Over the past two weeks, the militant group ISIS has launched an almost unchallenged blitz across northern and central Iraq. Iraqi Army units vastly outnumber the jihadists and are far better armed than them — but for the most part Iraq’s uniformed military melted away after putting up only minimal resistance.
But ISIS fighters stopped when they reached the borders of autonomous Iraqi Kurdistan. They were facing an opponent that wasn’t going to back off from a fight: the Kurdish Peshmerga, Iraqi Kurdistan’s own highly trained and battle-hardened paramilitary force.
The Peshmerga, whose name translates as “those who face death,” number anywhere from 35,000 to 190,000 fighters, are unlikely to retreat before an ISIS assault — especially if they are defending what they see as their homeland.
The Peshmerga was first officially organised into a nationalist fighting force in 1943, although the idea of Peshmerga fighters existed prior to that, and the word referred to bands of Kurdish warriors and guerrilla fighters. From 1943 to the present day, the Peshmerga in Iraq fought a war in almost every decade in an attempt to create an independent Kurdish nation. In the 1990s, they waged a ferocious campaign against Saddam Hussein’s Republican Guard, and effectively expelled the Iraqi military from several Kurdish sections of the country.
During this time, the Kurds — viewed as a valuable proxy against an increasing belligerent Iraq — received arms and training from neighbouring states. During the second Kurdish-Iraqi War in the 1970s, for instance, Iran and Syria funneled weapons to the Kurds in an attempt to destabilize Saddam Hussein’s regime.
Israel has also sometimes provided the Peshmerga with discreet training and military assistance since the 1960s. Some Kurds see Israel as a natural ally, given their shared minority ethnic status in the Middle East.
This training allowed the Peshmerga to move beyond the status of a simple guerrilla army. It grew into one of the world’s most capable paramilitary forces. Before the U.S. invasion of Iraq, the Peshmerga worked alongside U.S. Special Forces against Ansar al-Islam, a Sunni extremist group functioning within Iraqi Kurdistan.
After the U.S. invasion of Iraq in 2003, Peshmerga forces further coordinated with U.S. troops against the growing Sunni insurgency in northern Iraq. The U.S. has also provided direct training to Peshmerga officers in an attempt to “train the trainer” and make improvements to the force self-sustaining.
Of course, training and equipment can amount to nothing if the groundwork for a cohesive and motivated fighting force isn’t in place. The U.S. spent $25 billion training and building an Iraqi Army that wilted in the face of a jihadist offensive.
The major difference between the Iraqi Army and the Kurds may come down to morale and motivation. The Iraqi Army, organised according to patronage and sect, felt demoralized fighting in Sunni population centres.
The Peshmerga have the motivation of fighting for their own homeland. And Iraqi Kurdistan is closer to achieving independence now than at any point throughout the group’s existence.
“Kurds don’t have planes like the Iraqi army but they have modern weapons,” Jordi Tejel, an international history professor at the Graduate Institute of International and Development Studies in Geneva told Rudaw.
Most importantly, the Peshmerga, Tejel notes, has “the support of the Kurdish population before the jihadist threats.” The Peshmerga has the will to fight ISIS.
And they have decades of experience warring against powerful enemies on territory that they own.
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