Inside the Fight against ISIS in Iraq

The abandoned fighters on the front lines speak.

unnamed Kurdish Brigadier General Qadir points to a plume of smoke that emerged immediately following a US airstrike on an ISIS target. Kirkuk, Iraq (Victor Soehngen).

Amongst the wheat fields of Iraq's Fertile Crescent, the battle for the nation's future and the safety of the Kurdistan regional capital of Erbil, continues to rage.

In this sector of the 650-mile Kurdish front Against ISIS (or its Arabic acronym- DAESH, as it is referred to locally) the fight is close quarters, intimate, and fought between relatively small groups of men. The terrain is wide, open, and grassy with features Americans would associate more with the state of Nebraska than with Iraq.

Just a few days ago this area was completely under the control of DAESH militants. They had taken over peoples homes, held local women captive for months, and implemented their own brand of Sharia Law. That just changed due to the brave actions of the Kurdish Peshmerga (with the help of closely coordinated US airstrikes) who liberated the town of Makhmour and several neighboring villages.

I met with the commander of Peshmerga forces in the area, General Najad, who candidly explained the situation from the Kurdish point of view. Holding a BA in political science and his masters in Foreign Policy, the general spoke (in English) with an air that was as much statesman as it was field commander. He was understandably busy; men under his command just retook 6 villages each with 25-30 ISIS fighters in them over the last 48 hours.

When asked if US airstrikes were helping his forces on the ground, his leathered and serious face produced a child like grin. "They have taken out their heavy weapons." He went on to explain that DAESH has proven to be deadly accurate with artillery, armor, and mortars alike. Is that because some of its members had specialized military training or had experience from foreign armies? He simply replied, "I don't know, no prisoners have been taken."

Obama Not Doing Enough

When asked about whether or not he felt that President Obama was doing enough to help the Kurdish people, Najad pointed out how large and powerful America is and how (comparatively) small the fight is here. “If Mr. Obama really wanted to, DAESH could be destroyed in days,” he told me. That is a feeling I heard echoed up and down the front. One Peshmerga Sgt. told me in broken English plainly, “Bush good for Kurdistan, Obama bad,” adding a thumb up and thumb down sign to illustrate his point.

Historically, US support for the Kurds has been erratic going all the way back to the days when the Shah of Iran was Iraq’s greatest threat. The CIA worked with the Iranians at the time to arm the Kurdish rebels against the government in Baghdad, but after Iraq and Iran signed the Algiers Agreement in 1975, support ceased. To make matters worse, as the Iraqi army renewed its campaign to exterminate the (now almost defenseless) Kurds, the Shah denied them access to escape to Iran. For our part, the US under the Carter Administration did nothing to intervene. When asked about the crisis, Henry Kissinger famously quipped, “covert action should not be confused for missionary work.”

The Kurds Have Two Friends: The Mountains and the United States of America

Although temporarily soured, US-Kurdish relations would have a major turn around under the first Bush Administration. Not only did the US-led coalition blunt Saddam Hussein’s territorial ambitions, but Bush Senior also helped implement “Operation Southern Watch,” the no-fly zone that protected the Kurdish region from the feared chemical attacks for the next 12 years. This relationship was only to grow stronger when George W. Bush’s administration ordered Operation Iraqi Freedom (in which the Kurds were actively involved).

These are not things the Kurdish people have forgotten. The Bush family is spoken of more highly here than in west Texas. For the Kurds, who are literally surrounded by enemies on all sides, it is comforting to know you have a friend in the strongest military power on earth. More so than other allies, they have enthusiastically worked with US special operation units and have been strong advocates of democracy in a region not known for its free principles. Maybe because of their simple and good-hearted nature, the Kurds have always been a people who appreciate action over talk. After all the work previous administrations have done to create such a strong alliance, it would be very unwise for the current administration to use hot air and half measures to lose one of its only strong allies in the region.

The Flag of ISIS Flew Proudly in the Distance

Back on the front line, the General provided me with a military escort and allowed me to tour villages still being contested with ISIS. Aliawa, Geheba, Jewerla -- these small hamlets are little know even amongst Kurds and would probably mean nothing to an American, but this is where the modern war on terror is playing out. Populated with not more than 100 people per village (mostly by wheat farmers and their families), these villages are of both a strategic importance for the Kurdistan Regional Government (KRG) and ISIS.

To begin with, they’re less than 50 miles from the regional capital of Erbil, which has served as an impromptu refugee camp for thousands of Christians, Yazidis, and other minorities seeking safety behind the Peshmerga line. Beyond that, they sit near a major crossroads between DAESH-occupied Mosul and the contested area around Kirkuk.

I first visited the village of Aliawa, where I met with Captain Ziryan and a small group of 20-25 soldiers. Theirs was the unit that just reclaimed the village -- and the ISIS fighters did not leave without a fight. The captain took me to a house where two mornings prior he led a group of men in to a fierce firefight with eight militants who were lying in wait for them. Pools of blood were still damp on the floor where the Captain said he personally shot one of them who came charging down the stairs firing in either a last ditch effort at escape or suicide. Three more were killed in the house, while four others managed to escape, speeding away in a lightly armored pickup truck over the open expanse to the next ISIS-controlled village.

This is the type of combat that has come to characterize the fight against DAESH, at least along the Kurdish Front. They were able to achieve remarkable success fighting "symmetrically" at first -- that is to say, using relatively conventional tactics to capture and control territory. However, as air strikes, numerical superiority, and the dogged determination of its adversaries begin to prevail against it, a serious question arises: Will we start to see ISIS begin returning to the tactics of one of its predecessors, Al Qaida?

If the fighting method DAESH has been using most recently is evidence of anything, then all signs point to yes.

When I visited the commander of the last Kurdish-controlled village before ISIS took control of the territory, buildings still smoldered in the aftermath of a US airstrike and the smell of burnt gasoline from destroyed enemy trucks lingered in the air. Colonel Shabak met me in traditional Kurdish style; sitting cross-legged on the floor and with a piping hot cup of tea waiting. When I asked him point blank what supplies he believed that America could offer him that would help most on the ground, he did not hesitate: "Military engineers to help train us against the bombs." By that, of course, he meant specialized training in IED detection.

He told me that when DAESH first attacked, it used heavy weapons, even Abrams tanks (recently seized from an Iraqi brigade in nearby Mosul), but as American and European airstrikes have degraded its capability to utilize these weapons, the open plains of this territory have left small groups of militants defending increasingly isolated "island" villages that scatter the open countryside every few kilometers.

As the Peshmerga is "systematically" over running these positions one by one (with infantry, light armor, and air strikes), ISIS fighters are doing what the Kurdish officers are telling me they have been seeing up and down the front: They are littering roads, fields, and neighborhoods with IEDs. This has been slowing the advance of Kurdish forces and is perhaps evidence that the now highly visible ISIS might soon be shrinking in to a more shadowy, subversive role.

A role that is all too familiar for US military personnel, who spent years fighting that type of fight in the region.

The shrinking of ISIS will obviously not happen overnight. DAESH still occupies large swaths of territory, the recapturing of which will take the consolidated effort of several unlikely bedfellows. In much of the land that it occupies, there is a genuine support base amongst some of the populace, mostly old Ba'ath Party loyalists and Sunni Arabs who felt ostracized by Malaki's government in Baghdad. In addition, the militants still have an arsenal at their disposal -- an arsenal that, mind you, would put dozens of legitimate armies to shame -- and they don't appear to be giving up anytime soon.

Yet sipping tea with a Peshmerga Colonel on the front line, I couldn't help but think that ISIS commanders, in this region at least, might just have bitten off more than they can chew.

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