Octopus, Snail, Eagle – a 101 on how to write a PhD

Having just finished writing my PhD, I decided to celebrate by writing something silly and fun for a change. Octopus, snail, eagle are the three animals that have followed me and shaped my working process throughout the PhD. They are mental animals as well as metaphors for the different phases one inevitably goes through. So, to everyone who is contemplating taking on this great academic challenge, let me explain the process of writing a PhD along these three animals. 

Octopus 🐙

Before starting to write, I researched how other scholars had approached writing their dissertation. (A good tip, by the way, because learning from other people’s mistakes and gathering their words of wisdom helped me a lot during the more difficult phases.) In one explanatory video, I stumbled across a hilarious metaphor which stated that “writing a PhD is like wrestling with an octopus”. To me that saying instantly made sense. The eight arms of the octopus had already occupied me for four years at that point. There’s simply always something to do! (Not surprising, since as an octopus’ eight arms will always keep your two arms busy.) Amused by the mental image of me trying to wrestle with an actual octopus (and seeing as the according emoji is really cute), it immediately became my mantra animal. So, every time I had a bad day, I simply imagined myself patting my octopus on the head: “tomorrow is another day!” 

The first, and arguably the longest, phase of a PhD is dominated by the octopus. Identifying your topic is a seemingly endless task. Writing up, dismissing and rewriting your initial thoughts, ideas and concepts as well as grappling with terminology, theories and the sheer mass (or complete absence) of other writing is tiresome. The same is true for selecting your methodology, conducting fieldwork and trying to sort both your data and your thoughts during analysis. Most university’s bureaucratic structures do not make it easier for you either. So, the octopus is in fact a monster with eight arms. For me, to keep this monster in check was easiest to accomplish by making it my friend. Instead of being angle, I chose to be kind, patient and forgiving with its daily caprice. Try it! Imagine a little, pink octopus instead of your workload; look at it gently, smile and say: “It’s alright, tomorrow is another day!”

“Small progress is progress” and “inspiration exists but it only comes to you when it finds you working” are two other statements, which have helped me to cope with the many challenges, disappointed expectations and personal pressures while writing a thesis. Being born and raised in the mountains of Tirol, I imagined my PhD like a hike on a really tall mountain. Only slow and steady steps will bring you up there. And in between you need to rest – because otherwise your body might not adapt to the lack of oxygen. Accordingly, I was not surprised that the last few miles were actually the hardest. Instead of the final-sprint motivation providing me with an extra kick, the air was thin, my body tired and I felt like I might never reach the final peak. But I did. And then, my octopus bid me adieu.

Snail 🐌

Unfortunately, I have to tell you, after you finish the first draft of your thesis, your work is far from over. As Stefan Zweig reflects on his own writing in ‘Die Welt von Gestern’, perfection does not come from a diligent first draft but from a ruthless cutting and reformulating of everything – every paragraph, sentence and word. My own metaphor for the same process was always that of a whiskey. I do not drink blended brands (are they whiskey, really?) and I only acknowledge double and triple distilled liquor. Like a whiskey, also writing gets better the more one reduces it to its essence. What is less known, though, is that this process is slow. Super slow!

After crawling to the mountain peak with an octopus on the back, one might think that at least the downwards path will be easier and quicker. The opposite is the case. This is where the snail comes in. When I read normally – say, a novel – I can easily cover 50 to 100 pages in a day. Even academic articles I can read diligently and yet at great speed. However, when starting to reread my PhD, I only managed 20 pages the first day and 16 the second. With 250 pages to go, I quickly got demotivated. When my brother found me in my exasperation, he enquired about my progress. I said to him “I feel slower than a snail!” to underline my great impatience. To my surprise, he leaned back in deep thought and then responded in wit and wisdom: “Well… a snail might be slow, but it does move and it leaves a trace.”

This image made me laugh and think at the same time. Indeed, as I was slowly moving through the pages of my thesis, I was leaving a trace behind – in the table of contents (where I finally added the page numbers) as well as in the actual text, which grew better and better every time I read through it. Suddenly, thinking of a snail did not make me angry but happy. Instead of focusing on my slow progress, I cheered my snail on. At some points, it even felt like my snail had crawled onto a turtle, as it was moving in much faster speed – at almost 40 to 50 pages per day. With this slow but steady progress, I eventually reached the point upon which I was satisfied enough to hand over my thesis to someone else.

Eagle 🦅

Once the point is reached at which you are no longer hesitant to show your work to someone else (or when you no longer know anything about your own topic because you are so lost inside, you only see trees instead of the whole forest), the snail has to bid you farewell. Instead, the eagle will be your companion for the last stretch. Like an eagle flies high in order to oversee the whole horizon, your first order of business is to create distance between you and your work. Go out, do sports, read a novel (or write a funny blog post about octopuses, snails and eagles). Do anything but deal with your thesis while others read and prepare their feedback for you. 

Whenever the others are ready to discuss your work with you, you can return to it. But also here, the eagle is your guiding animal. Instead of moving through the work from top to bottom again like the snail, you fly over it only punctually diving down (like an eagle upon seeing a mouse) to fix something here or there. 

Sometimes, depending on the size and amount of your changes, it can make sense to return to the snail one last time, to make sure everything works as a whole. If you do so, make sure that the priority and focus is on cutting even more and on assuring that the top fits to the bottom and to everything in between. If this is the case, congratulations, you are ready to hand in! Your octopus, snail and eagle are celebrating with you.

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Wieviele Farben hat der Krieg?

Da habe ich nun, ach,

Militärwissenschaften, Politologie und den nahen Osten studiert,

und da stehe ich nun, ich arme Närrin,

und lerne erst jetzt,

dass der Krieg auch Farben hat.

Schwarz ist der Krieg,

wie die Panzer und das Pulverfass,

schwarz wie die Asche, die übrig bleibt,

verbrannte Erde,

schwarze Rauchsäule am Horizont.

Schwarz ist der Krieg,

wenn er uns nicht interessiert.

Denn wenn schwarze Menschen sterben,

so scheint es, schauen wir nicht hin.

Braun ist der Krieg,

wie die Uniformen,

braun wie der Dreck, in dem Soldaten liegen,

wartend auf die nächste Welle

aus Explosionen und Granatensplittern.

Braun ist der Krieg,

wenn wir ihn anteilslos im Fernsehen beobachten.

Denn wenn braune Menschen fliehen,

dann machen wir die Grenzen dicht.

Weiß ist der Frieden,

wie die Taube, die uns daran erinnern soll.

Aber wenn Krieg weiß ist, und weiße Menschen kämpfen, fliegen und sterben,

dann sind plötzlich unsere Herzen und Grenzen offen.

Stand with Ukraine? Danke, sagen die Afghan:innen.

Offene Grenzen für Migrant:innen? Danke, sagen die Syrer:innen.

Arbeitsmarkteröffnung für Geflohene? Danke, sagen die Kroat:innen.

Warum messen wir Menschen so freizügig mit unterschiedlichem Maß?

Rot ist der Krieg,

wie das Blut, dass in allen Kontinenten der Welt fließt,

rot wie die Herzen aller Menschen, die einfach nur ein gutes Leben für sich und ihre Kinder wollen.

Rot auch meine Augen vor lauter Weinen über die Ungerechtigkeit der Welt.

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studying the post-merger integration of the kurdish peshmerga – a description of the motivation and goals of my research

in an effort to be open and transparent about my research in kurdistan, i decided to write this blog to describe the motivations and goals of my phd research for anyone and everyone who wants to inquire on my work.

doing research, particular in a context such as a phd, is like being a surgeon in the medical sector: one has an entire patient in front of oneself, but not one doctor in the world could take care of all the patient’s issues and problems. therefore, one specialises and focuses on one particular aspect, cutting down even into the smallest elements such as the individual cell or individual neurological processes. obviously, in order to know where to start ‘digging’, one needs to first understand the patient a little bit.

academic background

i, myself, have worked on the kurdish region of iraq since 2013. i started out by looking at a conceptualisation of the region from the point of view of political theory and international law, trying to understand which type of theory of state/non-state/quasi-state formation best explains this unique place in the world. as so many times after that, i found that the (predominantly western) body of theory is largely insufficient to explain and understand this unique region. to me, this was very exciting as i believe that the value and strength of academic approaches is to develop analytical constructs, such as theory, to help make sense of this world. with current theories failing in explaining kurdistan, there is a unique opportunity to step outside of western theoretical thought and instead go to the ground to first understand how the region actually works, how kurds actually view the world around them and the challenges they face as well as what solutions they have implemented so far to deal with them. and ultimately, there is the possibility to develop a theory (inshallah) that may explain other regions such as this one which is based on fluid structures, ad-hoc and local solutions, weak institutions, and intersecting layers of identity, loyalty and governance. this interest has led my research ever since – diving into the region since 2014 and trying to understand not how to make kurdistan look like sweden or the u.s. or the u.k. but to learn from the way the region functions and assist local leaders in developing the region into something where they want to see the region to develop to – with its own kurdish character, its own kurdish institutions and its own kurdish goals and visions and perspectives.

when i first came to kurdistan, i was very interested in the political division of the kurdish political parties – particularly the kurdistan democratic party (kdp or pdk) and the patriotic union of kurdistan (puk). having grown up in austria, i soon noticed, was a very good starting point to understand the kurdish region of iraq and its political landscape. austria itself was dominated by two parties for the longest time of its history. just like in kurdistan, every aspect of life was influenced by these political parties. my own parents were among the first generation that no longer needed to be a member of a political party to get a job. for some positions, party membership is still a precondition in austria. and until today there are many services (such as rescue services, think tanks and newspapers) that are clearly associated with one party or another. does that mean that i believe that kurdistan will (or should) develop like austria? no. austria does not have iran and turkey as its neighbours. austria has always been an independent state. and austria’s political militias were effectively destroyed in the second world war. the history, social and cultural context is different in austria; and just like i don’t believe that kurdistan should be another sweden or arab emirates or u.s.a., i don’t believe that kurdistan should be another austria either. but coming from austria helps to understand some aspects of how kurdistan currently functions: strong party division, the allocation of offices depending on party affiliation, “wasta” (we call it “vitamin b”) and so forth.

with that said, how did i end up focusing on the peshmerga? well, when i was first in kurdistan, it was the time that isis took control over mosul. i experienced first hand how the call “we are all peshmerga” echoed through the region and so i decided to take this coincidence and opportunity to focus on the question how the party-political division would play out in the defense of the kurdish borders – a core element of statehood, after all. during my time in kurdistan, i visited many front lines all the way from zumar to jalawla. i had the pleasure to interview many peshmergas and political party members from kdp, puk and gorran; i was very warmly welcomed, supported and protected during each of my journeys and i was astonished about the examples i witnessed of great cooperation and coordination as well as some evident challenges and still-existing divisions and statements of hostility.

my master thesis ended up concluding that, yet again, western theories – in this case, the theory and analytical concept of civil-military realtions – was ill equipped in understanding, explaining and describing the unique situation that was observable in the kurdish region. in addition, what i learned and saw on the front lines made me believe in the great potential and intention of the kurdish peshmerga and their efforts in building a strong, sustainable, unified military force for all the region and all its people. receiving the opportunity to continue my research on the peshmerga in a phd, i was determined to disect the issue even further and go into greater depth of division and unity.

my phd research

so, in my phd research, i look at the unification/merger of unit 70 and unit 80. as any good academic, i started out by reading about military mergers in this and in many other case studies in the world. and one of the things i noticed is that in all international works – be it by academics, by think tanks or by international organisations – the focus rests very much on the structure of merger. organisations such as the u.n. and n.a.t.o. have a great understanding of how to structure a merger from an organisational standpoint: how to write the laws, how to organise the ministry etc. however, if one compares the merging military literature with the merger and aquisition literature in business, it soon becomes aparent that structure is just one element of merger. in fact, when talking to strategy advisors from the big five consultancies, i was learned that 80-90% of all business mergers fail not because of the structure – not because the legal contracts where not nicely prepared and not because the official arrangement of power was not prearranged – but because of the different “corporate cultures” of the former two entities and the failure to form one new culture. concluding from these experiences, i assume a similar case to be true for military organisations. to say it differently: i believe that, in the end, a shared vision, strategy and purpose as well as trust matter more for a sustainable unificaion than the question who is in charge. for the peshmerga and for my research, therefore, i believe, we need to learn to understand “cultural” factors as well, if one wants to succeed in making the merger sustainable.

in my research, i want to ask unified peshmerga soldiers of all ranks questions that relate to testing how strong or weak the “merged cultures” are and to find out in which areas one would need to invest in order to make the merger stronger and more sustainable. in business, this process and focus is called “post-merger integration” – and this is what my research stands to assess for the unified kurdish peshmerga.

assessing post-merger integration of the peshmerga

post-merger integration, as the name suggests, starts after the structural merger was completed. it asks questions of competence and capabilities as well as values, goals and visions. this is exactly what i aim to apply to the peshmerga. based on the logic of post-merger integration, i interview unified peshmerga soldiers of all ranks and from all different backgrounds. i ask them questions along three lines: from recruitment until deployment, organisation and processes of the forces, and their experiences, values and future outlooks.

in addition to applying a socio-political perspective, guided by the idea of post-merger integration, on a military force, i also conduct my research in a highly structurised and stabdardised way, as i am not just seeking qualitative accounts of reasoning and history, but also quantifyable data. as a result, i ask the same questions to every interviewee and all interviews are kept anonymous.

along the indicators i have develop to assess a holistic picture of peshmerga perceptions, sattisfaction an outlook for the future, i assess the current stage of cultural integration in the kurdish peshmerga. ideally, from the data – if i achieve, with the help of the ministry of peshmerga, to make the data set comprehensible enough to deduct appropriately generalisable conclusions – i would be able to not only provide a picture of the current level of integration but also some tangible policy recommendations as to where the ministry could intensify their work, effort and coordination to achieve – depending on the political wishes and will – a deeper, more solid and sustainable integration.

to summarise, briefly

the topic of my research:

⁃ the post-merger integration of the unified kurdish peshmerga

who i look for to interview:

⁃ unified peshmerga soldiers of all ranks

two perspectives that motivate my research:

⁃ add to the existing structural aspects of merger by looking into cultural, social and value-based aspects of a sustainable integration

⁃ find a kurdish solution for the kurdish military forces instead of attempting to install a foreign system to the region which might or might not function (and attempting to look beyond existing (western) models of comparison)

i look forward to cooperating with all national and international institutions and individuals involved in the unification, institutionalisation and merger of the kurdish peshmerga in iraq. should you have any questions, queries or interest to get in touch, feel free to reach out to me or to comment below.

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Welcome back to Erbil – a lifestyle blog

it has been a while since i last visited erbil – the capital city of the kurdish federal region in the north of iraq which is lovingly referred to as “kurdistan”. the last time i spent some time in the area was in 2016 and since then, time flew by faster than i could have ever expected with life jusy keeping me busy. returning now, almost three years later, i find myself in something thay might as well be an entirely different city!

erbil seems to have grown exponentially over the last years. while this is a tendency that i have heard happening again and again since the 1990s, this time the city did not expand in diameter or in housing projects but in small businesses and in coffee shops and restaurants. in a place i lived three years ago, there used to be one coffee shop, one restaurant and one small bazar – now there is an entire street with so much to offer on either side of it that one has trouble choosing at which place to eat western food, smoke shisha or have coffee or tea. even beyond this street around the corner, the city is bustling with life again.

having recently heard of the budget finalisations in baghdad, i might imagine this but i honeslty feel as though i can see there is money pumping through the veins of this city again. all lights are ablaze – with the minor exception of still occuring power cuts here and there – shops are open, there are more and more big and heavy cars driving on the roads and even the city as a whole seems to be cleaner, more lean and organised. if it would not be for me having observed some american army helicopters going up and down next to the erbil airport, i might have had forgotten entirely that this is what is still considered a rather unstable region of the world.

seeing erbil this way, makes me happy for the city and the region even though the adventurous soul in my heart is almost disappointed because it does not feel like an “adventure” any more at all; it’s just another city with western-looking cars (okay, to be fair, there are more toyotas here than in any place in europe or north america, but beyond that…), many western-style shops and western-looking appartments. again, if it where not for the eventual three seconds of darkness due to a power cut, one would forget entirely that one is in an area that is internationally considered to be “iraq” – with all the media-pushed stereotypes that come with it.

instead, erbil seems to be unimpressed with the international stereotypes on it and its region. the city is simply truly buzzing. the international community is quite present as well. people are at ease. even u.n.-employees live off the compound and military men stroll casually through the city in civilian clothing. eveyone seems to be relaxed, enjoying the wide array of offers to meet new people, to hang and to chill. it is still particularly easy to meet people because everyone around has a need to connect to others. the empty spaces of time are filled with pub quizzes, private partys, organised hiking trips and latino nights at rotana.

i spent my first evening with kurdish discussions on politics, as well as with scottish poetry, japanese whiskey. it is the epitomy of what the city has seem to become – incredibly international, diverse and socially engaging. so, for now, welcome back to erbil 2.0.!

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4students: three tips on methodology

when it comes to research, my belief system is built on three cornerstones:

  1. (truly) ‘objective’ research does not exist – we can only aim at getting as close as possible to it by limiting our human fault lines.
  2. everybody is biased – lucky for me, the swedish academic tradition taught me that this is okay, as long as you wear your biases transparently for the outside world to see and don’t pretend to be objective, because: see point number one.
  3. the first step to avoid bias is by admitting that you are biased – as with many human subjects, the first step is admitting that you have a problem. the good news: after a while, one realises that ‘bias’ is about the least harmful ‘problem’ one can have – if (and this is central!) one is aware of the bias. only by being aware and up front about it, can researchers strive towards scientifically valuable research.

so, naturally, ‘bias’ is a common word in my vocabulary (one which regularly drives the men of my family up the walls). i can not help but think about it all the time. and obviously, i am doing my best to avoid my own biases. yet, since i am working on a topic so far removed from my own cultural background (i am a woman working in a ‘men’s world’; i am young, working mostly with elderly men; and i come from central europe, while i study the middle east), it is not surprising that i constantly end up running head first into all different sorts of biases and difficulties to understand.

at the moment, i am particularly struggling with the need to remain as ‘neutral’ as possible in the methodological questions and choices for my upcoming fieldwork.

methodoloy – a drain to most undergraduate students and a pain even to more experienced researchers, is a subject that is often conceived to be very dry. for me (call me a nerd, that’s fine), methodology is in fact one of the most exciting factors in research. well, maybe not ‘exciting’ – but it is the part which makes me feel most like a legitimate academic 🙂 methodology, after all, is the art of finding the right tool to dig for the answers you are craving. so, here’s tip one:

tip one: methodology is an art – celebrate it!

the more you think about methodology as a mere ‘box’ you need to tick when writing your paper or as a dry-spill in your writing (let’s be fair, writing the methodology section has, in fact, more to do with being mechanical and precise than with writing anything remotely thrilling), the more you will be tempted to rush through your methodological considerations. this is where your first fault (and bias) lies.

instead, when you confront yourself with methodology, think of yourself as an artist, as a designer, as an inventor! imagine you are one of the first men (or women) to discover something like a nail. how exciting for you to now get creative and develop a tool that could help you put the nail into the wall. sure, you can put the nail into the wall with a brick, with a stone, or even with a screw driver. but the brick might become porous and its dirt will cover the floor, with the stone you end up hurting your fingers and the screw driver, while successfully putting the nail into the wall, has missed its original purpose by banging it against a nail instead of applying it with a screw. eventually – if you just put enough thought and maybe even some trial and error in it – you will end up developing ‘the hammer’.

you will see, by challenging yourself to develop your own methodological ‘hammer’ for your research, you will start going beyond the dry basics that you learn in class and this is where methodology becomes actual fun.

tip two: you need more than one tool

maybe it was my teacher, but maybe it was also my fault in not listening or not understanding – either way, it took me until my master’s level (trust me, i was as shocked as you are) to realise that in research, you might look for ‘one method’ but you look for two tools:

  1. one tool for data gathering
  2. and one tool for data analysis

with both of these tools, you have to ask yourself, whether a quantitative or a qualitative approach is more useful to your research. the answer to this question is provided by your research question – what is it that you are looking for? what is it that you want to know? is what you want to know about depth of meaning (qualitative research) or about comparing variables (like the level of education and chances to receive employment) or about cause and effect (both quantitative research)?

if you find that the way you answer the quantitative-qualitative question on your two methodological tools (asking yourself what exactly you want to or you are able to do), is significantly different to what your research question suggests, you might want to rethink your research question.

but be also aware that you can mix methods. if, for example, you are interested in a quantitative analysis, you can still gather data with a qualitative tool, should that be easier or more applicable to the context your are researching. you will just need to be careful to make sure that your qualitative gathering process adheres to the standards required for quantitative analysis, but there is nothing stopping you – let’s stay with the metaphor – to develop ‘your hammer’ just as you need it.

tip three: spend time on developing your indicators

last but not least, i want to share one insight i found today: many people tell you that data analysis and writing up take a lot of time. that is true! what they don’t tell you very often, though, is that the step from writing your first methodological approach (in order to apply for fieldwork, for example) to the actual design of the approach takes a lot of time too!

it is one thing to know, what you want to do and which tools you want to use. it is a completely different ball-game to figure out how exactly you are going to do it. think of this (metaphorical) example: your chosen tool is not a hammer, but a bicycle. and you read tons about how to ride a bike and how it functions. you know about all the quirks of human balance and the possible dangers of sidewalks. but, as anyone knows who has ever learned to ride a bike, practice is very different from theory. and it has much less to do with ‘facts and figures’ than it has to do with ‘feeling’ the right balance.

to translate the metaphor into academic example: let’s say you know that you are working with a qualitative approach in both data gathering and data analysis. you chose semi-structured interviews as your data gathering tool and thematic analysis as your data analysis tool. so, which questions are you going to ask? and in which order? you want to keep it even less structured? well, what are the topics you want to address? you might know your main issue, theme or concept. but how do you ask about it? if you are interested in whether someone is republican or democrat, you can just ask this question straight out, sure. but what does this tell you? not much. so what if you want to know how liberal a person is – what do you do then? you need to identify variables (or ‘indicators’) that you can help you figure out how liberal your interviewee is. but how do you make sure that you have the right indicators? how do you make sure that you did not forget some relevant elements? and (this is the question i currently struggle with the most) how do you avoid your own biases in developing these indicators? because, de facto, everything you define a priori has more to do with you – you as an individual, you as a researcher and you as a social being – than it has to do with the interviewee’s reality. maybe there are ‘generally acknowledged definitions’ of what constitutes ‘being liberal’ and you can start from there. maybe you start with the dictionary. but what if you are confronted with different social context (imagine a social context in which the variables ‘liberal’ and ‘conservative’ are not present? or are not perceived as relevant?) or with different languages (languages in which the direct translation has a different meaning than your original concept of interest)? all of these questions need to be considered before actually gathering data.

so, the tip is simple: plan for time to get into the nitty-gritty of your methodological tools, otherwise you end up with built-in biases that even an extensive reflection afterwards can no longer rectify.

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the difficulty of staying neutral

the more i am faced with writing my phd, the more i notice a seemingly insurmountable challenge: remaining neutral in my writing. it is no secret that words carry meaning – sometimes explicitly, sometimes implicitly, sometimes the meaning has changed over the years, sometimes it depends on the context; either way, words carry meaning. and i am no person to complain about this – some of my favourite jokes come exactly from this odd place where one word has two different meanings and depending on the interpretation, the world suddenly looks very different. yet, what is a joy in jokes becomes agony in academia.

beyond this arguably ‘normal’ challenge of choosing appropriate language (and especially in academic writing), i find myself particularly challenged by writing about the kurdish region of iraq or the kurdistan region of iraq or the kurdish north of iraq or bashur or southern kurdistan – as you can see, this is where the problem starts!

just as their seems to be no (politically) neutral ground in and around the area that is considered ‘the federal autonomous kurdish region of iraq’, so is there no neutral language to discuss the region, its institutions or its actors. every term chosen implies a choice of one side over the other: of the ‘western’, international institutional perspective over the baghdad perspective over the kurdish perspective over one particular party’s perspective and so forth. and no matter how far you turn it, somehow it seems one can never simply end up with one’s own voice.

consider this example (beyond the one i already provided in the second paragraph):

the peshmerga – a military force of the kurds which has received increased international media coverage throughout the war with isis – have been put into the following conceptual boxes: they have been described as a ‘military force’, a ‘militia’, an ‘armed force’, a ‘paramilitary force’, and ‘regional guards’, etc.

calling peshmerga a ‘military force’ is so far the most neutral form, i have found to describe what the peshmerga are. it implies that they are a ‘military’ type of organisation and that they are able to apply some type of (at least half-way legitimate form of) ‘force’. however, already here, there are some who would argue on the ‘military’ dimension of the peshmerga organisation as well as on the implied ‘legitimacy’ of this ‘force’. to be safe, many have instead referred to the peshmerga as a ‘militia’ instead. and, granted, given the fact that there are still many peshmerga who are under the exclusive partisan control of two big and several smaller political parties, the ‘militia’ concept – one, which is defined by most dictionaries as a rather ad-hoc form of force formation on the basis of a call-to-arms to a largely civilian population; be that in the form of reservists like in switzerland, along feudal or tribal structures of local patron’s calling on their client’s loyalty like in the kurdish region, or similar to the levee en masse as it was the case in revolutionary france – has some grounds to claim applicability. calling the peshmerga a ‘militia’, however, demonstrates more than just attempted academic caution – it also implies (voluntarily or not) a certain degree of discrediting the peshmerga as a legitimate, formally-organised military organisation. (i myself have on occasion applied the term ‘militia’. for me it was a way to express the dimension of partisanship within the peshmerga rather than aiming at any discrediting to neither their efforts nor their transformation towards ever more ‘military’ forms of organisation.) an even safer road would be to simply call the peshmerga an ‘armed’ force. however, at this point one is quick to deviate into a concept so broad that the actual meaning of the term is left to the mercy of the reader’s interpretation: after all, the general terming of ‘a group which is armed’ does not make any reference to their legitimacy, therefore leaving it up to the reader to decide whether to see them as a legitimate or illegitimate force (a matter of grave importance in war, politics and questions of state building). the same vagueness on both their ‘military’ organisation and their legitimacy is true for the ‘paramilitary’ terminology. the ‘regional guards’ concept, on the other hand, would provide great relief to this dilemma, as it is both broad enough to encompass many different parts of the peshmerga as well as it does not put into question their source of legitimacy (since this is the wording used in the iraqi constitution). however, since the concept, as well as many aspects related to it, are a matter of political dispute and different legal interpretations between the kurdistan regional government and the government in baghdad, also this term falls through as a useful determinant for the peshmerga.

as you can see, finding a right wording when talking about the kurdish peshmerga is difficult. and this is before one considers the adverbial embellishment of the international press picturing them either as loyal and reliable allies to the western powers, as a potential threat to the unity of iraq, as a potential spoiler in iraqi and kurdish politics, or as the true heart and soul of kurdish pride.

in addition, these terms only refer to the most recent concepts applied to the peshmerga. over the years they have also been categorised as ‘guerrilla’, ‘partisan’ and ‘tribal’. and while their roles, structures and abilities have changed without a doubt – hence, warranting and adaptation of language – until today, the choice of terminology to describe the peshmerga says more about the author’s position than it does about the peshmerga. and since my personal ambition is to stay far away from taking any political stance in my writing and analysis – neither for the western, international institutions, nor for the kurdish or kurdistan region, nor for any political party or for baghdad – it seems that one of my most challenging battles will be to find the right terminology. this challenge is increased by the fact that the ‘peshmerga’ are just one term among many within my phd that i will have to fight this battle of biased definitions with. as far as i am concerned at this moment, there is no way of avoiding this terminological battle other than by creating entirely new words and definitions. as if that were easy…

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can there ever be no war?

recently, i was asked whether we can stop all wars. for me, this is a (surprisingly) easy question to answer: all wars, for ever, you can not stop.

however, it’s not quite as grim and fatalistic as you might think either…

conflict is, i am tempted to say, a “natural” phenomenon – however, since i am not a big fan of the rather fatalistically sounding “it’s nature”-argument, let me rephrase it to say that conflict is a “normal” element of life (any life, not just the human world). within the human world, conflict stems from simple differences – where and when we are born, how we are raised, how we are socialised, how the world around us is organised and what are the moral and normative structures that guide different social beings at a particular moment in time. even if all of these variables where the same (same social context, same social class, same time, same socialisation…), people would still be different, simply because we perceive the world around us in different ways – this has genetic/biological, social, psychological and many other sources. it is simply unavoidable. (to the contrary, considering to and how to change this basis that all humans perceive the world around them in different ways, leads me to conclude a “brave new world”-scenario, which – at least to me – is a far scarier a thought than accepting that conflict is a part of life.)

so, once we recognise that conflict is never avoidable, we have to understand that every element of conflict is just a different stage at the same continuum – it starts with disagreements among family and friends, eventually aggression is added to those discussion and once you flip aggression into violence, this is where we start getting closer to what we consider the difference between “peace” and “war”. what is true in the small social context (i.e. family), is true in the big social context (i.e. society; the state) – not in every aspect of course (societies and states are much more complex due to the increase in actors and institutions and possible outcomes and options) but in the end, there are similar tendencies that remind of a “spiral” – and this can be a spiral towards aggression, violence and war as well as a spiral towards negotiation, appeasement and peace. the exact bar as to when we pass from “peace” to “war” in society is unknown. it’s an academically much debated grey zone and rather a philosophical question or a matter of individual interpretation than an obsolete truth and definition.

now, once we understand this continuum of different levels of conflict – some of which we consider being an acceptable part of “peace” and others not – and we understand the interconnected relationships of individuals/people/actors shaping society and society shaping individuals/people/actors, we understand that although conflict is “natural” and/or “normal” (in the absence of a better wording…), we can have an impact on the spiral along the conflict-continuum on each and every level along the way – by the way we treat conflict in the small setting already, by the norms and values we live and share everyday, by the stances we take in public debates etc., all the way up to the big institutions: which politicians we elect, which corporations we put our money into, which active or passive role we take ourselves in society, etc.

just as individuals can impact the spiral along the conflict continuum, so can states. one example? among the international relations theories, there are some who highlight the need for economic interdependence as a hindrance to war – the idea being that war needs to be so costly for both sides that neither has an interest in starting a war in the first place (see the european union). there are other ideas too – some highlight the need for non-violent norms, others highlight the need to put in “rational” hindrances to war (making war too costly an option to discourace actors – this goes from the mentioned interdependence theory all the way to deterrence – the idea that one nuclear power would not attack another becaus the hit back is too costly). whether the hindrance is normative, emotional and ethical or whether it is economical, rational and political, does not matter (much) in the end. what is – at least for me – relieving to know is that we as human beings, institutions and actors can actually mitigate conflict and put structural hindrances to the downwards spiral on the conflict-continuum.

to take one small sidestep: please note that all of the outlayed arguments are solely based on social sciences and completely disregards the business of war – namely, the fact that there are huge(!) corporations which – following every rule of the book of capitalism (and are therefore absolutely legitimate in our time and world today) – make money and increase country’s gdp by producing ever more deadly machines (yes, they also operate under the pressures of innovation and competition – and they are creative in developing ever more effective machines for warfare). these corporations sometimes work with the states but sometimes they act solely in a business interest – they sell to those who buy; and there we go again: how could one consider stopping war for always and ever as long as there are thousands of jobs and business interests at stake in exactly this business (however amoral you as individual might find it)? let me just reference one war-academic, to illustrate the depth of this issue: ilija stefflbauer, in his fantastic work “war”, shows painstakingly clearly that most wars could be avoided not by stoping to sell nuclear weapons or rpgs and tanks, but simply by stopping the selling of small arms. yet, why would business stop selling those weapons which are a) most requested by the international markets and b) rarely confined even by national bans on arms sales (because it’s only “small” arms … ). this would be against every logic of capitalistic corporates. they are not there to stop war or save the world. they are there to make money.

so, to conclude: we need to understand that a) conflict is unavoidable (the importance of this awareness should not be underestimated! it kicks us from a feeling of being passive victim to the happenings around us into an active awareness that this is an issue so we should and can act about it!), therefore b) war is – at least as a last resort – always an option for international actors and c) what we therefore need to do – and this we can do (on every level of society and at every stage of the conflict-continuum) – is establish mechanisms that hinder the spiral spinning all the way to war (whether though normative/ethical, rational/economic, or political levers).

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from 100 to 0 in less than a day – on life transitions

having worked a solid 40-60 hour week for the past three years, my phd was resting in a state of suspended animation. since monday, however, i am faced with the pleasure and challenge to return to academia full time in order to finish what i started several years ago.

returning to academia from a life filled with emails, meetings and constantly growing to-do lists, i have to admit, feels a bit like a car crash – from 100 to 0 in too short a time for the mind to catch on. in the case of a car crash it’s several seconds. in the case of ending an employment it takes approximately two weeks – one week in which you really feel the crash coming; then there is the ominous d-day (which you have been impatiently waiting for and dreading at the same time for the past months already); and last but not least it’s the first week of your new life which is, let’s be honest, the minimum amount of time your brain, soul and mind need to catch on to the new reality.

having experienced this ‘crash’ before (i also worked full time for two years during my bachelor’s degree and then switched to full time academia for my master’s), i knew what i had gotten myself into. so, this time, i came prepared: i made a plan and decided that the easiest way to re-enter academia – and arguably a smart one at that since it constitutes one of the core elements of academic life – was to read. read, read, read. to ease the access, i would not even limit myself as to what i should read in particular (obviously, my household is by my very nature predominantly filled with academic works of my field in any case), but i would rather leave it up to chance and daily interest to guide me through the first week. there was only one requirement for me to do: read for 4 hours every day.

coming from an 8-10 hour long work day, 4 hours seem easily doable. and they are, once you find the rhythm which works for you. in my case, i tried the ‘hammer’-method the first day: read 4 hours straight. as it turned out, i am not made for this type of reading. to the contrary, waiting for the alarm to ring (which i had set in a four hour distance to my starting point) actually demotivated me in reading even this simple book with big letter printing and easy content that i had picked out for the first day. instead, the next day, i switched from the alarm clock to a timer and simply pressed play and pause every time i started or stopped reading that day. and suddenly the 4 hours just flew by! the only hurdle that was left in my way now was the frustrating experience of some deeply unsatisfying books – but more on this in my next post.

to conclude the first week of #mynewlife, i have to stress the obvious challenge of transition phases, particularly if the difference is so stark as it is between a full time business schedule and the seeming emptiness of a self-responsible phd student’s day. however, contrary to a car crash -in which one can only hope for airbag and seatbelt to save oneself from the worst-, there are tricks and methods for life transitions to make the change feel less like a crushing halt but rather like a smooth sailing towards new horizons. reading flexibly for 4 hours every day and using the rest of the day to cook, clean and exercise certainly made my transition much smoother.

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paraphrasing macklemore: same god

when she was raised in the free world,

people told her she was muslim,

cause she wanted to wear a scarf, to cover her head from the cold stares,

she told her ma’, tears rushing down her face,

she’s like, girl you’ve been baptized since before pre-k.

“yeah i guess she had a point, didn’t she”,

a bunch of stereotypes in everyone’s head

she remembers doing the math, like “yeah i like christmas, pork and drinks”,

a preconceived idea of what it all meant.

but those who believe in a different god

have the characteristics,

the neo-conservative, right wing, think it’s a decision

and you can be cured with some treatment of “democracy”.

man-made rewiring of just a different man-made wire.

defining god, oh nah here we go, the “free world” still fears what it doesn’t know,

a guy who loves all his children is somehow forgotten

but we kill over the construct of nationalism and books written hundreds of years ago.


and i can’t change, even if i tried, even if i wanted to.

and i can’t change, even if i tried, even if i wanted to.

my god, my family, my tradition,

they keep me warm, they keep safe, they keep me alive.


if i was muslim, i think the world would hate me,

have you read the hateful comments lately?

“the arab terrorist” get’s dropped on a daily,

we become so numb to what we are saying.

a culture founded from oppression

yet we don’t have acceptance for ’em,

call each other “danger” behind the keys of a message board

all words rooted in hate, yet our generations still ignore it.

islam is synonymous with danger –

it’s the same hate that has caused wars from religion, gender or skin color, the choice of your dress,

the same fight that led people to walk-outs and sit-ins,

it’s human rights for everyone, there is no difference!

live on and be yourself,

when i was in church, they taught me something else,

if you preach hatred at the service, those words aren’t anointed,

that holy water you soak in has been poisoned,

and everyone is more comfortable remaining voiceless

rather than fighting for humans that have their dignity stolen,

i might not be the same, but that’s not important,

no freedom until we’re equal, damn right i support it.


and i can’t change, even if i tried, even if i wanted to.

and i can’t change, even if i tried, even if i wanted to.

my god, my family, my tradition,

they keep me warm, they keep safe, they give everyone identity.


we press play, don’t press pause,

progress, march on,

take down the veil hanging over your own eyes,

turn your back on hateful causes

to stand up avoiding muslims becoming our next jews.

history is written in blood, a warning,

will the next generation judge us for the crimes we commit today?

a world so hateful

people rather die for a cause than live where they are.

and welcoming integration is not going to solve it all,

but it’s a damn good place to start.

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syria started in libya

the war in syria is on everybodies mind – isis is portrayed to be yet the worst thing human kind has produced in its millenials of violent history, refugees are pouring the consequences of the war into otherwise so happily ignorant european faces and the media attention is so focused on syria that they even forget that iraq is equally in bits and pieces (well, we wrote about iraq for ten years already; syria sells better, despite the current ‘big war’ and potentially decisive battle being in iraqi mosul, but who will notice? itMs all ‘against isis’ anyways; plus, if we write about iraq people might start to assume it’s the americans fault … so let’s focus on syria!).

the thing is – yes isis is brutal, but not the most brutal the world has ever seen; yes, an ever growing amount of refugees in europe puts pressure on socioeconomic systems and societies, but at the same time ‘our systems’, our politicians and our weapons and steel companies are the ones who helped a lot in creating this f*cked up situation in the first place; and last, yes mosul is a decisive battle but syria started in libya and if you want to end syria, you also have to start in libya!

technically one could even argue, syria started in tunesia. do you still remember that at all? 2011, the arab spring. highly (over)celebrated in western media (and sadly picked up largely unreflectedly by an ever more populistic western academia) as the glorious starting point of democracy in the ‘middle ages stuck’- middle east. actually, history could still prove this analysis to be right – but just like in european history, democracy is not something that comes overnight, nor without a lot of bloodshed (remember the jacobines?). personally, i am not so concerned with the question whether this event is a move towars democracy or another shift in the balance of power; what matters is that the tunisian example spread like a fire and spilled over to -among others- libya. the reason why libya is so much more important to mention than the others is simple: because the ‘western alliance’ screwed it up royally! i can’t remember whether it was the europeans or the americans who had the gloriously brilliant idea to kill gaddafi; the brutal, yet stabilizing dictator of the country who for the past decades had been their trusted ally (if you want to throw values over board, this is how you do it!). either way, gaddafi was killed and every fan of game of thrones can tell you what happened next: when you remove the (illegitimate but) strong center of power, what you get is chaos, destruction, and decentralization of power. war, in one word. the state fell apart. local militias formed, townsmen picked up weapons to fight and to defend themselves, and in the mist of war everyone started killing for better opportunities.

the situation today
at the moment, in libya, there are three governments. (if you ask whether any of them are democratic, you missed the point entirely.) local warlords terrorize the cities and towns. people pull taxes, livelihoods, and children at will from those too weak to defend themselves. why? because they can. there is no law. there is no authority to control them. and before you judge – i really really wonder what the streets would look like in baltimore if you pulled out the police for just a few days and told the people to make their own laws. or try paris. people who have money, influence or weapons, try to climb the ladder of influence. power is a soothing drug. it makes you want it while believeing you deserve it. the law of the fist (or the firearm -lovingly supplied by their former official allies in the western countries) trumps all morale, religion, rhethoric, and law.
so when have we forgotten about libya? syria went really badly down the drains around 2013. isis became popularly known in 2014. by that time, war in libya had been waging for three full years. and yet suddenly we forgot about it. boring, let’s move on. but the power vacuum in this one country has created such a black hole of violence, human catastrophe, and weapons that it actually affects the entire region around them – and yet we (in the western world of media and biased perception) decide to completely ignore these inter-connectivities.

let me ask you a question – where does isis have its weapons from?
there is a group of people, some iraqi, some syrian, some from all regions of the world who pour in because they enjoy ‘a good ol’ scrap’ – they want to fight in the syrian war. they want to prove their own masculinity. they don’t have jobs to give them a future – so they look for a future in war: die in glory or fight for more money, women, and opportunity. war gives opportunity to those who have none – it’s the oldest trick in the book; and yet the western continent who (thank god and the european union) has been untouched by war for almost two generations now choses to blatantly ignore this fact based on their own self-image of civilization and somehow ‘higher’ stage of humanity that they then voluntarily and patronizingly export into the rest of the world. but people fight. willingly and voluntairly. and they need weapons to pillage and loot. so where to take them from? the local black market has good-old russian material from the cold war at best. the weapons are used and old and sometimes a bigger threat than the enemy. but isis has fresh weapons. modern weapons. heavy weapons. weapons only a state would (or should?) ususally have. where did they get them from? from libya.
imagine you being a military leader in libya. you’re wealthy above average. you are powerful and yet you still follow commands. what if the supreme command breaks away though? what if your army disintegrates? people leave; they steal a weapon or two on their way out. everything goes down the drains. do you stand and pull everyone together? do you punish those who leave? it might be easy with some but when it’s half your army things get tricky. so what now? do you start fighting yourself? you know how to. you have access to a lot of great weapons. but wait, if they leave, and steal, and get away with it, why wouldn’t you? but why steal a tank when you can sell it? sell it and take a long long vacation on an island somewhere; your bank account hidden on another island or between the swiss mountains. what do you think happened after the collapse of the soviet union? it’s the same story, always. and so the weapons from libya drippled into the black market and into syria.

so nowadays we are all so focused on syria that we forgot libya ever happened. but libya is in pieces. still. the human suffering, despite not being shown in youtube clips made by isis and hence not being quite as media effective in the west, is tremendously high and the laws against humanity will one day fill international court rooms and student’s theses as another ruanda that the west just overlooked. oops.
libya is forgotten. do we take refugees from libya? we don’t. in fact we actively act as though there was nothing wrong there. at max there is some who mention how annoying it is that ever since gaddafi is gone, the libyan state is the center of human trafficking to europe. well, let’s put up a big defence line of maritime patrols in the sea, let’s consider bombing refugee ships ashore in libya, and let’s bribe the new local warlords to not send us refugees – we give them a good deal on more weapons in return! oh glorious europe, the more you announce your values of human rights the more you prove your own hypocricy in libya. libya in fact proves the worry a kurdish major expressed to me just last week: “isis is not our problem. as long as isis is here, western attention is here. the real problem starts after isis, when hashti shabi and other militias will start fighting within iraq an no one will even care to look at their cruelty.”
what a statement. isis is not a problem; the problem ony start when the west choses to turn their attention away. well, we turned our attention away from libya – and people die as a result of our ignorance.

in the west, we uphold human rights. yet we treat muslims and arabs like second class people – ask the jews how that feels. we defend liberties and democracy and yet we support anything that keeps ‘those damn refugees off our backs’. should we shoot at them at the border?-when did it become okay again to even think like that let alone utter it in public?!
so, while europe upholds values of humanity, we forget to be human – because we forget the people behind the numbers and we forget entire civilizations and our own faults in the chaos. we even manage to forget an entire country five times the size of germany!
the thing is, even when you drop the humanity argument – libya is vital strategically too! as long as libya is in pieces, the entire region will be unstable. so if syria started in libya, you need to end it in libya too. but unfortunately people are no longer aware of the inter-connectivities in this world …

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