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.
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.