BAGHDAD – I just spent eight days traveling with the Air Force to all of its key forward bases in Afghanistan, Iraq, Kuwait, Qatar and the United Arab Emirates. So the president’s speech Monday night was very timely for me. It was also unnerving.
It was so full of bombast and clichés, so larded with phrases like “we will break their will,” so lacking in details and, most of all, so lacking in humility in confronting a problem and a region that has vexed better men for ages that I still don’t know where he’s going – only that he is going there very definitively.
I totally agreed with the president’s remarks that our men and women serving in the Middle East “deserve to return to a country that is not at war with itself at home.” But the rank hypocrisy of this man – who has done so much to divide us in recent months to satisfy only his “base” – using our troops as a prop to extol the virtues of national unity made me sick to my stomach.
It also made me recall a lunch I had last week in the mess hall at Bagram Airfield, near Kabul, with Chief Master Sgt. Cory Olson from the 455th Air Expeditionary Wing. Olson explained that working in Afghanistan he was really disconnected from all the political turmoil in America.
And then he told me this story: “I was talking to this civilian contractor the other day who just came back from a couple of weeks’ home leave in Dallas. And this guy told me he was really relieved to get back to ‘reality’ in Kabul – because the politics back home was so crazy.”
You know that U.S. politics has jumped the rails when a U.S. contractor is relieved to get back from America to his little base in Afghanistan.
Anyway, enough of that. Since I can’t explain President Donald Trump’s Middle East, let me explain what I saw here – three things in particular: I saw a new way of mounting warfare by the United States in Iraq. I saw in this new warfare a strategy that offers at least a glimmer of hope for Iraq, if and when ISIS is defeated. But, though only a glimpse, I saw in Afghanistan an eroding stalemate – with all the same issues that have undermined stability there for years: government corruption, distrust among Afghans and perfidious interventions by Pakistan and Iran.
The best way for me to explain what’s new in Iraq is with a scene I watched unfold Saturday. We were at the joint strike cell in Irbil, in Iraqi Kurdistan. This is where multiple Air Force television feeds come in live from drones, U-2s, satellites and U.S. and coalition fighter jets. The officers there are coordinating with Iraqi army combat forces on the ground, and their U.S. military advisers embedded just behind the battlefront, to hit ISIS targets as the Iraqi army begins its push west.
Having retaken Mosul, the Iraqi army is driving ISIS into the Euphrates River Valley, where it looks like it will make a last stand. This was the second day of the Iraqis’ thrust west, and they were already meeting resistance in a small town on the road to ISIS-controlled Tal Afar. Several U.S. eyes in the sky were trained on a single-story, flat-roof building there, about 30 feet wide, sandwiched between two larger buildings. Iraqi soldiers crawling toward this building were receiving lots of small-arms fire from inside, stalling their advance about 500 feet away.
Their U.S. advisers were sending all this information to the strike cell in real time. Meanwhile, others in the strike cell sitting in front of computer screens were calculating exactly how much firepower was required to kill the ISIS fighters and not hurt any civilians who might be nearby. They did a quick tally of the remaining weapons on the U.S. fighter aircraft in the area – seeing who had what smart bombs left.
Seconds later a call of “weapon away, 30 seconds” rang out as an F-15E released a 500-pound GPS-guided smart bomb. The screen rebroadcasting the F-15E’s targeting pod showed the bomb going straight down through the roof.
“We have splash,” said one of the controllers in a monotone as a huge plume of smoke engulfed the video screen. Quickly, the smoke cleared and the 30-foot-wide building was smoldering rubble – but the two buildings to the sides were totally intact, so any civilians inside should be unhurt.
The officer in charge told me that a few weeks earlier, during the campaign to retake Mosul, two Iraqi soldiers were wounded, and hiding from an ISIS unit inside a building 15 yards away. Using laser-targeting, the U.S. team fired a rocket whose size, direction and shape took down only the ISIS building and made its walls fall in the opposite direction of the two pinned-down Iraqis. It did, and they were rescued.
This is war in Iraq today in a nutshell.
For years we’ve measured our involvement in Middle East wars by one pair of indexes – boots on the ground and killed in action. Because of that, most Americans are now paying scant attention to Iraq, where our boots on the ground have shrunk to a few thousand and where there have been just 17 U.S. military deaths since we re-engaged in Iraq to defeat ISIS in 2014.
But the real story is wings in the air. We are involved in a gigantic military enterprise in Iraq. But it’s with massive conventional air power married to unconventional special forces, who are advising the Iraqi army that is actually doing the ground fighting. This is making our presence in Iraq much more sustainable for us and for the Iraqis.
Ironically, it may never have happened had President Barack Obama not withdrawn our combat troops from Iraq in 2011, because Iraqis couldn’t agree on a legal formula for their staying.
After that, the then-Shiite-led Iraqi government began abusing Sunnis, and ISIS emerged in response. That forced Iraqis to rethink their relationship with us. A U.S. Air Force special operations officer told me of returning to Iraq in early 2014 and meeting with the Iraqi Counterterrorism Service – the only truly professional, nonsectarian fighting unit then left in the country. The U.S. officer had come to ask the CTS what material aid the U.S. could offer in the fight against ISIS, and the CTS commander responded that he didn’t need aid: “We want you.”
And so Obama began slowly reintroducing U.S. Special Forces back into Iraq and, for the first time, sending some into Syria, but in a totally new context. When George W. Bush invaded Iraq in 2003 to topple Saddam Hussein, we destroyed the government from the top down.We toppled Saddam’s statue. And we were advised largely by Iraqi exiles of dubious legitimacy in local eyes. It became our war, producing iconic pictures of U.S. soldiers kicking down doors and pointing guns at cowering women.
Even though ISIS emerged after we left, we have now returned at the invitation of Iraqis from the bottom up, not from exiles – making our presence much more legitimate and sustainable for any long fight. Iraqi Sunnis, Shiites and Kurds were forced to unify, at least minimally, to defeat ISIS, opening new possibilities. This is Iraq’s war of liberation. They own it.
I met Marine Col. Seth Folsom, who commands a forward special operations air base, Al-Asad, in the western Iraqi desert. It was 120 degrees outside, but he had a bounce in his step.
“I was here in 2003 and in 2008,” he told me. In those days, if he had a convoy going through a town it would speed 100 mph not to get shot at or blown up, pushing Iraqi cars out of the way, creating resentments. “Now we are driving with the Iraqis. It’s a paradigm shift. It doesn’t even seem like the same country to me. Now I am saying to my Iraqi counterparts, ‘What do youwant to do?’”
So we are fighting a very different war in Iraq, which Trump has amped up. But you can’t grasp its true dimensions unless you go to the overall U.S. regional air headquarters in Qatar and watch on giant screens a 24/7 choreography that boggles the mind: B-52s, U2s, F-16s, F-22s, F-35s, F-15s, A-10s, C-17s, V-22s, U-28s, C-130s, JStars, AWACs, satellites and unmanned Reapers and Predators – all fueled aloft by a fleet of KC-10 and KC-135 flying gas stations – that have conducted 23,934 strikes on ISIS targets in Iraq and Syria, using 84,585 precision-guided bombs, since we came back in 2014.
There is much still to worry about. At the joint operations headquarters in Baghdad, U.S. officers plan on computer screens and the Iraqi planners on wall-size maps with markers and blue arrows representing troops that they move around. It can drive U.S. planners crazy when speed is of the essence.
More worrying: U.S. advisers at the joint operations headquarters told me that many of their Iraqi counterparts take their uniforms off when they go home at night. Not everyone respects them for working with the Americans, particularly in the hard-line Shiite areas. Some have even had to change houses.
And yet, they still show up, and their men still fought house-to-house to recapture Mosul, taking huge casualties. At the height of the battle for Mosul, the U.S. Air Force field hospital at Al-Asad Air Base treated many Iraqi soldiers. The U.S. officer who heads the hospital told us that when the first Iraqi wounded soldier arrived, and he desperately needed blood, the U.S. commander asked for six volunteers. Some 50 U.S. military personnel showed up to donate.
“It is one thing for us to be respectful of the Iraqis and another to respect the Iraqis,” the Air Force chief of staff, Gen. Dave Goldfein, remarked to me. “Today there is mutual respect. We admire their tenacity.”
All of that said, I am still wary. There is no slam-dunk here. While ISIS is on the run, lasting victory in Iraq depends entirely on whether Iraqis can come together – not just to fight a shared enemy but to build a shared government – the morning after ISIS is defeated. Alas, there is no “power-sharing” bomb that we can drop on the Iraqi parliament that will make Sunnis, Shiites and Kurds trust one another enough to live together as equal citizens. And there is no “culture-buster” bomb that we can drop that will burrow deep into Iraqi/Arab culture and stop them from always letting their past bury their future and instead start letting their future bury their past.
Culture always trumps strategy, and only they can change their political culture. As the overall U.S. commander in Iraq, Lt. Gen. Stephen Townsend, put it to me: After ISIS is defeated, Iraqis need to produce a government “for all Iraqis.” It cannot be a government where “Sunnis feel disenfranchised.” We better have in place a strategy for coaching Iraqis on power-sharing as much as we did on dynamic targeting. Otherwise, the morning after ISIS 1.0 is defeated we’ll see ISIS 2.0.
Alas, the war in Afghanistan is different. The air power component is there, but U.S. Special Forces are still doing too much fighting and dying. And Trump talked Monday night like they will now do more. And we don’t have the legitimacy you now feel in Iraq.
Personal security for our Afghan allies is still minimal. I stood on the tarmac at Bagram Airfield and listened to a U.S.-trained Afghan pilot tell me that the last thing he does before climbing into the cockpit is call home to be sure his kids have not been abducted by the Taliban, who know that he works with the U.S. and have threatened him repeatedly.
Again, that this pilot is still ready to fly with the U.S. takes real courage. He wants something different for his country, and he’s not alone. But is he in the majority? Clearly he’s got neighbors who don’t think that we, or the Afghan government we’re supporting, are legitimate. Culture trumps strategy.
This is going to take ages to fix, and if you fix Afghanistan, well, you fix Afghanistan. So what. If you fix Iraq with a real power-sharing accord you create a model that can radiate out across the Arab world, because Iraq is a microcosm of the Arab world, with Sunnis, Shiites, Kurds, Turkmen, Christians and many others.
I slept well in the U.S. Embassy green zone in Baghdad on this trip, which is protected outside by Iraqis. Two nights earlier we slept at the Bagram base near Kabul and were repeatedly awakened by a blaring loudspeaker saying “take cover,” because another rocket was coming in.
For the moment – and I stress moment –we have a sustainable military strategy to defeat ISIS in Iraq – but a sustainable political outcome depends on Iraqis rising to the occasion. I do not see that in Afghanistan, and I did not hear it in Trump’s speech. I fear our choices there are unchanged: lose early, lose late, lose big or lose small.