The extremist Sunni militants known as the Islamic State that swept across northern Iraq in June scattered government troops before them. Many of the panicked soldiers left their posts without firing a shot, then fled into semi-autonomous Iraqi Kurdistan and abandoned their uniforms and equipment, much to the amusement of the regional militia.
When VICE News visited the frontline on the road between the now Islamic State-held city of Mosul, and Iraqi Kurdistan capital Erbil just afterwards, Kurdish fighters gleefully described the chaotic retreat. The local troops, known as peshmerga (literally "those who confront death"), had a fearsome reputation earned battling the forces of longtime Iraqi autocrat Saddam Hussein in the 1980s and 1990s, and said they would defend their territory to the last.
But when the Islamic State attacked the peshmerga, they failed too.
During the Islamic State offensive two months ago, peshmerga — which are tens of thousands strong and split into units headed by the Kurdistan Democratic Party (KDP) and the Patriotic Union of Kurdistan (PUK) — moved into territory vacated by the Iraqi army, including the disputed city of Kirkuk, and faced off against the Sunni militants along a 650-mile border.
For a time, things were relatively peaceful, with a few minor clashes and no major movements from either side. In early August, however, the Islamic State launched a shock assault and seized strategic towns, Mosul Dam and oil fields from the Kurds. The peshmerga withdrew in chaos and fell back to their regional borders, pulling out of towns and villages in disputed territories, some of which are home to vulnerable ethnic minorities they'd promised to protect.
In the end, the US launched air strikes on Islamic State targets — the first on Iraqi soil since it withdrew its forces from the country in 2011 — and hardened fighters with links to the Kurdistan Workers' Party (PKK) reinforced the peshmerga. Arms started arriving from the US and Europe, helping to halt the advance and retake at least some lost territory.
But why were the legendary peshmerga defeated so easily? The largest factor, admits Peshmerga Ministry spokesman General Halgurd Hikmat, was that the fighters simply were not ready. In the initial stages of its Iraq offensive, the Islamic State had tried to make good on its threat of marching south to the capital of Baghdad, leaving Kurdish territory unthreatened. When progress stalled, leaders decided to push north, catching a complacent peshmerga off-guard. "ISIS in the beginning wanted to attack Baghdad, but changed their mind to Kurdistan," Hikmat told VICE News. "That caught us by surprise."
Islamic State tactics were another unpleasant shock. While the peshmerga had fought in counter-insurgency operations alongside US troops after the 2003 invasion, they had, for the most part, been trained to deal with a large organized army like Hussein's. The fanatical and well-equipped Islamic State is very different, and while not numerically superior to the Kurds, has a fleeting, but important advantage against them: The militants can concentrate wherever they want — usually a weak spot — and quickly launch an attack. The peshmerga, meanwhile — which are showing no inclination to expand beyond their already overstretched borders — cannot. Basic logistics means that by using such tactics, the Islamic State is able to achieve at least a period of concentrated battlefield superiority before reinforcements arrive.
The strategy has made the militants difficult to handle, says Ali Faté, a peshmerga veteran who now commands the front at the town of Makhmour, which was seized by IS last week, then retaken by Kurdish forces. "The Islamic State war is something new and very different, it's neither a gang war nor highly organized... Until we get an idea of weapons and tactics, we expect some losses... and even the weapons used are very different from those used by [Saddam Hussein's] Iraqi army."
The weapons are also vastly superior. Islamic State fighters are well armed with heavy modern weaponry and armored vehicles, partly as a result of the ease with which they routed the US-trained and supplied Iraqi army and plundered their gear, along with significant sums of money. That equipment, much of it American-made, includes tanks, armored vehicles, artillery, and huge supplies of ammunition. The group had already appropriated Syrian army munitions via the same process.
"I want to stress this point, the Iraqi government left weapons and money for ISIS to get strong," Hikmat says. "The same happened in Syria — so many weapons were left there for them by the Syrian army."
Peshmerga forces, meanwhile, are mainly equipped with Soviet-era weapons looted from the Iraqi army during the 2003 US-led invasion. And ammunition is short. "We have had many promises and pledges of help, but we are short of bullets. We are not generous with them to our fighters or when firing at our enemies," a source close to senior peshmerga commanders who spoke on the condition of anonymity told VICE News.
The Islamic State gained more than weapons from its fighting in Syria though. Its men are battle-hardened and experienced. The peshmerga, meanwhile had not faced a major test since Hussein was removed from power. Iraqi Kurdistan even remained peaceful while sectarian violence gripped the rest of Iraq in 2006 and 2007.
As a result, most of the veterans are gone. Newer recruits have, for the most part, little or no experience in battle. "Ultimately, the peshmerga need a lot more training than people thought," Michael Knights of The Washington Institute, who specializes in Iraqi military and security affairs, told VICE News. "Most of them have not had any combat experience in their lives. Whole generations of peshmerga have done nothing but sit on checkpoints and have done no operations at all, let alone this kind of counter-terrorist operation against a very effective force which would even give the US a tough time."
At the frontline on the road from Erbil to Mosul, one fighter told VICE News that commanders were trying to keep recently enlisted volunteers away from fighting and instead use them to man checkpoints on the way in and out of these areas. Special forces troops had recently been bussed into the area too, in an effort to boost spirits.
Senior officers are well aware of the issue. "Morale and training is in need for the peshmerga," says Faté. "Especially during a state of war."
There are other operational problems too, partly related to the peshmerga's status as a militia rather than a genuine national fighting force. The result is a lack of modern military infrastructure, says Wladimir van Wilgenburg, an Erbil-based analyst for the Jamestown Foundation. "They have problems with coordination and a lack of operations centers, information sharing, air support, and satellite imagery. They were not prepared for a large-scale attack."
A lack of professionalism is pervasive too. Salaries are low, so some peshmerga work side jobs. Others serve only part-time hours. Stories circulate of ammunition and even arms being sold to supplement income, or conversely, of men having to buy their own ammunition and rifles. All of this plays a cumulative role in weakening them as a fighting force.
But the peshmerga are regaining lost territory, Knights says, and reorganizing and regrouping with the help of the international community. This, he says, should help tip the balance in their favor.
US air power, for example, can help solve the problem of massed ISIS attacks by increasing mobility and reacting to insurgents wherever they pop up, while US intelligence should help reduce the chance of being caught by surprise.
Weapons are being supplied by the international community too and the peshmerga's own heavy weapons and armored vehicles are now stationed at hot spots instead of languishing in depots.
Veterans who fought pre-2003 are being brought back too. Grizzled senior officers and soldiers and are stationed at frontlines, where the "heroes" boost spirits and provide much needed experience.
The borders of Iraqi Kurdistan may be safe for now, but whether the peshmerga can reclaim lost territory and repair its tattered reputation remains to be seen.
Follow John Beck on Twitter: @JM_Beck