Battling the Hydra: The Growing War Against Islamic State

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Coalition airstrike on Islamic State position in Kobane in October, 2014 – Voice of America photo

Last week, Chairman of the Joint Chiefs of Staff General Joseph Dunford Jr. announced that the United States and its allies have increased intelligence gathering in Libya in preparation for a possible expansion of the war against Islamic State (IS). A decision is expected to come within “weeks.”

Fifteen months ago I began this blog partly as a reaction to a comment by former Secretary of Defense Leon Panetta about IS: “I think we’re looking at a kind of 30-year war.” Then I was worried about inevitable mission creep in Iraq and the concept of a forever war in general.

Like the Hydra losing its heads, when Islamic State loses one battle it strikes one or more places in return.

Since that post the operation against Islamic State was at least named. Indeed, it did take a year to train the Iraqi Security Forces to a level where they could begin a successful ground operation against IS — Ramadi was retaken last month. There are more optimistic signs as well: IS was recently forced to cut its fighters’ salaries in response to financial troubles likely including oil prices and the US-led coalition bombing campaign on its oil infrastructure. As the Taliban has been finding out with IS in Afghanistan, fighters will often go to whomever pays the most.

But the war against IS is not racing to a speedy conclusion by any means. Like the Hydra losing its heads, when Islamic State loses one battle it strikes one or more places in return. The world was shocked at IS’s reach last November during the Paris attacks. Though some (including this author) were skeptical that those attacks were from IS command and control, IS has released video evidence of the attackers planning the attacks while in Iraq and Syria. Additionally, Europol expects more attacks in the future.

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Paris attackers from Dabiq, Islamic State’s e-zine

In Syria, IS launched an offensive in Deir el-Zour, capturing an army base, weapons depots, and killing at least 300 people. If they succeed in capturing all of Deir el-Zour, they will control two provincial capitals in Syria (the other being the IS capital, Raqqa) — a major blow for Assad (and Russia’s) Syrian Arab Army.

With a likely expansion of the war against IS into Libya, Panetta’s 30-year prediction is looking better. One year down, IS does not seem too much more degraded or destroyed than a year ago. And though Obama said then that the war against IS “will not involve American combat troops fighting on foreign soil,” there has since been a Delta Force soldier killed combat in against IS.

As we enter the final year of Obama’s presidency, the rhetoric from the likely candidates on both sides foretells an increased operations tempo — both Hillary Clinton and her opponents have been falling over themselves to explain how they would win the war against IS — from Ted Cruz’s “carpet bombing” to Donald Trump’s “kill terrorists’ families” to Clinton’s “intensification,” it does not appear that this war will end any time soon.

What Does It Mean to Retake Ramadi?

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(Reuters/Stringer Photo)

By now we have learned the Iraqi Special Operation Forces (ISOF)-led operation to take Ramadi back from Islamic State (IS) has been mostly successful, retaking the government center and leaving only the eastern part of the city in IS control. In print, these words are sterile, devoid of context or richer meaning. A city “falling” reminds us of a domino toppling—a swift, deft, inevitable culmination of a small amount of external energy and a large amount of natural law.

Yet for the soldiers on the ground taking a city is an arduous crawl perfused by hidden dangers. When I was in Iraq, I never had to do the type of brutal house to house clearing that ISOF is doing now so it is difficult for me to conceptualize. But even during training, stacking outside of a door at a shoot house always brought an adrenaline-laden feeling of excitement of anticipation and nervousness of uncertainty. Luckily, VICE News has been producing some of the best mini-documentaries on the wars in Iraq and Syria to date.

In their latest video, Retaking Ramadi From the Islamic State: The Battle for Iraq (Dispatch 11), a journalist embedded with the Iraqi Golden Division (ISOF) describes the then-ongoing conflict for the city center. With bodies littering the streets, sniper teams take shots from rooftops and troops discover IS tunnels and caches.

What is most striking about this video to me is the role of the United States in this battle. In an interview, an Iraqi soldier describes the coalition airstrikes they relied on:

We should thank the Russians, because they encouraged America to increase their bombing. They helped our forces. Any place they find a threat to us, they [the US-led coalition] hit. We’ve started to give them coordinates—whatever coordinates we give them to hit, they blow up. It’s not like before [emphasis added.]

For me, thinking about this quote starts a long chain of causal relationships. Without the United States, the Iraqi government would likely not have retaken Ramadi. So are the US’s renewed efforts in Iraq good, just, necessary? In this instance, limited to this battle, it seems obvious. But during an interview with a masked ISOF member about sectarianism, this clarity on the US’s role becomes more ambiguous.

Warning: the following section contains graphic description of torture:

Do you want me to tell you how the militants kidnapped me? They took me to a house, they hung me upside down and lashed me. Then they took me down and put two nails and held me to the wall, another here [points to wrist] to hold my other arm. They got pliers and pulled out my nails. I fainted every time they pulled a nail, but they made sure I was awake before pulling the next one. He also cut my forehead, making a long cut across my forehead. He wanted to cut off my face. Unbelievable. What’s wrong with them? I kept saying I don’t work for the Americans.

In this instance it is his involvement with America that makes him the target for abduction and torture. And worse, the Shi’a militia that captured him is part of the side that we are backing against the Sunni IS. Much of the sectarian strife in Iraq was caused by the 2003 invasion. So much for moral clarity.

Iraq: The New Drone Capital of the World

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DoD photo by Tech. Sergeant Sabrina Johnson, U.S. Air Force

Drones, also known as unmanned aerial vehicles (UAVs) or remotely piloted aircraft (RPAs), have become sort of the ubiquitous symbol of the war formerly known as the Global War on Terror (GWOT). While officially in use by the United States since the Vietnam War, they entered American public consciousness during the wars in Iraq and Afghanistan and bore the brunt of American offensive operations in other realms of “Overseas Contingency Operations” (OCO) like Pakistan and Yemen, mostly against unarmored mounted and dismounted targets without anti-air capability. As such, they have become the near-perfect weapon for counter-terrorism (i.e. killing high-value targets) in the 21st Century.

In popular culture, they were featured in 2003’s Terminator 3, chasing John Connor and Claire Danes down the hallways of Skynet and are a useful and easy to obtain kill streak reward in the Call of Duty video game franchise. Additionally, in the past few years articles warning of the dangers of their use by local police have become more common.

Today, Iraq may be the drone capital of the world with drones in its skies currently operated by the US, UK, Australia, Iran, Islamic State, and of course the Iraqi military itself. It is difficult to find accurate numbers (if any numbers at all) of drone sorties flown by these actors and compare them to other countries, but if Iraq is not the drone capital by volume then surely its diverse drone community makes it the de facto capital.

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Drones in popular culture: a screenshot from Call of Duty: Black Ops II (Coffee With Games photo)

American Drones

Ironically, the US invaded Iraq in 2003 to start flying drones there in part because of the perceived threat of Iraqi drones. Former Secretary of Defense Colin Powell’s infamous address to the United Nations was about more than just aluminum tubes. The capabilities of Iraq’s drone program was specifically addressed. While Powell showed a slide of an American AAI RQ-2 Pioneer drone painted in desert camouflage, he said:

Iraq has been working on a variety of UAVs for more than a decade. This is just illustrative of what a UAV would look like. This effort has included attempts to modify for unmanned flight the MiG-21 and with greater success an aircraft called the L-29. However, Iraq is now concentrating not on these airplanes, but on developing and testing smaller UAVs, such as this. UAVs are well suited for dispensing chemical and biological weapons. There is ample evidence that Iraq has dedicated much effort to developing and testing spray devices that could be adapted for UAVs.

In hindsight, Iraq’s drone program was not much of a threat to anyone and today it is the US’s drone program that is routinely condemned by much of the world. Nonetheless, it is an interesting tidbit of history that the invasion of Iraq and subsequent global ramp up of drone usage was in part justified by the threat of drones themselves.

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Slide from Powell’s address to the United Nations showing an American drone to represent the threat of Iraqi drones (YouTube)

During OIF/OEF the General Atomics MQ-1 A.K.A. “Predator” practically became a household name. So beloved by the DoD, its big brother, the MQ-9 “Reaper” is in some instances taking the place of piloted F-16s. One wing in the Air National Guard is completely replacing their F-16s with the MQ-9s. Indeed, drone usage by the US has become so commonplace in Pakistan that the tell-tale buzz noise they produce—a continuous droning sound, if you will—keeps the people who live in areas frequented by drone strikes in a perpetual state of anxiety and fear. That is the essence of air power in a nutshell.

After the withdrawal of US forces from Iraq in December, 2011, the drones went with them. But in December 2013 and again in May 2014, even before the fall of Ramadi and Mosul to IS, then-Prime Minister Nouri al-Maliki requested armed drones and even conceded in the second request that US troops be the ones piloting them—a humble move from the man who refused to allow immune-from-Iraqi-prosecution US troops in his country past the agreed December 31, 2011 deadline. Maliki’s request was initially denied—either to prevent the US from returning to Iraq indefinitely or to snub Maliki (or maybe a little from column A and a little from column B.) But by June of 2014 the Pentagon had confirmed that armed US drones, piloted by Americans, were indeed in Iraq, so the Obama administration changed its mind pretty quickly.

One indication of how critical drones had become to the GWOT/OCO is that in early 2013, then-Defense Secretary Leon Panetta announced a new medal for drone pilots and lethal cyber operators that would rank higher than the Bronze Star.  The award was subsequently nixed by his successor, Chuck Hagel, after some public concern, mostly associated with its precedence.

However, it is not just the military (and CIA) that are flying drones overseas. Like many traditional military roles, as troops leave the theater of operations as directed by the DoD, civilian contractors replace them. In Iraq, contractors piloting drones are making $225,000 or more a year. To try and compete with the private sector, the Air Force is now offering $125,000 critical skill retention bonuses to RPA pilots to keep them.

British Drones

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Royal Air Force MQ-9 Reaper (Unknown Photographer)

Of course it’s not only the Americans who are back in Iraq operating drones. The British are flying ISR drones in Iraq, notably in support of French warplanes as they bombed IS in retaliation for the November 2015 Paris attacks. The British have the armed MQ-9 Reapers in Iraq, but Cameron has said that the RAF will not participate in air strikes without authorization from Parliament.

Australian Drones

Never ones to miss an American war, even the second or third time around, the Australian pilots are also flying the hunter/killer Reapers in Iraq. However, they are flying American Reapers as attachments to the USAF’s 432d Operations Group out of Creech Air Force Base in Nevada, but this role will likely expand as Australia has purchased its own Reapers from the United States.

Australia’s involvement in the drone war against IS in Iraq is certainly an interesting example of weird, post-modern warfare: Australian pilots are piloting American drones in Iraq from Nevada.

Iranian Drones

Many were surprised last year at Iran’s announcement that it was deploying drones to Iraq. But much like the US, this is not Iran’s first unmanned aerial rodeo in Iraq. In fact, Iran’s drone program was actually born during the Iran-Iraq war of the 1980s.

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Iranian Karrar vs German V1

Iran has a pretty impressive (in number of varieties) fleet of drones, from the aging Mohajer developed during the Iran-Iraq war to the modern Fotros based on the Predator. However, Some of their drones look a bit . . .  unsophisticated. For example, the Karrar looks a lot like a 1940s-era German V1 rocket.  And their seemingly most sophisticated drone, based on a captured American Lockeed Martin RQ-170 Sentinel, is probably just a mock-up and not a fully functional copy of the CIA’s stealth drone, even after several years to backwards-engineer it.

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Iranian Fotros drone (YouTube)

Drones of the Islamic State

If Iranian drones in Iraq surprise you, then you are going to love the drones of the Islamic State. IS too is flying drones in Iraq, but not with the same capabilities as the US and its allies or even Iran. Essentially, what IS is using are civilian remote controlled aircraft—the same toys many received for Christmas in the US this year. But that has not stopped the US and its allies from targeting these RPAs in its airstrikes.

Last March, OIR spokesman Army Colonel Steve Warren described an airstrike on an IS drone:

The drone was not shot down. We observed it flying for approximately 20 minutes. We observed it land. We observed the enemy place the drone in the trunk of a car and we struck the car, destroying both the vehicle and the model airplane in the trunk.

He continued:

To my knowledge this is the first time we’ve observed ISIL using these types of equipment.

Recently, three more drones were targeted. While IS may be using “Amazon.com” drones, that isn’t stopping them from getting creative. Pictures are popping up on the internet of downed drones reportedly piloted by IS—some with explosives attached to them. If (admittedly a big if) these drone-borne IEDs become as effective as their US-Humvee-turned-VBIEDs, the enemies of IS will have a significant new threat to deal with.

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IS Drone (Friends of YPG YPJ Photo)

Iraqi Drones

Obviously Iraq is still struggling with some sovereignty issues when it comes to its airspace and the drones flying in it. But that does not mean that Iraq’s fledging air force is without its own RPAs.

Iraq was trained to use and operates the small, hand-thrown AeroVironment RQ-11 Raven drones favored by American infantry companies. But the lack of armament and short range of the Raven, combined with the imminent threat of losing half of their territory to IS, resulted in the Iraqi government requesting more sophisticated drones like Predators and Reapers. As noted earlier, the US denied these requests.

Even though the US came back to Iraq and started flying its own drone missions, Iraq had still been looking for a drone supplier for its own air force. It is apparent now that an agreement was made with China to buy the Caihong (Rainbow)-4 or CH-4. It is unknown how many Iraq will be buying, but as of the sixth of this month, the Rainbow has made its first combat airstrike against an IS position.

Iraq’s need for armed drones is not likely to diminish in the near future, so it could be an opportunity for China, who has already sold CH-3s to Nigeria to use in operations against Boko Haram.

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Iraqi Air Force CH-4 (Iraqi Ministry of Defense Photo)

Iraq Wars Episode II: Attack of the Drones

There are currently a lot of drones in Iraq and it looks like soon there will be more. OIR partners Canada, Netherlands and Jordan have requested drones from the US. Earlier this year, Canada restarted its attempt to acquire a squadron of Predators and if successful, they will be operational by 2021. Northrop Grumman offered to sell Canada the strictly-surveillance RQ-4 Global Hawk specifically for arctic operations, but Canada declined. Everyone wants the hunter/killers.

The Royal Netherlands Air Force sent pilots to the US to train on Reapers this year even before they ordered any aircraft. The Netherlands expects full operational capacity of their now-ordered Reapers in late 2017. Whether or not they will deploy to Iraq or not is not clear, but why order armed drones if you are not going to use them?

Jordan, who famously bombed IS targets earlier this year, has too attempted to buy drones from the US but like Iraq has also been rebuked. And, like Iraq, they turned elsewhere. Somewhat astonishingly, Israel has agreed to provide Jordan with 12 of its flagship Heron TPs and another dozen Elbit Systems Skylarks.

Today, Iraq is home to not only its own drone program, but also the drones of at least three other countries, one quasi-state, foreign operated drones piloted by different foreigners, and more countries looking to jump into the fight. In a country with a war that seemingly no one wants to fight on the ground, Iraq is the new drone capital of the world.

The Evolution of an Insurgent

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Islamic State commander, Hassan Aboud, from a YouTube video

Yesterday’s New York Times featured a piece by C.J. Chivers on the rise of Islamic State’s Hassan Aboud. Aboud was a cement hauler in 2011 before Syria’s revolution, but he was prepared. A combination of connections and training in 2005 in Iraq with Zarqawi’s AQI along with an apparently well equipped cache of supplies made him one of Syria’s top rebel commanders  in 2012. He attracted the attention of IS and made the choice to pledge bayat. Today’s he is another middle manager in IS whose brigade has likely fought in Aleppo, Kobani, Homs, and Palmyra.

Chiver’s piece is richly detailed for such a notoriously shadowing organization and I highly recommend it for anyone who is curious about the transformation of insurgents—in this case from cement hauler to emir in the Islamic State. Aboud’s story reminds me of a quote from Blood Meridian by Cormac McCarthy:

It makes no difference what men think of war, said the judge. War endures. As well ask men what they think of stone. War was always here. Before man was, war waited for him. The ultimate trade awaiting its ultimate practitioner. That is the way it was and will be. That way and not some other way.

“Behind the Black Flag: The Recruitment of an ISIS Killer” by C.J. Chivers

The Cost of Forgetting US Military Failures

090219-A-6797M-101        U.S. Army 1st Lt. Larry Baca from Charlie Company, 1st Battalion, 4th Infantry Regiment monitors the weather as a storm moves in outside of Forward Operating Base Lane, Afghanistan, on Feb. 19, 2009.  DoD photo by Staff Sgt. Adam Mancini, U.S. Army.  (Released)

DoD photo by Staff Sgt. Adam Mancini, U.S. Army.

The Atlantic put out a good piece titled Forgetting Afghanistan a few days ago about how the US government and public seem to be consciously forgetting Afghanistan as our attention shifts back to Iraq and IS. It seems that it is not solely a shift in focus, but a deliberate attempt to remove the failure of the war in Afghanistan from society’s collective thought in an attempt to relieve the guilt and shame that may be associated with the military (and diplomatic) defeat there.

The article points out that this concept is not new. After the Franco’s death in Spain, the Spanish government decided the best way to move forward was to commit to la desmemoria—the disremembering—choosing not to remember its authoritarian past in order to transition to democracy.

But this is not even the first time the US has chosen to disremember a military failure. The article also mentions that after the Vietnam War the US Army Special Warfare School threw out its files on counter-insurgency.

Perhaps I am naive, but this shocks me. I think it is well established that the US Army is not a learning institution. But to destroy records in an attempt to get out of the business of counter-insurgency is a level of infantilism from the Army that I was not prepared to accept. Once again, the US finds itself distancing itself from COIN as it deploys more tanks to Europe and refuses to send anyone but inside-the-wire advisors to Iraq.

Obviously, forgetting our COIN lessons in Vietnam did not prepare us for success in Iraq and Afghanistan. Who knows what those records contained, but the US Army should be training for any mission it is called to undertake, not just the ones it wants. As long as civilians control the government, the military is going to have to do things it would rather not do. As the United States has not won a war in over twenty years, and since World War II has lost more wars than it has won, it is probably time the DoD becomes a learning organization.

Even though the US may be purposely forgetting Afghanistan, for the moment it seems that the administration is doing its best not to disremember some of the lessons from Iraq and that is encouraging. While the main goal might only be to limit US troop casualties and prevent the nation from being bogged down again in an unwinnable situation in Iraq, at the very least we are looking at our failures from the last ten years or so and saying, “let’s not do that again.” It’s clear that Obama is doing the bare minimum there until his presidency is over. As the president who was elected to end wars, he does not want to leave another one for his successor.

The United States is currently limiting its engagement overseas for political reasons, but this cannot last forever. As the political climate changes, the DoD must prepare for the next unfavorable mission—even if that means COIN or whatever we will be calling it in 2025. Clausewitz wrote:

We must therefore familiarize ourselves with the thought of an honorable defeat. We must always nourish this thought within ourselves, and we must get completely used to it. Be convinced, Most Gracious Master, that without this firm resolution no great results can be achieved in the most successful war, let alone in the most unsuccessful.

Without honorably accepting our defeat and learning from it we will never truly win again.

The Fall of Mosul One Year Later

IS parade through Mosul in June 2014. (Associated Press photo)

I have been spending a lot of time over the past few days thinking about the one year anniversary of the fall of Mosul to the Islamic State. While I have no particular attachment to Mosul, I cannot help but realize that its capture by the Islamic State has been nothing less than world changing. Looking back, its significance is undeniable.

Let’s examine the the world we lived in before IS captured Mosul:

  1. Nouri al-Malaki was Prime Minister of Iraq
  2. IS was still calling itself the Islamic State of Iraq and Syria and the Da’ash/Daesh moniker was only used by Arabs
  3. Few, if any, maps of the territory controlled by the IS were being produced for consumption on the internet
  4. There were no propaganda videos of IS beheadings
  5. Abu Bakr al-Baghdadi had made no public appearances
  6. There were no photos of IS driving American Humvees or firing American artillery
  7. Kirkuk was not under Kurdish control
  8. There were no Americans or other Westerners volunteering for Kurdish militias
  9. Iran was not openly sending advisors and military hardware to Iraq and their influence was less overt
  10. There were no American military in Iraq except for the embassy complex
  11. The general Americans public were not aware of IS unless they had read about them in the context of being an AQ splinter group

These are just a few observations from an American 7,000 miles away. I would be very interested to see a list like this made by an Iraqi to understand better how the fall of Mosul changed life for Iraqis—both inside and outside of IS territory. But looking at this list, it’s obvious that the fall of the Mosul was the defining moment for IS as we know it today.

It’s telling that on the one year anniversary of the fall of Mosul, the IS of today is the most famous and easily recognizable IS. Like all important moments in history, the world before it is almost hard to imagine.

Before the fall of Mosul, Prime Minister Nouri al-Maliki still ran Iraq with a Saddam-esque authoritarianism. A year ago Western journalists were questioning the brutal treatment of protestors and the general Western sentiment seemed that it was time for Maliki to go, should Iraq become an even quasi-democratic state. Today, Haider Abadi is Prime Minister and that strong leadership is gone. The Iraq of today is a failed state with a central government that can barely maneuver its military to crush dissent, let alone battle organized enemies.

It’s also important to note that a year ago, “IS” wasn’t “IS”. This is relevant because the battle for what this group is to be called has been waging ever since. Before the fall of Mosul there were few Muslims asking Westerners not to use the term “Islamic” to describe the group because few Westerners did. When they were mentioned at all in the West it was strictly as ISIL/ISIS much as al-Qaida is called AQ by Beltway insiders. But even that’s changed in the last year as AQ lost stature. Today, al-Qaida is more often referred to as Nusra or even the mysterious “Khorasan group” as AQ central becomes less in control of global jihadism.

Presently, those who refuse to use the title “Islamic State” or even its acronyms call it Da’ash or Daesh. It is curious that this has become a slur against the group, because it is the exact same thing as calling it ISIS except in Arabic. Even senior government leaders have dropped ISIL for Daesh. Oh, the power of words! If you know of any examples of organizations the US government has refused to name, please let me know in the comments because it seems unprecedented. It’s as if IS is Voldemort and is the group that must not be named. Ironically, I imagine this sort of self-censorship of names tends to lead to the exact opposite of its intention: it provides more power to the group in the psyche of the person who wishes to diminish that power.

But if anything comes close to holding as much power as words, it might be maps. Remember a time before those with an interest in geography and current events could visualize a map of IS territory? It existed one year ago. Now these maps are constantly being shared on social media and blogs and even make it onto the major news networks whenever there is a significant change in these perceived borders.

Recent maps of IS territory from The Atlantic, BBC, and Institute for the Study of War

Recent maps of IS territory from The Atlantic, BBC, and Institute for the Study of War

Yet maps such as the ones above have something in common. Their borders are all defined as a stringy web of roads and population centers. They look more like a game of cat’s cradle than a familiar political map. One must realize that it’s not as if those empty spots in the deserts of Western Iraq or Eastern Syria are controlled by their respective governments. They’re just generally empty. Does that mean they are not in IS territory? Of course not. These maps are not accurate representations of IS-held territory, at least not in the way borders are traditionally drawn. By presenting IS in this manner it undermines their power by both refusing to acknowledge them a state with clear borders and by making them look weaker (as if to say this puny so-called Islamic State only controls a few roads.) But imagine if the porous borders of the Southwest United States or the empty arctic were drawn in this fashion—they would look very similar.

I live in one of those white areas and can attest I haven't seen federal government forces in months

I live in one of those white areas in the West and can attest that I haven’t seen federal government forces in months. (Not shown: Wilayat Alaska and Wilayat Hawaii)

If only it were just maps of IS that we were seeing more of these days. Unfortunately, it’s not. One year ago there were no IS beheading videos. Imagine that for a moment: a world in which we lived our lives without seeing videos of American aid workers being brutally murdered after a masked Briton speaks directly to the President and us. These videos started shortly after the Pentagon resumed a bombing campaign in Iraq after withdrawing from Iraq two and a half years earlier. We will return to that in a moment, but another type of propaganda we had not seen before the fall of Mosul was the public appearance of the self-appointed Caliph of the Islamic State, Abu Bakr al-Baghdadi. Up until then, essentially the only image we had of Baghdadi was a mugshot from his time at the Camp Bucca military prison in Iraq. But after Mosul’s fall, Baghdadi felt comfortable enough to appear in public (however, this has been his sole public appearance as far as we know.)

Another image we had not seen in a pre-fall of Mosul world was that of American Humvees and military equipment being captured by our enemies en masse. The images of hundreds of millions of dollars of American hardware being driven in IS parades shocked the nation. Dismally, many more Humvees and other equipment has been captured by IS since then, especially during the recent fall of Ramadi.

Worse yet, Humvees have turned out to be perfect weapons for IS. This might surprise many Americans (especially veterans) who know that the Cold War-designed Humvee had many flaws as a gun truck in Iraq. These flaws resulted in the uparmor program to better protect the soft-skinned vehicles from IED/VBIED and ambushes raising the purchase price from $70,000 to $220,000 each. Despite the upgraded armor, the vehicles still suffered from a design flaw in that they were low and wide which meant that explosions from below devastated the vehicle and its occupants. Worse still, the increased weight increased the instances of stuck vehicles and (often fatal) roll overs.

So the Pentagon quickly started replacing its Humvees with two million dollar MRAPs (seen recently on an American city street with a race riot near you) and the Humvees were given to our Iraqi military counterparts who likely experienced all the same problems the Americans did. Yet it was IS who found an ingenious use for them as armored guided bombs. As VBIEDs, the Humvees’ armor is perfect to keep its suicide driver alive until he hits his target.

But while images of the Islamic State in these forms evoke visceral reactions from many Americans, less understood, I think, by the general American public is that before the fall of Mosul many areas now under Kurdish control in Northern Iraq (and Syria) were not Kurdish before. Indeed, in a pre-IS Northern Iraq the Peshmerga and Iraqi Security Forces sometimes had border disputes and it seemed a state of cold peace was slowly coming to a boil. After those ISF units fled Northern Iraq during the fall of Mosul, the Kurds deftly used the power vacuum in the area to move into areas they had wanted to control for decades, such as Kirkuk. It is unlikely they will ever willing gives these areas “back” to Iraq. While the Kurds and IS continue to fight in both Iraq and Syria, in some ways IS did more for the Kurds than two and a half decades of US support.

Continuing on the topic of the Kurds, today I think more Americans know about Kurdish militias than ever before thanks to the fall of Mosul and the hot new trend of joining the YPG, or the People’s Protection Units in order to get a chance to shoot at IS fighters. Note that the YPG is from Rojava, Syria, and does not operate in Iraq, yet still this was not commonplace until after the fall of Mosul and IS really became relevant to Americans. On the other hand another Kurdish militia, the PKK, does operate in Iraq. But it has not been as popular since it is considered a terrorist organization by the United States and leans even more Red than the YPG.

British actor Michael Enright dressed as a YPG fighter in Syria (AP Photo)

British actor Michael Enright dressed as a YPG fighter in Syria (AP Photo)

But it’s not just the Kurds who have benefited from IS gains in Iraq. Because of the terrible security situation and a reluctance from the US to entangle itself in Iraq again, Iran has brilliantly stepped up to be Iraq’s savior. While it is no secret that Iran has been providing weapons and training to Shia fighters in Iraq since the US invasion, in the post-Mosul fall world Iran can openly send Revolutionary Guard advisors, the most prominent being Major General Qasem Solemani, commander of the Quds Force (Iranian foreign special operations.)

Unlike their American counterparts, the Iranians are so involved in anti-IS operations that some of their top commanders have been killed in action. Perhaps the best example of overt Iranian influence in Baghdad is a billboard of both the late Ayatollah Khomeinei and current supreme leader, Ayatollah Ali Khamenei in the same square that Americans famously removed a statue of Saddam Hussein during the invasion. The billboard advertises Iran-backed Shia militias, without whom the “liberation” of Tikrit would not have been possible—and another example of Iran openly filling the security vacuum in Iraq.

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Billboard of Khamenei and Khomeinei advertising Shia militias in Baghdad (Liz Sly/Washington Post photo)

Obviously, Americans aren’t only in the region in Kurdish units. Today, there are 3,550 American troops in Iraq with more surely on the way. It might be hard to remember, especially in the frame of the entire Iraq war from 2003 to today, but for two and a half years the United States military was effectively out of Iraq. And since the fall of Mosul, they are back and will likely remain for years. Before Mosul, the Iraq war was over. Today, the forever war continues.

(New York Times graphic)

(New York Times graphic)

Lastly, it is impossible to forget that in our post-Mosul fall world most people are aware of IS. This is probably my most salient point. Before the fall of Mosul IS was just ISIL—a successor to AQI and an AQ splinter group. If you had said that sentence aloud to someone at a party using those acronyms, very few would know what you were talking about. But today there are very few people who haven’t heard of ISIS or the Islamic State (don’t you envy them?)

Looking back, I think the fall of Mosul was a defining moment not just for IS, but for the region and even the world. In the year that has passed since then, what was once unthinkable is now commonplace. Where will we be one year from now?

“I think we’re looking at kind of a 30-year war”

Defense.gov_News_Photo_120628-D-TT977-052_-_Secretary_of_Defense_Leon_E._Panetta_works_in_his_office_he_receives_an_update_from_Army_Gen._Charles_H._Jacoby_Jr._commander_Northern_Command.jpg

Former Secretary of Defense Leon Panetta – Wikipedia Commons Photo

Today, former Secretary of Defense Leon Panetta said that the fight against the Islamic State could take decades. This is hardly an unreasonable assertion considering our war against al-Qaida is now thirteen years old. (I was sixteen on September 11th and am now twenty-nine. There are high schoolers alive today who have no memory of a United States at peace.) New, yet to be named operations in Iraq and Syria do not show signs of a speedy resolution. After all, it might take a year to train the Iraqi Security Forces to a readiness level suitable to start a ground campaign against IS. (I expect that estimate is optimistic—coalition forces trained the ISF for at least seven years, but it did not prevent the ISF from collapsing against IS earlier this year.)

Panetta goes on to blame President Obama for not forcing former Prime Minister Nouri al-Maliki’s Iraqi government in 2011 to accept a new Status of Forces Agreement with diplomatic immunity for US forces. In his view, the absence of this hypothetical SOFA and continued troop presence created a security vacuum and thus IS—a position shared by Senator John McCain and the GOP as well. This sort of cognitive dissonance concerning the recent origins of unrest in the “Greater Middle East” aside, there are a few troubling points within his statements.

1. We are fast approaching the longest war in US history—one that spans continents and has no end in sight. In just seven years we will be fighting AQ and its associates/separatists for as long as we were fighting communists in Vietnam (“advisor years” included). As the Vietnam War could be considered the US’s most embarrassing foreign policy blunder (or more accurately string of blunders), why is our Department of Defense not a learning institution?

2. Panetta complained that Obama “relies on the logic of a law professor rather than the passion of a leader.” How do we live in a world where a leader in the US government’s highest offices (Secretary of Defense, Director of the CIA, etc.) can claim that logic is a lesser trait than passion? It continues to astonish me that we allow our elected and appointed leaders to make these sophomoric emotional statements.

3. To what end do we accept that this war will take decades? After IS is degraded and destroyed—then what? Shall we keep US forces in the Middle East indefinitely, fighting the next armed group who opposes imperialism? Obama campaigned on ending the Iraq war to prevent this scenario. It is not within the American people’s strategic interests to remain there. The question should not be, “What is the most recent action by a US administration that led to the strengthening of IS,” the question should be, “How did we end up here in the first place,” and, “How do we avoid doing it again?”

I admit I do not have the answers to these questions. But the US has a long history of addressing the symptoms and not the root cause of its problems. This part of Obama’s address to the American people about this still unnamed operation in Iraq and Syria is telling:

“I want the American people to understand how this effort will be different from the wars in Iraq and Afghanistan. It will not involve American combat troops fighting on foreign soil. This counterterrorism campaign will be waged through a steady, relentless effort to take out ISIL wherever they exist, using our air power and our support for partner forces on the ground. This strategy of taking out terrorists who threaten us, while supporting partners on the front lines, is one that we have successfully pursued in Yemen and Somalia for years.”

If Yemen and Somalia are our measure of success, I am positive we will continue to be successful in Iraq and Syria.