At midnight on October 15 the Iraqi Army, with Iranian backed militias leading the way, launched an assault on Iraqi Kurdistan to conquer the city of Kirkuk and control the vital oil infrastructure in the surrounding countryside.
Planned with the help of Iranian Revolutionary Guard Corps commander Quasem Soleimani, the operation utilized American supplied Abrams tanks and Humvees to spearhead the assault. Racked by internal betrayals, PUK led units of the Peshmerga abandoned their positions to the advancing Iraqi and militia forces. The rest of the Peshmerga lasted only another few hours before they too fled, reportedly due to lack of ammunition. By mid-afternoon Kirkuk fell to Iraqi government forces.
Iraqi forces and Iranian proxies are continuing to advance in other disputed areas of Kurdistan on three axis of advance. Catastrophic breakdowns are still occurring within the Peshmerga. The political division between the PUK (who are suspected of making a deal with Baghdad and KPD has rendered the Peshmerga ineffective as a fighting force. President Barzani was nowhere to be found and doesn’t seem to be able to exercise control over his forces regardless. Only 48 hours later did he concede defeat and announce that he would pull back to the pre-2014 borders, giving up all gains made.
Accusations are flying across Kurdish politics. Deputy Prime Minister Talabani’s twitter account has been silent while other’s in the PUK are hurling accusations and complaints about equipment and oil revenue. On the ground Kurdish citizens are irate and protesting in cities recently occupied by Iraqi forces.
The situation is likely to deteriorate further. Already photos have shown Peshmerga vehicles fleeing other cities. The picture below from Dibis and shows a Kurdish MRAPs and Humvees fleeing along with civilian vehicles. Official have been shown fleeing across open country in SUVs.
To me, this episode is damning evidence that the KRG is not ready for independence. As I noted before, modern states need to maintain a monopoly on the use of force to have effective foreign policies and militaries. For a military to be effective it must be under a central authority and have loyalty to the state rather than a leader, tribe, party or other sect like the Barzani and Talabani clans.
The IDF for example, used to be a lot like the Peshmerga before independence. It was made of up politically allied factions like the Haganah and Irgun, associated with the Mapai and Herut parties respectively. After the 1948 war Prime Minister David Ben-Gurion had all military units merged into a single entity loyal to the new Israeli state.
Such a move was not easy or bloodless. It required that the political parties, including Ben-Gurion’s own faction (Mapai), to disarm give up control over their forces. It involved making concessions and in one instance violence did break out.
During the Altalena Affair a ship (the Altalena) bringing supplies to the Irgun fighters under the control of Manechem Begin. Determined to bring the entirety of the armed forces under state control Ben-Gurion, the head of the provisional government, ordered the newly formed IDF to stop the ship from completing it’s mission. While on the beach unloading its weapons, Palmach artillery and machine guns opened up. The ship was hit and several fighters were wounded and killed.
However, Even under artillery and machine gun fire and the ship burning Begin radioed in and ordered his soldiers not to return fire. He did not want to begin a civil war against his fellow Jews. For all of them, the cause of national unity and Zionism was more important than their personal power or ideological gripes.
Begin’s Irgun eventually disarmed and Begin himself spent much of the next thirty years in the opposition party. But when he came to power in 1977 Begin inherited one of the most capable and battle tested armed forces in the region. It was a military that had, through its professionalism, training and operational brilliance, defeated two attempts by Arab coalitions to destroy the state. In doing so, It did what the Jewish militias could not; Jerusalem was reunified in 1967 and in 1979 Egypt made peace.
If Kurdish leaders ever want independence then they must emulate Begin’s sacrifice. Making backroom deals with Baghdad and squabbling over oil revenue while tanks and Shia fighters march across the border is no way to run a regional government, let alone a nation. Begin gave up his personal power and leverage for the greater good. If Kurdistan ever wants to be independent then Barzani and Talabani must do the same.