Dutch soldier leads Peshmerga in rifle practice. Photo by author
ATROSH VILLAGE, Kurdistan Region – It's a recent afternoon in the Kurdish countryside and the pop of small arms fire echoes through the valley below the Duhok Infantry Training Center.
A line of 10 Peshmerga soldiers await orders from a Dutch soldier. Before barking the command, however, he quickly consults the pen-scrawled phrases written on his palm.
“Dushman,” he yells – the Kurdish word for enemy – and the trainees cock their weapons and take aim.
Scenes of mild confusion like this are common these days as sympathetic countries rush to overcome language barriers, military mismatches and cultural differences in order to help Kurdish forces in the fight against the Islamic State, or ISIS.
More than 20 nations are so far actively supporting the Peshmerga with many sending military equipment and trainers - although largely on an ad hoc basis and with little coordination. For example, the Dutch trainer was issued a phrasebook in Arabic.
The newly formed Kurdistan Training Coordination Center (KTTC), a joint effort of the Dutch, Italian, British and German governments, aims to unify the military assistance of these countries, hopefully overcoming some of these difficulties.
The soldiers in the Peshmerga rifle squad are part of the first group to receive a new KTTC basic training program. The current four-week program, which started last Sunday, will train eight platoons of roughly 30 soldiers each at bases in Atrosh village and the Binaslawa district of Erbil.
According to Dutch liaison officer Jaap, who like most coalition troops is required to give only one name for security reasons, the course will cover basic shooting and battlefield maneuvers, medical training, IED identification, urban fighting, leadership training and international humanitarian law.
A test program run last month earned high marks from the front.
“We heard from commanders at the frontline that they saw significant difference between the troops which were trained [by the KTTC] and those which stayed behind,” Jaap told Rudaw.
Another twist in the relationship between international military trainers and their Peshmerga trainees is experience. Most of the Kurdish fighters are battle-tested, even if they are almost completely untrained.
The fact is not lost on Lieutenant Walter, a Dutch platoon commander, who notes the irony of his troops offering instruction to hardened Peshmerga, some of whom have served for 18 years. Meanwhile, as Walter points out, the youngest Dutch soldier is 19 and does not yet have his driver's license.
“You try and be aware of that,” Walter says. “You hear their stories and well, yeah, they've seen some stuff.”
Take Peshmerga officer Lieutenant Ali. Four days before the KTT training, Ali and his men were on the frontlines. The 27-year-old platoon commander says he has led his men at six different battlefields in the last eight months.
In Rabia, a town on the border with Syria, Ali and his platoon fought for seven hours to take a hospital filled with Islamic State snipers and mined with c4 explosives. Around Sinjar, another hotly contesed border town, they repulsed nightly attacks by swarms of fighters armed with “dushka,” or heavy machine guns.
In one engagement alone 15 of his comrades were killed, he says.
But on this day, Ali and his men, who range in age from their early 20s to mid-40s, listen attentively as a Dutch instructor explains contact drills – what to do when under attack. For most of his men, this is the first formal training, beyond marching and shooting, they have ever received.
They wear a motley collection of camouflage fatigues and most carry variations of the AK47 assault rifle. There are Soviet, Czech and Chinese models, some with cracked wooden stocks, others with plastic parts clad in, and the butt of one is missing.
“They're all different, but all the same,” says Walter, meaning despite their various provenance and vintage, they all fire the same round.
This cannot be said of the recently donated German G3 and G36 rifles two of the men are carrying. Each weapon takes a different calibre of bullet, meaning the platoon needs to be supplied with three different kinds of ammunition.
For now having enough AK47 ammunition is satisfactory, says KTCC public affairs officer Lieutenant Colonel Jürgen Bredtmann. The ammunition has to come from Baghdad because the coalition partners are not able to supply the Peshmerga directly. And with fighters at the front needing a constant supply, it is difficult to convince the Peshmerga to divert thousands of rounds for the training.
The payoff, so far, is clear. Peshmerga troops at the training have already been shown how to adjust the sights on the rifles to improve accuracy. “They weren't aware of this before,” says Jaap.
A day earlier, one of the men was told to try shooting left handed. Suddenly, three years after first picking up a weapon, he could hit the target.
Still, Milayo, a 23-year-old Dutch soldier, is frank in his assessment of the men he has been assigned to train.
“They're a militia,” he says. “They're citizens with guns.”
This is not a criticism, he says, just that they haven't received much instruction. “They're are eager and they are motivated,” he adds.
The next morning there is snow in the hills around camp and the men hunch into their jackets as they watch the Dutch instructors demonstrate a drill for taking cover when someone is shot.
Tayar Muhammad, a 33-year-old Peshmerga from Akre, has already learned this lesson – the hard way – and he hopes his comrades are taking note.
A few months ago his captain was injured during an engagement. As he lay in the dust with bullet wounds in his arm and stomach he called out for his men to stay behind cover. One man ignored the order, running to rescue his commander. A bullet hit him in the head and he was killed instantly.
“It was a trap,” says Muhammad.
Down in the valley the Italian troops are taking another group of Peshmerga through “contact drills”. The translator switches rapidly between Italian and Kurdish as the men fire questions at the instructor at his whiteboard.
When they break for lunch the sun has come out. The Peshmerga break into a song and dance in a line.
Emilio, one of the older Italian paratroopers, has seen this kind of display before. He was deployed by the Italian army to Kurdistan in 1991 to provide security and resupply civilians.
“It's the same passion, the same pride I see in the Peshmerga,” he says, reflecting back.
“A lot of years have passed but some things remain the same – they're still fighting.”