BNASLAWA, Iraq – There’s barely a sound, but all of a sudden, a fluorescent-red smoke plume rises. Peshmerga soldiers move back through the dry, overgrown grass fields and link up with their main line of troops.
The smoke signals that they captured their objective in this military exercise. With the peshmerga flag planted, their trainer yells out in Italian: “Perfecto!” At the Bnaslawa training base south of Erbil, the capital of Iraqi Kurdistan, peshmerga forces are completing training courses through the Kurdistan Training Coordination Center, an 18-month-old program operated by the US-led coalition of countries aiding in the fight against Islamic State in Iraq.
The Italians are in overall charge of the KTCC, with support from the German and British governments.
Other forces aiding in training include the Dutch, Swedish, Norwegian and Finnish armies. They train peshmerga on coalition-supplied heavy weapons; shooting and battlefield maneuvers; urban warfare; improvised explosive device detection and diffusion; and medical aid.
Sitting under the punishing Iraqi sun – temperatures reach nearly 50 degrees Celsius during our mid-July visit – peshmerga veterans sit patiently as a German instructor, through a Kurdish translator, explains how to use the German-made Panzerfaust antitank missile launcher.
The majority of these peshmerga soldiers have already seen battle – the history of the Kurds is of a constant fight to protect their people and their land. Men in their 40s and 50s regimes in the ’80s and ’90s.
The younger men, who came of age with the rise of ISIS, are joining a long tradition.
Andy, 21, is a skinny fighter from Kirkuk, who shyly admits to joining up at 17.
He says he joined up because of limited opportunities.
“So many poor men in this place. The good way to make money is peshmerga. If we’re not fighting, we can’t live.”
He’s only a little bit wider and taller than the M16 he carries, his name – in English and Kurdish – scribbled on painter’s tape on the butt of his rifle.
Before joining the KTCC he fought ISIS in Balad and Tikrit. He has only good things to say about his Italian trainers – “they respect us and we respect them” – and is most impressed with the fact that people from so far away have come to help.
He follows the international news; two days before our meeting a terrorist ran over pedestrians in Nice.
“That was a big problem for Europe, we see it every day in Kurdistan.”
He concludes: “I want people know about us. We are a country, we don’t scare from anything, we fight until we die, we love our country.
Allah protect us from Daesh [ISIS], every terrorist. We live for freedom.”
At the Bnaslawa training base, trainers and trainees evinced mutual respect. The trainers were impressed with the abilities of the peshmerga and say their own job was really just “cleaning up” or “sharpening” skills the Kurds already had.
Officer Van Laar, from the Netherlands, has been at the base for three weeks and says that, in helping the Kurds, the coalition trainers are “doing the right thing.” He calls the peshmerga soldiers “good, absolutely. The guys are motivated, those guys are going to the front.”
There are no women training during our visit, but a KTCC spokesman says a group of 35-40 women had just finished the course.
These women tend to work security instead of being sent to the front line, but they are just as invested in the fight as the men.
“They had volunteers from 17 to 77,” says one KTCC spokeswoman. “They had to turn them away. A 45-yearold woman’s husband and sons were killed,” she adds of their powerful motivation.
A KTCC spokesman says around 2,500 Kurdish soldiers have completed the course, amounting to two brigades. Completion of the program means peshmerga can receive equipment much needed on the battlefield, which includes medical equipment, radios, body armor, weapons and Humvees.
This program falls under the Built Partner Capacity operation – which is similarly outfitting the Iraqi Army.
The peshmerga charge that they’re not getting their fare share of weapons and support from the coalition compared to the Iraqi Army, but the KTCC spokeswoman says all equipment is proportionally distributed.
“We’ve moved onto division[- level] training in Iraq [i.e., for the Baghdad-based government]. We’ve done 15 brigades so far because they have larger training facilities,” the spokeswoman says.
On the open fields of the training grounds sit two destroyed and burned-out trucks. They are morale boosters for the men – vehicles captured from ISIS during fighting. One truck, clearly hit by a missile, is a wrecked and twisted piece of metal, a skeleton. The other, heavily armored, is pockmarked with bullet holes.
The windshield is a spiderweb of cracked glass; a solitary bullet hole in the glass testament to what stopped the driver.
Further down, peshmerga fighters, with the help of translators and British and German officers, training in identifying and defusing IEDs.
Counter-IED training is probably the most serious and most helpful training of the Built Partner Capacity operation. ISIS terrorists booby-trap everywhere they can, planting IEDs in the ground and in homes; soldiers reported explosives rigged in ceiling fans and refrigerators.
It is the job of the CIED operators to clear liberated areas. Then holding positions can be set up. Such work is painstakingly slow and dangerous. It informs the slow pace of operations coalition forces need to conduct to root out Islamic State.
Between November and December 2015, both the peshmerga and the Iraqi Army secured key victories in the fight against ISIS. In the North, the Kurds liberated the Yazidi city of Sinjar, cutting off the main supply road between Mosul in Iraq and Raqqa in Syria – the ISIS capital there. In the South, the Iraqi’s celebrated an incursion into ISIS-held Ramadi.
Yet, in both cities, peshmerga and the Iraqi Army were plagued by thousands of IEDs.
In Ramadi, it took a month before the Iraqi Army could declare a decisive victory, rooting out ISIS fighters from the city, and it took some four more months before civilians were allowed to reenter the city.
Sinjar is still uninhabitable.
On July 26, Al Jazeera reported that Sinjar remains unsafe for the population to return. The majority of the city is destroyed and peshmerga are still working to defuse and remove explosives.
ISIS forces remain only a few kilometers outside the city.
At this point in the fight, all eyes are on Mosul, Iraq’s second-largest city with a population around 2 million and the de facto capital of ISIS in the country. Liberation there will clear the way for victory over the Islamist terrorist group.
Progress is being made in setting the stage for a Mosul offensive. In July, the Iraqi Army retook the Qayara airfield, although fighting continues as the army clears the surrounding area to solidify its position. The airfield can be used for US-led coalition air strikes on Mosul, the biggest advantages Iraqi and Kurdish forces have in the fight.
Yet, even if the airfield is secured, there remain obstacles to an imminent, coordinated Mosul offensive.
While the peshmerga have expressed willingness to help in a Mosul offensive, they are skeptical about who will lead the fight, open about their distrust in the abilities of the Iraqi Army.
While a Mosul victory is seen as setting the stage for the end of Islamic State, many understand violence won’t leave the region. With thousands of ISIS fighters still under arms, a legacy of sectarian violence and competition for influence in Iraq between Shi’a Iran on the one hand, and Sunni states and Western powers on the other, most understand the fight won’t be over.
Andy, the 21-year-old veteran peshmerga, holds no illusions of peace. He warns that after ISIS the fight will be against the Iranian-supported Shi’a militia Hashd al-Shaabi. The militia is active in the fight against Islamic State in Iraq but is no less relentless against its own supposed allies, using intimidation and brutal violence to assert dominance.
For Sunni peshmerga, the militia is a present and existential threat, it represents Iran’s dubious involvement in their country.
“I hate them so much,” Andy says with disgust.