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A Visit to the Frontlines of the Battle Against ISIL

The article below originally appeared in War on the Rocks on April 13, 2016. The authors are both former Marine Corps officers whose combined service includes experience in wars ranging from Vietnam to Afghanistan.

In March 2016, the authors visited the front outside Kirkuk where the Peshmerga (Iraqi Kurdish military forces) face fighters of the Islamic State of Iraq and the Levant (ISIL). Below are some of the observations we made during the visit (in italics), along with commentary that draws on our professional military experience.

The New Normal

After leaving the headquarters, we drove down several highways with lots of civilian traffic. We could see families picnicking on the side of the road, enjoying the nice weather and the day off (being the holy day of Friday) not ten miles from the frontlines. Signs casually showed the way to Mosul, currently occupied by ISIL.

Whereas most American civilians would panic if they knew that artillery and mortars were dropping a few miles away, civilians here had clearly become accustomed to living near the front. It was their “new normal.”

In Fallujah and Sangin, where we were stationed, we saw civilians continuing to shop at the market and children celebrating holidays in an area that was a separate “war zone” for us Americans. We hopped on planes to fly to our wars for seven-month tours, clearly delineating this “war zone” from “civilian life.” In stark contrast, the Peshmerga rotate between home and the front, alternately spending two to three weeks at each.

WWI-Style Front Lines

There was a berm along the front with firing steps to shoot over it. Periodically there were small strong points in case parts of the front were breached. Infantry were strung out with a few heavier weapons, such as machine guns and light mortars. Even though they had occupied this line just a few months ago, it was already semi-permanent with lots of concrete blocks used to make bunkers, prefab metal boxes used for living accommodations, and diesel generators providing electrical power.

The World War I look was not surprising. This is an infantry war because neither side has a lot of the armored vehicles that would allow maneuver or heavy weaponry that would enable the long-range destruction of visible positions. The Union and Confederate armies worked out the basic system in 1864 during the siege of Petersburg with continuous trench lines and periodic fortifications; it’s also still in use in Ukraine. A new aspect is the intense use of small improvised explosive devices by ISIL, which was very similar to one author’s experience in Sangin, Afghanistan (video of the previous unit in Sangin).

The U.S. military, because of its highly mobile and firepower-intensive units, can fight a war of maneuver and does not get locked into this kind of positional warfare. In Iraq and Afghanistan, this translated into our ability to take tactical risks that the Peshmerga could never take. We would have no concerns about sending out nine marines by themselves, knowing that if they got into trouble we would call in air support and send out a Quick Reaction Force in armored vehicles. In Sangin, the Taliban had learned that they could only mass troops for ten minutes before American air support would be there. In all of the years in Iraq and Afghanistan, no American unit squad-sized or larger was overrun and wiped out; when the insurgents tried to take on isolated American platoons, they learned a hard lesson about American firepower.

In contrast, the Peshmerga operate on three principles, we were told: never lose ground, only attack when victory is certain, and only attack if you know you can hold the ground you take.

U.S.-Led Airstrikes

On our way, the zone commander received a phone call from the coalition that they were launching an airstrike in five minutes. As we stepped up to the parapet, we could see smoke slowly billowing in the distance.

The Peshmerga were very positive about U.S. airstrikes, saying that they were accurate and responsive, despite the Rules of Engagement (RoE) that limit their ability to strike outwardly innocent targets. One of the authors recalls the disappointment of the American command center in Afghanistan when a Taliban fighter holding an RPG walked into a home while being observed by a plane; when he walked out without the launcher he was ruled inadmissible as a target due to similar RoEs (though these RoEs have admittedly prevented many civilian deaths). Similarly, the Peshmerga told a story about how ISIL put a Grad rocket launcher in the back of a civilian truck, but it took a week of persuasion before the coalition would bomb a “civilian” vehicle.

Additional airstrikes might help, but we are likely approaching the limit set by target identification — there’s no point in having aircraft without targets for them to hit. We could run a B-52 down ISIL’s trench line with precision-guided JDAMs (perhaps as a modern version of “carpet bombing” as Sen. Cruz advises), but it would use a lot of munitions on unconfirmed targets.

We heard elsewhere that the United States had trained Peshmerga teams in close air support procedures; commanders told stories about how they use their cell phone to call the operations center to get air support. Despite this, they reported that the process was quite smooth and that there had been no incidents of friendly fire.

That’s quite an accomplishment considering how complicated the entire process is, from target identification to communicating with a direct air support center to getting aircraft onto the target. American troops, well-equipped with GPS, radios, and possessing embedded Joint Terminal Air Controllers, can usually communicate directly with the support asset (be it a plane, helicopter, or artillery unit). This goes beyond fire support; one of us called in a medevac in Afghanistan at the site of the casualty, talking with both a headquarters unit and the helicopter itself. The Peshmerga often have to go through at least one additional intermediary, meaning that their fire support will less responsive than Americans are used to.

Commanders of an ‘Old Generation’

The local commander was about 50 years old, sported a magnificent handlebar mustache, beard stubble, and nonstandard front hat. He looked the way a Peshmerga commander ought to look.

When ISIL first attacked in 2014, it was able to push the Peshmerga back. Some reports claimed that occurred because the commanders came from a younger generation that had not spent years fighting in the mountains. So the Kurds brought back some of the older commanders who were able to stabilize the front and then push ISIL back over time.

This commander certainly looked the part and gave confidence. He was not a 30-year-old just off the general staff who needed some front time experience to be competitive for promotion (as sometimes happens in the U.S. system). As some have argued, the combination of “everyone must command” and the “up or out” promotion system create incessant turbulence in the American military; clearly, the Peshmerga do not have this problem.

Irregular Forces

Our visit was punctuated by the intermittent sounds of a “technical” — a pickup truck with a machine gun (a Soviet DShK) on the back — firing toward enemy lines.

This incident underscored a point we would see frequently: the mixing of military and civilian spheres. Irregular forces adapt what they can from the civilian economy. Whenever we moved outside the wire in Iraq or Afghanistan, we did it in specially designed, highly protected military vehicles. For a superpower with high casualty aversion and the ability to pay a premium for military specifications, this makes sense. For irregular forces, this is a luxury they cannot afford; if they want mechanized firepower, they put a heavy machine gun on the back of a truck.

“Uniforms” were not uniform. The most common pattern was the old U.S. “woodland” pattern, but we also saw the German spotted pattern. No one wore any rank insignia; the rank structure was informal and leaders were known personally.

Marine Corps Col. Mike Edson described something similar in the 1930s after his visit to the Chinese Communists, who had only three ranks: soldier, leader, and commander. This worked well for the Peshmerga when they were insurgents hiding in the mountains, but whether this will continue to work as they develop something like a conventional military remains to be seen. The Peshmerga have transformed from guerilla fighters to a regional militia but are not yet a conventional military.

‘Information Operations’

As we got out of our cars to walk up to the trench line, about 20 Peshmerga were there to see the big commander. They were also ready for pictures; a waifish female Peshmerga (whom we nicknamed “Pixie”) and another man snapped pictures during our whole visit.

In 2003, information operations (IO) were unheard of in the American military outside of Special Forces. In contrast, the insurgents would not only film all of their attacks and IEDs, but would sometimes launch operations with the sole purpose of getting a good video out of it. By 2006 in Anbar, IO was just coming into its own. By 2011 in Afghanistan, IO was a key element, with battalion talking points and a cameraman embedded in every company. The Peshmerga are ahead of the curve in this aspect.

We saw some civilian walkie-talkies, but no evidence of radio communication like antennas or the background squawk of radio traffic. Instead, every commander carried at least two cell phones and talked on them constantly as messages and calls came in.

Irregular forces can use cell phones to provide effective command and control of military operations, whereas the U.S. military requires an extensive and extremely expensive radio and landline system. The Peshmerga’s approach dispensed with the sprawling communications infrastructure that the U.S. military sets up, but at the cost of requiring an intact civilian network. In our conversations about U.S. support, military and civilian leaders never seemed concerned about OPSEC and never asked for communications equipment.

Arms and Ammunition

We had the standard cups of tea around a fire in front of their command bunker. Tea was served by a very old Peshmerga, who looked to be about 60. One Peshmerga, Helo Rameshdi, had only one arm. He lost the other to a mine in an earlier offensive, but had requested to remain at the front.

One of us had to retire at 30 years of service. Clearly, the Peshmerga don’t have the same age or medical limits on retention. In a national emergency, you use everyone. Note: There’s a great opportunity for an NGO to provide humanitarian help with prosthetic limbs.

Most Peshmerga were armed with AK-47s, but we did see a few M-16s. We also saw a few 60mm mortars, the U.S. light infantry mortar, with illumination rounds stacked nearby.

We took the appearance of some M-16s and mortars to be a reflection that some U.S. equipment was getting through to the Peshmerga front lines. These were small mortars, only one step up from a grenade launcher. Without night vision goggles (which all American soldiers have), the Peshmerga were clearly worried about nighttime infiltrations by ISIL; they had posted powerful lights along the trenches and had illumination rounds stacked by the mortars.

We asked both the local commander and the zone commander about ISIL. Were their operations becoming less skilled because of casualties? Yes, ISIL had suffered hundreds of casualties, 450 in the most recent offensive. They’ve become increasingly reliant on child soldiers.

This is consistent with press reports that indicate ISIL is having problems with morale and recruiting. What was also effective was the elimination of mid-level commanders — the equivalent of company and battalion commanders — who were more numerous than senior leaders, but whose tactical skills could not be easily replaced because of their numbers and the time needed to build experience.

Heavy Firepower

We asked the local commander what he most needed from the United States. He answered, “independence,” like any good Peshmerga.

Any Western politician would admire the way everyone is on message. All senior Kurds that we talked to had the same set of talking points: The UN charter pledges self-determination for all peoples; the Iraqi Constitution guaranteed a referendum, but the Iraqi government has never allowed it; Iraq is a failed experiment as a state and needs to be restructured.

We modified our question to ask what one element of military support from the United States the commander most needed. He thought about this and said artillery and mortar support.

By U.S. standards, the Peshmerga are grossly under-equipped and lack the heavy firepower that U.S. forces take for granted. For example, whereas a typical U.S. Marine infantry battalion has 16 antitank missiles, the equivalent Kurdish unit has just one. U.S. infantry can also call on artillery, heavy mortars, and rockets for fire support. Further, U.S. units have essentially unlimited ammunition.

For example, at the height of the war in Iraq the Army fired 2,000 TOWs and Javelin antitank missiles a year; surprising, given that the insurgents had no armored vehicles. The infantry was using them for precision attack and targeting whatever was threatening them, whether a machine gun or even a single sniper. This saved lives and allowed them to accomplish more difficult missions.

The Peshmerga have few of these capabilities. The artillery we saw consisted of old Soviet pieces like D-30s, towed artillery first introduced to Soviet forces in the 1960s. Their ammunition is extremely limited and is consequently rarely used. As we sat, the commander reported that one of his myriad phone calls was a request to use a single mortar round; while this might have been theatrics for the visitors, it was not implausible.

U.S. airpower provides some firepower, but it cannot be everywhere. Having rapidly responsive and organic firepower is a tremendous advantage.

The reason that the Kurds don’t have these capabilities is mostly political. The United States does not want to supply weapons that could possibly be used in an Iraqi civil war. One way to get around this would be to provide weapons that need U.S. munitions and supplies to function. Thus, if the weapons were being used against the wrong opponents, the United States could cut off support, and the weapons’ usefulness would decline. Examples would be antitank weapons like TOW or Javelin, for which the United States can control resupply. This would also be an excellent opportunity to use obsolete U.S. weapons that still have some battlefield value. Where are all those 106mm recoilless rifles that the United States used to have? If still available, they would have battlefield utility here.

Kurdish-Arab Tension

We drove through several Arab villages. The village we remember particularly well was Bay Hasan. It was about two miles behind the front lines and appeared unharmed and fully inhabited.

There is great tension between the Kurds and the Arabs. The Kurds believe (in some cases, correctly) that many Sunni Arabs have supported ISIL. As a result, the Kurds evacuated some Arab villages near the front lines. The Kurds say they let the Arabs return when the fighting moved away, but Human Rights Watch and other groups have criticized the Kurds for some of their treatment of the Arabs. We didn’t see any evidence of that; in fact, Arab civilians seemed relaxed in the presence of Peshmerga. Still, many Sunni Arabs in ethnically mixed areas fear that the Kurds will oppress them, just as the Sunni Arab governments have oppressed the Kurds in the past.

There are few Shia Arabs in this part of Iraq. Still, the Kurds fear Shia militias from southern Iraq. These militias have been in alliance with the central government and Iran, and the Kurdistan Regional Government (KRG) fears they will be used as proxies against the Kurds.

Leaving the front and moving on to Erbil, we went through innumerable Kurdish checkpoints.

Checkpoints are like toll stations on U.S. turnpikes except that they check papers rather than take tolls. Passing through is easy if you are a Kurd or a VIP, but time-consuming if you are an Arab. The checkpoints not only increased security but also emphasized that the KRG is a strong, semi-independent government.

As the United States and its allies continue to seek ways to defeat (or contain, or degrade and ultimately destroy) ISIL, one suggestion has been to arm the Kurds. The Afghan and Iraqi armies we partnered with over the past decades, built in the image of their American makers, were infamous for their low morale. Indeed, this was one of the problems that contributed to the Iraqi Army’s collapse in the face of ISIL’s takeover of Mosul nearly two years ago, and it threatens the prospects for success of the anticipated assault to retake the city. In contrast, the Peshmerga struck us as a force that was there to fight. They don’t need to be a mirror image of us in terms of weapons, culture, and tactics in order to help destroy ISIL. But if the United States does choose to provide them with munitions and equipment, it is vital that we understand the ways in which they differ.

Mark Cancian (Colonel, USMCR, ret.) is a senior adviser with the CSIS International Security Program. Colonel Cancian spent over three decades in the U.S. Marine Corps, active and reserve, serving as an infantry, artillery, and civil affairs officer and on overseas tours in Vietnam, Desert Storm, and Iraq (twice). Matthew Cancian (Captain, USMC, IRR) is a Masters student at The Fletcher School for Law and Diplomacy. He deployed as a forward observer to Sangin, Afghanistan in 2011.

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