A fighter from the Syrian Democratic Forces, SDF, stands inside a post where U.S. troops were based, in Tel Abyad town, at the Syrian-Turkish border, Syria, Monday, Oct. 7, 2019.

A fighter from the Syrian Democratic Forces, SDF, stands inside a post where U.S. troops were based, in Tel Abyad town, at the Syrian-Turkish border, Syria, Monday, Oct. 7, 2019. AP Photo/Ahmad Baderkhan

The Forever War Fought by America’s Allies

The U.S.-backed soldiers who battled ISIS across Syria and Iraq could be locked in the struggle for a very long time.

Abdul-Wahab swore it was a true story.

His eyes were reflected in the rearview mirror as he sped his pickup through battle-beaten country. To the left, the setting sun cast a Polaroid haze across brown fields and squat stone farmhouses. To the right was a ridge of mountains. Ahead was flat road and a darkening sky.

“There was a big soldier named Will,” Abdul-Wahab said. He pronounced the name “Wull.”

“Wull, Wull.” He sounded it out a couple more times, like he hadn’t said it in a while.

He slowed the truck to roll through the final checkpoint run by the Kurdish militia, the Peshmerga, whose green-and-red flag snapped in the wind. A soldier in a scarf manned a machine gun on the barricade that marked the boundary of their territory. From there the road led 60 miles through areas controlled by the Iraqi military, to the edge of Mosul and the last bastions of the Islamic State’s caliphate.

Will was one of the American special forces sent to Iraq to kill insurgents much like ISIS more than a decade before our drive through northern Iraq, in February 2017. The Americans had created Abdul-Wahab’s elite battalion during the Iraq War to carry out joint raids, an Iraqi version of the Delta Force or SEAL Team Six. The battalion had an English name—the Iraqi Counter-Terrorism Force—and was known by its initials, ICTF, which the men sewed onto their uniforms and painted on their Humvees. The Iraqis admired their American mentors. They picked up the special forces ethos, wore baseball caps and sunglasses, used words like fuck and bro and dude. But Will was different, Abdul-Wahab said. “He would lose control.”

Abdul-Wahab kept his foot on the gas pedal as he raced through a Christian town that seemed to be empty. ISIS had destroyed some of the houses, and the ones still standing were dark. Not a soul was visible except for a trio of Iraqi soldiers who sat on a leather couch on the roadside.

The photographer Warzer Jaff was in the passenger’s seat; I was in the back. Abdul-Wahab’s M16 was by my feet.

Related: 'It Didn't Have to Be This Way': Just-Retired CENTCOM General

Related: Trump Is Killing a Fatally Flawed Syria Policy

Related: Syrian Decision Rekindles Fear of ISIS Prison Breaks

An ICTF veteran in his 40s who had given up fighting, Abdul-Wahab had been ferrying Jaff and me to and from Mosul for months. He was stocky and gruff and expert at passing through the myriad checkpoints that led to the front lines, always knowing what to say or who to call or when to gift his sunglasses to an inquiring militiaman. He was an ideal wheelman for navigating the strange tapestry of the alliance, with all its varied forces flying their banners around the city like armies in a medieval siege. His commanders used him for special transport: of weapons and supplies and officers who wanted to escape for a night to the hotels of Erbil, the Kurdish capital and nearest outpost of modernity, a place where they could find a decent dinner and booze or visit a mall or swim in a pool, and grasp at a moment of normalcy on the edge of the world’s most brutal war zone. As grumpy as Charon, he was forever making the 45-mile journey between the two valley cities, and when Jaff and I had no other way to get to the war, we went with him.

A folk song about an old battle was playing on the radio. “You made your tribe proud of you ... I can hear them scream.”

Abdul-Wahab was still talking about Will. First he began shooting animals on patrol. Then, on a raid somewhere in Iraq one night, he shot an old man as he opened his front door. Abdul-Wahab said he’d seen it happen. The man’s daughter was screaming, beating her chest in grief, and Will said something like, “I just gave him an injection, he’s sleeping,” and threw a mattress onto the old man. He killed a teenager in front of his mother, jamming his gun into the boy’s mouth. Abdul-Wahab said he saw the boy’s mangled head. He killed one man as Iraqi medics were treating him. He killed another while the man lay in bed beside his wife.

I asked what had happened to Will. Abdul-Wahab said he didn’t know. Will was transferred one day, and that was the last he’d seen of him. But he reckoned that a man like him must have met his judgment eventually.

What he was telling me, I knew, was a ghost story—an account not of any specific soldier but of all the demons the Iraq War had unleashed. It reminded me of old reports of torture and orange jumpsuits and dead civilians, and that what America asked of its soldiers could unhinge them. The war that defined my parents’ generation, in Vietnam, had the draft and civil unrest with it. By the time the Iraq War started, when I was 18, America had a volunteer army, so people like me could move ahead with our lives without worrying that our number would be called. The country still found itself with a guilty conscience, though, and in this war, with ISIS, the only U.S. soldiers on the front lines were the secret kind, small groups of commandos whose every mission was classified, while U.S. pilots and drone operators dropped bombs. It was left to local soldiers like the men of Abdul-Wahab’s battalion to do the bulk of the fighting, and as far as most Americans and their politicians were concerned, the war was out of sight and out of mind. In a way it made sense: Fewer Americans lost their lives or their minds or committed war crimes.

There were fewer stories like Will’s. Yet, in this new kind of U.S. war that culminated in Mosul—the deadliest urban battle America had fought in at least a half century—the toll was still being paid by the local soldiers who were U.S. allies, and by the civilians who were dying by the thousands in the cross fire. And I worried about the psyche of a country that still considered itself at war but was more disengaged than ever from it, with no sense of shared sacrifice or even collective responsibility. On the one hand, Americans seemed obsessed with ISIS, roiling with every terror attack, while on the other they made little effort to understand the enemy or the soldiers doing most of the killing and dying to stop it.

Swaying in the cab of Abdul-Wahab’s truck during our halting journeys to the front lines—the checkpoints more frequent, the sentries more intense, as we neared the fighting—I sometimes imagined the helicopters that had moved like a mass-transit system over the American battlefield in Vietnam and the correspondents who had used the choppers almost at will to traverse it. There were times when the war with ISIS felt looser and wilder. From Istanbul, where I lived, I could fly economy to cities such as Baghdad, Antakya, Berlin, and Erbil, all of them theaters in the same sprawling conflict. I could meet one day with the smugglers and fixers who worked for ISIS and on occasion with ISIS members themselves, and the next find myself on the other side of the mirror with the men who were confronting the jihadists: a Syrian rebel, an American artilleryman, a German border guard. Yet the closer I came to Mosul, the heart of the extremist statelet ISIS had carved into the map, the more the feeling was one of constriction.

Abdul-Wahab left us around midnight at a small country home on the approach to western Mosul. The ICTF was using the house as a rear base, and we unrolled our sleeping bags on a floor crowded with soldiers. A gunner called Bis Bis was on the phone with his mother in Baghdad, who put his son on, who said he wanted a new ball. Other soldiers were snoring. I took a couple of swigs from a pint of whiskey, pulled the bill of my hat over my face, and fell asleep to the sound of U.S. air strikes, which shook the walls through the night.

It was still dark the next morning when I awoke to the rumble of the battalion’s idling Humvees.

They were American-made and weighed 7,000 pounds, with thick tires that came up to my waist. They were encased in metal armor, scarred by bullets and shrapnel, and painted black, like the armored bulldozers that would accompany them. Each Humvee had a turret on its rooftop outfitted with a heavy weapon: a machine gun or an anti-tank rocket system or a grenade launcher. The letters ICTF were stenciled on the turrets. The men of the ICTF had probably killed more extremists than any other soldiers in the world, because they were good but also because they had been fighting for more than a decade. In recent months they had also taken so many casualties that if they were a U.S. unit, a commander would have declared them combat ineffective and pulled them from the battlefield. The soldiers wore uniforms that were the same apocalyptic black as their Humvees. Some looked like American commandos in their ball caps and sunglasses. Others covered their faces in checkered kaffiyehs or black ski masks emblazoned with skeleton faces.

The men stepped into their Humvees, and Jaff and I took our places in the one we’d been assigned. Sitting in the back seat, I could see my breath billowing in the cold, and my legs were shaking from it, twitching and bouncing, my knees rubbing against the driver’s seat. Beside me were crates of .50-caliber bullets and the legs of the gunner, who was standing in his turret. Jaff sat in the front passenger’s seat with his camera. A native of Iraqi Kurdistan, he had fought Saddam Hussein’s forces with the Kurdish militia, then made his name during the Iraq War as a local reporter with The New York Times. Now married to an American journalist, with a 7-year-old daughter, he lived on Manhattan’s Upper West Side.

The convoy crept north in a column through the sallow dirt of abandoned farm fields, curling along a path that sappers were clearing of improvised explosive devices, or IEDs. The Humvees rocked and groaned as they rolled forward. Their shells rattled intermittently, as if shaken by an unseen hand, from air strikes.

The battalion planned first to travel through the booby-trapped fields, then move past an island of half-built apartments, and finally enter a neighborhood called Tel al-Rayan that marked Mosul’s southwestern edge. After four months of brutal street fighting, ISIS still had not been dislodged from the half of the city on the western bank of the Tigris, a swath of territory that extended from an outer ring of working-class suburbs to a densely packed downtown and the ancient, winding streets at its center. For more than two years the coalition’s drones and satellites had watched as ISIS militants built defenses, raising dirt ramparts and laying tank traps, moving back and forth in their pickups, their faces covered. They also dug tunnels and buried mines and laid explosive traps through the streets and houses.

As the column of Humvees kicked up dust, the ICTF soldiers looked out through thick, bullet-resistant windshields, some of them cracked from prior battles. Through the window in my door, a textbook-size slab of murky glass, I saw the island of abandoned apartment buildings about 100 yards ahead through the chalky dirt. A muzzle flashed from one of them, and bullets from a heavy machine gun streamed toward us. Some flew into the Humvee’s armor with a clank. The feeling this gave me was always the same: both riled and afraid, like a trapped animal taunted by someone rattling its cage. Our gunner returned fire, his .50-caliber weapon echoing loudly inside the Humvee’s shell.

The Humvees fanned out from the column and advanced toward the attackers, blankets and mattresses flapping from the backs of some of them.

An air strike hit the apartments—it felt like standing in the middle of a thunderstorm. Smoke and dirt burst into the sky, and for a moment there was silence.

Then, amid the constant chatter on the radio, came the words that the soldiers always listened for: sayarrah, mufakhakha. They could sound almost beautiful, even in a gruff commander’s Arabic, but they meant “car bomb.”

A vehicle approached from the distance, a red pickup truck with makeshift armor, trailing a long cloud of dust. Our gunner swung his turret to track it, firing, his body contracting. Hot casings jangled down, and I swatted them from my legs. A bullet smacked our windshield and cracked it. Then the pickup disappeared into the hills.

ISIS made its car bombs in factories and outfitted them with metal armor and enough explosives to incinerate a building or a Humvee. For months they’d been coming, one after another, at the soldiers, the pilots speeding through the fields and streets like the War Boys of Mad Max, blazing forward in their clanking death machines, chasing suicidal glory.

They had killed some of the battalion’s best soldiers in this way. Of all the forces aligned against ISIS, the soldiers of the ICTF were its deadliest enemy. They were elite and attacked with the support of America’s air force and intelligence, but at the same time they were soldiers of Iraq. They were men like Ibrahim Abu Hamra, a.k.a. Red, the Humvee’s driver, a meaty sergeant with cream-colored skin and strawberry hair who looked Irish. He was a longtime ICTF soldier and new father who had managed to maintain the fiction to his wife that he worked a desk job. To my right, peering through the milky film of his reinforced window, was Mohamed al-Khabouri, who’d joined the battalion a decade earlier alongside his older brother. The brother had been killed years ago by ISIS’s predecessor, al-Qaeda in Iraq (AQI), which as far as Mohamed was concerned locked him into war with every iteration of the jihadists until it was finally done. He was prematurely bald, with owl-like eyes that gave him a haunted expression. The gunner, newer to the battalion, was no more in the Humvee than a voice from above and a dangling pair of legs.

Gunfire erupted at the head of the convoy, and then the air around me seemed to expand like a balloon and burst as the car bomb exploded. The gunners in the lead had destroyed it before it reached the Humvees. A little black dog ran past my window, moving quickly through the empty fields. Mortar rounds fell around the Humvee, the bombs whistling down and shrapnel punching into the metal armor. Out my window, the apartment buildings were getting closer. I saw another pickup truck speeding away from them, toward ISIS territory.

The convoy continued its slow progress until the first buildings of Tel al-Rayan appeared on the horizon, marking Mosul’s city limits. An armored buggy was driving up and down the column of Humvees, delivering Styrofoam boxes of fish and rice for lunch, when I heard a buzzing overhead. The soldiers who’d gathered around the buggy scattered. One grabbed his automatic rifle and fired into the air. There was a streak of white, an explosion, and then a soldier limping. Soon there were more—little consumer drones that ISIS had rigged to drop grenades. The men lashed out as if at a swarm of insects, running in circles and shooting wildly.

The same drones sold at Target or on Amazon were being used by ISIS to conduct surveillance and coordinate mortars and car bombs. I learned later that the coalition was trying desperately to stop the drones, to jam their communications, but ISIS had technicians too, and they kept changing the frequencies the drones were flying on, staying a step ahead. Both the soldier tasked with jamming the drones and the jihadist working to thwart him were American. The ISIS war was strange this way: two global armies battling at a vanishing point where the distant past seemed to blend with modernity. We were rolling into places that ISIS had dragged back to medieval times, and yet it was hard not to feel that they were also pushing toward the future, spreading their radical vision on social media and broadcasting their beheadings on YouTube in HD. ISIS preached a savage extremism that advocated an eye-for-an-eye code of justice, institutionalized rape, and promoted the taking of slaves. It was also making a sophisticated play in Western politics, infiltrating the refugees moving into Europe and betting that their attacks would fuel xenophobes and populists to help along the clash of civilizations ISIS preached. It was a war of GPS-guided missiles and advanced IEDs, and it was also a war of long-haired jihadists fighting men in skull masks as the two sides charged in their metal war machines.

It was also a war that, even as the ISIS caliphate neared its final days, would not find a clean ending. The group lost the final piece of its territory this spring, but had already evolved into a deadly underground insurgency intent on going after the U.S. allies who had fought them. Donald Trump came to office promising, like Barack Obama before him, to end U.S. military engagements in the Middle East, but his recent moves have been even more chaotic than anyone might have imagined during his first months in office. He announced this week that, in Syria, he will leave America’s Kurdish partners to their fate to face a potential invasion by their hostile neighbor across the border in Turkey. Iraq, after weeks of anti-government protests and violent crackdowns, has meanwhile entered a new period of uncertainty. A new round of fighting and instability could unleash a reinvigorated ISIS. It all brings to mind something an ICTF soldier told me during the battle for Mosul back in 2017: “When this movie ends, the next one will begin.”

You are my war club, my weapon for battle—with you I shatter nations ... 

This biblical passage, from the Book of Jeremiah, captures something, for me, of a war that could feel expansive in its stakes and in its age-old themes. There was the idea of a historic struggle promoted by both ISIS and its enemies, and the reality of suffering, and a swath of death and destruction from which people tried to draw meaning.

Jeremiah had prophesized that Jerusalem would be destroyed as punishment for idolatry. Then the Babylonian army had carried out God’s wrath. More vengeance was coming—now Babylon would be punished. But in these lines it’s unclear whom God is addressing. It could be Jeremiah, or the king of Babylon, or Cyrus of Persia, or the word of God itself, or something else. I had spent six years tracking the conflict as it built to its bloody climax in Mosul, from the first days of the Arab Spring, and I knew that all sides believed they walked on the side of God and that war was always justified this way.

... with you I destroy kingdoms, with you I shatter horse and rider, with you I shatter chariot and driver, with you I shatter man and woman, with you I shatter old man and youth.

The people I met around the war often based their stories on ideas like retribution and atonement. And their struggles played out in places like Sanliurfa, in southern Turkey, where I could meet ISIS-linked sources in a shopping mall and then walk a mile to a reflecting pool whose water is said to have touched the feet of Abraham. In Mosul, which had been home to some 2 million people, the war was waged around the tombs of the prophets Daniel and Jonah as air strikes thundered across the Nineveh Plains. Mosul was where ISIS had declared its caliphate and where defeat would signal the caliphate’s demise, and when soldiers said they were on the front lines of some deeper, global struggle, it seemed to blend with the history of the place. From the moment ISIS’s fighters had captured Mosul and declared themselves lords of a terrorist empire, the question was not whether it would fall but when. Their so-called caliphate was too crazy to last, and ISIS seemed to like it that way. The suspense was not about whether ISIS would win but how it might change the world before its cities fell, and how many of America’s allies it could kill along the way.

The battalion pushed into the edge of the city the next morning. This time our Humvee was first in the line. The gunner had his .50-cal cracking like a jackhammer as he strafed a rooftop from which we were taking fire. He was yelling down through the manhole, but it was hard to hear him above the din. On the street before us, laundry hung from a balcony, and a water tanker leaked from bullet holes. To the right, a second convoy was attacking the ISIS flank. Something exploded next to our Humvee, rocking it on its frame. The gunner kept pounding. Then there was an eruption from the second convoy. I saw its lead Humvee engulfed in oily black smoke and flames. It had been hit by an anti-tank missile, and all four soldiers inside it were dead. The vehicles behind it retreated. Some soldiers ran out from their Humvee with a medical kit, but they were hit by a mortar round. When the dust cleared, I could see one of them lying on the ground, waving for help. We rolled forward.

From there, time passed in a haze. One minute I was screaming at Jaff over the racket of the gun, and the next we found ourselves silently feeding chains of golden bullets to the gunner, as the fighting intensified, knowing we had displaced two soldiers who would otherwise have done the job. And then, during a lull in the battle, I was eating rice and beans from a Styrofoam lunch box.

As I ate, a man in green stepped out from behind a building at the far end of the street. An anti-tank rocket launcher rested on his shoulder. The Humvee’s gunner fired, and the man was gone. We waited for anxious minutes, scanning for any sight of him, until an air strike hit, collapsing the building he’d been hiding behind. The Humvee crept deeper into the neighborhood. From a rooftop, someone waved a white flag. Drones buzzed, and a grenade exploded on the metal roof above my head. Then Mohamed screamed, “Car bomb!”

“Where?” Red asked.

“Here!” Mohamed said. He was looking out his window. “Right here!”

Red kicked the Humvee into gear. The big tires had been shredded by bullets and shrapnel and were flat. He jammed his boot on the accelerator, and the Humvee moved slowly forward.

The gunner wasn’t firing. He ducked down from his turret and closed the hatch.

I could see the car bomb coming, less than 20 yards away and gaining on the Humvee. It was encased in a shell of armor that had been painted a gleaming white. The windshield was covered by a sheet of black steel, obscuring the driver.

It looks like a spaceship, I thought.

Just ahead was a dirt barricade, and with no other choice, Red gunned the Humvee into it. He pounded the gas, and the tires spun.

This post was excerpted from Mike Giglio’s forthcoming book, Shatter the Nations: ISIS and the War for the Caliphate.