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How Big An Army Does Iraqi Kurdistan Have?

September 29, 2017

On September 25 Iraqi Kurdistan held a referendum to determine whether they wanted independence or not, with 93% voting “Yes.” The result immediately triggered dire warnings from Ankara, Baghdad, and Tehran. For years the prevailing consensus on Iraqi Kurdistan’s future was the threat it posed to regional peace. If it should ever acquire too much autonomy its aspirations for statehood could provoke a full-blown war with the central government in Baghdad that might draw in Syria, Turkey, and Iran.

This was almost the case from 2011 until 2013 when the US presence in Iraq had disappeared. As a Sunni insurgency boiled over, the oil-rich city of Kirkuk came under siege from Iraqi and Kurdish forces. If not for the rise of ISIS in 2014 the conflict in Iraq today would see the Peshmerga fighting tooth and nail against the Iraqi armed forces.

If a scenario like this does happen in the coming weeks or months, whether it’s the Turkish army on a punitive expedition or Shia militias rolling back Kurdistan’s borders, it’s worth exploring what kind of armed might Erbil can mobilize against its new enemies.

A Citizen Army

For half a century now Iraqi Kurdistan’s beleaguered population have relied on a volunteer force called the Peshmerga to protect them whenever they’ve run afoul of Baghdad. Although the exact origins of this local militia are vague, they did flourish during the short-lived Republic of Mahabad in Northwestern Iran–the first true Kurdish state.

Unfortunately, the Western-backed Shah Reza Pahlavi sent his army to crush Mahabad. The surviving patriots who fled its ruins moved to Iraq and formed the Kurdish Democratic Party (KDP) led by Mustafa Barzani. Iraqi Kurdistan was always a trouble spot and the Kurds were embroiled in rebellions from 1961 to 1970, then 1979 to 1988–the Iran-Iraq War–and most of the 1990s.

The Peshmerga as an institution were never cohesive. A civil war between the KDP and the Patriotic Union of Kurdistan (PUK) was fought from 1994 to 1997. The Peshmerga were at war again in 2003, assisting US special forces in the northern theater of Operation Iraqi Freedom. The fall of Baghdad afforded Kurdistan some peace and quiet and saw the transition of the Peshmerga to a semi-professional force trained by American advisers.

But the grueling war against ISIS exposed fundamental weaknesses in the Peshmerga’s structure. The sudden collapse of the Iraqi Army in Mosul meant lightly armed Kurdish units had to go up against ISIS. The lopsided combat left many Peshmerga commanders frustrated and grumbling about a lack of weapons and ammunition. It wasn’t until late 2014 when NATO countries stepped up with serious military aid.

Through the years the US has only bothered with token aid for the Peshmerga since it preferred rebuilding Iraq’s armed forces. It turned out Germany was responsible for the largest public transfer of arms for the Peshmerga when it delivered 16,000 rifles and a few anti-tank weapons to them in 2014. This included a modest stockpile of Milan 2 missiles and Panzerfaust 3’s that were used to destroy ISIS suicide car bombs.

The Mystery Numbers

On their own, however, the Peshmerga are ill-equipped for continuous fighting without logistics provided by a sponsor. It’s a vulnerability that became apparent during the civil war in the 1990s when Iran delivered heavy weapons to the PUK. This could explain why the Peshmerga still possess 107mm multi-rocket launchers and 122mm D-30 howitzers.

But if the fighting from 2014 until present is taken into account, the Kurds remain desperately short of arms. The most powerful weapon system in their possession are T-55 tanks seized from Iraqi Army stocks. How many of these are operational can’t be ascertained but judging by public images and news footage these number in the dozens at most.

Ignoring the viral obsession over Kurdish martial prowess and all female units, the Peshmerga are mainly a ground force without a chain of command. Exact figures for its membership have always been vague. It was only in 2015 when the Kurdish official Mustafa Sajid Kadir was interviewed by the German news magazine Zeit that tangible numbers were shared with Western media.

According to Kadir, the Peshmerga had 60,000 fighters deployed across Kurdistan’s 1,050 kilometer frontline, with a commensurate number of reserves. But Kadir didn’t mention it’s an army whose enlisted ranks are often part-time soldiers equipped with basic infantry weapons and four-wheel drive trucks. Even the ubiquitous RPG-7 and other Soviet vintage weaponry are in short supply.

Yet the Peshmerga’s total manpower could be smaller owing to the convoluted bureaucracy of the Kurdistan Regional Government. In 2015 the Interior Ministry of Kurdistan Region employed 32,000 “security forces.” The figure doesn’t include separate units maintained by the KDP and PUK, who have 58,000 fighters each as reported by Kurdish news site Rudaw. Whether or not all this manpower is under the jurisdiction of the Ministry of Peshmerga, a centralized bureau established in the late 1990s, is hard to ascertain.

While adding these figures results in an impressive 150,000 armed fighters, their respective ages, availability, and experience aren’t considered.

A Rumor Of War

If the Peshmerga did have to battle the Iraqi military (again), including the local Shia-dominated Popular Mobilization Units, it would find itself hard pressed with just over 50,000 combat ready fighters. Their most effective weapons are a few hundred anti-tank missiles, antiquated tanks, various anti-aircraft guns, and a collection of short-range multiple rocket launchers.

It’s apparent Kurdistan’s government has neither the money nor the logistics for a true national army. Worse, there isn’t a local industrial base available for manufacturing ammunition and spare parts, although ISIS did manage to erect a cottage industry for rockets and mortars on its own. If the KRG really tried, local arms production isn’t that far-fetched.

The September 25 referendum could have the unintended consequence of delaying the biggest weapons shipment to date for the Ministry of Peshmerga. The Pentagon plans on raising two Kurdish brigades equipped to US Army standards. The largess includes Humvees and 105mm howitzers worth $295 million.

This is the most generous material support for the Peshmerga so far after years of just special forces advisers, rifles, and trucks. This stingyness isn’t unique to the US–Russia’s own attempts at wooing the Kurds were confined to ceremonial giveaways of anti-aircraft guns.

Canada is also preparing to deliver Barrett rifles, mortars, and anti-tank weapons for a Peshmerga battalion. There are outstanding commitments from other NATO countries like France, Germany, Italy, and the UK as well but these range from sending more advisers to financial assistance for refugees.

Support for the Kurds must stay lukewarm since arming the Peshmerga beyond the level required for counter-terrorism might upset the Iraqi government. If conflict erupts in Kurdistan its battles will resemble those of the KDP-PUK civil war and the desperate months of 2014 and 2015; a struggle over outposts, roads, dusty towns, and battered cities. There’s going to be attrition, millions of refugees, and a murky outcome. It’s the kind of quagmire everyone would rather avoid.

Below is an open source tabulation of the Peshmerga’s current arsenal based on news reportage, public imagery, and video footage:

Anti-aircraft Artillery
ZU-23-2 <100
S-60 2
D-20 152mm 1
D-30 122mm 6
Artillery – Mortars
120mm 6
81mm 6
60mm 5
Artillery – Rockets
BM-21 “Grad” 122mm 2
Pickup Truck with 122mm 2
Type 63/Fadjr 1 107mm Dozens
Anti-tank Weapons
Milan ATGM 30
Konkurs ATGM 1
Safir 105mm Recoilless Rifle 3
Breda Folgore 80mm Recoilless Rifle 10
SPG-9 73mm Recoilless Rifle 1
Panzerfaust 3 50
RPG-7 / Type 69 Hundreds
Armored Fighting Vehicles
M1117 8
EE-9 Cascavel 1
MT-LB ZU-23-2 3
MT-LB ZU-2 2
Armored Personnel Carriers
Humvee 100+
EE-11 Urutu 1
Dingo MRAP 4
M-ATV 11
MaxxPro MRAP <50
Cougar MRAP 3
Zubr MRAP 1
T-62 2
T-55 <30

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