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.