Sorani-speaking Sulaymaniyah). [ii]
Kurdish Peshmerga again rebelled against Baghdad while Saddam turned south to seize Kuwait in 1990. The official Kurdistan Regional Government was established in 1992. During this time, the KRG’s Kurdistan National Assembly tried to unite its highly-politicized security apparatus under the Ministry of Peshmerga Affairs. The KDP and PUK, unable to depoliticalize their militias, (and the Islamic Movement of Kurdistan) finally went to war in 1994, and the KRG was partitioned. [iii]
In a highly political civil war over revenue and territorial claims, thousands of Kurds died wherein both parties shed trans-Kurdish nationalism in favor of relative gains. Many of the advances made in the short time after 1990 were undone during the civil war between 1994 and 1998 to fuel the Peshmergas. The pursuit of wealth, property, and the revenging of bad blood hindered the Kurdish dreams of statehood. In one example, the KDP confiscated a lucrative, local cigarette factory to fund its fighters, then, to their political detriment, refused to return the private business to its former proprietors. [iii] When Saddam Hussein began smuggling petroleum north across the Habur River to Turkey, the KDP controlled territory helped facilitate at the toll of USD$ 500,000. The PUK, after failing to gain the ear of Washington, sought weapons from Iran to launch a major offensive seeking its own illicit cut. For all the trends pushing the PUK and KDP Peshmergas toward integration and away from armed conflict, consolidation never occurred.
This division is still present in the Kurdistan Regional Government. Since the U.S. invasion in 2003, the KRG has not been able to depoliticize its forces. From 2005 to the arrival of Daesh in 2011, the KRG tried to bring the security apparatus under the Ministry of Peshmerga Affairs with a legislative resolution for the abolition of partisan militaries. Yet, “at least seventy-five percent of Peshmerga forces and all of the Asayish and intelligence forces in the KRI remained under the exclusive control of KDP and PUK politburos and the partisan leadership actively resisted integration”. [iv] In late July of 2014, one week before Daesh captured Mosul and marched toward Iraqi Kurdistan’s capital of Erbil, the Kurdish parliament instructed the KRG to unify all the Peshmerga forces in six months[v] – that initiative remains unenacted.
This acrimony has only been cemented. The commanding officers of both the KDP Peshmerga and PUK Peshmerga who fought in the Iraqi Kurdish Civil War continue to harbor tension- an issue that is certain to persist. For example, the KDP operates its own military academy in Zakho while the PUK operates its own academy in Qalasholan. [v] Mustafa Saed Qadir, the current Minister of Peshmerga Affairs, works form Sulaymaniya because the KDP Peshmerga wing will not allow him to enter the KRG capital of Erbil. [vii]
The proximity of political power to the factions of the standing Peshmerga is consistently underestimated. As Middle East scholar Michael Rubin summarized efficiently, “For all the lionization of the Peshmerga, the Kurdish military, they really are no different than the Shi’ite militias which Barzani so regularly criticizes. They are more militia than army, divided by politics and owing loyalty to individual power brokers rather than a professional ministry.” [vi]
The Kurdish Security Apparatus
Kurdish security institutions outside of the Peshmerga are no less fractured in the Kurdistan Regional Government. The Kurdish mission of security, independent of Baghdad, is preserved in several key organizations.
Chief among these organizations is the Asayish, or Security- the organization which holds jurisdiction over major crimes like smuggling, espionage, and terrorism. The Asayish were established from the ranks of the Peshmerga after the 1991 uprising as the, then unified, KRG wrestled with more autonomy. However, when the Kurds fought their civil war in 1994, both the KDP and PUK established separate Asayish and separate Ministries of Interior. The parallel development of these organizations has not been reconciled. [viii] The concern that politically segregated organizations are responsible for investigating crimes like racquets leaves room for serious abuse.
The task of intelligence is left to far more covert organizations. Both the PUK and the KDP operate separate intelligence services, and as Lieutenant Colonel Dennis Chapman has argued, it is not clear either hold any codified, legal basis for their existence outside of the loose 2011 Kurdistan Regional Security Council framework. [viii] The Azhanci Parastini Asayishi Haremi Kurdistan, or simply Parastin, is a product of the KDP; the Dazgay Zanyari, or simply Zanyari, is the product of the PUK. Moreover, these groups are tasked with both internal and external threats making them politicized centers of significant power. [viii] For example, Lahur Talabany, director of the Zanyari and associated Counter Terrorism Group (CTG) (as well as nephew to Jalal Talabani, leader of the PUK), stated in 2016, “At times, we have had a better working relationship with Baghdad than we have with our counterparts in Erbil.” [ix] Meanwhile, KDP leader Masoud Barzani’s oldest son, Masrour Barzani, serves as chancellor of the Kurdistan Region Security Council.
The gendarmerie of the KRG is the Zerevani. The PUK calls its faction the Emergency Force and the KDP retain the name Zerevani. These units are, for all intents and purposes, Peshmerga forces. On paper, they are under the Interior Ministry’s control. However, Zerevani units are stationed at KDP controlled territory and the Emergency Force units are stationed at PUK controlled territory. [v]
Fragility and Vacuums
The KRG’s inability to unify Peshmerga forces under one ministerial authority invites complications with Iraq’s federal structure. Moreover, this challenge weakens the position of the KRG as an entity in negotiations with the federal government in Baghdad. Formal agreements dissolve as untenable; deep political divisions within the KRI are fixed in the structure of its institutions. Baghdad sees a KRG President well beyond term limitations, an inactive Parliament, a factional military force, and a security sector loyal to party in the north of its country. Separate negotiations and negotiators from both Erbil and Sulaymaniyah weaken and complicate power sharing.
Although political parties within the KRI seek leverage in negotiations with Baghdad, political leaders are unable to take progressive steps at the perceived expense of their party. With this framing, policy makers may interpret the actions of some KRG representatives as maneuvers to simply sustain the current level of autonomy or to increase earmarks from Baghdad.
Yet, the KDP and PUK have long threatened both Baghdad and each other. Unfortunately, this tension has erupted to clashes between forces. Last April, Kurdish forces and Shia members of the Hashd al-Shaabi (PMU) began fighting one another after a Kurdish operative was killed in an anti-Daesh mission in Tuz Khurmatu. [x] The already complicated battlefield was further obfuscated by political allegiances. In the absence of a common, existential threat, security professionals worry this event foreshadows sectarian conflict- especially if the KRG attempts to maintain a military presence in the disputed areas (Iraqi territory in which the KRG claims it is the rightful sovereign but exist outside of the KRG’s formal borders).
Neither power center welcomed the conflict. Cooler heads quickly prevailed as political and military leadership from both sides halted any further bloodshed. However, leadership should not be too quick to champion this arbitration.
The inability to cooperate without open hostility creates security vacuums. Mahmoud Sangawi, a Kurdish military commander in the Tuz Khurmatu area, stated, “We also want to set up a practical and appropriate roadmap to end up all the security concerns, daily conflicts, and shooting accidents in Tuz. We want to keep all the military forces out of the town.” [x]
Iraqis and international partners are finding it increasingly difficult to read such mixed messages. As Daesh is driven out of strategic, residential areas, it is unclear which force is responsible for more permanent security. Good security sector governance (SSG) would deem it unwise for political aligned operatives of the KRG’s security sector, or the politically aligned elements of the PMU, to patrol such areas. If the KRG refuses to roll back forces from disputed territories, political settlements with Baghdad are in serious jeopardy. In a politically divided KRI, without a unified ministerial command, it is unlikely Baghdad will view the KRG as a reliable equal for dialogue.
In March, deteriorating KDP-PUK relations culminated in a proxy-force clash in Sinjar. Syrian Kurdish fighters backed by the KDP exchanged fire with the Sinjar Resistance Units (YBS)- a majority Iraqi-Yezidi group backed by the PKK (the Kurdistan Workers Party). The PUK and the Goran support [or perhaps tolerate for tactical convenience] the PKK and YBS. [xi] If militias cannot cohabitate areas cooperatively, it is again unclear which force is responsible for more permanent security.
Politically divided forces only create a fragile peace. If two antagonistic units enter the same combat zone, in-fighting risks the creation of a security vacuum. Likewise, if two antagonistic units are instructed not to enter the same combat zone for fear of in-fighting, a vacuum surfaces.
Whether one considers the KRI as a future independent state or a prosperous region under a federal Iraq, the institutionalization and unification of the security apparatus are vital for Kurds, Iraqis, neighboring countries, and international partners. The United States and the coalition must continue efforts directed at reform for the KRG aligned forces.
In areas newly liberated from Daesh, clashes between Kurdish forces, as well as between Kurdish and non-Kurdish forces, security vacuums opened as a result of in-fighting or withdrawing. This is part of the very instability that allowed Daesh insurgents to take root in 2011. Security sector reform (SSR) within the KRI is essential for accountability moving forward. Key changes to the Iraqi Kurdish security apparatus are long overdue.
A long, troubled history has shown Iraqi Kurds are not immune from conflict with one another or with fellow Iraqis. Political uncertainty- driven by an inactive parliament, an expired presidential term limit, and institutionalized divisions – will only make the depoliticization of the Peshmerga more difficult.
[i] Clarke, Richard, Major General. Department of Defense Press Briefing by Maj. Gen. Clarke via teleconference from Baghdad, Iraq. 23 February 2016. https://www.defense.gov/News/Transcripts/Transcript-View/Article/671869/department-of-defense-press-briefing-by-maj-gen-clarke-via-teleconference-from/
[ii] McDowall, David. A Modern History of the Kurds. I.B. Tauris, 2004. 23-24, 252-255, 300- 392
[iii] Rubin, Michael. Kurdistan Rising? Considerations for Kurds, Their Neighbors, and the Region. Washington, DC: American Enterprise Institute, 2016. 11-13, 28-32, 96
[iv] Connelly, Megan. On the legality of the security forces of the Kurdistan Region, NRT. 4 May 2014. http://www.nrttv.com/EN/birura-details.aspx?Jimare=5868
[v] Fumerton and Van Wilgenburg. Kurdistan's Political Armies: The Challenges of Unifying the Peshmerga Forces, The Carnegie Endowment Middle East Center. 16 Dec 2015. http://carnegieendowment.org/files/ACMR_WilgenburgFumerton_Kurdistan_English_final.pdf
[vi] Rubin, Michael. Independent Kurdistan would be a failed state, American Enterprise Institute. 30 June 2017. https://www.aei.org/publication/independent-kurdistan-would-be-a-failed-state/
[vii] Helfont, Samuel. Getting Peshmerga Reform Right: Helping the Iraqi Kurds to Help Themselves in Post-ISIS Iraq, Foreign Policy Research Institute. 16 May 2017. https://www.fpri.org/article/2017/05/getting-peshmerga-reform-right-helping-iraqi-kurds-help-post-isis-iraq/
[viii] Chapman, Dennis P. Security Forces of the Kurdistan Regional Government. U.S. Army War College, 2009. http://www.dtic.mil/get-tr-doc/pdf?AD=ADA510826 204
[ix] Editorial Staff. Iraqi Kurdistan intelligence chief Lahur Jangi Talabani, interview, Ekurd Daily News. 23 November 2016. http://ekurd.net/kurdistan-lahur-talabani-2016-11-23
[x] Iraq Oil Report Staff. Kurd-Hashid rivalries again explode into violence. Tuz Khurmatu: Iraq Oil Report, 24 April 2016. http://www.iraqoilreport.com/news/kurd-hashid-rivalries-explode-violence-18704/
[xi] Natali, Denise. Is Iraqi Kurdistan heading toward civil war? Al-Monitor, 3 January 2017. http://www.al-monitor.com/pulse/originals/2017/01/kurdistan-civil-war-iraq-krg-sulaimaniya-pkk-mosul-kurds.html
[xii] Pollack, Kenneth. The Threatening Storm: What Every American Needs to Know Before an Invasion in Iraq. New York, NY: Random House, 2003. 87