In late June, days after his battalion had helped secure Kirkuk from Sunni militants with what is now referred to as the Islamic State (IS), commander Sherko Fatih returned to the nearby Mullah Abdullah area to patrol. The battle in Mullah Abdullah had been the hardest in his 25 years as a peshmerga, he told me when we met in a military outpost outside of Kirkuk city. But that day, Mullah Abdullah had been calm, which the commander saw as a victory for his unit.
"What [the peshmerga] have is like a religion," he told me, implying that the nationalism among Kurdish fighters was motivating enough to overcome the actual religious extremism of IS. It was a good line and I heard variations of it often, from officials in Erbil, local and foreign journalists, and petrified citizens. Shopkeepers in Kirkuk declared their willingness to dust off Kalashnikovs and join the fight, and a pride spread throughout the region, particularly among those many Kurds who have long felt ignored or misunderstood by the rest of the world. Unlike IS, the peshmerga were an institution. Unlike the Iraqi Army, the peshmerga had high morale and something worth fighting for. "That's why we're stronger," Fatih's colleague Latif Sabir said.
Since then IS has pushed further into the autonomous northern Iraq, targeting communities of Christians and Yazidis, a long-persecuted religious minority. Trapped on Mount Sinjar, the Yazidis appeared to tip the scales for the Obama administration, which authorized the delivery of humanitarian aid as well as military strikes against IS that are intended, Obama said in a speech, to stop the militants from advancing on Erbil, the capital of Iraqi Kurdistan. The U.S. sent small arms and ammunition to the peshmerga, and when U.S. bombs exploded in Makhmour, a small city about thirty miles southwest of Erbil that is home to a refugee camp for Turkish Kurds, it sent a message of American might. For Kurds, and the peshmerga, it was also a long-awaited message of American friendship. The battle in Makhmour was broadcast on television in Kurdistan, breathing new life into the morale that both Faith and Sabir had compared to a religion. It seemed a stroke of good luck that Iraq's strongest military power was also a U.S. ally.
But Kurds are not a monolithic group with a single ambition, and the peshmerga have not always represented a unified Kurdistan. Still today, the Kurdistan they protect is a work in progress, and so are the peshmerga. Since 2003, when Iraqi Kurdistan was deemed the "success story" of the war, the region has been propped up as an example of the U.S.’s good intentions by those trying to rationalize military force, particularly conservative American policy makers. This has largely crafted the region's image. Because Kurdistan was doing so well relative to the rest of Iraq, it was mostly spared scrutiny from watchdog groups and journalists, who often romanticize the region, obscuring its failings and depriving large populations of alienated Kurds a role in shaping Kurdistan's future by criticizing the present.
Kurdistan is booming on the promise of oil wealth, and their security—maintained by the peshmerga—has enticed investors to the region. But progress has come alongside reports of rampant corruption, a widening gap between the rich and poor, and increasingly authoritarian tendencies in a government still dominated by family names. Disenfranchised Kurds find little hope of influencing the authorities or benefiting from the oil wealth. Perhaps nothing in Kurdistan illustrates its internal fissures more than the peshmerga themselves.
The Kurdish peshmerga began as a guerrilla army rising up against a string of oppressive central governments. Kurdish leaders like Massoud Barzani (the president of Iraqi Kurdistan) and Jalal Talabani were leaders in the fight against Saddam Hussein, whose attacks in the north culminated in what many Kurds call a genocide. From their base in the mountains, the peshmerga were at the heart of the Kurdish dream of independence, and often the population's only defenders. Most older Kurdish men will readily identify themselves as a peshmerga, even if they had never fought. A word that translates to "those who face death" had come to symbolize a collective nationalism that didn't necessarily have anything to do with armed struggle.
But in the mid-1990s a civil war between the two major Kurdish political parties split the region, pitting fighters loyal to specific parties against one another, and it left a wound on Kurdish society. A no-fly zone had been established over the Kurdish north in 1991, and "Saddam was mostly contained," Ali Khedery, a former adviser to U.S. forces in Iraq (who went on to negotiate Exxon Mobil's entry into Kurdistan), told me. "But in the north there were deep fissures between the two political parties."
"The tension in that civil war, which was very violent and very brutal, as civil wars tend to be, is still fresh in a lot of minds," Khedery continued. "They remember it like it was yesterday."
Allegations of nepotism and corruption—like those that have plagued the Kurdish government and alienated swathes of Kurdish society—have also fractured the peshmerga. Some fighters profited more, and the romance of revolution has long faded. "They say we were all peshmerga and poor together in the mountains," Denise Natali, a fellow at the National Defense University, told me. "So why now do some have villas, exorbitant wealth, while others do not?"
And while crisis has unified the peshmerga who may be divided along party lines, not every Kurd is willing to take up arms to defend Kurdistan. A generation of Kurds living for over a decade in relative stability, many benefiting from the increasing wealth and education opportunities, have little interest in becoming soldiers. "Like other youth around the world, the Kurdish youth want to go to school, enjoy life, and travel abroad," Natali said. "[They want to] take advantage of the opportunities of living a normal life, which means not going to the mountains to fight." If the Kurdish and American governments hope that Kurdish nationalism will provide an endless flow of fighters for the peshmerga, they may be disappointed. The Kurdistan that President Barzani so desperately wants to usher into independence is one where people want to live more than they want to fight.
After my meeting with Fatih, two peshmerga drove myself and Hawre, a local journalist who was my fixer for the day, back to the center of Kirkuk. The air conditioner vents blew hot air through the truck, and a bullet hole in the floor—the result of a nervous peshmerga firing his own weapon, the driver told us—was a peephole onto the dusty highway. Along the way, the peshmerga boasted about their time fighting with Americans. They were pleased to be the center of attention. If IS was working to win over Sunni Arabs, the peshmerga were working renew their hold on Kurdish hearts and minds.
But Hawre was not convinced. After we left the peshmerga, he complained about their party loyalties. They fight for the government, not the people, he said, which makes his work as a journalist and critic of the government dangerous. Protests held in 2011 in Sulaymaniyah were swiftly suppressed, and international human rights groups have raised concerns about freedom of expression and the media in Kurdistan. Rebel peshmerga founded the leading Kurdish political parties, but decades later those leaders or those close to them have yet to give up power. In this environment, it is hard to dissent.
Hawre worried about the likelihood of peshmerga being successful against IS in the long term; they were more tired and ill-equipped than they let on. He thought that perhaps the international community was overestimating the peshmerga's strength because the alternative was to envision an Iraq in which IS lacked a formidable enemy, and that was too frightening. He worried that Kurds, particularly his neighbors in embattled Kirkuk, were being imbued with a false confidence and that other countries, particularly the U.S., were taking advantage of the Kurdish fighters by offering only as much aid and encouragement as needed to continue the fight while staying out of it. Mostly, he worried about Kurdistan. The peshmerga have failed the Kurds before, and so has the U.S. "IS has a religion, that's why they are fighting," Hawre told me. "OK, the peshmerga told you they have a religion, too. But that's just for the media."
Jenna Krajeski is a writer based in Istanbul. Reporting for this piece was funded by the Pulitzer Center on Crisis Reporting.