en-Notes on the Battle of Kudilah - Scott Atran


On March 6th Scott Atran lectured at Uppsala University on the Battle of Kudilah, Pitfalls of Coalition Strategy Against ISIS.

17 February 2016. Today Rwala village, where we had done fieldwork last year with Kurdish Peshmerga forces, was hit by a chlorine gas attack, 3 injured badly. But we were on the other side of the Makhmour - Ghayara Road, at Aliawa, about 50 km from Kirkuk and 100 Km from Mosul. Aliawa was hit last year by 48 katusha rockets carrying mustard gas. Burj, the other frontline outpost where we did fieldwork last year, was the launch site for a pretty fierce battle 2 weeks ago at the village of Kudilah. It was taken by a combined Peshmerga, Iraqi army and Sunni Arab force then retaken by IS two days later.

But it's not this battle of Kudilah, nor the recent retaking of Sinjar, nor even the crazy quiltwork of American actions here that I'm trying to understand here, but the what it is that makes IS tick; what ties the Paris attacks to this remote battle in northern Iraq that nearly everyone in it (Peshmerga, Iraqi Army, Sunni Arab) says was the fiercest of their lives. Kudilah was a relatively small battle (with no more than 600 or 700 combatants overall) over a relatively small village (about 150 houses), barely noted in the international press (and only the initial victory over IS was reported, not IS's comeback). Yet it was telling for the lack of coordination and commitment among the anti-IS coalition (though not the commitment of some Kurds that matched that of IS in every measurable way) versus the heartfelt determination of IS to hold Kudilah at all costs.

Of course, everyone here is buzzing about preparations to start moving on Mosul, perhaps this summer, but the battle of Kudilah strongly suggests that effective, large-scale coordination of coalition forces has many miles to go.

Prelude to Kudilah

In early August 2014, IS forces advanced from positions southeast of Mosul, crossed the Tigris River and reached Makhmour and Gwer Bridge. IS was now within striking distance of Erbil, capital of the Kurdish Regional Government of Iraq (KRG), a quasi-state wrenched from Saddam Hussein's control and established in 1992 under America's "No Fly Zone" following the first Gulf War.

Many of Erbil's half a million residents began to flee the city, keenly aware of how fast the previous June IS had taken Mosul, Iraq's second largest city, despite being outnumbered 5 to 1 by an Iraqi army trained and equipped by America. But the Kurds and Christians of Erbil were even more clearly frightened by reports about the ongoing IS encirclement of Mount Sinjar, which the KRG's vaunted Peshmerga forces had abandoned, leaving IS free to exterminate all the Yazidi men they could find (killed by automatic weapons but if they protested, then beheaded, burned alive or tied to two cars and ripped apart), while hunting the women for sexual slaves (the children and elderly who fled up the mountain were dying daily by the hundreds of dehydration).

At one point, KRG President Masoud Barzani, who also heads the Peshmerga forces, told US Central Command that it was only a matter of hours before Iraqi Kurdistan fell, and perhaps all of Iraq. President Obama, pulled from a DC restaurant where he was dining with his wife, was told that unless US air power entered the fray immediately the whole region could be lost. The only forces not in full treat were Turkish Kurds of the PKK, a Marxist-Leninist group on America's list of terrorist organizations, which pushed to the front of the line near Makhmour, and the PKK's Syrian affiliate, YPG, which was punching a narrow corridor through IS lines from the Syrian border to Mount Sinjar in a heroic effort to save the besieged Yazidis.

By the time our research team arrived in Iraq in February 2015, Makhmour and Gwer were again in Kurdish hands and the front had stabilized a few kilometers to the west thanks to American and French air power. Air cover had enabled the Peshmerga, which had been a formidable mountain fighting force prior to the KRG's establishment but in the interim had become largely an inert group on the dole, to adapt to unfamiliar fighting conditions on the flat plains of Mesopotamia and to reaffirm their fighting spirit.

Many Peshmerga who we interviewed and tested in psychological experiments on "will to fight" had been wounded, some multiple times; yet even disabled veterans without limbs and older volunteers who had first joined the Peshmerga in the 1950s were fighting at the front. They were evidently ready to die in defense of an idea they called "Kurdeity," which Kurdistan's borders existed to protect. The Kurds had become the most effective sentinels by far on the IS frontier.

By our second visit in February 2016, nearly the whole of Mount Sinjar and surroundings were in Kurdish hands, through a combined effort of Peshmerga, PKK, YPG and recently formed Yazidi militia. Kurdish forces now seem poised to spearhead efforts to retake Mosul. Together with newly gathered Iraqi units of Kurds, Sunni Arab and Shia camped near Makhmour and Gwer they could advance on Mosul while cutting off IS's retreat from Sinjar, which dominates the main road between Mosul and Raqqa, the IS capital on the Euphrates in Syria.

Our second visit to the Makhmour front came two weeks week after the battle at Kudilah, about 2.5 kilometers from Burj, the forward Iraqi army outpost (mostly manned by former Peshmerga) where most recently we had been conducting interviews and experiments. American military advisors and contractors, with a handful of German soldiers, had drawn up the battle plan with sheikhs from neighboring Sunni Arab tribes whose lands were in IS hands. With 57-caliber guns on Kudilah's high ground, IS strategically dominates the chokepoint on the road between Makhmour and the Tigris that is the only supply route for dozens of IS-held villages in the sector.

The sheikhs told the Americans that they could take and hold Kudilah with American air power to back them up, then perhaps advance as far as the Tigris. The Americans wanted the Peshmerga and (mostly Kurds of the) Iraqi army to hold back at the outpost and other points in the rear unless things went bad.

The Americans at the military center in Makhmour (dubbed "Camp Coca Cola" by some) wanted to show that a year of training these Sunni Arab tribesmen was paying off, and that when the time came to retake the mostly Sunni Arab city of Mosul and surrounding lands, anti-IS Sunni Arab might be able to confidently re-establish themselves. The lack of senior American military personnel on site, and the outsized role of contractors-for-profit with little evident cultural knowledge or field experience in this particular theater wasn't supposed to be a problem (although even experience with the rugged mountain tribes of Afghanistan counts little for managing tribes of the Mesopotamian plains),

The sheikhs wanted to show that they could take back their villages from IS even though many of their fellow villagers and tribesmen were fighting with IS. Indeed, our interviews with the sheikhs made it clear that they, along with the overwhelming majority of Sunni Arab tribesman, had initially welcomed IS as a revolutionary movement that wanted to take Baghdad from the Shia; but support had soured among the elite sheikhs when IS began taking their power and property away, and killing any objectors.

Existing rivalries, jealousies and grievance between and among villages transmuted into a fight for and against IS, even though some became trapped in service to IS's violation of village and tribal norms. Villages split allegiances, which often pit former friends and relatives against one another. Because of IS's policies of killing and dispossession, difference in allegiance now transformed into a deeper moral and mortal conflict. As one Sunni Arab shaykh who fought at Kudilah told us: "IS had my friends call me from my town (Shargat), saying I should come back and work for the revolution because I was a leader who the people trust. But I knew from others that the plan was to kill me."

From the outset, the Peshmerga and Iraqi army forces were skeptical of the American plans and the sheikhs' ability to deliver. But the Kurds also told us - from government leaders, to commanding officers, to foot soldiers - that they have no desire or intention to advance into Sunni Arab lands beyond what they consider to be the natural boundaries of Kurdistan, which more or less follow the current Kurdish frontline of mud wall and ditch that stretches 1050 km across northern Iraq from Syria to Iran; and that in any offensive to retake Sunni Arab lands, Kurds would help but not lead or stay.

The Fight for Kudilah

The fight for Kudilah began in the early morning of February 3 with bombardment by American war planes and 120 to 150 Sunni Arab tribesmen advancing against 90 to 100 entrenched IS fighters (formed in 3 groups of about 30 fighters each, according to listings of names and weapons taken off a dead IS commander). But the tribesmen were stopped a few hundred meters outside Kudilah by improvised explosive devices (IEDs) and drew back. Peshmerga and Iraqi army forces (200-300) moved in with armored vehicles. IS sent 4 suicide car bombs to stall the advance: coalition planes knocked out 2 a Milan anti-tank missile hit another, and one blew up before engaging. Peshmerga cleared the village by noon, then withdrew to the rear after deploying Sunni Arab throughout the village.

Between 9 and 10 pm the next night, IS launched a counterattack spearheaded by (on some accounts) by up to 17 inghamasi, ("those who dive in deep," fighters wearing suicide vests who often lead the attack), killing or critically wounding several Arab tribesmen. Indeed one of the suicide attackers that IS news identified as Mohammed Lahaibi, who blew himself in an embrace with a coalition soldier, was from the same tribal faction as the sheikh who initially led coalition forces against Kudilah.

Half of the Sunni Arab forces withdrew to the outskirts of the village in disarray, leaving weapons behind and one of two high ground positions to IS fighters. IS soon occupied nearly the entire village except for the entrance gate to the road leading to the Kurd's forward outpost at Burj, and three houses at the other high ground position. The other Sunni Arab forces also withdrew, fighting a rearguard action. A handful of Iraqi army forces raced in to hold the remaining high ground as Peshmerga moved back into the village. By midnight the village was relatively calm again except for sporadic shooting and shelling. A Peshmerga leader escorted the local press, radio and television into Kudilah to witness the "victory," claiming that the Sunni Arabs and even the Iraqi army units couldn't hold the village because of "lack of experience," which chagrined the Arabs and infuriated the Kurds of the Iraq army who were telephoned about news just before the fighting began again.

The Peshmerga began moving out again, taking the press with them. As the main coalition force withdrew, IS attacked in force from two nearby villages at around 12:30 am, February 5. Peshmerga forces turned around but were pinned down near the entrance to the village by intense IS mortar, RPG (rocket-propelled grenade), Doshka (Soviet heavy machine gun) and rifle fire, and the Iraqi army unit was surrounded.

During the next couple of hours there were almost unimaginably courageous actions by the isolated Kurds of the Iraqi army unit. Completely cut off from their main force, they fought nonstop and until a Peshmerga captain who ignored orders not to relieve the surrounded position because all were already given up for dead (and whose name, Cherdel, actually means "Lionheart") stormed into the surrounded position with a hummer and a box of ammunition, joined the Iraqi army unit commander, Major Amin, on the roof of the only building still held but under relentless fire, while the lone soldier guarding the house, name of Chkak, dashed with ammunition into a recently dug grave near where his friend Zuber had fallen, before sprinting to the Badger Combat Vehicle where Karzan, the gunner held off IS fighters as close as 18 meters away (American drones, or UAVs - Unmanned Aerial Vehicles- tracked the distances between opposing forces as being too close for aerial bombardment).

As Karzan tells it: "Daesh was shouting its war cry: 'The Islamic State is staying and expanding!' (dawla islamiyya baqia wa tatamadad !) 'We will behead all you infidels and apostates'! (sanadh bakhakum antum kufar wa murtadin!) That cry brings fear to the heart." But Karzan taunted back (as his comrades confirm): "I swear to God, I will kill you one by one!" while ululating like an a wailing Arab woman "to drive Daesh crazy," as other Kurds hooted: "Daesh, you are only the State of Sex [Maniacs] (dawla seksiyya)!"

Amid telephoned headquarters at Gwer: "I am finished unless you come now." And Captain Taha, who had rushed from his home to gather Iraqi army reinforcements (40 men in 3 hummers and a pickup) broke through to the remaining high ground position in Kudilah just as all appeared lost: "My vehicle was hit 5 times. Daesh was yelling "Allahu Akbar !" (God is Great!). I was yelling Allahu Akbar! God only knows who is right." Another 20 hummers and 100-200 Iraqi army forces followed in about an hour later, and by 4am Kudilah was again in coalition hands as IS fighters fell back to the two nearby villages (Mahane and Kharbadan).

According to Peshmerga Brigadier General Ziryani, there were 52 confirmed IS dead, mostly from coalition airstrikes, and an undetermined number of wounded in a Daesh force that he estimated at around 120 fighters. One wounded 15-year-old IS fighter was taken alive, but we couldn't find out anything about him as KRG intelligence whisks away captured fighters who are not immediately executed into some dark hole.

General Ziryani as well as everyone else we talked who participated in the battle -- some who had been fighting Saddam since the 1970s, and later with or (as with some Sunni Arab) against Americans - told us that this was the hardest battle they'd ever fought. "The Daesh Amir (leaders) fight until they die," Ziryani said. As Karzan put it:

"They were coming at us with full of heart, with full commitment to their beliefs. It was much more vicious than Falluja or Ramadi. Death or victory, they would not retreat until our reinforcements overwhelmed them, and then I saw 4 inghamasi blow themselves up to cover the retreat and heard the explosions of maybe 3 more. Daesh fights to die."

The battle was seemingly won. But it wasn't.

Coalition forces could hear Abu Ali, commander of the IS forces in this battle, exhorting his soldiers over the walkie-talkie to retake Kudilah from the Crusader Coalition no matter the cost on direct orders from Caliph Abu Bakr al-Baghdadi. The fierce determination of IS to fight on against overwhelming force ultimately convinced the Sunni Arabs not to redeploy in Kudilah without the continued presence of the Iraqi army, which was ordered to withdraw, or the Peshmerga, who didn't want to occupy an isolated position surrounded on three sides by IS-held villages, no matter how strategically important the position. And so the Arab tribesmen withdrew as well. The Islamic State's local news bullletin Al-Naba Wiliyat Dijlah, read: "After vicious fighting with Peshmerga apostates and the Rafidhi mobilization forces [reference to mostly Shia militia that did not participate in the fight but are seen as the tail wagging the Iraqi army] ... and intense air cover from the coalition of crusaders, the soldiers of Caliphate managed, praise unto God, to wage a counterattack that led to re-control [of Kudilah] at dawn of Saturday Rabia' al Akher [February 6] after two days of heavy fighting."


"The local Daesh fighters may be brave or cowardly, mostly cowardly; but the foreign fighters are fierce," said Rashid, a young Yazidi fighter who used his vacation time from college in the summer of 2014 to train for a week with Kurdish Marxists in Syria (YPG) because he knew that after the fall of Mosul in June 2014, IS would soon attack his people at Mount Sinjar. If not for him and a few comrades who opened a small breach in IS lines on the day IS surrounded Sinjar (August 3, 2014), and which YPG subsequently reinforced, many thousands of Yazidis might never have escaped the slaughter that took thousands of others.

Kurds and Yazidis are fighting for their survival, or rather as they say the survival of "Kurdeity" and "Yazideity." These are core cultural values, sacred and inalienable, which give a sense of "who I am" and "why we are" in a world of ever shifting sands. And the level of commitment to fight and, if necessary die or sacrifice their families in defense of these values, matches or surpasses that of the Islamic State fighters (and Al-Qaeda's Nusra fighters) that we have interviewed and tested with a variety of psychological measurements on "will to fight." But neither the Kurds nor Yazidis desire to venture beyond their homeland to take on the Islamic State, unless as junior partners in a coalition with Sunni Arab tribes, led by America, France and other European allies.

And here's the rub. For the most part, the Sunni Arab tribes of Iraq enthusiastically welcomed the arrival of IS, which they simply call "The Revolution" (Al-Thawra), as a means to recover their political dominance and to revenge their social and economic degradation by Iraq's Shia-led government that (according to most Sunni Arab we interviewed) America imposed and Iran now owns. But relations soon soured, especially between the tribal sheikhs and other elites versus IS leaders and local supporters who would seize the elite's power and wealth. After initially promising a general amnesty to facilitate entrenchment in the local population, and preaching forgiveness, IS began gruesome summary executions of anyone who opposed them, anyone connected with the military or police, any adult Shia (some children might still be made into Sunni), or anyone protecting those condemned.

Even if a coalition involving Sunni Arab forces succeeds in dislodging IS from Sunni Arab territory, and even if -- a very big if -- a bloody settling of accounts between Sunni Arab and Shia and between pro-IS and anti-IS Sunni tribal factions can somehow be avoided, the conditions that led to IS's emergence among the Sunni Arabs of Iraq (and Syria) have hardly changed and arguably worsened. And although the Kurds and Yazidis want America, France and other Europeans on the ground, the Sunni Arabs don't. Faced with a choice between continued IS rule versus repeat obeisance to an American-led coalition or Shia rule or both, most Sunni Arabs in the region might still opt for IS or worse, as many previously did for Al Qaeda.

Meanwhile, IS expands its presence and influence among myriad rebel groups across northern Africa, deepening roots in Central and Southeast Asia, and capturing the hearts and minds of thousands of Europeans who, rightly or wrongly, feel that liberal democracy does not care for them and hurts others with whom they identify. IS advances across the globe's central latitudes because it not only promises revolutionary change but delivers: overthrowing the political and economic order in accord with a radically different moral code for the conduct of society.

* * *

One Kurd, a Master Sergeant named Hamid, who fought in Fallujah, Ramadi, and a dozen other places and was wounded 3 times, said after Kudilah: "Our men, even our generals, are really subject to Americans who come here. And without the Americans and French and Germans we would not be able to hold the line even if we were all willing to die for Kurdistan, which I am ready to do and sacrifice even my family for. The [local] Daesh fighters may not be so willing to die, if not for the foreign fighters who command and spirit them, for they are the bravest, fiercest and most vicious of all."

Doug Stone (who grew up on a Navajo reservation, which he says prepped him to consider cultural preferences and the power of ideas as decisive, even in battle) asked Hamid: "Ok, they're brave because they believe in their ideas, and that can make a huge a huge difference in battle, and can win wars even after battles are lost. But what to do you think Daesh would do if we [Americans] came back here with soldiers and tanks?"

Rashid's response: "They would not turn away, but would rush forward and die."

To which General Stone retorted: "Now that's my kind of enemy, but I don't think they're that stupid."

But whether foolish or not, why would mostly young men from France, Belgium, Britain and a hundred other countries be willing to martyr themselves like the recently killed Uyghur from China we saw on a Peshmerga smartphone that first day at Aliawa? Why do these young people leave home and family, endure hardship and pain, to kill as many non-believers as possible, whether in battles along a front more than 3000 km long in Iraq and Syria or in more than 50 terror attacks in 20 countries since IS took Mosul and declared itself a Caliphate?

About Scott Atran

Scott Atran is an anthropologist specializing in conflict resolution and is the author of the book Talking to the Enemy, Faith, Brotherhood, and the (un)Making of Terrorists, released by Harper Collins.

"Violent extremism represents not the resurgence of traditional cultures, but their collapse, as young people unmoored from millennial traditions flail about in search of a social identity that gives personal significance and glory. This is the dark side of globalism. They radicalize to find firm identity in a flattened world."

In 2015, Atran addressed the UN Security Council -- the first time an anthropologist has ever been asked to speak to this body. He spoke to the Ministerial Debate on 'The Role of Youth in Countering Violent Extremism and Promoting Peace.' Read Address. In March 2010, Atran testified before the U.S. Senate Armed Services Subcommittee on Emerging Threats and Capabilities, advocating a field-based social understanding of terrorists' motivation, as an alternative approach to conflict resolution. Read the Statement.

Atran received his PhD in anthropology from Columbia University. While a student he became assistant to anthropologist Margaret Mead at the American Museum of Natural History. In 1974 he organized a debate at the Abbaye de Royaumont in France on the nature of universals in human thought and society, with the participation of linguist Noam Chomsky, psychologist Jean Piaget, anthropologists Claude Lévi-Strauss and Gregory Bateson, and biologists Francois Jacob and Jacques Monod, which many consider a milestone in the development of cognitive science.

Atran has taught at Cambridge University, Hebrew University in Jerusalem, and the Ecole des Hautes Etudes in Paris. He is currently a research director in anthropology at the of the French Centre national de la recherche scientifique (National Center for Scientific Research) and member of the Jean Nicod Institute at the École Normale Supérieure. He is also visiting professor of psychology and public policy at the University of Michigan, and presidential scholar in sociology at the John Jay College of Criminal Justice in New York City.

He has experimented extensively on the ways scientists and ordinary people categorize and reason about nature, on the cognitive and evolutionary psychology of religion, and on the limits of rational choice in political and cultural conflict. His work has been widely published internationally in the popular press, and in scientific journals in a variety of disciplines. He has briefed members of the U.S. Congress and the National Security Council staff at the White House on the The Devoted Actor versus the Rational Actor in Managing World Conflict, on the Comparative Anatomy and Evolution of Global Network Terrorism, and on Pathways to and from Violent Extremism. He was an early critic of U.S. intervention in Iraq and of deepening involvement in Afghanistan, and he has been engaged in conflict negotiations in the Middle East.

In addition to his recent work on the ideology and social evolution of transnational terrorism, which has included fieldwork with mujahedin and supporters in Europe, The Middle East, Central and Southeast Asia, and North Africa, Atran conducts on-going research in Guatemala, Mexico, and the U.S. on universal and culture-specific aspects of biological categorization and environmental reasoning and decision making among Maya and other Native Americans.

Atran's latest book, Talking to the Enemy, is an eye-opening and important book that offers readers a startling look deep inside terror groups. Based on Atran's unprecedented access to and in-depth interviews with terrorists and jihadis-including Al Qaeda, Hamas, and Taliban extremists, as well as members of other radical Islamic terror organizations-Talking to the Enemy provides fresh insight and unexpected answers to why there are people in this world willing to kill and die for a cause. One review stated "Talking to the Enemy is required reading for anyone interested in making the world a safer, more secure place for everyone."