Foreign Advisers Are Turning Kurdish Soldiers Into Professionals
America, Britain and Germany have post-war plans
As the threat from Islamic State gradually recedes in Iraq, the United States, along with leading members of the multinational coalition it assembled to defeat the militants, has presented a draft of a long-term plan to reform and professionalize Iraqi Kurdistan’s Peshmerga military forces.
Over the course of the next 10 years the United States, Britain and Germany will help the Peshmerga professionalize and reform with the goal of creating a “robust and professional” force capable of defending Iraqi Kurdistan.
“The Americans, German and British have promised us that not only do they make recommendations for change, they will also stay with us and help us implement every point of the plan,” Jabar Yawar, the Ministry of Peshmerga’s chief of staff, told Rudaw, a news agency affiliated with Iraqi Kurdistan’s ruling party.
“They don’t mean something temporary, it is long term and strategic,” he added.
This announcement comes a few months after the Peshmerga ended their last offensive against Islamic State in the town of Bashiqa, near Mosul, and as the region prepares for an independence referendum. Consequently, these reforms might still be underway after a possible Kurdish secession from Iraq.
However, the coalition is focused on reforming the Peshmerga to defend the region from non-state groups such ISIS, not from possible conventional threats from its nation-state neighbors.
“The U.S. is building out Peshmerga Regional Guard Brigades as light infantry, lacking the kinds of anti-tank and anti-aircraft capabilities needed to fight a state like Iraq, or Iran, or Turkey,” Michael Knights, the Lafer Fellow at the Washington Institute and Iraq analyst, told War Is Boring.
“The Peshmerga are being built to fight on the same side as the Iraqi Army, not against the Iraqi military.”
Throughout the war against ISIS, Western governments have sent advisers to train Peshmerga soldiers in the Kurdistan Training Coordination Center outside of the autonomous region’s capital Erbil.
“The extension of training after Mosul is a sign of appreciation and commitment,” Knights noted. “The best defense for Kurdistan against an attack by a hostile state is having Western trainers in the country. That’s a security guarantee right there.”
But Knights anticipates inherent problems when it comes to the landlocked region’s ability to defend itself. Kurds are expert guerrilla mountain fighters and they successfully repelled Islamic State, but defending Iraqi Kurdistan’s borders from a conventional invasion is beyond its strength.
“Kurdistan’s problem is not that it lacks fighters, it’s that it lacks a coastline, control over airspace, liquidity for its banks, its own currency, ability to borrow and ability to buy weapons with a state’s end-user certificate,” he said. “Iraqi F-16s look pretty dangerous these days, the Kurds would have to rely on Turkey to protect them, which is never a nice feeling.”
Lack of air power is not the only shortcoming the Peshmerga will face in defending any emergent Kurdish nation-state. Kurdish fighters, while brave, sorely lack hardware.
The Peshmerga possess Western-supplied Javelin and Milan anti-tank guided missiles, but their only known tanks consists of vintage Soviet-made T-55s and T-62s taken from the old Iraqi arsenal in 2003. The coalition more recently supplemented the Peshmerga with some MaxxPro mine-resistant, ambush protected vehicles and Humvees.
This arsenal is a far cry from the Iraq Army, which possesses M-1 Abrams tanks, aforementioned F-16s and a formidable fleet of Russian-made helicopter gunships–including the Mi-28 Night Hunters and Mi-35s.
And, of course, it’s a far cry from the far larger armies and forces across Iraqi Kurdistan’s eastern and northern borders–Iran and Turkey.
Incidentally, after Iraqi Kurdistan’s autonomy became solidified by the U.S.-led invasion of Iraq in 2003, a Turkish Air Force officer named Mesut Casin predicted, in 2005, that the Kurds would use the oil from Kirkuk and that, in the course of a decade, “will have an army and air force, same as the Israel model, and they will request some territorial parts from Turkey.”
This prediction did not come to light. Furthermore, Knights doesn’t believe the Kurds will make a serious effort, if any, to establish their own air force if they do attain independence in the foreseeable future.
“It’s expensive, they might get a few more helos but I doubt even that, they have zero money,” he somberly concluded.
Nevertheless, foreign training will still help the Peshmerga, which needs as much assistance as it can get, notes analyst Joel Wing who blogs at Musings on Iraq. “Coalition assistance and cooperation has helped the elite Kurdish forces the most, but it helps the rank and file as well with basic combat techniques and professionalism.”
On the political front in Iraqi Kurdistan, Wing believes the ruling Kurdistan Democratic Party is using this announcement, and others like it, to “not only promote the KRG, but its own leadership as well,” vis-a-vis the efforts it is leading to organize the aforementioned independence referendum.
“The coalition on the other hand believes in the territorial integrity of Iraq and keeping the country together, but that will be played down [in Kurdistan],” Wing concluded.