The rapid-fire invasion of Iraq and then Kurdistan by ISIS, as the Islamic State was calling itself at the time, stunned the world. For several hours, it even presented an existential crisis for Kurdistan itself as the momentum of the invasion by ISIS brought them to within mere kilometers of Erbil – with little standing in their way… Last minute air strikes by the United States, the first since the Americans ended their occupation in 2011, and heroic – bordering on suicidal – resistance by those few remaining Kurdish Peshmerga that stood between the advancing Islamic State fighters and Erbil were finally able to break the incredible momentum of the ISIS invasion…
This incredible momentum overran Mosul, Iraq’s second largest city, and most of northern and western Iraq in just a matter of days. Regardless of one’s feelings on the Islamic State, it was an extraordinary feat.
However, it must be noted that this successful invasion by ISIS did not come about by chance. The core leadership of the Islamic State is made up of former intelligence operatives and military officers from Saddam Hussein’s era. These men are good at what they do and underestimating them has always proven to be costly for their enemies. For years before the actual invasion, ISIS had been identifying weak points, inserting sleeper cells into intended target areas and conducting an assassination campaign in order to favorably prepare the battlefield for the day of their arrival in force. When they struck, they attacked with very mobile forces and tremendous speed. Holding territory was not a focus. Such a strategy is very difficult for a conventional army to respond to, particularly one as corrupt, poorly motivated and disorganized as the Iraqi military forces in the region were at the time.
The freedom from concern about consolidating and holding territorial gains was a result of the extreme sectarian policies of the Shia government in Baghdad that had antagonized the majority Sunni populations along the future ISIS invasion routes ever since coming to power. Most members of these Iraqi Sunni populations viewed ISIS as an alternative that could certainly be no worse than what they were currently enduring under Iraq’s Shia government, and potentially offered a superior alternative.
Kurdistan is a different matter. The Kurds have been effectively independent since the institution of a no-fly zone in northern Iraq at the conclusion of the Gulf War of 1991 and, thus, an invasion by ISIS meant not liberation for them, but death, destruction and the end of the dream for a country of their own.
With the backing of Western air strikes, rapid mobilization by the Peshmerga and Kurds from around the world rushing home to join the fight, a Peshmerga counter-offensive has pushed the territory controlled by the Islamic State back to the outskirts of Mosul. However, here, the counter-offensive has ground to a halt… The Kurds are not able to advance on Mosul on their own and, even with help from others, they are certainly not willing to do so without something to be gained from it.
But, consider how the Kurdish position has changed during the course of this war… The presence of the Islamic State has evolved from being a threat to the very existence of Kurdistan into a nation-building exercise by the Kurds. They expect to invade all of the territory east of the Tigris River and, as a reward for their involvement in the fight, they expect to keep that territory.
Negotiations between the Kurdistan Regional Government, the official Iraqi government, Iranian interests, the Americans and their Western allies, and all of the smaller players in the region are taking place in smoky back rooms at this very moment in order to bargain and negotiate out the future of the region. It is now up to the Kurdish politicians to make continuing their paused offensive worth it for the Peshmerga. As such, the most significant fight for Kurdistan and the Peshmerga is not on the battlefield at the moment, but in a conference room somewhere.
Once all the parties have agreed on what the future of Iraq and the broader region will (or at least should) look like, we can expect the offensive to recapture Mosul, which the Islamic State has controlled since June of 2014, to begin in earnest.
This day is coming. Soon. Thus, the atmosphere on the front lines is one of edgy impatience as the fighters on both sides know the history-making battle for control of Mosul is drawing near and that the stakes for all sides are very high.
It is in this environment that General Sarhad Anwarbag Betwata heads out to a series of outposts that are on the edge of the area under his command… These outposts that he will visit on this trip form the front line against the Islamic State positions outside of Mosul.
As both a Peshmerga commander and a powerful tribal leader in Kurdistan, General Sarhad Anwarbag has more than 5,000 men under his command. He intends to visit these soldiers as often as possible in order to maintain morale, to stay in touch with developments on the battlefield and to prepare his men for what will likely be the biggest battle of their lives.
Driving out to the first outpost…
These particular outposts are within villages whose populations were mostly Sunni Arabs. Fearing reprisals at the hands of the Peshmerga for their prior support, or at least sympathy toward the Islamic State, the residents have fled. As such, the Kurds have established themselves within abandoned homes that they have fortified and formed into defensive patterns.
In other towns and villages, it is the range of the Islamic State mortar teams that often determine which residents are willing to return to their homes or not.
Directly past the buildings below is where the territory still under the control of the Islamic State begins:
The Peshmerga are still in the positions you see pictured and so, at least for now, I am going to provide less of an overview of the area and the positions they have set up than I might normally.
General Sarhad Anwarbag, flanked by his bodyguards, makes his way up to the first outpost:
The bodyguards become concerned about Islamic State fighters massing near a group of houses in the distance and try to ascertain their intentions:
There are rumors of Chechen fighters in the area and the Peshmerga are not keen on getting into a battle with a group of Chechens – the Chechens are the fighters the Peshmerga respect the most on the battlefield.
However, the Islamic State fighters disperse and the concern fades…
The Peshmerga soldiers at the outpost gather in formation to greet General Sarhad Anwarbag and the officers accompanying him on this visit:
The occasion becomes festive and impromptu performances of traditional Kurdish songs and dances erupt…
A group of Peshmerga fighters dancing around a pyramid of rifles:
Having lunch with some of the troops inside an abandoned home:
General Sarhad Anwarbag is here as well and speaks with as many of the men as possible.
Things like visiting the troops, and sharing a meal or a laugh with them, may seem small, but they are powerful morale boosters:
We head out to visit another outpost nearby…
The Islamic State fighters in the distance start shooting at us and so it is decided that it would be prudent to walk behind the berm created by the Peshmerga forces rather than up on top as before:
When we arrive, a fighter at the outpost describes a series of recent attacks by the Islamic State on their position to the general:
Another of the Peshmerga fighters at this outpost:
A heavy machine gun points out over territory still held by the Islamic State:
A mortar attack from a village in the distance that is still under the control of the Islamic State starts slowly and gradually builds in intensity…
Unless the mortars are falling very close to their position, the Pesh enjoy going up to the roofs to watch the show. On this occasion, the ISIS mortar teams began bracketing our rooftop vista and all of us decide that it might be best to visit a nearby bunker for the next few incoming rounds. It turns out to be a good decision.
Inside the bunker:
A small collection of fragments from the daily rockets and mortars directed toward the Peshmerga positions… The blue rocket in the center has a gas canister affixed to it:
The Peshmerga try to determine the exact range on the location the Islamic State mortar team is firing from…
During this time, we can hear a drone buzzing overhead:
Rather than the normal harassment fire, it turns out that this mortar barrage precedes a significant firefight…
A Peshmerga soldier firing at Islamic State fighters approaching the outpost:
Returning fire during the attack:
The assault on the outpost is successfully repelled…
Watching the surviving Islamic State fighters falling back:
Although there are a few fighters sporting modern rifles with advanced optics, they are in the minority. As I observed, the vast majority of the Peshmerga are fighting with battered Russian and Chinese weapons. They have begged the Western powers for more advanced weaponry, but, according to them, have so far received nothing more than a trickle. This is a source of bewilderment to the Peshmerga as it is they who actually have their boots on the ground and are most effectively rolling back the Islamic State. They believe that their sacrifices on the ground are taking pressure off of the West by keeping the Islamic State on the defensive. And so, they ask me rhetorically, “Where is the support?”
Part of the reality is that the Western powers are tip-toeing around in the region with the Kurds for fear of upsetting the government in Baghdad. The Western powers are still advocating the idea that Iraq can survive as a successful, unified country and, therefore, much of their support goes to the official government in Baghdad despite the poor performance of its forces on the battlefield and its role in creating this catastrophe in the first place.
It should be added, however, that the Shia militias in the region farther to the south present another reality by claiming that the Kurds get all of the weapons and support from the West and that they don’t get anything. Further, they accuse the Kurds of selling the cornucopia of weapons that they regularly receive in the weapons bazaars of Kirkuk, where the Shia militias then buy them to equip their forces.
So, the truth on a battlefield can be terribly difficult to pin down at times…
Leaving to visit the next outpost:
For the moment, matters are much more relaxed at this outpost…
By the way, you will see some of the same Peshmerga at different outposts as some of them are General Sarhad Anwarbag’s bodyguards and others tagged along to visit friends at the other outposts:
The general poses for pictures with his men…
…and makes the effort to have fun with them:
Hanging out in front of the abandoned home that forms the nexus of this outpost…
At this juncture, life inside a Peshmerga outpost on the front lines is a schizophrenic mix of updating Facebook profiles and playing jokes on each other, interspersed with shock periods of adrenaline-sodden terror and violence:
Inside, the abandoned home, the Peshmerga fighters entertain each other…
…and a few share pictures of ISIS fighters they have killed in close quarters battle. The tattoo on this deceased fighter’s arm would suggest a past far out of step with the culture of the Islamic State he chose to surround himself with in his final days:
Despite the light atmosphere inside the outpost this evening, the guards outside are always vigilant.
Keeping watch from the trenches:
As the Peshmerga have halted their counter-offensive pending the outcome of the negotiations described above and the Islamic State is presently unable to launch another major offensive to try and reclaim the territory they held and then lost, the front line has become static and taken on the appearance of a World War I battlefield. Berms, trenches and bunkers course across the landscape and mud, the bane of a World War I soldier’s existence, proves as much of a headache for the soldiers in this century as well.
It doesn’t get more front line than the below… That berm is literally the front line. Everything to the right is a no man’s land leading to the Islamic State positions and then on to Mosul:
General Sarhad Anwarbag slips away from the crowded home and makes his way alone to the edge of the trenches to gaze upon the black flags of the Islamic State that are visible in the distance and to contemplate the coming offensive to reclaim Mosul…
He tells me later that he deeply feels the heavy responsibility of his position. Iraqi Kurdistan is the closest among all countries with Kurdish minorities to becoming a truly independent nation for the Kurds, rather than just an autonomous region in a country whose majority is openly hostile to the Kurdish people. A homeland has been a dream of the Kurds for generations and in the context of this region and this war, it is impossible to not make comparisons to the founding of Israel. The Kurds are playing the role of the Jews before Israel was created and now they are on the verge of creating Israel. The general is a key player in helping to build this nation of Kurdistan.
Yet, he dreads the thought of sending so many more of his men – many of whom he is related to or friends with – to their deaths. His soldiers, positioned right on the outskirts of Mosul, will be some of the first sent in and some, perhaps even many, of the men you saw pictured above will not survive this coming storm:
This video, showing another day on the front lines, can be considered a companion piece to the post above: