The first pickup laid down suppressive fire with its .50-caliber heavy machine gun; the other pickup—called a “technical” in the many places such makeshift combat vehicles are found—then advanced to the next fold in the sand, braked hard and took up the thundering cadence with its own weapon. The first technical used that suppression to resume its advance, and the two vehicles continued their alternating progress down a football field-length of Iraqi desert.
The principles of fire and movement were developed by German stormtroopers in World War I, yet were new to these Kurdish Peshmerga fighters, recently trained by Western Special Forces. The multinational observers clapped after the demonstration, held near Mosul Dam during the war with the Islamic State group.
Does this training help in combat, though? “Oh yes, we were surprised, but it really worked,” one Peshmerga told me after the demonstration, detailing a recent attack the Peshmerga made on Islamic State fighters. “We can launch attacks now that before cost lots of blood.”
His confidence was mirrored across the force: In a survey of 2,301 Peshmerga that I conducted during the summer of 2017, Western training increased their confidence and decreased the likelihood they would hide or run away when under fire from the Islamic State group.
Not Second Nature
Small-unit tactics—fire and movement, cover and concealment, and suppression—are so ingrained into American warfighters they seem natural. They are not. Anyone who has spent time with partner forces knows how hard it is to teach weapons-handling skills; going beyond weapon proficiency to tactical proficiency is often “a bridge too far.” From the Vietnam War to Iraq, the U.S. military has struggled to professionalize our partners, often with catastrophic strategic effects. Think about the Islamic State group’s attack on Mosul in June 2014: 1,500 fighters caused 60,000 Iraqi soldiers and policemen we had trained to flee. The consequence was a grueling, multiyear campaign to liberate northern Iraq.
Several obstacles prevent the U.S. from training effective militaries. American soldiers might suffer from the “curse of knowledge”: being so proficient at their small-unit tactics, they find it hard to understand why partners struggle. Only 31 percent of Afghan adults are literate. This creates an immediate barrier to learning. There are also cultural barriers. Military forces in developing states often focus on creating impressive visuals to serve as propaganda for the government; for example, soldiers are trained how to jump through hoops of fire or conduct kung fu moves in unison.
Additionally, promotions are based not on competence, but instead on loyalty to the regime: In the eyes of a ruler of an unstable state, there’s no sense in having your best general leading the military if he’s going to launch a coup d’état against you. Advisers often have the experience of mentoring a great officer and not understanding why he is not in charge of a larger formation; it’s probably because he is in the wrong tribe or family, so promoting him would raise internal stability problems.
Coaching the Kurds
The counteroffensive against the Islamic State group, however, demonstrates how much our partners can accomplish if they want to learn and the U.S. provides proper training. Two of the principal forces have been composed of Kurds, an ethnic group with a different language than their Arabic and Turkish neighbors. In Syria, the YPG (People’s Protection Units) have spearheaded the campaign; after a tenacious defense of the city of Kobane, they launched a brilliant counteroffensive that included the liberation of Raqqa, the Islamic State group’s Syrian capital.
On the other side of the Syria-Iraq border, the Peshmerga prevented the group from seizing the oil fields at Kirkuk, liberated Sinjar—site of the group’s massacre of the Yezidi people—and supported the Iraqi Army’s liberation of Mosul. In both cases, the Western countries of the anti-Islamic State group coalition enabled the victory of our Kurdish partners with equipment, fire support and, most importantly, training.
Coalition training of the Kurds focused on small-unit tactics, which they were eager to learn. In one of the training centers I visited in Iraq, individual Peshmerga learned how to conduct squad fire and movement while their squad leaders learned how to set up a suppression element. Coalition trainers guided Peshmerga through a specially designed village to ingrain urban tactics into them. Peshmerga gathered around sand tables to see coalition trainers demonstrate how to conduct fire and maneuver, until their own leaders could take the reins. The visuals were good—but did they actually help?
My survey of Peshmerga in the summer of 2017, while the war was ongoing, tested the effects of coalition training. The average participant was 34 years old, male (98 percent of the sample), Muslim (97 percent), literate (82 percent) and identified with a tribe (93 percent). He had served 14 years in the Peshmerga, and when he went home during his two-weeks-on, two-weeks-off rotation, his household had two people sleeping in each room (excluding kitchens and bathrooms). He had been in a small-arms-fire exchange (79 percent) as a rifleman (64 percent of combat veterans) and had served in territory once occupied by the Islamic State group (76 percent).
His highest educational attainment was primary school (30 percent; 23 percent had finished secondary school and 9 percent were college graduates, while the rest had never completed primary school), and he had grown up in one of the three principal provinces of Kurdistan—Erbil, Sulaimaniya or Duhok (27 percent, 28 percent and 25 percent, respectively).
Mix of Ability
More than one-third of Peshmerga reported that they had received coalition training (36 percent), 31 percent had received formal training from other Peshmerga but not from the coalition, and 33 percent had not been formally trained by either the coalition or other Peshmerga. That’s right: a third of the Peshmerga had just grabbed a rifle, walked to the front line and signed up without going through basic training, like the minutemen of the American Revolution. These Kurdish minutemen either were older Peshmerga who had fought in the guerrilla wars against Saddam Hussein or had joined with their tribe during the Islamic State group’s initial attack in August 2014.
While undoubtedly brave, does their lack of training harm their battlefield performance? Army combat historian S.L.A. Marshall sensationally estimated that 75 percent of American riflemen in World War II did not fire back, but instead hid when under fire. Do the untrained Kurds have a similar problem, and does our training help them overcome it?
My survey found that coalition training both raised the confidence of Peshmerga and made them less likely to hide when under fire. About 17 percent of Peshmerga without coalition training admitted to hiding under fire. Losing 17 percent of a force’s riflemen is a devastating loss, many times more so than the loss of less than 1 percent of their force as casualties during their three-year war against the Islamic State group. In contrast, effectively no coalition-trained Peshmerga reported hiding in combat. Internal training from other Peshmerga—which often consisted of creating visuals, like of jumping through hoops of fire—did not provide the same benefits as coalition training.
Both the Syrian and Iraqi Kurds were highly motivated by nationalism and faced existential threats. In the absence of one or both factors, will our partners lack the motivation to adopt the tactics that would make them successful on the battlefield? Are the Kurds unique? Or can we replicate their success in the future?
Promise of SFABs
Thankfully, we’ll likely have an answer from the Army’s new security force assistance brigades (SFABs). With special cross-cultural training and experience in advising, the SFABs will have a better chance of motivating and training our partners. The strategic shift away from counterterrorism toward near-peer competitors makes this mission more urgent, rather than relegating it to history, for two reasons.
First, we need to fully leverage our partner capacity if we’re going to compete against increasingly capable Chinese and Russian forces; providing training and mentorship is the best way to do this. Second, we will need our partners to “hold the fort” in secondary theaters while we focus our conventional military against near-peers. The advising and training provided by the SFABs can ensure the U.S. doesn’t suffer “death by a thousand paper cuts” while deterring against the most dangerous threats.
An objective look at America’s history of advising partner forces shows we have an inconsistent history. No mission is beyond the reach of our Army, though—our success in defeating the Islamic State group through the Kurds shows that. With the focus on advising provided by the SFABs, our track record can only improve.