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Kurds must know rhetoric can never substitute for reality


By Michael Rubin*


BAGHDAD — Kirkuk is largely calm on Tuesday. So too are the towns and cities of Diyala (with the exception of Khanaqin) which, while not so much in the limelight, were also lost by the Kurdish peshmerga last week as forces controlled by the Iraqi central government advanced. The question asked by many Kurds and those who have engaged with Kurdish officials over the years is why the peshmerga proved so ineffective and/or stood down without firing a shot.

There are several reasons, but they all boil down to one overarching issue: The Kurds have for too long valued public relations over reality.

When Iraqi Kurds discuss the quick collapse of Kirkuk, they often blame their political leaders. Masoud Barzani's Kurdistan Democratic Party demanded peshmerga loyal to the Patriotic Union of Kurdistan fight, whereas PUK leaders struck a separate deal and stood down but hoped the KDP might fight.

More than 15 years after the Kurdistan Regional Government theoretically united the peshmerga, they remain as riven by factions as ever. That's not something that was reflected on the tours offered by senior Kurdish officials to visiting American senators, journalists, and think-tankers, but it should have been known. After all, when the Islamic State threatened to advance on Kirkuk a couple years ago, the KDP refused to supply the PUK peshmerga. Put one way, politics triumphed over military necessity. Put another, Kurds liked to describe the peshmerga as an army but they had always remained a collection of militias.

For American journalists, there should also be a lesson. Consider this article written Monday by The New Yorker's Dexter Filkins, a talented journalist and balanced Iraq watcher. He wrote, "The peshmerga became the most effective fighters against ISIS, often earning the praise of American commanders." Kurds have repeated this mantra so often to journalists, many take it as conventional wisdom.

Alas, it simply is not true. The peshmerga fought bravely and honorably against ISIS (except when they didn't), and some elite peshmerga joined with U.S. Special Forces in Hawija and elsewhere. But, a dispassionate look at the events of the past several years demands a different conclusion.

Both the Iraqi military and peshmerga fared poorly in the initial weeks following the rise of ISIS. Iraqi forces collapsed in Mosul and Ramadi, but the peshmerga withdrew with hardly a fight in Sinjar and in the Ninewa Plains, leaving the Yezidis and many Christians to their fate (hence the distrust many Yezidis and Christians have to Barzani's government today).

But, especially after Grand Ayatollah Ali Sistani led the call for Iraqis to defend their country against the Islamic State, volunteers coalesced into the Hashd al-Shaabi, Popular Mobilization Units, to answer the call. It was the Hashd al-Shaabi and Iraqi forces who liberated Ramada, Fallujah, Tikrit, Beiji, and much of Mosul. Indeed, the Hashd and Iraqi forces did far more fighting than the peshmerga. That battlefield experience showed in recent weeks.

Now, not all Hashd are the same. Over the years, I have met many Hashd and have even seen some train in southern Iraq. Those I met were a rag-tag bunch of volunteers motivated by a desire to save their country. The Hashd is diverse, both in terms of sect (not all Hashd members are Shiites, some are Sunni or even Christian) and geography: For all the people that suggest that Hashd are an Iranian-controlled mob of southern Iraqi Shi'ites bent on exacting sectarian revenge in the north, in truth, except for a few elite units, many are local to the areas in which they are fighting.

Hashd units who fought around Tel Afar, for example, were often from the Tel Afar area fighting to regain their homes in much the same ways that the peshmerga were fighting to liberate Kurdish-populated areas. That doesn't mean that the Hashd were completely indigenous. Elite units were under the command, and perhaps control, of Iran. Put aside the fact that the peshmerga, especially on the PUK side, are also penetrated by Iran.

Why did the Iraqi government incorporate these Iran-directed units in the move on Kirkuk? A variety of Iraqi government and defense officials say it was less out of fealty to Tehran and more because they were the most disciplined units. This may have been a mistake, of course, since Iran is hardly an altruistic player in the region. Also a mistake was the optics of Iraqi units utilizing American equipment against the Kurds. Honesty and consistency on this latter point, however, means also castigating the Kurds for using American equipment against Iraq in disputed areas. Outside the presence of cameras, for example, the Kurdish peshmerga had destroyed 15 Arab villages in Diyala as they sought to consolidate control there.

But back to the peshmerga's collapse: Many peshmerga have gone without salaries in recent months and have even sold their weaponry on the black market to put food on the table. The problem got so severe that the German Defense Ministry even stopped transferring weapons directly to Kurdish forces because they were flooding the black market more than being deployed against ISIS.

Kurdish officials such as Masrour Barzani, Masoud's eldest son and the point man for many American journalists, may have complained the problem was lack of money transfers from Baghdad, but the Kurds did sell their own oil, Masrour did put down (via a holding company) $11 million for a mega-mansion in McLean, Va., and the Kurds did find millions to sponsor public relations junkets for dozens of Western officials, think-tankers, and journalists. This investment succeeded in crafting an image and brand for the peshmerga in Washington, but image can never be a substitute for reality.

Kurdish officials can keep saying that the peshmerga were the most crucial fighting force against the Islamic State, and journalists can keep repeating that mantra. Such statements will not, however, change the fact on the ground. If Iraqi Kurdistan is ever to succeed, it must recognize that rhetoric can never substitute for reality.

*Michael Rubin (@Mrubin1971) is a contributor to the Washington Examiner's Beltway Confidential blog. He is a resident scholar at the American Enterprise Institute and a former Pentagon official.