We Watched as a Kurdish Battalion Trained for Battle

German instructors teach the Peshmerga to fight Islamic State

We Watched as a Kurdish Battalion Trained for Battle We Watched as a Kurdish Battalion Trained for Battle
At a military base outside Erbil, the capital of Iraqi Kurdistan, a battalion of Kurdish Peshmerga fighters stood in formation on a concrete parade... We Watched as a Kurdish Battalion Trained for Battle

At a military base outside Erbil, the capital of Iraqi Kurdistan, a battalion of Kurdish Peshmerga fighters stood in formation on a concrete parade ground.

The men wore mismatched uniforms and headgear — giving them an irregular appearance. But looks aside, they were here to become professionals … and learn the combat tactics they’ll need to defeat Islamic State on the battlefield.

German army Col. Jochen Schneider, the commander of coalition forces training Kurdish troops in Iraq, gave a speech to the assembled troops. He finished by shouting, “Bizhi peshmerga!” — “Long live the Peshmerga!”

The Kurds repeated the shout.

Above — Dutch Lt. Col. Harm van der Have, chief of staff of the Kurdistan Training Coordination Center, and Col. Hassan, deputy commander of the Kurdish 4th Battalion. At top — Peshmerga fighters of the 4th Battalion/6th Brigade stand in ranks during a parade marking the start of their training. Matt Cetti-Roberts photos

These 600 Kurdish fighters comprise the 4th Battalion/6th Brigade, a formation responsible for holding part of the front line near the oil-rich city of Kirkuk — one of the main flashpoints in Iraq’s second major war in a decade.

The Kurdish Peshmerga have fought the Sunni extremist group Islamic State constantly since last summer. The group metastasized into one of Syria’s most powerful insurgent groups before blitzkrieging across the border into Iraq in June 2014.

Kurdish lines in the north broke, the terror group threatened Erbil and a U.S.-led coalition sent warplanes and advisers to help. During 11 months of fighting, the Peshmerga have made significant gains. But they’ve also lost ground — most notably when Islamic State captured large swathes of the Nineveh Plains in August.

To further its assistance, the coalition recently created the Kurdistan Training Coordination Center, a unit responsible for training the Peshmerga under the coalition’s “advise and assist” policy.

We had a chance to see it for ourselves.

Coalition soldiers from several countries, including the Netherlands, United Kingdom, Germany and Italy listen to a speech by Mustafa Seyyed Ghader, the Kurdish minister for Peshmerga Affairs. Matt Cetti-Roberts photo

In many ways, the Peshmerga is the Iraqi army’s poorer, smaller cousin. During the American occupation of Iraq, Washington trained both Iraqi army and Kurdish troops — but the Iraqi army received the heaviest and most expensive U.S. equipment.

The Kurds are no rookies when it comes to warfare. For one, they’re expert mountain fighters. But they still have a lot to learn about fighting in cities and in open. To kick Islamic State out of Iraq, they’ll have to fight in unfamiliar places.

During previous training courses, the Ministry of Peshmerga picked single platoons from all over the front line to train with the coalition. For the current training, Kurdish leaders decided to train one already-formed battalion comprised of four fighting companies and a headquarters staff.

Military sand table used for map training. Matt Cetti-Roberts photo

Dutch and Italian instructors are training two infantry companies near Dohuk. British, German and Italian tutors are doing the same for the two other companies near Erbil. A mixed international group will train the battalion’s command staff near Erbil.

The training will culminate in a mock assault by two companies on a partially-completed housing development in Erbil.

For the most part, the training follows the same basic syllabus used in previous courses. The Peshmerga still learn how to detect improvised explosive devices, how to patch up wounded soldiers, small unit tactics, shooting and the law of armed conflict.

But now their instructors are teaching those skills at the battalion level, with the added information and practice necessary for a unit that size. It’s on a significantly larger scale — and the outcome could have an important effect on the outcome of the war.

Coalition and Kurdish troops practice with maps, including plotting a grid reference to better understand troop deployment. Matt Cetti-Roberts photos

“They already fought against ISIS, they are still alive, so it seems to me that they are good enough,” German military instructor Maj. Rob, who did not give his last name, told War Is Boring.

“We don’t try to change their system, we just try to improve what they already do, to make them a little bit more efficient.”

Training the staff officers takes place in classrooms and around a three-dimensional model — made out of sand and wooden blocks — representing the local area. On one sand table, the coalition used red blocks to represent enemy-held houses.

Sand tables are something Western troops and officers are familiar with, but they’re a new concept to the Peshmerga. In addition to the sand tables, the Kurdish fighters are practicing how to read and use paper maps.

At left — an Italian coalition forces instructor teaches a Peshmerga fighter how to aim the Breda Folgore anti-tank rifle. At right — the 4th Battalion’s snipers practice judging distance to a target using the reticules of their PSL designated marksman rifles. Matt Cetti-Roberts photos

“We went through the map training really fast, we showed them the map again, and it was like ‘Oh yeah, now I remember!’” Rob said.

“We can’t make them the same as the officers in Europe — it takes four years to train there,” Dutch officer Capt. Dustin, who is training the officers in communications, said. “But in four weeks we can make them better.”

Italian instructors are teaching the Peshmerga how to aim and use an 80-millimeter Breda Folgore recoilless anti-tank rifle. Although old, the Folgore is still a deadly weapon against vehicles — such as armored Humvees — and fixed fortifications.

So far, the Kurds have received 50 Folgore launchers from the coalition.

The instructors are teaching the staff officers how to deploy their troops, anticipate threats — such as possible IED locations — and how to deploy the battalion’s resources. These resources include 15 Kurdish fighters now trained to work as battlefield medics, something Peshmerga units have lacked in the past.

During one course, Peshmerga fighters applied pressure to the leg of a Kurdish fighter and affixed a makeshift tourniquet. During the exercise, a German army doctor watched.

At left — a sandbagged position at a Kurdish training camp. At right — Peshmerga fighters apply pressure as they prepare to affix a makeshift tourniquet. Matt Cetti-Roberts photos

“They have the needs, they have the people, so we are trying to give them an additional asset now,” Lt. Col. Jürgen, the KTCC’s public-affairs officer, said.

Applying tourniquets to leg wounds — frequently caused by IEDs — can be a life saver. At the moment, Islamic State IEDs are responsible for 70 to 80 percent of the Peshmerga’s killed and wounded.

The advisers are also teaching the Kurds how to construct sandbagged fighting positions with protection on multiple sides.

Far too often on the front lines, Kurdish fighters build simple berms. That provides protection to the front, but if a bomb explodes to the sides or behind these berms, the shrapnel can cause horrifying wounds.

A Peshmerga fighter fires his battered ASh78 assault rifle, an Albanian built Kalashnikov, as he and his comrades learn how to zero their rifles on an outdoor range. Matt Cetti-Roberts photos

At a firing range constructed on a hillside, a Peshmerga fighter lay in the dust, concentration etched on his face.

He rested his weapon — an ancient Kalashnikov made in Albania — on sandbags. The rifle had seen better days, and the fighter had stuffed a piece of cloth into the rifle’s cracked wooden fore grip.

He controlled his breathing as he fired at a small target downrange. He and five other Kurdish fighters let off three rounds each before an Italian instructor ordered a cease fire. The shooters cleared their weapons and moved forward as the instructors inspected the targets.

A Peshmerga fighter studies the groups he just shot as he waits for advice from an Italian instructor. Matt Cetti-Roberts photo

This particular course taught the fighters how to zero their weapons. The Kurds knew how to fire their weapons, but very few of them have ever zeroed a weapon — the act of adjusting a weapon’s sights to a soldier’s aim so the rounds hit the target.

“At the moment we see that some of them are really good shooters, but about half need additional training to get where we want them to be,” German instructor Capt. Stefan said.

Kurdish fighters and a German instructor train with G36 rifles. Matt Cetti-Roberts photos

Stefan’s job is to teach the Kurds how to use the G36 rifle. The German government donated about 8,000 G36 rifles, along with 8,000 G3 battle rifles and enough ammunition for both types of weapons.

But distributing the new weapons within the company doesn’t always seem to make sense. Many Kurdish officers carry G36s, but Peshmerga platoons have a mix of G3, G36 and various types of Kalashnikovs — a potential logistical headache when resupplying ammunition in the heat of battle.

A German army instructor orders Kurdish troops to clear their weapons. Matt Cetti-Roberts photo

Two weeks later in the lush green hills outside Erbil, the 1st Platoon — part of the battalion’s 1st Company — knelt together in a line. Two German soldiers walked behind them to check whether their weapons were clear for a day’s training.

During this course, the 1st Platoon will take part in a defensive drill focused on working as a team when under attack by an enemy force. Each platoon belonging to the 4th Battalion will in turn carry out the same exercise on different days.

The Peshmerga fighters were only supposed to bring Kalashnikovs to the four-week course, because there was no ammunition for their German-donated weapons. But this time, the Ministry of Peshmerga sent ammo for all three weapon types.

The 1st Platoon moves out in formation. Matt Cetti-Roberts photo

By now, the fighters were halfway through their month-long training course. The 1st Platoon and their German Mobile Training Team instructors knew each other well. They even shared jokes despite the ever-present language barrier.

“We know two of the sections are great, but one of them takes a little more work,” German army Lt. Michael said.

1st Platoon commander Capt. Mohammed, at right, issues orders to his section commanders. Matt Cetti-Roberts photo

Capt. Mohammed, the 1st Platoon’s commander, will not fire his weapon during this exercise — his job is to practice how to command soldiers in the field.

“This kind of training here isn’t about hitting the target — that’s important,” Jürgen said. “It’s about giving orders, about leadership.”

Kurdish Peshmerga fighters load ammunition cartridges. Matt Cetti-Roberts photos

The Kurdish troops loaded their magazines.

They removed Western ammunition out of cardboard boxes wrapped in plastic, while cartridges for the section’s Kalashnikov rifles took a bit more work. The Soviet designed 7.62 x 39-millimeter ammunition came in sealed cans, requiring considerable effort and a large can opener to access.

Everything was ready for the first trial run.

Two fighters, acting as sentries for the section, manned firing positions on top of a hill. They alerted the rest of their comrades of approaching “enemy fighters” in a valley below.

Kurdish Peshmerga fighters during a simulated attack. Matt Cetti-Roberts photos

In reality, they faced a simulated “enemy” represented by rows of different colored wooden targets arranged in distances of 200 to 300 meters.

The sentries shouted and the rest of their section rushed forward and settled into their firing positions. The fighters worked together in pairs — a buddy system adopted from German military doctrine.

The soldiers were communicating well. They began shooting, and passed messages up and down the firing line as they engaged their targets. What’s more, they fired their weapons accurately.

German instructors watch Kurdish fighters at work. A Kurdish fighter with a rag on his shoulder watches as part of the directing staff. Matt Cetti-Roberts photos

During the final exercise, the team practiced firing and moving in a simulated flanking counter-attack. The section commander and four men prepared to carry out this extra tactical maneuver.

The exercise began as before. But half-way through, the section commander and four men split from the firing line. Keeping low, they ran down an embankment, kicking up dust as they went.

Next, they moved into a dry riverbed as their German instructors trailed behind.

Kurdish troops run down an embankment and provide covering fire. Matt Cetti-Roberts photos

Two fighters peeled off and took up firing positions on a slope, covering the target with their weapons. The Kurds back on the hill stopped firing — they didn’t want to risk hitting their own people.

The section commander and another fighter crawled until they were within sight of the enemy. If there were Islamic State fighters down in the valley, the Kurdish troops would have had them dead to rights.

The German instructors halted the exercise and began debriefing their pupils. Despite only training with the German MTT for two weeks, the Kurds were quick and efficient.

For example, the Peshmerga carried out most of the flanking action using just hand signals and in almost complete silence. At this stage, the training is having an effect.