Most young Kurds had not expected another war. At least, not the one brought by ISIS. Only a couple of years before, Iraqi Kurdistan had been thriving. The Americans had deposed Hussein, the Kurds’ most hated enemy, in 2003, opening the way for Kurds to establish control over their mountainous, Switzerland-size territory. Though they remained part of Iraq, they essentially created a protostate of their own. Investment, development, and oil-fueled optimism (Kurdistan sits atop vast oil deposits) were soon transforming the region. Skyscrapers rose over Slemani, the “Paris of Kurdistan,” and Hewler, the Kurdish capital, attended by shopping malls, luxury-car dealerships, and gelato cafés. Universities were built. Something like universal health care was established. Promoters even dreamed up a slogan to lure tourists and businesses: “Kurdistan, the Other Iraq.” And while Arab portions of the country seethed in those years, some five million Kurds entered what many call a golden decade. ... Kurds have a distinct culture and language, but except for a few historical moments of self-rule, they’ve always lived under the shadow and control of a larger culture—Persian, Arab, Ottoman, Turkish. Today some 25 million Kurds are believed to live in Syria, Iraq, Turkey, and Iran (though the true size of the population is unknown), and it’s often suggested that they are the world’s largest ethnic group without a nation. This may be true, but it hints at unity. There really isn’t any. ... From region to region Kurds speak different dialects and support hyper-local and often fractious political parties, and even if given the chance, they probably wouldn’t try carving a greater Kurdish state out of those diverse lands.
The SWAT team was created in 2008 and, in conjunction with U.S. Special Forces, conducted raids in Mosul to arrest high-value terrorism suspects. After the American withdrawal from the country, in 2011, the unit hunted down insurgents on its own. ... In the areas it controls, ISIS typically offers Iraqi security forces a kind of amnesty by means of an Islamic procedure called towba, in which one repents and pledges allegiance to the Caliphate. But the SWAT team was not eligible for towba. ... Aside from martial aptitude, there were two principal requirements for recruits: they had to have been wounded by ISIS or its Islamist precursors—either physically, by bullets and blasts, or psychically, by the death of a loved one—and they had to crave revenge. ... For them, the Mosul offensive was merely the continuation of a war that they had been fighting most of their lives. When the men referred to older terrorist groups that had wounded them or killed their relatives—Al Qaeda in Mesopotamia, Jaesh al-Mujahideen, or obscurer offshoots—they always called them Daesh, the Arabic term for ISIS, even though ISIS, in most cases, did not yet exist. ... The unit was small and lacked logistical support: there was no one to bring them food, water, ammunition, or extra weapons, let alone reinforcements. They didn’t have their own medics, intelligence officers, mechanics, engineers, or bomb technicians. They had no mortar or artillery teams (or any contact with units that did have them). No one on the SWAT team was authorized to request air support. None of the American advisers embedded with the various military divisions seemed to know that the unit existed.