Due to the recent self-determination referendum done with the blessing of Barzani, the Iraqi Kurdistan autonomous government has threatened to declare independence, affecting to even disputed areas out of the administrative Kurdish region, so our objective with this analysis is to elucidate if in case of war with the Iraqi State the Kurdish really have a chance to win.
The Iraqi answer to the referendum was fast and an aerial and economical blockade was imposed over the Kurdish region along with the support of Iran and Turkey who also see the Kurdish separatism as a threat.
Military actions have also taken place: Turkey and Iran have done extensive military drills close to the borders with the Iraqi Kurdistan, but also Iraq and the own Kurdish are mobilizing their forces. Let’s have a closer look at them.
Both Iraqi and Kurdish forces are heavily influxed by corruption and a lack of professionalism that affects their respective military forces however both account with certain decent forces like the Golden Division or some small armored units on the side of Iraq and certain motorized light infantry units on the side of the Peshmerga.
In one hand the Kurdish forces are divided into three different political commands, the Ministry of Peshmergas the KDP and the PUK, in theory, all of them have gathered around 200.000 soldiers, however the combat-value of most of the units is highly questionable due to the lack of training and equipment, in the other hand Iraqi Army has a strength of 81.000 soldiers as of January 2016, but if we plus the other State forces as the Federal Police that even has its own heavy artillery units, and the special forces we reach the 147.000 soldiers, finally if we also take in to account the PMU and certain Shia militias they gather around 180.000 soldiers.
So if we put the focus just in the numbers as of 2017-2018 period we can say that in theory, the result is a draw, but it is true that if the conflict goes on Iraq can recruit much more troops, especially if they are helped by foreign states as Iran or Turkey.
From the point of view of the experience both armies have an important number of veterans from the fight against ISIS, however, it is true that the Iraqis have lost more soldiers during the last steps of the fighting against ISIS in Mosul, Al-Anbar and Niniveh.
Before continue it must be noted that at least in the middle term it is not going to be a moment when the Iraqi Army is so weak because of the casualties of veteran soldiers suffered against ISIS, probably that is why the Kurdish leaders decided to do the referendum that can be seen as the last chance for independence of the Kurdish.
One important difference between both forces is the equipment where Iraq has an obvious advantage because of the Air Force, the artillery, the heavy equipment and the foreign supply of spare parts and ammunition for all of those systems while Kurdish can mainly trust in light infantry tactics, a combination of obstacles, mines/IEDs, mortars and machine guns. It must be noted that Peshmerga also account with certain heavy equipment like more than two hundred T-54, T-55, Type 69 and T-62 tanks and even a small amount of the more modern T-72Ms, while this force is certainly inferior to the best-armoured forces of Iraq composed of T-72Ms, T-72Ss and M1A1 Abrams, it must be noted that if well commanded and with the required maintenance and logistic support the Kurdish still have an important armoured force able to represent a main threat to the Iraqi army.
The Peshmerga can field a wide variety of APCs, IFVs and towed artillery that again are inferior to their Iraqi counterparts but never the less well managed they can represent a big threat. The other face of the significative Peshmerga heavy equipment is the maintenance problem: Five types of tanks, more than seven types of armored vehicles, and more than ten types of artillery guns. Maintain this vast fleet of vehicles with so different needs is a challenge too big for a semi-professional army.
The problem of the heavy vehicles is even extensible to the lighter material. The Peshmerga were filling their depots with old material looted from abandoned warehouses of the Iraqi Army after its dissolution on 2003, also since that year the Kurdish became the best ally of the U.S and so they got Northamerican material, finally when ISIS appeared the International Community concentrated its efforts in to help the Kurdish and so new weapons flooded the Peshmergas. The results? Now the Peshmergas have weapons from China, Germany, Russia, USA, English, Czech or Romanian among others, think of the massive problems of interchangeability because of a lot of calibers, sights, and trainings needed.
While the material favors the Iraqis the terrain favors the defenders. Kurdistan is a mountainous region ideal for defense because of its chaotic and complex terrain with a lot of opportunities to hide from the enemy air force, prepare ambushes…
Carl Von Clausewitz, one of the main philosophers about the war stated that defense is generally speaking better than attack, and that is also seen in the modern armies manuals, that in the case of light infantry tactics usually recommend numerical superiority of 1:3 in favor of the attacker to have a good guarantee of success without prohibitive losses.
If we take everything into account we can reach the next conclusions about the key elements that will decide the battle:
- Level of morale and resilience to suffer casualties: If conflict evolves into a stalemate the resilience and the high morale can be of great impact on the result of the war.
- Level of mobilization of both forces: This is especially important for Kurdish as far as they do not have so much population to recruit and so they need to stress their ratios of recruitment and mobilization.
- Level of professionalism: A good command at the tactical level will be key especially for the Kurdish who face an obvious material disadvantage that needs to be compensated by more skilled and creative commanders at the tactical level.
- Level of logistics: This will be key to mobilize both forces at their maximum strength, and particularly for the Iraqis, it will be very important to maintain in well status their heavy equipment to take advantage of their material superiority that otherwise will be unuseful.
View of future
If finally war erupts just between the Peshmerga and the Iraqi Army the last ones have most of the chances of win, mainly because even under a good defense prepared by the Kurdish the loses in men and equipment that Iraq can asume are enormous while the Kurdish have very limited supplies and men and so just a brilliant defensive plan along a fully mobilized society can lead to a Kurdish victory, still it is also true that the victory for Iraq can cause them a huge blow in money, lives and degradation for their armed forces.
Finally if Kurdish want to have a chance they would have to fight another hybrid warfare but this time closer to a conventional one than the battles fought against ISIS and under a huge firepower inferiority.
Strategic Situation Table
*All elements represented in this table represent just a personal view.
|International support (Real support from outside Iraq)||Totally in favor of Iraq|
|Global power (All economical, social, military, technical Powers…)||Totally in favor of Iraq|
|Recruitment (Number of potential soldiers available for recruitment)||Clearly in favor of Iraq|
|Morale (Willing to fight)||Slight advantage of Kurdish|
|Professionalism (Level of training and diligence)||Unknown|
|Logistics (Capacity to maintain in well status the men and material)||Clearly in favor of Iraq|
|Firepower (Number and type of weapons available)||Clearly in favor of Iraq|
|Equipment Quality||Totally in favor of Iraq|
|Equipment Availability||Clearly in favor of Iraq|
|Terrain||Tottaly in favor of Kurdish|