For a few weeks, anthropologist and 3QD friend Scott Atran has been on the front lines with the Peshmarga fighters in Kurdistan facing ISIS troops just a few hundred meters away. He had sent me this report some days ago by email:
by Scott Atran
Today we were near the front at Kirkuk. Peshmarga and and the Islamic State are separated by a narrow channel of water less than 100m wide with embankments and trenches on both sides. We were able to talk to 3 captured IS guys, at least two of whom will likely be executed in short order because they carried out pretty nasty killings. It is a hard war along a 1070 km front in Iraq alone. One of their Kurdish captors has been wounded 17 times, his brother killed. The other has a brother who was paraded by IS the other day in a cage with the captured Peshmarga fighters in Hawija. He knows his brother will be butchered and there is nothing he can do to save him. The three IS fighters were all young, in their twenties, two with wives and children and the eldest my son's age. A former senior US General in Iraq who was with me agreed that the failed security environment for their families created in the wake of the US invasion was in large part responsible for closing off any avenue of hope for these young people and making them susceptible for recruitment to IS. This is also the assessment of the senior Peshmarga (KDP/KRG) leadership. The stories these young fighters tell through our experiments and interviews help make this clear (but details later another time). One thing is clear, they know nothing about the Quran or Islamic history other than what they've heard in their upbringing and from AQ and IS. None have more than elementary school education.
Much has been written about foreign fighters, although their reality here on the ground is somewhat different than what has been widely presented by analyzing social media. In fact they come here to fight and die and almost none are ever captured: the westerners often die in suicide attacks; those from the former Soviet republics (Chechnya, Uzbekistan, Dagestan) with long fighting experience go on as operational leaders and snipers until they are killed, or captured and executed on the spot. Foreign fighters can return to home country only if they escape IS or are sent by IS, because IS will execute them under the slightest suspicion of defection. Peshmarga consider the foreign fighters to be the best, most committed and most dreaded.
IS used to pierce Peshmarga lines with suicide attacks in armored vehicles that barreled through barrages of RPGs. But now the Peshmarga have Milan anti-tank missiles from Europe that can stop this cold. Yet the US insists that the Peshmarga obtain permission from the central gov't in Baghdad (which is coordinating operations with Iran's Al Quds force Tikrit and elsewhere – a recipe for disaster on several planes) to keep the weapons flowing that keep the Kurds alive. All this to keep the Kurds tied to a gov't they hate and which hates them.
Some IS fighters are leaving the Tikrit front and infiltrating into Kirkuk with their families, but Kurdish forces do not expect major actions here.
Scott also has an article with Douglas M. Stone in the New York Times today:
The Islamic State continues to control a huge section of Syria. But in Iraq, its advance has stalled. While Shiite militias and their Iranian allies fight the Islamic State ferociously, the Kurds have held a 640-mile front against the Islamic State’s advance. Their steadfastness should prompt America to rethink its alliances and interests in the region and to deepen its relationship with the Kurds — who are sometimes described as the world’s largest stateless nation.
Last week, the Sunni town of Tikrit (Saddam Hussein’s hometown) fell to largely Shiite forces from Iraq, backed by Iran. An offensive to retake Mosul, Iraq’s second largest city and the heart of Arab Sunni nationalism, is now within reach. The Kurds plan to enter eastern Mosul, where many Kurds lived before the Islamic State seized the city in June, but they say that moderate Arab Sunnis must lead the effort to retake the rest of the city — not Baghdad’s predominantly Shiite forces or the Iranian-backed Shiite militias. The Kurds point out that it was grievances against Shiite rule that helped drive Sunni support for the Islamic State in the first place.
Together with Lydia Wilson and Hoshang Waziri, our colleagues at Artis, a nonprofit group that uses social science research to resolve intergroup violence, we found that the Kurds demonstrate a will to fight that matches the Islamic State’s. The United States needs to help them win.
Scott Atran is an American and French anthropologist who is a Director of Research in Anthropology at the Centre National de la Recherche Scientifique in Paris, Senior Research Fellow at Oxford University in England, Presidential Scholar at John Jay College of Criminal Justice in New York, and also holds offices at the University of Michigan. He has studied and written about terrorism, violence and religion, and has done fieldwork with terrorists and Islamic fundamentalists, as well as political leaders.