Disunified Front

The chaotic, underfunded battle against the Islamic State

For two months in the summer of 1962, Dana Adams Schmidt, a correspondent for the New York Times, vanished into the wilds of Iraqi Kurdistan. He called the book he eventually produced about the experience Journey Among Brave Men. The Kurds were and are among the most courageous fighters in the world. Their many rebellions, insurrections, and uprisings over the centuries have begun with small victories and ended in cataclysmic defeats. Reliable allies have eluded them, while their aspiration to govern themselves has alienated the countries they inhabit, including Turkey, Iran, Iraq, and Syria. “Among governments in the area,” Schmidt wrote of his Kurdish hosts a half-century ago, “they have not a single friend.” To this day the Kurds claim, as one of their proverbs puts it, “no friends but the mountains.”

Kurdish leaders nonetheless retain an almost mystical trust in the United States, despite a history of American betrayals. Henry Kissinger sold them out to Saddam Hussein in 1975. George H. W. Bush called on them to revolt in 1991 and then allowed Saddam to deploy his air force againstthem. Today, Kurds from northern Iraq, Syria, and Turkey, as well as a band of about 500 fighters from Iran, make up the most capable ground forces in Iraq, where they have been confronting the Sunni fanatics who call themselves the Islamic State. Still, support from the United States has been slow to arrive. The Kurds have clawed back most of the territory that
the Islamic State seized from them in 2014, but a dearth of supplies, weapons, funding, and logistical aid has driven the Kurdish death toll for that campaign needlessly high.

Last fall, the photographer Don McCullin and I toured the Kurdish and Arab Shiite front lines that faced Islamic State territory…

To read the full text of this article subscribe to Harper’s Magazine. Accompanying photographs © Don McCullin 2016.