A New Generation of Kurdish Fighters Proved Their Mettle Fighting ISIS
Jihadists underestimated the Peshmerga
by PAUL IDDON
Iraq’s autonomous Kurdish region stood in stark contrast to the rest of Iraq after the overthrow of Saddam Hussein in 2003. While the country descended into sectarian bloodletting, the Kurds consolidated self-rule in the north, developing their undeclared nation state with lucrative oil revenues.
As journalist Amberin Zaman observed, this was a period where “media coverage of Iraq’s Kurds was no longer about their misery, but instead about their stellar success.”
Zaman aptly described the region in these years as one where “overpriced shopping malls overflowed with spoiled teenagers, many of whom resided in luxury skyscrapers which rose where bullet-riddled cinderblock huts once stood.”
A Kurdish friend of mine in the region’s capital Erbil recalled meeting someone he knew in the early 1990s who had little more than the sandals on his feet becoming a billionaire — with a “b” — during these boom years.
“This ‘other Iraq’ that beckoned investors, and even tourists, stood in stark contrast to the rest of the country that was racked by sectarian bloodletting,” Zaman wrote, “Indeed during the boom years it was hard to feel much sympathy for the Iraqi Kurds.”
The “other Iraq,” as the Kurds sought to style it, still needed to protect its security. While enjoying relative peace and stability compared to the rest of Iraq at the time, the threat of spillover violence from unstable neighboring regions posed a clear and present danger.
On Feb. 1, 2004, Al Qaeda in Iraq successfully targeted the Erbil offices of the two main political parties in Kurdistan — the Kurdistan Democratic Party and the Patriotic Union of Kurdistan — in a double suicide bomb attack that killed 117 people.
The autonomous region’s Peshmerga — “those who face death” — and the Asayish intelligence and police force were responsible for ensuring that no further bomb attacks shattered Iraqi-Kurdistan’s security. One more such attack could have devastated the image of “the other Iraq” and the investor confidence that came with it, possibly losing the region billions.
The reputation of the newest generation of Peshmerga was nevertheless sometimes brought into question during this period. Their lives and the responsibilities placed upon them were in stark contrast to that of their parents — who hid out in the mountains for years on end fighting the brutal and ruthless forces of Saddam Hussein’s Ba’ath Party.
“The reality is the Kurds and the Peshmerga are really not what they used to be,” Roham Alvandi, who wrote on the history of the mid-1970s Iraqi-Kurdish War, once remarked.
“Back in the 1970s if you put a Kurd on a mountain, gave him a rifle, some piece of bread and an onion he could stop an Iraqi tank column. That’s just not the case anymore, those Peshmerga commanders from that era are all retired and all doing business. This new generation have not gone through the fires of war that produce a steely mettle.”
“These guys are a different breed.”
In 2012, Pakhshan Zangana, a former Peshmerga of the previous generation, was once asked about her impression of the young generation’s female soldiers.
“I have seen them,” she said. “They are very beautiful, beautiful faces their hair is very beautiful, they wear official uniforms. In our times there were no pretty faces, no nice hair … I mean we had a Jamana [turban] on our head and we didn’t even look at our hair for months on end. We wore very simple clothes, that was the way it was.”
When the war did come, and the Ministry of Peshmerga Affairs decided not to send Peshmerga women to the front lines, the soldiers — no doubt skilled fighters if given the chance — were frustrated that they could not prove their own worth on the battlefield.
Iraqi-Kurdistan president Masoud Barzani was also asked about these kinds of impressions in an interview back in 2007, and if he thought the new generation who grew up without combat experience could fight like their fathers.
“Many of the young men you see wearing European ‘effendi’ clothes would undoubtedly turn into brave fighters, if their country was attacked,” he replied.
War once again became a nightmarish reality for Iraqi-Kurdistan when the Islamic State swept into the region in August 2014. The young generation’s resolve was put to the ultimate test against an unrelenting, ruthless and genocidal adversary.
The Peshmerga suffered initial setbacks, most infamously failing to defend the Yezidi minority in Sinjar from the Islamic State’s murderous onslaught that month.
The Islamic State also seized the town of Makhmour and advanced toward Erbil from the city’s southwest, where they aimed mobile artillery guns captured from the retreating Iraqi Army on the Kurdish capital and its Peshmerga defenders.
U.S. warplanes fired the opening salvos of America’s war on the Islamic State by targeting these guns, giving the Peshmerga a chance to counterattack. The Kurdish fighters swiftly recaptured Makhmour a mere two days after the Islamic State overran it.
In Kirkuk, which the Peshmerga entered in June 2014 after the Iraqi Army’s retreat, the Kurdish fighters prevented that city — with its sizable oil reserves — from falling under the militants’ control. They would go onto stave off multiple Islamic State assaults on that strategic urban center.
In some ways, the Islamic State could not have picked a better time to attack Iraqi Kurdistan. Baghdad had halted payments to the region from the national budget months before the war, alleging that the region was independently exporting oil.
The region relied almost entirely on this government revenue during the aforementioned boom period and quickly descended into a crippling economic crisis.
Many Peshmerga soldiers manning the front lines were subsequently not paid their salaries for months at a time. With the region weakened from within by these domestic problems, the Islamic State could well have capitalized upon this perfect storm were it not for the desperate, fierce war of attrition the Peshmerga mounted.
The Peshmerga fighters used what little money they could muster to reach the front lines. Many rotated between the front and the cities, where they worked part-time jobs to make enough cash to care for their families.
In spite of these deprivations, the Kurds strenuously held the line. Many of the fighters picked up aged rifles that their parents fought with 30 years ago, while the Islamic State fielded modern weaponry seized from Iraqi arsenals augmented with explosive-rigged armored suicide vehicles — which the Peshmerga initially had few anti-tank missiles to defend against.
The Peshmerga’s armored forces consisted of little more than antiquated Soviet-made T-55 and T-62 tanks seized from the Saddam’s crumbling army in 2003.
“The militants we kill all carry new weapons, new binoculars,” one Peshmerga general said in December 2015. “Even their bullets are brand new.”
U.S. air support proved decisive in enabling the Kurds to maintain an edge over their adversaries and the front lines held. Seven Islamic State militants managed to kill four people in a bomb attack in Erbil in November 2014, another three people in Erbil were killed in a bomb attack targeting the US consulate there the following April. However, the Asayish went on to infiltrate several Islamic State cells in the capital which significantly reduced — although did not eliminate completely — the threat.
By November 2015 the Peshmerga were able to finally remove the Islamic State’s fighters from the remnants of Sinjar city. In early 2016, the Peshmerga’s efforts to secure the Makhmour front facilitated an Iraqi Army buildup there, enabling these forces to execute the early phases of the Mosul offensive, capturing peripheral towns and villages from the militants.
In August 2016, Kurdish fighters rapidly advanced on Islamic State-held villages in the Nineveh Plains and reached Mosul’s periphery, securing it ahead of the ongoing Iraqi push into the city, which began in October.
The Islamic State attempted to counterattack by infiltrating Kirkuk. The Peshmerga neutralized this attempt within 24 hours.
In November, president Barzani said the war was essentially over for the Kurds — following the capture of the town of Bashiqa northeast of Mosul — and shortly thereafter voiced his intention to begin addressing the domestic economic and political crises affecting the region.
More than 1,600 Peshmerga soldiers paid with their lives to confront the Islamic State. They remain in place in areas near Mosul which they’ve liberated, maintaining a strategic defense-in-depth of the region.
The first major Kurdish war against an outside aggressor in a quarter of a century will likely define this generation of Peshmerga troops. After a haphazard beginning they’ve proved their mettle and determination to defend the region, just as the previous generation did before them.