The Kurds Are Fighting Islamic State, So Why Isn’t America Helping Them?
Peshmerga wonder where the heavy weapons are
Charred buildings are all that remain of the Christian homes seized by Islamic State when the militant group attacked Iraq’s plains of Nineveh two years ago.
Now, the small town Assyrian town of Telskuf is a base for Kurdish Peshmerga forces who recaptured it in August 2014 and now secure the front line. Just three kilometers away on the opposite side lies the village of Batnaya, still under ISIS control.
The front is quiet, but soldiers in the town — armed with Kalashnikovs and M-16s — claim they are underfunded and can’t even
afford body armor.
The Peshmerga — the name means “one who faces death” — have long bemoaned their lack of international support. Representatives blame the central government in Baghdad, who they say are withholding weapons sent from abroad — a claim the United States denies.
Speaking to War Is Boring in a bombed-out ISIS base in Telskuf, Lt. Col. Manof — a Peshmerga commander — said that without heavy weaponry the Peshmerga could be vulnerable to ISIS suicide attacks.
“ISIS came with heavy weapons that were given to the Iraqi army by the U.S. Every though we’re prepared to fight, we have old weapons, Kalashnikovs and M-16s,” he lamented in the ruins of a house hit by a coalition airstrike during the battle to retake Telescuff. “We need heavy weaponry but Baghdad keeps blocking us. They have rockets and mortars. I am lucky, I have a bulletproof vest but even this was donated.”
The Kurds weapons are basic, but Washington insists every shipment of weapons it assigned to the Kurds arrived from the central government. Baghdad has in turn claimed the Kurdistan government in Erbil should have enough money through its own oil revenues to buy more weapons and pay the Peshmerga, who often bring their own weapons to training.
Earlier this month, a suicide bomber walked through the fields that mark the no-man’s-land between the Kurds and ISIS. Peshmerga soldiers shot him dead.
Manof claimed these attacks are common and that without heavy weapons, a convoy of ISIS suicide bombers fleeing the southern offensive on Mosul could pose a challenge.
“At the moment we’re not seeing any heavy offenses, just suicide missions, but they have schools in Mosul where they are teaching children about these tactics. We don’t know how many could come here and what could happen. We don’t even have enough body armor as it stands.”
U.S. support for the Peshmerga has waned. In 2014 following ISIS’s massacre of Yezidi people in Sinjar, the United States agreed to supply the Pehsmerga with light arms and ammunition. Washington earmarked $353 million in military support, but in 2015 that figure dramatically declined.
The United States also trimmed back the number of Iraqi brigades it plans to train, from three to two. In Teleskuf, Manof — who said the Peshmerga cleared more than 60 IEDs in the town — described decisions to scale back support for Peshmerga forces as “confusing.”
“Baghdad gives weapons to militias in the south and Baghdad has international support. We are an army but they keep putting sticks in the wheels when it comes to helping us,” he said. “Why are they giving weapons to militias and not the Peshmerga who have been successful in fighting ISIS?”
While the United States has treaded carefully, other powers have been keen to support the Kurds. After ISIS took Mosul in 2014, Iran was one of the first countries to send support to Peshmerga troops. Russia, Germany, France, the United Kingdom and Italy also contributed — with the latter providing anti anti-tank missiles, helicopters and machine guns.
U.S. leaders worry that the Kurds could further distance themselves from Iraq’s central government — and accelerate the break-up of the current Iraqi state.
In addition to lack of military support abroad, the Peshmerga suffer internal problems. Iraqi Kurdistan is in the midst of a financial crisis that has forced Peshmerga soldiers to wait months for their pay.
In the ruins of Teleskuf — once home to 10,000 Iraqi Christians — the Kurdish soldiers wait for orders among the bricks and broken glass.
“We aren’t just fighting for ourselves here,” Manof said. “I hope people in the West understand that. We get no support but we are Kurds, we are used to fighting. It’s nothing new for us.”