Can the Kurdish pesh merga forces rebuild their reputation?

When ISIS fighters advanced on Kurdistan in August, the pesh merga fled the front line and only reclaimed lost ground thanks to U.S. airstrikes. The failure of the Kurdish forces has prompted Kurdish president, Massoud Barzani, to reorganize the army. The New York Times reports:

Last Tuesday, Mr. Barzani signed an amendment to create a more national army. Rather than having a force largely divided between their allegiance to two major parties, the Kurdistan Democratic Party and the Patriotic Union of Kurdistan, officials will integrate the units under the banner of the Ministry of the Pesh Merga.

Officials said consistent training would become the focus. Young men and women, whether they join the military or not, will be given some measure of military training, he said.

“During this long period of time, we failed to create a nationalized pesh merga,” said Mustafa Sayid Qadir, the minister of pesh merga. “We are planning to create and establish a united, nationalized and systematic army.”

Still, many remain skeptical that the political will exists to upend a decades-old power structure. Some officials believe that to encourage the pesh merga restructuring, there should be conditions set on any aid given to the Kurdish government.

“As we know in this part of the world, it is not just about laws on paper, but about political commitment,” said one Kurdish official, speaking on the condition of anonymity because of the sensitivity of the issue. “It can be done, but it could go either way.”

As it stands, experts believe that each of the two parties fields more than 60,000 soldiers, while the ministry can claim just 50,000 in its own ranks.

“The vast bulk of the pesh merga are under the control of the individual political parties,” said Michael Knights, a researcher at the Washington Institute, who has specialized in the Kurdish forces.

Exact numbers of pesh merga fighters are a closely held secret in Kurdistan, but experts like Mr. Knights figure the total has swelled to about 175,000 since the ISIS assault began. Young and old have rushed to the battlefront, dusting off old weapons to assist in the defense of the Kurdish enclave.

But the young fighters have no battle experience. Many of the older pesh merga moved on, starting businesses and embracing the changing face of Kurdistan. And for those who remained, the pesh merga was practically a pension — steady pay for little work. [Continue reading…]

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