It’s the economy, stupid! Peshmergas loosing morale

Iraqi Kurds have to focus on getting their finances in order, not badgering the West for more weapons

Florian Neuhof

Published: Updated:

Iraqi Kurdistan is used to positive press coverage of its war effort. By and large, the Kurds have done a good job in stopping the ISIS when it advanced on Kurdish territory in the summer of 2014, and they have held the front ever since, even making some notable gains in the meantime.

This contrasts favorably with the dismal performance of the Iraqi army, while the Peshmerga - as the Iraqi Kurdish fighters are known as - don’t have a reputation for sectarian hatred, unlike the Shia militia fighting ISIS in the south.

As a consequence, the Western press has been well disposed towards the Peshmerga, and has lent a willing ear to the lamentations by Kurdish officers and politicians that their hardy fighters desperately ‘need more weapons’ to be able to win the war. Over time, this complaint has been honed into a finely tuned PR pitch, which found its way into many an article.

It is an argument that merits some questions. Undoubtedly, Western deliveries of anti-tank missiles have helped the Peshmerga defend themselves against ISIS’s trademark suicide attacks, carried out in armoured cars or trucks. And non-lethal aid such as mine clearing equipment or medical supplies have been vital in reducing the human cost of war. The Peshmerga have lost more than 1,300 men, most of which to improvised explosive devices (IEDs), the insurgency version of a landmine.

But the consistent pleas for more weapons, preferably heavy ones, stands at odds with the performance of the Syrian Kurds, who have achieved a lot more with a lot less. Helped by U.S. airstrikes, which their Iraqi counterparts benefit from in much greater numbers, the Kurdish men and women in Syria have fended off a vicious ISIS assault on Kobane, pushed the jihadists from the vital border crossing at Tel Abyad, and now sit menacingly only 50 kilometers from the de-facto ISIS capital of Raqqa.
The weapon deliveries they have received are paltry in comparison to what has been delivered across the border, and does not include any of the sophisticated missiles that have been stopping VBIEDs in their tracks in Iraq.

No questions asked

Given the ultra-vigilance of the U.S. air force in the skies over the Kurdish front line in Iraq, a decent amount of anti-tank missiles on the ground, and the proliferation of small arms in the region, it is debatable if more lethal hardware should be handed to the Kurds for free, with no questions asked. Both the Kurds and the Western countries lending a helping hand - the U.S., Germany, France, UK, Italy, Netherlands and Canada - might be wiser to focus on the military training that the Peshmerga are gradually receiving from their allies.

Kurdish efforts to hustle for more weapons suffered an embarrassing setback last week, when reports emerged that some of the thousands of assault rifles and pistols supplied by the Germans had found their way to the gun markets of Erbil and Sulaymaniyah. Germany, which has also supplied dozens of Milan anti-tank missiles and is active in training the Peshmerga in Erbil, was not best pleased by the news, and summoned Kurdish representatives to the foreign ministry in Berlin to explain.

That Kurdish fighters are hawking off their weapons, which they received with some pride not so long ago, does not indicate high morale amongst the troops. It also points to another issue the Kurdish Regional Government (KRG) is grabbling with: acute cash flow problems.

Stung by the nosedive of the oil price, as well as the additional costs and declining investment resulting from the war, the KRG is, in its own words, staring down the barrel of an "imminent financial collapse." With outgoings far exceeding income, the government has been unable to pay civil servants for months. The Peshmerga, arguably the finest servants to the Kurdish cause, have been without pay for five months, one fighter told me, and have had to accept half pay from now on.

Badgering Western powers

Unfortunately, the KRG is a classic rentier state, whose economy is likely to flounder when confronted with external shocks, and when deprived of healthy oil revenues. The public sector is bloated, with most of the adult population on the payroll. The private sector has not been sufficiently promoted, and the economy is not diversified.

Experts also blame the extent of the cash crunch on rampant corruption, and say that a good chunk of government revenue finds its way into the pockets of the political elite, rather than into state coffers.
This is a point not lost on the Peshmerga. "In my opinion, politicians here are all thieves," a fighter told me last week. Like many Peshmerga, he alternates his time at the front with driving a taxi to make ends meet. We spoke as he was driving me to the supermarket, past the sprawling compound of a prominent politician.

To improve the fighting capacity of its troops, the KRG should cease badgering Western powers for more weapons. It’s got plenty of those. Instead, needs to pursue with vigor economic and administrative reforms, and ensure the transparency of public finances. This will help to balance its books, and to be able to pay the men that are risking their lives in the deadly conflict with the ISIS.

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