Sunday, March 22, 2015

International Coalition in Iraqi Kurdistan

"Some of them have eighteen years of service in the peshmerga but they've never trained beyond marching and shooting."
"The rest they've learned by doing."
Lieut. Walter, platoon commander, British, Dutch, German, Italian coalition

"We are preparing a military force and that takes time. The mission is training just as fast and as effectively as it can."
"I think they are ready for the offensive whenever it comes. I absolutely see a military force which is capable of doing this."
Senior coalition official
Dutch soldier leads Peshmerga in  rifle practice. Photo by author
Dutch soldier leads Peshmerga in rifle practice. Photo by Campbell MacDiarmid

There were two incidents that could be interpreted as a little bit of a setback, but they have been placed in perspective; there is a language barrier and there are some difficulties to be ironed out in the training of Kurdish soldiers being instructed in classic conflict techniques and weapons handling, as well as identifying mines and other important issues relating to the formation of a well disciplined and effective fighting force.

International coalition soldiers are helping to train the peshmerga in their conflict against Islamic State of Iraq and al-Sham. Four-week basic infantry instruction courses are taking place in two Kurdistan Regions of Iraq locations with the intention of raising the capabilities in conflict of the peshmerga. The troops being trained are experienced, but their basic skills are lacking.

Since foreign ground troops have so far been ruled out by the international coalition, the training of local forces is imperative, as one of the three main campaign pillars; alongside air strikes and embedding coalition soldiers in roles to "advise and assist". Air strikes have been important in halting the ISIS advance and degrading its capabilities, but when it comes to its final defeat on the battlefield, local forces will be front and centre.

And it is the Kurdish peshmerga from the autonomous Kurdish region in northern Iraq who have been at the forefront of the conflict. The training platoon were informed they should prepare to train eight platoons of peshmerga, but in the event two only arrived, and at the last minute, with the last arriving two days late. These are men who were fighting on the front line, returning home for a weekend, then beginning their training.

And there is a problem with ammunition for training. Bullets are in demand at the front, explained Lt.-Col Jurgen Bredtmann, German liaison officer, so scrounging up more ammunition has been a problem; they end up being "drip-fed" day by day. Instructors are demonstrating to the peshmerga such basics as how to adjust their rifle sights.

One peshmerga fighter, 28, from a a town named Akre, hasbeen in the peshmerga for seven years, and last year was the first exposure he'd had to combat action. Now the fighters are adjusting to combat situations which they at first found intense and difficult. But, according to one coalition trainer in his assessment of the men being trained: "They're a militia".

"They're enthusiastic, they're motivated and they are disciplined", added Lt.-Col. Bredtmann. There is no unifying mandate or centralized command centre in Kurdiustan however, making liaison complicated. "We are all in the same boat, more or less. We in the coalition are still trying to find ourselves", said Lt.-Col. Bredtmann. The four nations comprising the platoon providing basic infantry training at Atrosh formed the Kurdistan Training Coordination Centre.

Canadian special forces, on the other hand, are training peshmerga separately in reflection of their "advise and assist" role. And Canadians experienced the misfortune of having one of their own shot and killed when Sgt. Andrew Doiron came under friendly fire and three of his comrades were wounded. An episode over the cause of which Peshmerga officials and Canadian military authorities are not in complete agreement.

That incident followed a Dutch soldier having shot and wounded a peshmerga fighter during a training exercise. Incidents such as those create difficulties in the relationship that must be ironed out; in the case of the Canadian friendly-fire incident an investigation is still ongoing. "But I think in both cases there has been an understanding that it was an accident", related the senior coalition official.

The coalition campaign, according to Michael Knights, an Iraq expert at the Washington Institute, is at the point where it is "a little hard to track what's being delivered, [since] the campaign is accelerating faster than the training effort."

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