The Invisible Hand of Military Merger: Organisational Culture in Kurdistan

Verena Gruber

Civil wars have been an increasingly frequent occurrence since 1989. The most significant difference to “regular”, inter-state conflicts is that in civil wars solutions to both war and peace must be found within the confinement of predetermined geographical borders. Separatism is rarely a solution, because the international community currently stresses sovereign territory as a value of utmost priority. Consequently, to solve civil wars and to build a lasting peace after turmoil, new ways to overcome societal cleavages and previous hostilities need to be found. 

Amidst this quest for options, one question stands out: What to do with all the armed men? Under the wider umbrella of security sector reform (SSR), two options have developed thus far: On the one hand, ‘disarmament, demobilisation and reintegration’ (DDR) focuses on reintegrating soldiers back into society and civilian life. On the other hand, ‘military merging’ has recently developed into a new line of research, focusing on the question how to (re)unify formerly hostile armed forces institutionally. In my PhD research, I have attempted to contribute to the nascent military-merging literature by looking at one particular case in-depth.

When it comes to unifying formerly hostile armed forces, the autonomous Kurdish region of Iraq (KRI) provides an outstanding example. For one, the region is ethnically largely homogenous. Yet it has seen a brutal civil war ‘among brothers’ between 1994 and 1998. This civil war sparked along a political cleavage which defines the societal divisions in KRI until today. Originally divided over ideology (in 1975), the dominant political parties, Kurdistan Democratic Party (KDP) and Patriotic Union of Kurdistan (PUK), today represent two similar networks of patronage, nepotism and clientelism. United by a common ethnicity and divided over historic hostilities, different political actors in region have tried to unify the armed wings of these political parties since 1991. Even facing a common enemy in the Islamic State (ISIS) from 2014 to 2017 did not prevent these forces (re)separating again over a controversial political decision in October 2017. With several unsuccessful efforts made to unify the different political militias, the KRI provides an interesting case study through which to examine the factors shaping success and failure for military mergers.

In the course of my in-depth, bottom-up, qualitative research, my observations of unified brigades in the region led me in a different direction than I originally expected. Upon visiting the Kurdish frontlines with ISIS in 2014 and 2016, I was struck by a stark contrast between the stories, observations and judgements that soldiers shared with me compared to the harmonious picture of unity that Kurdish politicians painted. According to accounts provided by unified soldiers, the unification seemed more like a facade than a sustainable merger. As a result, I was not surprised that the unified brigades dissolved in 2017. Seeing as the forces reunified again (under US pressure) one year later, I decided to return to the region in 2019, to focus on these unified soldiers and question the sustainability of unification attempts in the past to identify necessary conditions for the future. 

In this process, I discovered a a gap between two spheres; ’the official’, ‘the structure’ and ‘the rules’ on the one hand, and ‘the unofficial’ or ‘the way things are actually done’ on the other (to differentiate this ‘second’ sphere from structure, I refer to it as ‘the system’). In the unified forces of KRI, these two spheres sometimes overlap, sometimes they are parallel, yet sometimes they also contradict each other. When trying to identify these subtle differences, I found some previous research on informality and even on culture in military forces (e.g. see Helmke and Levitsky 2006, Johnson 2007, Pion-Berlin 2010, Marten 2011, Zukerman-Daly 2012/ 2014). Generally, however, this phenomenon seems to be understudied in military research. 

Looking for alternative references, I found a rich source in business-management literature. Be it in the context of mergers and acquisitions (M&A), post-merger integration (PMI) or simple change management in corporations, previous research on business offers a rich field of empirical data to describe the phenomenon I observed in the KRI armed forces. On this matter, business literature suggests that the gap between ‘structure’ and ‘system’ can be explained by organisational culture (Schein 2004, Unterreitmeier 2004, Kuhn 2010, Gerds and Schewe 2014, Bradt 2015, Stafford 2015, Sagmeister 2016, Berner 2017, Gelfand et al. 2018, Henman 2018). Thereby, organisational culture is both the reason for this gap as well as the solution to overcoming destructive social dynamics, inefficient work processes and the gap between ideal goals and daily efforts. 

Reviewing this business-management literature and applying it to the KRI case study, it becomes apparent how important it is, (ideally) even before unifying different armed forces, to identify the prevalent organisational cultures of the different units. M&A literature suggests that up to 80 per cent of all mergers fail due to organisational culture (Kuhn 2010, Bradt 2015, Sagmeister 2016). One aspect of these cultural hurdles are incompatible cultures. Therefore, before starting to unify different, formerly hostile forces, their compatibility needs to be asserted. Note that in this context ‘culture’ does not refer to religious, national or ethnic culture, but it is primarily the culture – the purpose, set of values and behaviours (Stafford 2015) – prevalent in each organisation which matters for a military merger. For the Kurds, cultural incompatibility was not a deciding factor. Instead, the unified culture itself seemed to be the cause of the problem.

In studying the organisational culture of the KRI’s unified forces, it became apparent that the prevalent culture is characterised by division. While the forces share the same cultural traits – such as a strong adherence to hierarchies, personal loyalties to traditional leadership personalities or a degree of pragmatism and rebellious heroism – the culture still mirrors former belonging to different political parties. As a result, a general culture change needs to be undertaken within the unified forces in order to achieve a sustainable merger of its formerly hostile parts. This culture change has to focus on decreasing traditional leadership dominance and a form of poisonous pragmatism that easily leads to corruption, as well as on increasing the value of bureaucratic rank and meritocracy. At the same time, the shared values of sacrifice for Kurdish lands and of treating soldiers equally like different members in a family have to be maintained and stressed to assist in overcoming differences and ease the change period.

In conclusion, three points can be made for future military mergers: Firstly, structure can only take a merger so far. The best goals, visions and missions as well as the most thoroughly constructed organigram are worth little in the face of how things actually get done within this structural framework. Therefore, secondly, organisational culture is paramount to be considered in addition to creating unified structures. Whenever a merger seems or feels like a facade and whenever structures, plans or laws are not actually lived, valued and thoroughly executed, the answer lies in organisational culture. Here, it can either be a question of cultural incompatibility between the different unified parts, or it can be the need for a general overhaul of the prevalent organisational culture. Therefore, the first order of business ought to be to identify the cultural fit between merging entities. Should the forces be already merged or should they fit, the prevalent culture of the unified institution has to be contrasted to the ideal form of culture. Only if these two align, is the merger sustainable. Finally, organisational culture even has the potential to be used in non-merger cases. When considering re-structuration of armed forces, organisational culture also provides a solid guide as to which changes can be accomplished and which will create more facade than substance. As before, it holds that whenever structures are not adhered to, the answer probably lies in organisational culture. It is as such that culture is the invisible hand that makes or breaks a military merger.


Image – Peshmerga soldiers stand in formation during a graduation ceremony, July 2016

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