In 1988, the Baathist regime of Iraq subjected more than a quarter of the Iraqi Kurds to one of the worst crimes of the last century. In the so-called Anfal campaign more than 182,000 people were buried alive, sold, or disappeared. Acquaintances of the victims are still living with the hope that their relatives will one day come back.
Iraqi Kurds are still vulnerable. The Kurdish-Yazidi genocide of 2014 is a conspicuous case. Currently, the Kurdistan Region of Iraq (KRI) is more divided and weakened than ever before. The KRI maintains a massive security service but is unable to protect its population and territory. The Peshmerga forces were initially organized in 1943 By Mustafa Barzani to secure Kurdish rights in Iraq. However, Barzani fled Iraq, crossed the border to Iran, and pledged allegiance to defend the newly established Republic of Mahabad and preserve its freedom. The republic fell and its president Qazi Muhammad was executed in public. Similarly, the KRI’s Peshmerga failed to save the Iraqi Kurds and large swathes of its territory. In other words, when military security is in ruins, it renders the rest of the security services redundant.
After the conclusion of the Iran-Iraq War, most Iraqi forces were left idle to crush the Kurdish revolution that the Baathist regime had been fighting since 1976. Baghdad concluded a short but imbalanced agreement with Iran, the 1975 Algiers Accords, to crush the Kurdish revolution in the 1960s. However, Saddam’s strategy shifted to noncombatants, believing that the revolution was equal to the Iraqi Kurds; he began a campaign of ethnic cleansing. The campaign was preceded by the Halabja Chemical Bombardment in March of the same year in which 5,000 people were gassed to death.
Anfal is the name of the eighth Surah of the Quran which translates into spoils of war. Baathists considered the Kurds infidels to justify confiscating their lives and property as spoils of war. The Anfal campaign lasted eight months from February to September 1988. According to captured documents by Kurdish revolutionaries, the Anfal genocide reveals a well-organized campaign including prison camps, firing squads, weapons of mass destruction, and the indiscriminate destruction of some 2,000 villages and looting of property. Water resources including springs and estuaries were demolished in meticulously engineered acts to prevent repopulation. Even though there were about 6,000 Peshmerga fighters, the campaign didn’t confront significant resistance, and almost all Peshmerga were forced out of the KRI.
Just like the Peshmerga failed to protect their supporters in the 1980s, its more modernized, more funded, and more equipped version failed to prevent the Yazidi genocide of 2014 and loss of territory in recent years. In 2014, the Islamic State in Iraq and Syria swept across large swathes of Kurdish territory especially Yazidi sites in Sinjar as the Peshmerga abandoned the area without resistance. This resulted in the Yazidi genocide of 2014.
ISIS justified its actions citing similar historical incidents as did the Baathists. ISIS rank and file were filled with former Baathist intelligence and military officers. Izzat Ibrahim Al-Douri, who was considered a successor to Saddam Hussein, was a top policymaker within ISIS. The people who planned the Anfal campaign reemerged in ISIS and committed the Yazidi massacre. Yet the Kurds, on whose watch the Anfal campaign happened, never worked to prevent another Kurdish exodus.
The KRI security services are massive, constituted of many forces that amount to almost half a million armed personnel in a region with six million people. The security services include well-funded counterterrorism and Asaysh forces, the latter being responsible for internal security. With the Peshmerga having almost 150,000 active-duty personnel, the federal region has become militarized. This figure is larger than many armies in the region including the United Arab Emirates, Azerbaijan, and Qatar.
KRI forces were unable to withstand hundreds of ISIS militia when they were at the gates of Erbil, the capital city of the autonomous region with the third-largest metropolitan area in Iraq. Almost a quarter of the city was evacuated before the international coalition against ISIS and Iran saved the city. In 2017, when Iraqi forces captured the oil-rich city of Kirkuk, the Peshmerga forces were devastated when they tried to fight Iraqi Popular Mobilization Forces (PMF) groups and the city fell in less than two hours. These were the ultimate tests for the Peshmerga.
However, the force was able to put up a heroic stand against ISIS for more than six years with the backing of the international coalition. The coalition provided training and assistance even though much of the assistance was diverted to personal benefits. For instance, weapons and equipment granted to the Peshmerga by the coalition were available in the black market. The Peshmerga earned the reputation of being the finest fighters in the war against ISIS. However, strategic blunders, poor management, and corruption have been the contributing factors in the failure of Peshmerga to achieve its aims.
The KRI is the first Kurdish polity in more than a century to serve as a Kurdish quasi-state with the duty of protecting Kurdish freedom and independence. From 2014 to 2017, the autonomous region couldn’t protect its territory and people, even though it had the necessary resources. Perhaps the worst setback was in 2017 when the KRI lost 51 percent of its territory in less than a week in a war against Iraqi forces. Thousands of Kurdish lives since the 1970s have been lost to secure these territories. Had the coalition not intervened, the region might have collapsed. Despite that Iran and Turkey have often been considered enemies of the Kurds, they have been able to protect the Kurds from external threats.
KRI Peshmerga is an extension of Peshmerga forces that overthrew Saddam Hussein, and they were established in 2005 as the official regional army. On paper, the KRI’s forces are under the authority of the Ministry of Peshmerga, but the ministry isn’t in charge of the Peshmerga forces. KRI Peshmerga are divided between the Kurdistan Democratic Party (KDP) and the Patriotic Union of Kurdistan (PUK), each commanding half of the force with a separate chain of command. The KDP rules Erbil and Duhok governorates while the PUK controls Sulaymaniyah Governorate. Essentially, the KRI is a confederacy between the two parties, where the KDP and PUK command the Peshmerga forces and appoint their preferred commanders, leaving the ministry powerless in all but name. KDP and PUK Peshmerga are divided, and each cooperates with different regional and global powers.
The Peshmerga is equipped only with light weaponry, mostly rusty, Chinese-made, second-hand AK-47s despite massive budgets to procure weapons. It doesn’t have armor or air force. The force is more suited to guerilla warfare than protecting a nation that has faced existential threats for much of its history. Most of its commanders were rebels that fought Saddam Hussein in the 1980s, which explains the army’s current condition.
The PUK and KDP Peshmerga have fought many civil wars in the last four decades with lasting consequences. Most of the attempts to unify the Peshmerga forces are impeded due to distrust between the two Kurdish polities. Though some Peshmerga battalions are united under the supervision of the coalition forces, their number is insignificant compared to the rest of the force. Further, the model is imperfect as the commanding structure is divided between the two parties usually making the battalions indecisive.
The Peshmerga’s capability is deteriorating chiefly due to domestic reasons. They are underpaid, and their salaries are paid only four to six times a year. For instance, during their war against ISIS, they recorded a victorious history without training and equipment. More than fifty percent of the Peshmerga fighters paid for their weapons, ammunition, transportation, and food themselves. Almost all Peshmerga have another job besides their service only to put food on their tables.
A significant amount of the budget meant for the Peshmerga is siphoned off to special paramilitary forces belonging to the ruling political clans and cohorts. These forces only serve to secure the property and personnel of various party members of the KDP and PUK and smaller parties allied with them while leaving the larger population at the mercy of international assistance. The Peshmerga proved to be one of the most effective allies of the United States in the war against ISIS. However, U.S. assistance has largely been financial and has done little to alleviate the Peshmerga’s problems.
Exactly five centuries before the Yazidi genocide of 2014. Kurdish warriors were in almost similar positions as they are now. In 1514, in the historic and fateful Battle of Chaldiran between the Ottoman and Safavids empires, Kurdish warriors were scattered among different tribes and princedoms only to be used as pawns by the Ottomans and Safavids, failing to achieve any political victory in a battle that determined the fate of the Middle East for the later centuries. A Kurdish pro-state at the time might have prevented centuries of Kurdish persecution.
Military security in the KRI has repeatedly failed, potentially undoing most political, economic, and social achievements as Kurdish history has repeatedly shown. Currently, the Peshmerga forces are maintained to protect one Kurdish polity from another within a landlocked KRI. Corruption and negligence have left the army unable to repel the various threats emanating from the Middle East. Thirty-three years after the Anfal campaign, the Kurds of Iraq haven’t been able to secure their existence. The Peshmerga force which was established to emancipate the Kurds cannot guarantee their existence let alone their freedom.