The Landing Zone | 1.17.17
By Alan W. Dowd
the U.S.-led campaign against the Islamic State (variously known as
ISIS, ISIL and Daesh) slogs into another year, it may surprise some
Americans to learn that perhaps our closest, most reliable ally on the
ground is not the Iraqi army or some pan-Arab force that was
long-promised but never materialized, but rather the army of a country
that technically doesn’t even exist. That army is known as the peshmerga
– the fighting force of the Kurdish Regional Government (KRG) in
the beginning of the coalition’s counterattack against ISIS, the
peshmerga has been central to the campaign’s success. After all, the
peshmerga was the only effective fighting force indigenous to Iraq in
2014, when ISIS began to dismember Iraq and Syria. Coordinating closely
with U.S. forces, the peshmerga was crucial first to holding back the
ISIS onslaught and then turning back the ISIS invasion.
In 2014, some 7,500 peshmerga fighters fought their way to Mount Sinjar and rescued hundreds of trapped Yazidis. (Yazidis blend
aspects of Zoroastrianism, Christianity and Islam; they were targeted
for extermination by ISIS solely because of their beliefs.) With the
help of U.S. airpower, peshmerga troops then recaptured Sinjar from ISIS in 2015, liberating thousands more Yazidis.
In early 2015, peshmerga forces, backed by coalition airpower, cleared scores of villages in northern Iraq of ISIS militants.
to the State Department and DoD, peshmerga troops are holding a forward
line extending hundreds of miles along the eastern boundary of ISIS
control in northern Iraq.
peshmerga’s importance has been perhaps most evident in the 2016-2017
operation aimed at dislodging ISIS from Mosul, the largest city occupied
operation comprises an estimated 100,000 personnel drawn from a diverse
array of sources: the KRG’s peshmerga, Iraqi military, Shiite militias,
and Western conventional forces and special operations units. (U.S.
commandos are reportedly engaged, though the Pentagon is cagey about
Pentagon says there are 15,000 peshmerga fighters engaged in the
operation to retake Mosul and its surrounding towns. Indeed, the Kurds
have led the way. For instance, according to Reuters, a 2,000-man
peshmerga force plunged into Bashiqa, 10 miles outside of Mosul.
Likewise, after traveling to northern Iraq, French journalist
Bernard-Henri Levi detailed in The Wall Street Journal how the Kurds were “responsible for breaking
through ISIS’s forward lines and opening the gates to the city,” while
Iraqi military units were “responsible for taking the eastern – and
later the western – sectors.”
presidential envoy to the international coalition fighting ISIS, told
peshmerga soldiers that the coalition “could never have begun the
assault into the city without all of you.”
liberated from the Islamic State’s monstrous occupation would agree:
Levi notes that as the Peshmerga moved through Fazliya, a town northeast
of Mosul, “The instant the town was liberated, every child poured into
the main street chanting ‘long live the peshmerga!’”
means “one who faces death,” and the Kurds are certainly living up to
that title in the Battle for Mosul. The Kurds and Iraqis are liberating a
city webbed by booby-traps, car bombs, snipers, “crashing waves” of
suicide bombers, off-the-shelf drones strapped with explosives, and
chlorine and mustard gas. (The coalition has provided 24,000 protective chemical masks to peshmerga and Iraqi troops.)
But with some 14 brigades, an all-volunteer force numbering upward of 100,000, and training support courtesy of the U.S. Army’s Task Force Talon and other allied units, the KRG’s peshmerga is equal to the challenge.
1,500 peshmerga have been killed in the war. Another 8,600 have been
wounded, and the KRG has taken in 1.8 million refugees. With a total
population of just 8.35 million, these are enormous sacrifices for the
KRG. To get a sense of just how enormous, consider this: 1,500 peshmerga
troops killed in action would be the rough equivalent of 57,485 U.S.
In all but name
the KRG peshmerga’s record with that of the Iraqi military, which
virtually disintegrated at first contact with ISIS in 2014. Only with
lots of hand-holding from Western troops – and lots of help from
peshmerga fighters and Iranian militia – has the re-rebuilt Iraqi
military been able to engage ISIS and rise above its catastrophic
collapse in 2014, when ISIS overran Mosul, Fallujah, Tikrit, Ramadi and
nearly reached Baghdad.
explains the vast difference between Iraq’s well-equipped but largely
ineffective army and the KRG’s poorly-equipped but highly effective
is a nation-state only in name. In fact, it is arguably a failed state –
and was long before the U.S. invasion of 2003. A 2000 report by the
Center for International Development and Conflict Management concluded
that Saddam Hussein’s Iraq had experienced several “state-failure
events” in the 1990s and rated miserably on measures of state
effectiveness and state legitimacy. In other words, U.S. intervention in
2003 didn’t cause the collapse of the Iraqi state. Instead, it could be
said that the collapse of the Iraqi state caused U.S. intervention in
Baghdad government still lacks legitimacy in the eyes of many of those
who live inside Iraq’s tenuous borders. Indeed, Iraq is anything but a
cohesive, unified state. “People say ‘united Iraq,’ whereas Iraq doesn’t
control its own skies or all its own land territory or all its
population, economy or diplomacy,” sighs Kemal Kirkuki, a peshmerga commander. “What is united? The country has no sovereignty?”
KRG, on the other hand, is a nation-state in all but name: it is
cohesive, unified, functioning and sovereign, and it has legitimacy in
the eyes of its citizens. Iraq’s Kurdish region represents the only
stable part of Iraq or Syria – and the only thing close to a viable
nation-state inside the borders of Iraq and Syria. The poignant irony in
the Kurds’ commitment to the counter-ISIS campaign is that they remain
the largest ethnic group on earth without a state.
independence for Iraq’s Kurds is a matter of when, not if. “Independent
Kurdistan is coming,” says KRG President Masoud Barzani. “It will take
place when the security situation is resolved.”
Until then, the Kurds of what is currently known as Iraq are openly thankful for America’s friendship and support.
“Our only friends used to be the mountains,” a peshmerga soldier told Nolan Peterson, a former special operations pilot and combat
veteran of Iraq now serving as a foreign correspondent. “Now we have
“We stand shoulder to shoulder with America,” peshmerga Gen. Shex Zrar says. “America is our real friend.”
light of the deepening problems in Turkey – a longtime NATO ally that
is proving increasingly undependable and undemocratic – Washington may
soon ask more of our friends in the KRG. Some military strategists propose a shift of U.S. air operations from the familiar but unfriendly
confines of Incirlik, Turkey, to the welcoming territory of the KRG.
It’s not hard to imagine such a shift occurring, to quote Barzani, “when
the security situation is resolved.”
KRG and its peshmerga soldiers are a reminder that we are not alone in
Iraq. And the 5,000-plus American personnel in Iraq – many of them
relying on bases near Erbil, the capital of the KRG – are a reminder
that neither are the Kurds.