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Why Kurdish fighters lack the military might to thwart the Islamic State

August 22, 2014 at 6:10 PM EST
Why has the famed Peshmerga army in Iraq, considered one of the best in the region, fallen back at several points along its internal frontier against the Islamic State? To investigate, chief foreign affairs correspondent Margaret Warner spent the day with Kurdish military leaders as they traveled to the town of Jalawla. She joins Judy Woodruff for an update.
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JUDY WOODRUFF: Now, to the frontline of the fight to save Iraq.

One element of the U.S. effort to turn the situation around relies on arming Kurdish security forces in their fight with militants from the Islamic State group.

Our chief foreign affairs correspondent, Margaret Warner, just spent the day with Kurdish military leaders as they traveled to Jalawla, which is not that far from Baghdad.

Here’s her report.

MARGARET WARNER: Racing south on the highway between Iraq’s Kurdish capital, Irbil, and Baghdad, miles of open desert unfold, dotted by villages and towns. But just a quarter of the way down, Iraq’s most vital commercial lifeline becomes the frontline.

The Islamic State group, also known as ISIS or ISIL, has advanced to within 650 yards of the road. Kurdish forces Colonel Wria Hasan took us to one of many well-manned Kurdish Peshmerga outposts guarding the new frontier to show us just how close the militants’ forbidding flag flew.

What keeps the ISIS forces from just moving across this road?

COL. WRIA HASAN, Peshmerga (through interpreter): If they came closer, we could stop them, and we could move their way, but there are a lot Arabs living there.

MARGARET WARNER: So you’re saying it will be a very bloody battle if you tried to advance that way?

COL. WRIA HASAN (through interpreter): Yes it would be bloody, and many civilians would die.

MARGARET WARNER: Colonel Hasan was escorting us in his armored SUV to the town of Jalawla, 100 miles northeast of Baghdad, in southern Diyala Province. The province is now partly controlled by the Kurds since the Iraqi army collapsed before the Islamic extremists’ onslaught in mid-June.

We’d come to explore why, over the past month, the famed Peshmerga army, considered one of the best in the region, had also fallen back at several points along its internal frontier against the Islamist group.

General Mahmoud Sengawi commands this southern region, and on our way to the front, I asked him why he was now fighting to take back the strategically located town of Jalawla.

How did the Peshmerga forces lose Jalawla on August 11?

GEN. MAHMOUD SENGAWI, Peshmerga (through interpreter): Because there were civilians inside the town, and because we couldn’t distinguish those who are ISIS with those who are not. There were snipers among them, and our Peshmerga were getting killed. This is why I decided to retreat from Jalawla.

MARGARET WARNER: We continued talking behind the shelter of a Peshmerga outpost overlooking a two-mile stretch of no-man’s land east of Jalawla.

How different are these fighters from Islamic State than other forces you have ever faced?

GEN. MAHMOUD SENGAWI (through interpreter): ISIS is essentially fighting the way Islamic fighters did in early centuries, when they spilled a lot of blood to occupy other countries. We have never fought anyone like that.

MARGARET WARNER: So, how are you going to have to adjust your tactics and your strategy?

GEN. MAHMOUD SENGAWI (through interpreter): Yes, of course we need to change strategy. These fighters came straight from the streets, and we need to learn to fight them in the streets.

MARGARET WARNER: Street fighting training is key, says military analyst Michael Stephens, who lives part-time in Irbil. I spoke with him today via Skype from London.

MICHAEL STEPHENS, Royal United Services Institute: But the general rank-and-file Peshmerga are not able to do this. In fact, they have almost been turned into a checkpoint army, where they’re basically responsible for static security protection, and not the kind of dynamic advanced tactics that ISIS are using the ground.

MARGARET WARNER: But that’s not the only change they need, Stephens says.

MICHAEL STEPHENS: The other thing, of course, is that ISIS are almost fighting a new type of warfare that the Kurds are not used to. A tank is no good against mobile units of independently working armored Humvees that are very able to move quickly. And the Peshmerga just simply aren’t trained for that sort of combat.

MARGARET WARNER: The Kurdish forces blame their problems on the lack of the sort of advanced weapons they need to combat the modern American-made items captured by Islamic State forces from Iraqi army bases in Mosul and elsewhere.

General Hussein Mansour, who runs the weapons supply unit for the south, took us to see just how old fashioned their weapons are.

GEN. HUSSEIN MANSOUR, Peshmerga: It was made in 1955.

MARGARET WARNER: No.

MARGARET WARNER: Really, 1955?

GEN. HUSSEIN MANSOUR: Fifty-five or ’50.

MARGARET WARNER: And you keep it running.

GEN. HUSSEIN MANSOUR: We have no options, so…

MARGARET WARNER: Yes.

The general’s phone rang constantly with requests from commanders in the field, demanding more weapons.

GEN. HUSSEIN MANSOUR: Peshmerga, this is what is has, no armor, and here is what ISIS has, armored Humvees.

MARGARET WARNER: Inside his operations center, Mansour explained further.

GEN. HUSSEIN MANSOUR (through interpreter): Unfortunately, our weapons are very old, left over from Saddam’s regime, and we do not have sufficient ammunition. We are supporting our Peshmerga fighters as much as we can. But we really need help to acquire modern weapons, because we think this fight is a long-term war, and it will not end easily.

MARGARET WARNER: Can you retake Jalawla without better weapons?

GEN. HUSSEIN MANSOUR (through interpreter): There, we have problems larger than weapons. Arabs in those towns support ISIS. Jalawla has always been a bastion of Baathist support. There are 1,200 former high-ranking Baathist officers there. It’s always been a bastion of terrorists, even when the Americans were here.

MARGARET WARNER: To test that notion, we had Mohammed Mala Hassan, mayor of Khanaqin, where the Peshmerga are based, take us in his convoy of heavily armed men to meet one of the many Sunni Arabs he said have fled to Khanaqin from Jalawla.

Amer Yusef, a successful contractor, left with his family of 13 in June as the Islamic State began infiltrating Jalawla. He has a decidedly negative view of the Islamist group.

He said it’s true some Sunnis are with them, but often the extremists are more brutal with Sunnis.

AMER YUSEF, Contractor: (through interpreter): They are a terrorist organization that wants to harm us. They have harmed most of the families who have stayed in the town.

MARGARET WARNER: Many people say all Arabs here support the Islamic State. Is that true?

AMER YUSEF (through interpreter): I have a close friend who was a member of the municipality, my neighbor, and he is a Sunni Arab. They killed him few days ago. After taking him and his brother to their Sharia court, his brother said they killed them.

MARGARET WARNER: The Islamic State says they’re doing all of this in the name of pure Islam.

AMER YUSEF (through interpreter): No. They everyone’s enemy. Who are they killing the most? Christians or Muslims? They have killed mostly Muslims, both Sunnis and Shiites.

MARGARET WARNER: To halt the Islamic State’s onslaught here and throughout Iraq, the Kurdish commanders say they need more American help, including the weapons they say they have not received.

Back at our spot overlooking Jalawla, General Sengawi had an ominous warning.

GEN. MAHMOUD SENGAWI (through interpreter): They should help us. I tell you, if they succeed in occupying our country, they next will take the battle to America.

JUDY WOODRUFF: And Margaret joins me now from Irbil.

Hello, Margaret. That was quite a report.

Now, we are hearing that there is fresh fighting today in the same place where you were yesterday between Kurdish fighters and these Islamic extremists.

MARGARET WARNER: Well, Judy, certainly Kurdish and British Web sites are reporting that the Peshmerga forces launched a new assault against Jalawla today and, in fact, took an eastern district, which is exactly where we were, I was, in that crow’s nest outpost at the end with that general.

And a senior Kurdish military official confirmed that to me tonight. What is more, The Guardian’s reporting is that this action was supported by U.S. airstrikes. And, meanwhile, CENTCOM put out a report saying they had launched U.S. airstrikes, but in the vicinity of Mosul dam. We were not able to get confirmation from the Pentagon tonight as to whether the two were related.

JUDY WOODRUFF: And, Margaret, one other thing. What can you tell us about whether the Kurds have been receiving weapons from the U.S.? We know U.S. officials are saying they have. The Kurdish commanders were telling you they haven’t.

MARGARET WARNER: Well, Judy, on the way home, the long drive home from this shoot yesterday I did call a senior Kurdish military — Kurdish political official and reported what the commanders had said to me when he asked me. And he said, take that with a grain of salt. Commanders always like to say if things aren’t going too well that, well, they didn’t have the right weapons.

He said U.S. and allied weapons are getting through, though many may be directed at areas of higher priority for the U.S., like the Peshmerga forces’ assault to retake the Mosul dam. Separately, a military analyst here told me that part of the problem is distribution among the two different political factions of the Kurdish forces, and that since the weapons are being funneled — and they are being funneled, but it’s through the political party of the president, President Barzani of the so-called KDP, and that the other political party who makes up part of the government called the PUK is getting the short end of the stick.

And the forces we were with yesterday were with the PUK. So, basically, Judy, this country is not only divided among Sunni Arabs, Shiite Arabs and Kurds, but, in fact, even within each ethnic or sectarian group, which gives you an idea of how complicated it is, I think, to put this country back together.

JUDY WOODRUFF: A lot of complexity to pull apart.

Margaret Warner reporting from Irbil, we thank you, and stay safe.

MARGARET WARNER: Thank you, Judy.