The Atlantic

How the U.S. Military Sees the Anti-ISIS Fight

A dispatch from Iraq
Source: Ari Jalal / Reuters

ERBIL, Iraq—There’s no welcome sign at this U.S. military base discreetly tucked into the corner of the Kurdistan International Airport in northern Iraq. It doesn’t even have a name. But it’s here. Thousands of troops are here, including Americans, Germans, Italians, Finns, and Brits. And this time, it seems the U.S. military is in Iraq to stay.

The temporary tents and dining hall erected to house U.S. forces—including special operators, CIA agents, and private military contractors who hunt, kill, and interrogate for America—are being replaced with permanent buildings. At least five types of U.S. military helicopters crisscross the bright September skies over Kurdistan’s peaceful, bustling capital city, some ferrying generals up from Baghdad, others heading north into Syria with bearded special operators’ feet dangling from Black Hawk doors, or banking west toward Mosul, bringing Americans to the front lines of war.

It sounds busy and feels familiar, but today’s war in Iraq is a far cry from the mammoth effort of a decade ago. Gone are the hundreds of thousands of American troops and contractors occupying hundreds of sprawling bases and outposts across the country. Gone is the Bush administration’s total war and total occupation of a country. In its place is the Obama Doctrine.

In his 2008 campaign, Barack Obama pledged to keep American troops out of unnecessary fighting while helping local populations defend and govern themselves. In short, it was his reaction to the Iraq War and over-extending America in the Middle East, explained Jeffrey Goldberg in his blockbuster article in The Atlantic, after spending hours with the commander-in-chief. “Obama generally does not believe a president should place American soldiers at great risk in order to prevent humanitarian disasters, unless those disasters pose a direct security threat to the United States,” he said.

But ISIS’s rise in Iraq and Syria has confronted this vision with shocking reality. The unmitigated slaughter of Syrian civilians has provoked heavy, if not quite universal, condemnation of Obama’s and other Western governments. It angered an American electorate tired of wars in the Middle East but increasingly fearful of Islamic extremist terrorism reaching Europe and America. And it fueled perceptions that Obama was keeping the mighty U.S. military on the sidelines, instead of just taking out what looked like nothing more than a savage band of pickup-driving psychopathic murderers. (One frustrated 2016 presidential candidate made the ridiculous suggestion of “carpet-bombing” Iraq.) Obama and U.S. generals have vowed to “destroy ISIS”—but he will this week be replaced in office by a candidate who said he could do it more quickly.

But what does the military want? In dozens of interviews with U.S. officials and coalition military commanders—from the White House to America’s war room in Tampa, the command in Baghdad, forward control centers and training grounds in Kurdistan, defense minister meetings in Paris, and NATO headquarters in Brussels—one thing was clear and consistent. On the whole, America’s military leaders do not want to be here any longer than they must. It is also clear that they

You're reading a preview, sign up to read more.

More from The Atlantic

The Atlantic4 min read
A Documentary That Shows Another Side of Toni Morrison
One of my white teachers in high school insisted that Toni Morrison would be confusing to me as a reader. So I approached the author’s work with that notion in mind, and quickly realized how wrong my teacher’s assessment was. Morrison’s prose is lush
The Atlantic4 min readPolitics
Christie’s Scathing Indictment of Trump
He declared his intention to vote Trump in 2020—even though he thinks Trump surrounded himself with awful people.
The Atlantic2 min readSociety
What the U.S. Medical System Can Learn From Estonia
Americans waste time and money filling out paperwork and repeating tests in the doctor’s office. A small Baltic nation has found a better way.