Erbil could achieve a more direct security relationship with the US and others on the road towards de facto autonomy.
As the battle for Tikrit rages, the focus of international attention has settled on the combined efforts of the Popular Mobilisation Units (PMU), Iraqi army and Sunni tribal volunteers. But alongside these forces, the Iraqi Kurdish peshmerga continue to hold a 1,000-kilometre frontline against the self-styled Islamic State of Iraq and the Levant (ISIL).
In an average week, the peshmerga line is struck well over a dozen times by well-prepared and fanatically-executed ISIL raids. In one seven-day stretch in early March, the peshmerga suffered 10 major assaults on a single 125-kilometre sector, each involving 50-150 enemy fighters plus suicide bombers.
Repelling all the attacks with the aid of international airpower, peshmerga and the coalition reports claimed the destruction of over 150 ISIL fighters and numerous vehicles that might otherwise be thrown at Iraqi military units further south or turned back towards Syria, where ISIL is still advancing.
Front against ISIL
This attritional fighting lacks the visibility and media appeal of battles like Tikrit but nonetheless remains a vital front against ISIL. All the advances made by federal Iraqi forces along the Diyala River Valley, up the Baghdad-Kirkuk road, and now between Tikrit and Kirkuk have been supported by the actions of Iraq’s Kurdish fighters.
The Iraqi Kurds facilitated the opening of a direct line of supply to PMU fighters in the north (via Iran) at a time when no forces could drive between Baghdad and Kirkuk.
The Iraqi Kurds fought ISIL at every point of the line – from the Syrian border crossing at Rabiya to the Iranian border near Jalula – and these actions diverted forces away from the advance of the PMUs and the Iraqi army.
Though the partisan supporters of the peshmerga and the PMUs hate to admit it, retaking northern Iraq has been a team effort.
As Iraqi forces push further north, eventually to Mosul, the Kurds are the anvil on which Baghdad’s hammer will seek to smash the ISIL forces.
Next stage for peshmerga
Now the Kurds are almost at the extent of their planned counter-offensives, bringing them close to the line that they held when ISIL forces attacked the Kurds in early August 2014.
Body armour is not available in sufficient amounts and the Peshmerga still make insufficient use of the armour they have, a combination of bravado and laziness, both of which could be offset by professional military training.
The Kurds have made a political-military policy that they will not mount operations to liberate non-Kurdish areas where the local population does not welcome their presence.
They have also taken the position that they will not liberate areas such as the Nineveh Plains east of Mosul or the city of Sinjar until those areas can be reliably defended and provided with sufficient security and services to allow internally displaced persons to return.
The Kurds may advance in some areas such as Mosul city and Hawijah, both Arab strongholds, in a supporting role, if the peshmerga are treated as full allies by the Iraqi government and given sufficient materiel support and backing.
Through these public policies, the Iraqi Kurds have been open about the conditional nature of Kurdish support for the next stages of the war against ISIL.
What the peshmerga need
The leaders of the Kurdish peshmerga are like generals anywhere: they feel that their troops are doing all the fighting and deserve the best equipment.
Speaking to General Wasta Rasul, 1st peshmerga division commander, at the beginning of the Kurdish offensive in Kirkuk on March 9, the needs of the peshmerga were clearly laid out for the author: “We need everything”, the commander related.
Though 14 Kurdish Regional Guard Brigades (RGB) have been trained and equipped by the ministry of peshmerga affairs to a reasonable standard, many of the so-called “non-unified” peshmerga units associated with political party and tribal leaders are lacking in every military necessity, from boots and uniforms to rifle ammunition and medical kits.
Peshmerga units generally suffer higher casualties than they need to because of a number of force protection weaknesses.
Even the RGBs and praetorian units lack many basic types of equipment that even the most battered Iraqi army unit can call upon such as knee pads, a proven life-saver as they make it easier for soldiers to adopt a defensive stance whenever stopped.
Body armour is not available in sufficient amounts and the peshmerga still make insufficient use of the armour they have, a combination of bravado and laziness, both of which could be offset by professional military training.
Functional night-vision equipment is spread thin along the front, opening up possibilities for ISIL raiders to overrun Kurdish checkpoints at night.
Peshmerga units also lack sufficient armoured vehicles, in part because of the very poor serviceability of the polyglot collection of Iraqi army vehicles they have appropriated since the summer of 2014. Small tranches of German and US Mine-Resistant Ambush-Protected (MRAP) vehicles have arrived, but far too few to protect troops all along the porous thousand-kilometre frontline.
The final category of equipment needed by the Kurds to keep ISIL at bay are heavy weapons. Though support units with tanks, howitzers and multiple-barrel rocket launchers are in place to support most frontline units, they are spread thin and are often hard, due to their age, to keep in service.
Of particular urgency, the Kurds need more long-range anti-tank weapons capable of penetrating the armoured suicide trucks that ISIL continues to use to breach Kurdish defences.
Currently there are two to three Milan guided anti-tank missile firing platforms to cover fronts of up to 80 kilometres. Such weapons cannot be exactly where they are needed when faced by a very mobile enemy like ISIL.
International support for the Kurds
Probably the most critical military support provided to the Kurds on a daily basis by the international coalition is protective airpower. Near-constant international air cover gives the peshmerga great reassurance, particularly at night, and smashes many ISIL attacks before they have even unfolded fully.
The international community is also gradually ramping up its training activities inside Kurdistan. Initially US UK, German, Dutch and Italian trainers focused on niche capabilities taught to small groups, such as use of Milan and heavy machine-guns. Now training at KRG bases like Binaslawa and Atrush are evolving towards company (100-man) and battalion (500-man) operations.
If the US doesn't want to help our troops to protect themselves, then maybe we should not risk our Peshmergas lives anymore.
The German government delivered two brigades’ worth of weapons and equipment to the peshmerga in the last four months, including 4,000 sets of personal protective equipment (helmets and body armour), 700 radios, over 16,000 assault rifles (with 6 million rounds of ammunition), and 270 light anti-tank weapons (with 4,000 missiles).
In contrast the Kurds are still frustrated by the slow arrival of armaments and equipment from the United States. The $1.6 billion Iraq Train and Equip Fund (ITEF) approved by the US Congress in November 2014 included $353.8 million to “address the equipment requirements” of three Kurdish brigades including 219 mortars and 720 tactical vehicles – Hummers, trucks, fuel tankers and engineering vehicles.
As KRG Minister of Foreign relations Falah Mustafa told the author on March 10, four months later “hardly any made in USA equipment has arrived”.
US Congressmen like Ed Royce continue to sponsor legislative efforts to allow the US government to directly arm the Kurds, hoping to reduce delivery times and to facilitate a closer training relationship between the US and Kurdish militaries.
Alongside tangible support the Kurds are seeking symbols of friendship from the United States, which they are willing to reciprocate in the shape of near-term assistance in the clearance of Mosul and long-term basing access for the US military in its fight against ISIL in Iraq and Syria.
The symbols sought by the Kurds are those that show Iraqi Kurdistan as an equally important ally of the United States as federal Iraq itself: equal representation alongside Baghdad at anti-ISIL conferences; Apache gunships based in Kurdistan, as they are in Baghdad; and more balanced distribution of US-provided equipment.
On March 9, President Massoud Barzani, the commander in chief of peshmerga forces, explained to the author that the Kurds are seeking “a fair share of international support based on the load of the war we are carrying”.
For example, of 250 US MRAPs destined for Iraq the Kurds were initially allocated 25, a token amount. A planned top-up of another 25 MRAPs for Kurdistan is a step in the right direction but still leaves the appearance of a grudging US drip-feeding of vital force protection equipment.
For Barzani, serving as an active frontline commander, the slow delivery of US-provided force protection equipment causes deep concern.
“If the US doesn’t want to help our troops to protect themselves,” Barzani told the author, “then maybe we should not risk our peshmergas lives anymore.”
Michael Knights is the Lafer Fellow with The Washington Institute for Near East Policy. He has worked in every Iraqi province and most of the country’s hundred districts. His recent report on the Iraqi security forces is available via the Washington Institute website.
The views expressed in this article are the author’s own and do not necessarily reflect Al Jazeera’s editorial policy.