Small Wars Journal

Revisiting Civil-Military-Relations Theory: The Case of the Kurdistan Regional Government of Iraq

Wed, 10/28/2015 - 5:38am

Revisiting Civil-Military-Relations Theory: The Case of the Kurdistan Regional Government of Iraq

Verena Gruber


Civil-military relations (CMR) theory is a field situated along the intersection of a variety of different fields of study. Politics, military, sociology, psychology and all other kinds of factors are pulled together in this area. As Feaver (1999) notes, the political analyses of civil-military relations focuses on structures. Rightly so, he argues, since it is at the heart of political science to identify the set up of power relations. And so far the most prominent scholars analyzing political aspects of civil-military relations have largely stuck to this idea. However, this paper argues, the presumption of structure and the exclusive focus of analysis on the same already priorly excludes other factors that might actually be more defining for the reality and enlightening for the study of civil-military relations on the ground - particularly in cases with non- to low- levels of institutionalization.

Already Pion-Berlin (2010) introduces the notion of formal and informal spheres of civil-military relations. And, despite himself not challenging the premise of institutional structures, he concludes his analysis of Latin American cases by asking if informal routines consistently substitute for the formal ones, [whether] they should constitute the dominant focal points for the analysis of civilmilitary interactions(Pion-Berlin 2010: 540).

One of such cases highlighting the need for a broadening of our understanding in the many dimensions of CMR beyond the institutional set up and structure is the Kurdistan Regional Government (KRG) of Iraq. Premised on a four-month field work, the author identifies that, for the Kurdish case, Pion-Berlin’s question can be confirmed; not only are informal routines substituting for the formal ones, I argue that they constitute the center of the relationship. Civil-military relations theory, however, lacks the toolkit to analyze such non- to low-institutionalized cases. An analysis of these overlooked variables serves as a first step towards developing a more refined and context sensitive toolkit.

An initial challenge to the prevalent body of theory in the Kurdish case study is already reached when assessing the plurality of Kurdish military forces. Divided between the party-based Peshmerga of the Kurdistan Democratic Party (KDP) and the Patriotic Union of Kurdistan (PUK) as well as the unified Brigades (Unified Peshmerga Forces (UPF)) of the Ministry of Peshmerga (MoP), the available plurality of military forces in the region is in itself an anomaly when viewed in the context of prevalent CMR theory. Recognizing then that the plurality of Kurdish forces themselves are just another fraction of the bigger state of Iraq, the necessity of understanding such a construct becomes obvious. CMR theory however is unable to analyze such complex systems. By focusing on an institutional separation of one civilian and one military sphere, the theory lacks the capacity to account for a plurality of forces, their diverging loyalties, and the intersecting relations between each military unit, their political pendant, as well as the other forces and military institutions. The guiding research questions for this endeavor, therefore, read as follows: how can the plurality of civilian and military actors in the Kurdish region of Iraq be accounted for in the study of their civil-military relations? And how does this altered perspective affect CMR theory?

To answer this question, I first reflect briefly on prior work on civil-military relations theory. The focus in this section rests on the ‘gap-debate’[i] as it is the assumption of an institutional separation between one civilian and one military sphere and the gap in-between the two that is not only the heart of CMR theory but also the necessary point of revision according to the findings of the presented research[ii]. In a second step, the findings of the research are put forward in the context of their consequences for theory revision. A first identification of the largely overlooked variables in the analysis of civil-military relations will be presented.

Civil-Military Relations Theory

Modern civil-military relations theory, as it was first introduced in the academic discourse between Huntington (1985) and Janowitz (1960), shows several characteristics. Evolution over time and different debates notwithstanding, the theory has shown a remarkable persistence on three particular aspects: the analysis of cases in a state-level perspective, the exclusive focus on institutional structures, and the assumption of a gap between one civilian and one military sphere.

Given the need of theory to simplify and abstract, these presuppositions seem rational. In fact, they do make a lot of sense in the context of institutionalized state structures. However, with increasing state failure and the multiplication of forces in international, cross-border power vacuums, the need to understand non- to low-institutionalized force structures and systems[iii] is more significant than ever. But before entering the revision of theory, a reflection on the dominant discourses in CMR theory and their changes over time is necessary. By putting the focus along the ‘gap-debate’, three central phases are identified[iv]: first, the “classical” exchange between proponents of institutionalization- and convergence- theory; second, the deviation from the US-American case towards analyzing “non-western”-civil-military relations; and third, the shift marked by scholarship starting to question seemingly set assumptions on statehood, gap, and definitions of war and conflict. This third phase is characterized by the idea of lines between different conceptual spheres to be more blurred than priorly assumed.

Debates around civil-military relations are primarily concerned with questions on the connection, hierarchy, and influence between a civilian government and the armed forces of a state. A particular interest is the question how civilians keep control over the forces (Burke 2002). This question, however, often comes along with a fixed set of basic assumptions. Particularly at the beginning of modern civil-military relations theory when Huntington’s The Soldier and the State kickstarts a discussion on the manner in which the armed forces should be related to the state they serve. Finer (2006) puts the underlying conundrum of the field in simple terms: in order to survive, the state needs protection which is provided by armed forces. By the nature of their task, however, the forces are well organized, maintain a high symbolic status, and own a monopoly of arms. Because of these advantages the military has over political civilians, one needs to wonder “not why [the military] rebels against its civilian masters, but why it ever obeys them” (Finer 2006: 6). Answering this question, Huntington (1985) develops the theory of institutionalization in which he proclaims that the best way to make sure that a) the military is effective and b) it is does not interfere in the civilian state is to keep the military strictly professional, the civilian side presiding, and both spheres as far apart as possible.

Morris Janowitz (1960), reacting to Huntington’s assertions, establishes the theory of convergence in which he aims to address the same conundrum and uses the same basic assumptions but arrives at the opposite conclusion. His theory states that the more the military is in touch with civilian life, the less likely outright interference of the one side into the other becomes as there will be no chance for an ideological difference to develop.

While these two “classical” authors disagree on a lot of terms, what they have in common is 1) the belief in a clearcut division between a civilian and a military sphere, 2) the assumption of statehood with the resulting disregard for the sub-state level, 3) the predominant focus on the United States (Huntington 1985, Janowitz 1960, Cohen 1997, Collins and Holsti 1999, Kohn 1999), and 4) the normative postulation of the primacy of civilian control[v]. Thereby, from the very beginning “the gap” was a central point of discourse. In this first phase, the nature and size of the gap is debated. The differentiation between the spheres derives from Huntington’s assumption that different institutions will lead to different values, which will lead to differing policy preferences and identities, thereby making the spheres distinct. The importance of the gap, according to Huntington, remains with the ultimate goal of assuring civilian superiority and preventing military intervention in domestic affairs (Luckham 1971, Albright 1980, Cohen 1997, Feaver 1999, Burk 2002, Schiff 2004, Michael 2007, Chuter 2009, Angström 2013).

This issue of military intervention and the question of how to avoid it becomes particularly prominent during the time of coups and counter-coups in Latin America. Finer (2006) in The Man on Horseback identifies the different ways and intensities in which the armed forces can influence the political sphere, with an ultimate climax being the overthrow of a civilian government. The more important issue to notice here is the shift in scholarly attention away from the primary case study of the United States and democracies towards analyzing “non-western” cases. In this process, limitations of existing CMR theory become apparent. While the analysis of the reasons, causes, and effects of military intervention in Latin America serves to support the normative postulation of civilian control being better than military control of a state, the reflection on communist systems provides the insight that a high politicization of militaries does not necessarily end in a coup either (Albright 1980, Perlmutter and LeoGrande 1982). Perlmutter and LeoGrande identify fusion, symbiosis, and coalition as the working modes of CMR in communist states, while Albright clearly states that in communist systems there is “no distinction between civilian and military sphere” and instead finds a system based on personal loyalty structures (Albright 1980: 558-9).

While the debates on both Latin American and Soviet/Post-Soviet cases are much more extensive than presented, the most relevant insight of this phase for the research is the highlighted incompatibility of applying western-standardized approaches onto non-western cases. Details of the different studies are considered to not be further relevant as this phase still maintains the underlying presumptions of 1) the assumption of statehood, 2) the division between a civilian and a military sphere, and 3) the norm of civilian control[vi].

The last phase of discourse is represented by Kaldor’s (1999) catchphrase “new wars”. While not directly related to CMR, her concept fits the idea this segment represents. In this debate, a questioning of seemingly set concepts, such as statehood, the gap, and the definite line between peace and conflict takes place.

The central question in a “new war” understanding of CMR theory reads as follows: if a variation in warfare can be traced and existing assumptions about dichotomous concepts of theory are reedited, what consequences do these changed circumstances have on civil-military relations and their analysis? Most known for a first theoretical revision of the assumption of a necessarily given gap is Schiff’s (1995) theory of concordance in which she declares that three actors -the civilian elite, the military, and the society- need to be d’accord on four variables: the composition of the officer corps, the political decision-making process, the recruitment method, and the military style. If concordance on these issues is given by the actors, stable civil-military relations are achieved (Schiff 1995). Thereby, Schiff does not postulate which CMR work best or ought to prevail (Schiff 1996), but instead she uses her theory as an analytical instrument to identify which system exists: sometimes this system is one of institutional separation and at other times no distinction is possible.

With this first revision of the presumed gap, an entirely new angle of the debate becomes visible. In the term of “fusion”, and linking particularly to Soviet examples, arguments for the nonexistence of a gap are made. Feaver (1999), however, raises a distinct criticism towards the assumption that the gap could ever be understood in a non-dichotomous manner:

The spheres are necessarily analytically distinct - a distinction that derives from democratic theory and the agency inherent in political community […] The spheres are also necessarily distinct in practice -it matters whether the policy maker wears a uniform or not- and so fusionist scholars find that their subjects repeatedly revive the idea of difference even as they provide evidence of overlaps with the activities of actors from different spheres.(1999: 220)

While I support Feaver’s argument that a conceptual distinction makes a conversation about different aspects of theories and case studies easier, I also agree with Schiff (2004) and Chuter (2009) who point out that just because this clear institutional and cultural distinction holds for the United States, one can not conclude on this separation of spheres to work universally[vii] and simply presupposing it can lead to unwanted results (Chuter 2009). Therefore, the distinction between “a civilian” and “a military” aspect is upheld in a terminological, conceptual aspect to ease the understanding of the argument, while it has to be dismissed for the final analysis as the “gap” between clear sphere is anything from institutionally marginal to culturally absent.

Other authors concerned with identifying the nature of the gap are Rahbek-Clemmensen (2012) and Ångström (2013). While the first identifies four different types of gap, the latter analyzes five possible forms of relationship between the civilian and the military spheres. Both of their ideas are instructive to the findings of the presented research and will hence be further elaborated in the following section discussing the Kurdish case study.

Findings and Analysis

My research on the plurality of civil-military relations of the Kurdistan Regional Government came up with three central findings: one, the gap between civilian and military spheres is institutionally marginal and culturally absent; two, the institutional structure is weak and it is instead a system outside the structure that defines the modus operandi of civil-military relations; and three, therefore identifying the characteristics of the system becomes paramount. These identified characteristics are those of pluralism and division in a system organized on the basis of what I term “centralized localism”[viii].

Reviewing the Gap

Rahbek-Clemmensen (2012) identify four different forms of the gap: cultural, demographic, institutional, and differences in policy-preferences. By connecting their institutional, cultural and policy-preference type, one ends up in the initial analysis of the nature and causes for the gap as discussed in Huntington (1985). In addition, however, they identify a new form in the variable “demography”. This variable addresses the question whether the demographic set up of the military represents the according population. While their study focuses on the US example, the demographic set up of military forces is seen to be a central variable in the literature and praxis of merging military forces (Licklider 2008, Licklider 2014). Particularly after civil wars, building demographically representative armed forces seems to provide a first trust-building measure for the reintegration of society. In the KRG, a similar pattern can be observed. As shown in the findings, all Unified Peshmerga Forces (UPF) are 50-50 divided between the parties KDP and PUK (Chapman 2011).

Applying these four kinds of gaps on the Kurdistan Regional Government, the research shows that there is a marginal gap when analyzing the institutions (structure), but there is no distinction between the spheres possible when addressing the other three kinds of the gap (system). As one of the research subjects (off the record (OTR)) put it quite frankly: “All military guys are political figures as well. According to the constitution you have to be retired, but that does not mean you lose your influence or authority. All you need to do is pick up your phone and say ‘can you do this?’” The underlying rationale was further explained by research subject i6 in the following words: “If commanders on the frontline are also members of the politburo that is okay because they are part of making the government.”

At this time, Ångström’s (2013) perception comes in handy. Leaving his identification of five forms of civil-military relations aside, the underlying argument of his research presents a valuable perspective. Rather than identifying the difference between civilian and military spheres along institutions, he recognizes that the distinction itself has to be understood as a political norm of how society should be organized. According to Ångström, the need for this norm lies in the state’s interest to differentiate between different acts of killing: murder and the “necessary” violence used by armed forces[ix]. The latter is a legitimized form of violence that is bound to the norm of civilian guidance - at least this is the case in democracies. But what happens in a scenario where every politician once was a guerrilla fighter? Depending on which norm prevails in the according society (Ångström), which concord has been reached between the dominant actors (Schiff), and which perspective of the four identified forms gaps is taken (Rahbeck-Clemmensen), the answer to this question will be different. It is this understanding, that what it means to be civilian and military is a political choice […] that is inherently linked to a particular form of international and domestic political order (Ångström 2013: 227), that alters our understanding of civil-military relations.

Prime examples to show the asserted blurred lines between civilian and military spheres  in the Kurdish case are presented in the political-military figure of Sheikh Jafar Mustafa and the political figure of Barham Salah. Sheikh Jafar, currently the military leader of unit 70, is also a politburo-member of the PUK, the military advisor to KDP leader Masoud Barzani, and the former Minister of Peshmerga. Within several years he has held both military and civilian positions and as asserted in the first statement, it does not matter which coat he wears because either way he will have the same level of influence through the numbers saved in his telephone.

Barham Salah, in contrast, is the opposite case. Widely known in the region as one of the only politicians who has no Peshmerga background, even close friends to Barham Salah confirm that his amount of international education does not make up for the lack of fighting history in his popular standing:

He can not control one single thing in the PUK, because he does not have a Peshmerga background. Others they can talk, function, with all the respect, no matter whether they are qualified or not. But they used to be a great leader and therefore they must lead until the day they die. While Barham, if he were anywhere else, he would be in the top position right now.(OTR)

With both of these examples, the impression develops that there is no such thing as a distinguishable “gap” between a civilian and a military sphere in the Kurdish cultural or normative context. Due to the strong interconnection and almost impossible separation between military and civilian influence in the party-structured system (Stansfield 2003), power lies with the person and not necessarily with the uniform or the office[x]. Even the basic lines between public and private seem to be blurred. For example, just as many Peshmerga also work as taxi-drivers or small business owners parallel to their military duties, the institution of internal security, Assayish, usually belonging to the Ministry of Interior, operates under the commander of the region[xi] at the front lines. Roles and identifications are therefore not rigid and marked by clear distinctions or “corporate”-identities. They are instead multi-layered and highlighted according to the social situation. It is in the moments when people need to chose sides that these layers become apparent.

These findings are a vital first step to the understanding of the civil-military relations of the Kurdish region: while there might be an official institutional form of a gap, due to the weakness of these institutions, which will be further elaborated below, and the parallel strength of a personalized system, in addition to the almost non existent differentiation of roles, no clear gap between the civilian and the military can be assumed.

Structure-System Divide

It is, however not so much the not-tangible-existence of the gap that is the source of revision in this paper, but it is the way in which the non-existence of the gap is contrasted by instead identifying a gap between a structure and a system[xii]. Studying the civil-military relations of the Kurdish north of Iraq, the impression develops that there is “something else” going on outside the official institutions and command structures. As two of my research subjects asserted:

“There are unwritten rules here. If you come in and you don’t know anything about the society it looks proper. But there is a division deep down.” (OTR)

The official structure is more political rhetoric to motivate the popular state of working towards a united Kurdish front and to give the impression, especially after           2003 in Baghdad, that we are Kurdish people and we show a united image. But this official structure is just the surface.(i17)

Even in the Ministry of Peshmerga, the official institution of civilian oversight to military matters, a similar impression develops:

The system in theoretical [sic], in framework, is there. The minister is there. Everything is there. But how to make a system function correctly […] it is not easy. Because these two political parties they have created their own armies before when there was a conflict in 1990s […] They have an ideology, even if you mix them, the one who belongs to PUK still is PUK member.(i5)

With the identification of an “official” and an “unofficial” sphere, the search for terminology and identification of variables commenced. Thereby, I found that the idea of formal and informal aspects in civil-military relations has been introduced by Pion-Berlin (2010)[xiii]. In the study of Latin America he finds that in some cases informal venues are chosen to get around formal civil-military relations. While not challenging the premise of the institutional structure, he concludes his analysis in the priorly referred question of making the informal venues the focal point of CMR analysis. In the Kurdish case, this premise can not only be supported but the findings suggest that the informal system constitutes the center of the relationship.

It is, however, still helpful to refer to Pion-Berlin’s definition of formal and informal relations.

Formal relations, as he understands them, are constituted when “contact between government officials and military commanders [..] takes place within the defense organizations in and around the chain of command. It is along this organizational ladder of influence that political overseers and soldiers interface on a daily basis, within well-established agencies, using official lines of communication, conforming to official procedures.(Pion-Berlin 2010: 528 ff.) Informal behaviors, in contrast, are those that do not follow the official script (are not mandated by law), that are not always situated in official venues (along the chain of command), and that depart from statutory rules of conduct (official procedures).” (ibid.: 529)

Studying the Kurdish case, the non-existence of a gap between civilian and military spheres and the lack of the resulting understanding of professionalism and institutionalism already hints towards a low level of formal relations. Additional findings, however, underline this first impression even more by demonstrating the weakness of the formal, official, institutional structures. Taking the current conflict as an example, the front line with  the Islamic State is divided into eight sections; four command centers each are dominated by the leading party according to the territorial divide. All eight commanders are therefore appointed by the parties, not the Ministry of Peshmerga. Thus, the findings suggest that institutions are weak and the formal acceptance of this layout by the MoP resembles a “technicality of stamping party-interests” (OTR). Several other instances of party-appropriation of the institutional infrastructure indicate similar distanciation between structure and system. As one research subject (i2) put it clearly: “The problem is now the political parties and the institutions are interrelated. And the problem is that most of the important decisions are made outside the government.”

It seems therefore that there exists an official structure, a democratic image, different institutions, and elections while, parallel to it, a system of party-domination is maintained.  While institutions of civilian government are present, they yield limited decision-making powers. There are laws, but the parliament is not the decision-making institution and the judiciary is party-controlled. The Peshmerga show an institutional divide in the MoP and the UPF, but large parts of the forces are still based on the parties where the lines between political and military influence are blurred. And with the Kurdish case showing almost institutionalized patterns of these informal behaviors and networks, one can conclude the informal paths to be stronger than the formal structure. Therefore, one needs to question whether an analysis of the institutional structure is sufficient in comprehending the civil-military relations. The central finding of the presented research is that an assessment of the institutional framework alone holds no explanatory value for the Kurdish case study. Instead, the focus has to shift from the perceived institutional gap between the spheres towards the analysis of the differences between structure (institutions) and system.

The Nature of the System

Realizing the dominance of the system over the structure in the modus operandi of civil-military relations, the identification of the nature of this system becomes a vital task in understanding those aspects which CMR theory is currently unable to account for. My research identifies two main characteristics of the system: one, pluralism based on the historical, political, and territorial division of the region; and two, the substance of the system is based on what I call “centralized localism”.

Pluralism and Division

The division of the Kurdish region of Iraq in territorial, political, and historical terms is one of the most defining characteristics of the case study. It is this division that creates and upholds the visible plurality of military forces.

One of the most pertinent, but more importantly largely overlooked, aspects in the analysis of the region is the influence of the persisting territorial division of the parties. Support towards the inclination of ascribing a relevance to territory can be found in the theory of Zukerman-Daly (2012), who, referring to the case of Colombia, bridges the geographical distribution of social networks with the idea of demilitarizing militias. Despite Zukerman-Daly’s application of the network-geography nexus on the issue of demobilization, her findings lead to support for the conclusion of this research that the geographic mirror of the political polarization influences the social network structure by making it more resistant to change. Concluding from this perspective, the two geographically split administrative systems in the KRG that each correlate with one dominating party and their social network structure (Stansfield 2003: 5) are likely to remain divided even within the context of increased unification, as the cluster of personal networks is concentrated around the geographic distribution of the parties. It is this spatialization of political power in a polarized system that leaves its imprint on the civil-military relations.

Both this territorial and this political division are historically informed. The Kurdish region of Iraq has long been split by a river separating the area of Badinan and Soran, which reinforced a divide in spoken dialects, political allegiances, and most recently two parties. The dividing lines have moved during the civil war but have since been frozen. Today, the split is polarized between the parties, who are each headed and represented by one family (Barzani in the KDP and Talabani in the PUK). While these differences initially arose out of ideological disagreements over the traditional, hierarchical, and tribal based- or egalitarian administration of society, today the dispute relates to the party and family wanting to increase their personal influence.

This historical division has crystalized into a lack of trust, first, between the two sides[xiv], and second, towards new, unified institutions and structures. Trust, “the glue that holds societies together” according to Griffith (2015), is largely deficient in the society. As he suggests, mistrust is generally seen in the form of clientelistic structures (meaning the favoring of regular business contacts over competence), patronage (the prioritization of family and proteges), as well as cronyism (the favoring of friends) and corruption (ibid.); all of which holds true for the Kurdish case.

What the findings also show is that despite the first steps towards the unification of forces, and the rhetoric of KRG rule, there is still a strong interrelation between territory, party, and power. Given this association of the party with the state, government, and administration was the predominant way of organization for a long time (Stansfield 2003), it is not surprising that it still partially exists today. As Hemin Hawrami (i11, 2014) explains: “For 80 years, Kurdistan was in a revolutionary part. The [party] was almost everything: it was a state that was delivering justice, it was an institution that was protecting the liberated areas, it was delivering security, education, and even giving salaries.”

Concluding, pluralism and division are characteristics that are likely to persist; and it is their persistence that underlines the necessity to understand pluralized civil-military relations.

“Centralized Localism”

Apart from the existing plurality of forces and the divisions they are based upon, the system is characterized by what I call “centralized localism”. This term refers to a form of personalized politics, that is inextricably linked to a geographical locality, and subsumed to the existence and influence of an overarching party-center. Thereby, centralized localism is based on personal networks and the notion of loyalty that are glued together by clientelism, patronage, cronyism and corruption.

Personalized, localized and centralized politics. The findings of my research suggest that in the Kurdish region political influence does not derive from the “office”, but from who you are, which family you belong to, or who you are personally close to. As one research subject asserts (OTR): “The entire culture is based on the person; the feeling of entitlement, loyalty, the cult and prestige that comes from followers.” In this centrality of the person it is, however, neither about personality or charisma, nor about the government position. It is about the social position and the access to power in their immediate area. The system is comparable to a localized structure, where towns are small, people know each other, and everyone knows who is in charge - it does not matter whether that person heads an office or not. Personalities are based on a network and a sense of localism. At the same time these local personalities operate under the wider arch of centralized party-loyalty and -command. This system is best seen in the example of the PUK, where, ever since Jalal Talabani proved physically incapable of running the party, the structure started to fall back to its local components while still remaining under the party umbrella. Less obvious though still present, a similar set-up is generally visible in all parties and even more so in the Peshmerga. With military leaders, their power derives largely from the access to and the distribution of money[xv]. However, the personal contact and relationship to the general is equally important to the question of obedience and loyalty. The individual commander influences the structure on the basis of salary, friendship ties, and loyalties. A conclusion can be drawn that these networks of personal contact are relevant to consider.

Networks and loyalty. Looking into these networks of personal contacts, the notion of loyalty turns out to be a defining category. On a general level, loyalty influences the decision, when a and b disagree, which one will be followed[xvi]; the institution or the party. What can be read from the findings, however, is that loyalty largely depends on benefits, particularly social (prestige) and economical (income, advancement etc.) ones. This holds true for personal interests - People who have lived here all their life, they are after loyalty. They want to prove that they are loyal to this leader or that leader so they get a post, they get a salary, they get married, they have a flat and this and that (i23)-, elections -“Here to be successful in your election the senior people in the party must support you. So as long as you are loyal to the person who appointed you, you stay in your position” (i23)-, and professional advancement -“Party affiliation is more important than capabilities. Right now you get a position not because of merit but because of a letter of recommendation by a politburo or central party member” (i21). Even in military terms, the notion of loyalty becomes a central variable: “Just because [the forces are] structurally unified, [it] does not mean that loyalty runs with [the] ministry.” (i5)

Having identified loyalty and personality to be relevant, an additional identification of a certain hierarchy in the relations and the intersecting layers of loyalty can be undertaken. Depending on the person and the situation, different identifications, loyalties, and roles are dynamically adapted. In general, the findings show there is a continuing strong reliance on parties, tribes, and personalities. Particularly the last aspect plays a vital role in understanding the informal system of the civil-military relation in the region.

Clientelism, patronage, cronyism and corruption. In addition to the notion of loyalty, the networks of personal contacts are also upheld by a the factors Griffith (2015) identified to be the consequences to a society lacking trust: clientalism, patronage, cronyism and corruption. At the top of all of these extra-institutional forms of co-optation and legitimation stands the party. In a general contemplation, a research subject (i17) noted bluntly that “a lot of the temptation of the [party] has always been: they have guns, they have money. They can shoot you, arrest you, or pay you. More instructive to the expression of these network substances, however, are concrete examples. In this paper, the issue of corruption will be utilized to such a demonstrative effect. The reason for this choice lies in a simple connection most of my research subjects identified: political power still resides outside the institutions today, because there is still money outside the institutions. Picking a military example to demonstrate the interlinkage between clientalism, patronage, cronyism, and particularly corruption in the Kurdish society, the issue introduced here is commonly referred to as “ghosts”[xvii].

Following the money in Kurdistan is a tricky business. As one source tells me “we have a bagging system, not a banking system” (OTR), meaning that cash in paper bags does not leave traces like a digital transfer. What is officially known is that the system used to look like this: money from Baghdad[xviii] went to the Kurdish government and was distributed evenly to the parties, who then handed the money to their clients. Thereby loyalty was rewarded, criticism punished, and since they support their military units directly they also maintained a party based monopoly of force. This system has changed, however. Now the money comes to the KRG and goes to the ministries[xix]. The MoP then distributes the money to the units 70, 80 and the UPF. However, the MoP does not know how many Peshmerga there actually are. Each commander gives the number of soldiers in his command to the next higher level and collects the according salaries. Without any means of control for these numbers, however, “a general can say he has 700 but he actually has only 200 men” (OTR). These effectively non-existent men are called “ghosts”[xx]. Additionally, the distribution of money through these channels leads to dependencies of the soldier towards their generals, which is sometimes exploited[xxi]. The goal of wiring the money directly through a banking system to the individual soldier is defined to address these problems: one, by individualizing the payment (issuing bank cards), the “ghosts” disappear. Two, through the banking system, the money flow becomes visible which makes the corruption easier to be limited and monitored. And third, the dependencies to the superior dissolve as the money is not dependent on loyalty anymore.

What becomes obvious in this example is the glue that binds together the centralization of power in the party, the loyalty demanded and the enforced obedience through the top-down delivery of money, prestige, and benefits, is based on corruption, “wasta” (favoritism or nepotism), clientalism and patronage.


Combining all the findings, there are several points that need to be concluded for the Kurdish case: One, there exists an official structure, but the institutions do not yet yield actual decision-making influence in the region, which therefore renders the classical civil-military gap marginal. Culturally this distinction of the spheres is also absent. Instead, networks of personal relations influence all civilian and military aspects of society. Two, these networks work as a parallel system next to and sometimes intersecting with the official structure. It is this system of party-domination that is still the influencing factor in the region’s reality and hence has to be the focus of civil-military relation studies.

Each of the two dominant parties maintains control over territory, resources, and to large extent their people, due to clientelism, patronage, and loyalty. Money is identified to be a key variable in this relationship. Mistrust of having the other party taking away this power for the benefit of a hegemonic domination is identified to be another variable to keep the followers apart and the military forces loyal. So, despite one official institutional “structure” existing, the reality is defined by the perpetuation of the plurality of Peshmerga forces. In order to understand this complex reality of plural civil-military relations, the findings suggest the need to look outside the “office”, rank, and uniform. Instead, one can identify a continuing reliance on parties and personalities. Thereby it is about the social position the person holds, which derives from party-rank or family-membership, as this in turn grants access to resources that can be distributed to clients. Since this money is mostly located in the parties and only slowly transferred through the institutions, local influencers relate to a party patron. The system, therefore, is one of centralized localism and needs to be understood in its territorial set-up. For the analysis of civil-military relations these networks of personal contact are relevant to consider as they trump the official institutional distinction of civilian and military spheres.

Current CMR theory is not capable of conceptualizing a system in which personal networks and relations explain the political and military set-up, because it remains its focus of analysis on the institutions even when they do not have actual decision-making powers. Further, it is not able to understand multiple, crosscutting relationships as the state-centric perspective assumes a monopoly of power, force, and legitimacy and thereby fails to account for the possibility of several actors being involved.

With that big a gulf of explanatory shortcomings, future research is challenged to turn its analysis away from fixed templates of models and assumptions towards an opening up for blurred lines, multiple intersecting relations, and dynamic role-identities. After all, in an increasingly unstable world for both geopolitical zones and theoretical dichotomies, the Kurdish region is likely to not be the only case that requires a more refined toolkit and methodology for understanding complex relations between institutions and actual power yielding forces.


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Selection of the Interviews

i2: Ahmed, Muhammad Ali. Interviewed by author. Qualitative Interview. Sulaymaniyah, 10/11/14.

i5: Atrushi, Farhad Ameen. Interviewed by author. Qualitative Interview. Duhok, 25/11/14.
i6: Aziz, Qadir Hama Jan. Interviewed by author. Qualitative Interview. Sulaymaniyah, 02/10/14.

i11: Hawrami, Hemin. Interviewed by author. Qualitative Interview. Erbil, 01/12/14.

i13: Jawad, Said. Interviewed by author. Qualitative Interview. Bashiqa Frontline, 17/09/14.

i17: Mustafa, Chia Nashirwan. Interviewed by author. Qualitative Interview. Sulaymaniyah, 10/11/14.

i18: Mustafa, Sheikh Jafar. Interviewed by author. Qualitative Interview. Qaradigh, 26/09/14.

i21: Rahim, Mohamad ‘Hama’ Tofiq. Interviewed by author. Qualitative Interview. Sulaymaniyah, 25/09/14.

i22: Rashad, Mala. Interviewed by author. Qualitative Interview. Bashiqa Frontline, 17/09/14.

i23: Resool, Shorsh (Haji). Interviewed by author. Qualitative Interview. Sulaymaniyah, 10/11/14.

i24: Salah, Said. Interviewed by author. Qualitative Interview. Talaward Frontline, 01/09/14.

i25: Salih, Najat Ali. Interviewed by author. Qualitative Interview. Makhmour, 17/11/14.

End Notes

[i] The “gap” debate is a discourse along the question of whether there is a distinguishable difference between a civilian and a military sphere (Cohn 1999).

[ii] To find out which aspects current CMR theory is not able to account for, qualitative interviews were conducted with research subjects according to a targeted convenience sampling and the snowball approach during the field work from August until December 2014.

[iii] The differentiation between system and structure is vital in this research. Structure, in this thesis, refers to a formal form of civil-military relationship. Institutionalized hierarchies, chains of command, and official links of communication are understood to constitute such formal structures. System, in contrast, indicates the informal aspects of contact, exchange, and networks that exist sometimes parallel, sometimes intersecting, and sometimes entirely absorbed within the formal structure.

[iv] The “phases” are not be construed as part of linear progression where the later ones are more modern or refined. Instead, they refer to accentuation, normative tone, and the use of set ideas and concepts for the analysis of CMR.

[v] Burk explains this normative preference through the ideas of the democratic value that those with authority ought to be the elected representatives of the people (2002: 8). Feaver even goes as far as to states “civilians are morally and politically competent to make the decisions even if they do not possess the relevant technical competence in the form of expertise [because] the expert is not in a position to determine the value that the people attach to different issue outcomes [… and therefore] civilians should get what they ask for, even if it is […] wrong” (1999: 215-16).

[vi] Although this norm is reviewed more extensively in the study of Soviet-cases.

[vii] After all, the dichotomy does not even hold for the US itself as Schiff shows in her analysis of a post-revolutionary America (Schiff 2004).

[viii] The term centralized localism will be further introduced below.

[ix] If we did not have ‘civiland military, the elites would not be able to uphold the distinction between war and peace.(Ångström 2013: 227) He further connects this separation of “public-private” as well as “civil-military” with a norm inherent to the idea of the Westphalian state; also see Wimmer (2003).

[x] It depends on the individual whether a gap is perceived, professional standards are valued, and party or institutions are prioritized.

[xi] As Sheikh Jafar (i18) asserts: “If there is a Assayish, Police, Anti terror, anybody on my [front] they will follow what I say”.

[xii] For a definition of system and structure see Footnote 3.

[xiii] While there is others that discuss informal institutions, there is, to the author’s knowledge no one else who applies informality to civil-military relations specifically.

[xiv] In addition, the Kurds are stuck in a regional power struggle, between Turkey and Iran, between Sunnis and Shias. There is no agreement on whether it is foreign interests exploiting the division or whether it is the parties exploiting the regional divisions in order to maintain influence or even increase strength against the other party. But in either way, the sole potential of alliances with foreign powers, trying to establish a zero-sum game, further fuels the already existing mistrust.

[xv] See discussion the “ghosts” below.

[xvi] Following Desch’s (1999) credo of CMR to find who people follow when the leaders disagree, I found a level of pragmatism between the generals, saying that this is a war, we have no time for party politics (i24/ i22/ i13/ i25), but nevertheless the individual commander or politician influences the structure on the basis of likes and dislikes, friendship ties, and (party) loyalties.

[xvii] This section taps into corruption, which is a very sensitive issue. For the safety of my research subjects, the information given is paraphrased, connected, and not quoted.

[xviii] Iraqi Constitution 2005/06) Art 121,3.

[xix] With the ongoing budget discussions with Baghdad, however, the source of this money derives not from the federal government but from the official oil pumped towards Ceyhan and the unofficial oil smuggling parallel to it. “The Ministry of Finance belongs to Gorran, but the MoF does not produce money. It gets the money from somewhere: from selling oil. Officially and unofficially. … At the moment we turn a blind eye to the smuggling of oil because the oil money we pay people is theft money. We can not do anything against it because we do not have enough information and the times are very critical.” (OTR) This unofficial oil business is controlled by the parties. The parties contribute a voluntary share, which then also contributes to the money given to the MoP. News reporting in December 2014 additionally uncovers the involvement of military generals in the oil smuggling. In a 2014 study, Zukerman-Daly points towards the necessity of including these “middlemen”, their interests and influences, into the military equation: since they have a stake in the system, they are interested in maintaining it.

[xx] The existence of these ghosts becomes apparent when comparing the different accounts of troop strength. During my research I heard the numbers 160.000, 170.000 and 206.000. Other example: how many people do you lead? “I don’t know. I direct four generals directly.” (OTR)

[xxi] Stories where the general required soldiers to help his wife clean the house before receiving their salary abound.


About the Author(s)

Verena Gruber is a PhD candidate at the Defence Studies Department at King’s College in London. Graduated from the Center of Middle Eastern Studies of Lund University in Sweden and with a background in Political Science, Miss Gruber is specialized on the intersection of state-building-politics and military transformations in the aspects of civil-military relations, post-conflict transitions, and military merging processes. Based on a four month field work, her most recent research is focused on the Kurdish territories in the north of Iraq.