The Corner

Are the Kurds Still Under-equipped in the Fight against ISIS?

Over at the New Yorker, Robin Wright has filed an invaluable report from the front lines of the fight against ISIS in Iraq. While recounting the slow pace of the offensive to retake Mosul, she discusses our Kurdish allies:

For all that is at stake, Camp Swift is a rudimentary facility, marked by a small, hand-painted sign, secluded inside a rustic military base run by the Kurdish Peshmerga. These fighters, many armed only with vintage Russian rifles, blocked the ISIS advance into Kurdistan in 2014 after tens of thousands in the Iraqi Army—trained and equipped with sophisticated U.S. tanks and artillery, at a cost of billions of dollars—fled, abandoning equipment and shedding their uniforms.

The Kurds may have held the line ever since, but they still lack modern equipment:

With its big windows and beige exterior, the Peshmerga headquarters looked more like a public school or apartment block; the building’s front door was unlocked. A row of armored Humvees—several with bullet-pocked windshields and machine guns on top—were parked in the gravel courtyard. The Humvees were provided to the Iraqi Army by the United States and then seized by ISIS after the Iraqis abandoned their transport in 2014. The Peshmerga later captured them in clashes with ISIS. The Kurds finally got their own American equipment—by fighting ISIS for it. “It’s our best matériel,” Wasani told me bitterly.

The Peshmerga aren’t just under-equipped — they’re under-funded:

Last year, Peshmerga manning the front lines went unpaid for three months—as did Kurdish government employees. Thousands of fighters took second jobs to feed their families.

Thirteen hundred Peshmerga have died fighting ISIS; another seven thousand have been wounded, according to the Ministry of Peshmerga. “Only one-third of our Peshmerga forces are now available for fighting, because they have to work elsewhere,” Najat Ali Saleh, the commander of the Makhmour front, told me. Payment—just over four hundred and thirty dollars a month for the rank and file—has resumed, for now . . . Meanwhile, the poorly performing Iraqi Army is getting paid. So are the Popular Mobilization Forces, an amalgam of dozens of largely Shiite militias merged after the ISIS invasion to protect Baghdad and other cities. American military equipment and support, even when intended for the Peshmerga, must also be channelled through Baghdad, as Iraq’s legal authority. U.S. officials claim they’re providing arms and training evenly, but Kurds claim otherwise. “Our share is small,” Hikmat said. “We have captured as much American equipment as we have been given.”

It’s true that even our closest allies always demand more aid — and it’s also true that Americans have long been concerned with disrupting the internal balance of power in Iraq by giving the Kurds a decisive military edge — but if the picture Wright paints is broadly true, then we’ve badly-served our best local allies. According to her reporting on the ground, it looks as if the unreliable Iraqi Army is better funded and equipped than our stalwart Kurdish friends.

Arming the Kurds isn’t sufficient to defeat ISIS, but it is necessary. The Kurds have proven time and again that they’ll fight, while other “allies” cut and run — leaving their equipment behind. 

When I was in Iraq I gained an enormous amount of respect for the few reporters with the courage to actually venture to the front lines. Good war correspondents can cut through official statements to uncover local realities at odds with reports from distant bureaucrats. Read Wright’s entire report. It provides a vivid picture of Kurds and Iraqis that rings true with my own experience of seven years ago. The more things change . . . 

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