On the Kurdish Front Lines, It’s an Endless Struggle

The fight against the Islamic State may be ‘low-level,’ but it’s also constant

On the Kurdish Front Lines, It’s an Endless Struggle
Peshmerga forces affiliated with Iraqi Kurdish Regional Government (IKRG) and security forces affiliated with Iraqi national government conduct a joint operation against Daesh on July 11, 2020 / Ozhin jola / Anadolu Agency via Getty Images

They call it the Tora Bora of Iraq and I can see why. I’m hundreds of yards up Qarachogh Mountain in the Kurdistan region of Iraq, looking out over a sparse plain, strewn with flat rocks and riddled with networks of caves in which just a few hundred yards away, some of the last remnants of the Islamic State group are waiting to attack.

Like the Tora Bora cave complex in eastern Afghanistan, which provided a stronghold first for the U.S.-backed mujahedeen in its battle against the Soviets and then the Taliban and al Qaeda in their battle against the U.S., this area is almost impregnable. The Qarachogh mountain range is long and arduous; Islamic State fighters are entrenched, and my hosts — the Kurdish peshmerga — know the fight will be long.

According to the Defense Department’s “Lead Inspector General Report for Operation Inherent Resolve,” released in February, there are from 8,000 to 16,000 Islamic State fighters remaining in Iraq and Syria, engaged in what it calls a “low-level” insurgency in rural areas. Here, at this peshmerga outpost, over 30 miles southwest of Kurdistan’s capital Erbil, I see the truth of those words. If it’s “low-level,” it’s also serious. Rock-hard sandbags piled high form a wall along a ridge overlooking a flat expanse that stretches to the horizon. A pillbox looms over me on the roof where a heavy machine gun is perched, wrapped in two large plastic bags — one white and one black — to protect it from the rain. “When was the last time this was fired?” I ask. “A couple of weeks back,” comes the reply.

I’m here with Gen. Sirwan Barzani, first cousin to the president of Iraqi Kurdistan, Nechirvan Barzani, and a leading figure in Kurdistan. Sirwan first joined the peshmerga at 17, during the Saddam Hussein years, before leaving to go into business where he became a billionaire through his telecoms company, Korek. He always said, though, if he were needed, he would return. In June 2014, the Islamic State took Mosul, Iraq’s second-largest city. The call came: He answered it.

“We need you for six months,” he was told. Seven years later, he’s still in uniform. This is no surprise. As the Islamic State scythed through Syria and Iraq, Sirwan led his peshmerga troops to help liberate Mosul — a campaign that lasted from October 2016 to July 2017 and pitted the Islamic State against the peshmerga, Iraqi security forces and Iraqi Shiite militias, backed up by an international coalition providing logistical and air support. It was the largest single operation since Operation Iraqi Freedom in 2003. By December 2017, the Islamic State’s caliphate had lost 95% of its territory; after Mosul fell, the northern Syrian city of Raqqa, the Islamic State’s “capital,” soon followed. On Dec. 9, 2017, then-Prime Minister Haider al-Abadi declared victory over the Islamic State in Iraq.

I look at the two peshmerga who have taken up positions beyond the protection of the fortified walls in case of an Islamic State attack while the general is here, and I understand the hollowness of those words. The Islamic State may have been defeated in the field, but they have not been defeated in Iraq. What actually happened was that many of their fighters retreated from Mosul and Hawija, before slowly melting back into the Sunni Arab villages — and storing their weapons in the nearby caves — and prepared for war once again. What lies across from me are the most fanatical and hardcore: Those who have hung on, who refuse to surrender or flee. And they will stay there until they win or die.

“The jihadists all have the same mentality. If they are killed, it is for God, so they will go to paradise,” Sirwan tells me as we sip tea together. “They get 72 virgins for killing one Kafir [unbeliever], and then 144 for two Kafirs and so on. If they’re good at killing, it can run into the thousands.”

He is joking. The Islamic State does promise houris (virgins) in heaven for martyrs, but only 72; no multiplication is involved. And of course fighters remain committed to the jihadist group for many reasons, not least the desire to re-establish Sunni control over Iraq, and even to just simply regain their power and prestige, not necessarily jihadist control.

We are talking about what it’s like to fight the Islamic State, and he isn’t holding back. “Sometimes when we capture them, they say to us, ‘If you let me go, I’ll come back and kill you,'” Sirwan says, adding, “Over the radio, they say to us, ‘No matter how much you want to live, we want to die more.’ ”

And their weaknesses? “Well,” he begins, “once they took control of big cities like Mosul, the people saw who they really are, and they turned against them.”

He continues: “And there is another thing — they are afraid of fighting women in battle. They believe that if you are killed by a woman, you won’t go to paradise.” Sirwan’s righthand man Halwest Shekhani breaks in: “So no visa for them!”

Sirwan and the Islamic State have a long history. He fires off an order in Kurdish and another aide brings some improvised explosive devices (IEDs) the peshmerga have captured. I see a tangle of wires connected to three cellphones, various batteries and a tiny green-and-black circuit board. Also attached are two yellow pieces of plastic on which Arabic notes are scribbled. The first is a house address. This, I am informed, is because the Islamic State would wire IEDs to civilian houses in Mosul and set them off when enemy troops approached, frequently with their occupants — often entire families — still inside. “They will use any building,” Sirwan tells me. “Houses, most schools, even mosques — these ‘holy’ fighters.”

The second is a note instructing all fighters tasked with building IEDs to refrain from using Korek SIM cards in their bombs: It is Sirwan’s company, the note explains, and he can have the cards deactivated.

It is not clear how Korek would be able to know which sim cards to deactivate: it is not possible to gain this information from cash purchases of sim cards, but the story serves to bolster the myths that surround the Kurdish role in fighting the Islamic State in Northern Iraq.

Sirwan has promised me a trip to the front with him as my personal guide. “We will try to be safe of course, but when you go to the front lines, nothing can be guaranteed 100%,” Shekhani warns me just before we leave. “But it’s the best way to properly understand the Daesh problem here,” he says, using the Arabic acronym for the Islamic State.

We travel in a convoy of seven. I’m with Sirwan and Shekhani in the middle vehicle, a dark-gray four-wheel drive with tinted, bulletproof windows. There are three vehicles in front, three behind. The security detail totals 22 men. I am surprised to see Sirwan take the wheel; generals who drive themselves are a rarity. He tells me that he doesn’t like too much formality, pointing to his uniform, which is unadorned with any sign of rank. This, he says, is the way of the peshmerga.

The front two vehicles are compact open-top four-wheel drives, each containing a phalanx of soldiers. They travel open top so they can listen for any sign of danger — and shoot quickly if necessary. A machine gun is mounted on one of the vehicles. I ask Sirwan if they have ever had trouble en route to the front. He tells me that one time a drone appeared and the peshmerga had to call the Americans to send a drone to shoot it down.

We drive on smooth, tarmac roads that slice through miles of flat, gravelly landscape. On either side of us, gray chimneys belch white smoke into blue skies. In the distance, gas flares burst from the oilfields of Kirkuk. The landscape is harsh and utilitarian: Almost everything can be repurposed or made into cement and other materials vital to Iraq’s construction industry. As we wind our way up the mountain, we pass a cement factory buzzing with activity. We are not even a mile from the front. In Iraqi Kurdistan, not even the Islamic State can stop daily life.

There is a stir as we arrive at the front. Soldiers shyly ask to pose for photos with Sirwan, who willingly accepts. Click, click, click go the smartphones. It’s here I learn how the post-caliphate Islamic State operates. Without a “statelet” of their own, without their own cities and quasi-standing armies, the group has morphed into a guerrilla outfit. “They are like partisans now,” a soldier tells me as I peer over sandbags.

And like partisans, they live off the land, or in the Islamic State’s case, the people. The villages in the area have become the lifeblood of its continued existence. “Daesh extorts these people,” says Shekhani. “They demand food, shelter and ‘taxes’ from them: If they don’t agree, they threaten to burn their villages to the ground. There is no army or due process to protect them.”

If the Islamic State no longer has a caliphate to rule, the brutality of its adherents remains unchanged. I am told of a murder that took place recently, not far from where we stand. A local Islamic State fighter killed his own father because the man was working with the Iraqi government. The son and some of his fellow jihadists went to his home village at night, killed his father and then returned to their hiding place in the nearby caves. The disgust the Kurds feel at this is palpable.

When I ask how dangerous this position is, the reply is simple: The problem is the night. The Islamic State can move in it, the peshmerga can’t. No one will sell them the night-vision and thermal equipment they need to fight in the dark. “Half our weapons can be put in a museum,” Sirwan tells me. “They are leftovers from the [1980-1988] Iran-Iraq War.” The Islamic State, on the other hand, are well stocked with all the stuff they looted from both the Iraqi army and the U.S. forces. Each night the outpost goes on high alert. The last night of fighting here was only a couple of weeks ago.

What makes this worse is that Washington understands the scale of the threat here. In May, the U.S.-led coalition battered the cave networks with 133 airstrikes over 10 days (which is more than any monthly airstrike total in Iraq and Syria since 2019). The Kurds are on constant watch. Walking along the outpost, I come across a soldier in full battle gear. Slung across his back is what appears to be a rocket launcher. I’m told it’s an AT4 single-shot, disposable, antitank weapon. I look at Shekhani quizzically. “Daesh don’t have tanks,” I say. “It’s not for that,” he replies with a smile. “Every so often we [rappel] down into the caves where Daesh are hiding and fire them into the entrances. It good for clearing them out”

Sirwan is musing on the fight against the Islamic State. “I remember when we liberated [the town of] Makhmur [in 2017]. We were backed up by coalition airstrikes — and it was amazing,” he tells me. “It was the first time in history that the Kurds were backed by airpower.”

He continues. “The only experience we have had with airstrikes is being on the receiving end of them. You know there is a Kurdish joke. When people in big cities in Europe or America hear the sound of a plane, they look up to catch a glimpse of it. In Kurdistan we take cover. Also, we can tell exactly what type of plane is coming. When the French photographer Francois Lovat came here, he said the Kurds were the only nation he encountered that knew what type of plane was approaching before it came into view.”

It’s time to go out on patrol. The front lines — known as the Kurdish coordination line — span 90 miles and defending the fortified outputs, which are placed incrementally at the most vulnerable positions, is only half the battle; the peshmerga also need to be mobile between them. I hop onto the back of an open-top 4×4 next to Shekhani and we set off. Thick tires churn up acrid dust. Behind us — our escort — another 4×4 follows.

After about 20 minutes, we arrive at an elevated plain surrounded by paths winding between craggy hills. A tiny outpost, little more than a mound of sandbags, sits just off-center. This is another vulnerable position along the front. Once again, the night sets the enemy free, and, aided by their night vision, out they come to attack. “Each evening we drop soldiers here,” Shekhani tells me. “And then return to pick them up in the morning. But we have limited numbers of peshmerga, and we have to keep rotating them.”

“It’s tough,” he concludes. “And the recent success of the Taliban in Afghanistan has only emboldened them. It was a great boost for Daesh’s morale when they saw their fellow fanatics take over the country like that.”

We are driving back toward Erbil. Sirwan wants me to see a memorial he has commissioned to honor the peshmerga who have fallen in the fight against the Islamic State in Iraqi Kurdistan, so Shekhani is taking me. The Kurds often speak of the “tax” they must pay for everything they have. For freedom from Saddam, for regional autonomy, for their very survival, the Kurds have had to pay a heavy tax; and that levy is always the same: Kurdish blood.

We approach a busy intersection. Cars and motorbikes whiz by. Two boys — they look like brothers — amble by what appears to be a makeshift bus stop. In the center of a traffic circle stands the memorial. It is simple and moving: a splash of sandy-stone stillness amid the chaos of city life. It is composed of 12 stone pillars that encircle a flat space with a pole in the center that flies the Kurdish flag. Strings of smaller flags flying yellow and red colors of the Kurdistan Democratic Party that rules in Erbil fan out in all directions.

On each pillar are 10 slabs of rectangular black marble on which the names of the dead and the date of their death are written. Arabic lettering fills my eyeline. Once more I feel moved by the scene. But what affects me most is when my gaze falls on several of the slabs that remain empty. “We leave space,” Shekhani tells me, “because we know that there will be more names to come.”

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