Senior US and Iraq officers say the 15-year fight isn’t quite finished and they need to ensure that another ISIS can’t rise.
BAGHDAD, Iraq — Not yet. The war isn’t over, yet.
ISIS isn’t defeated, yet. The U.S. shouldn’t leave, yet. Fifteen years on, and Iraq still isn’t done, yet.
But where are we? What’s left to do? And will anything be different this time around?
“I honestly don’t know,” says Col. James Kaio. An officer in the New Zealand Army, Kaio is in charge of training Iraqi forces for the ISIS war, better known as Operation Inherent Resolve. But he was one of about a dozen senior U.S., Iraq, and coalition commanders here who gave a strong view of Iraq’s immediate security future, if perhaps less so of the country's political future.
In January, U.S. Central Command’s Gen. Joseph Votel, the general in charge of American troops from Syria to Afghanistan, and USAID Administrator Mark Green traveled through the country with a small staff delegation and two reporters. Green said he came along to witness “this moment in history.” Like the outside world, most of the group seemed more interested in the fate of Syria, where Americans, Russians, ISIS, Assad, Turkey, and the Kurds continue to fight. In Baghdad, the conversations were largely about winding down the war and what comes next. U.S. and Iraqi officers, aid workers, and diplomats are doing their best — with fewer resources and guidance from Washington — to forge a new peace for a unified Iraq amid familiar political and ethnic divisions.
It was my third “end of the Iraq war” visit to Baghdad in eight years. It’s been a decade and a half since the American invasion toppled Iraqi dictator Saddam Hussein and sent the country into a tailspin of violence and chaos that killed tens of thousands and spawned a new generation of extremists. The commute to drive from the airport to the embassy still entails body armor and armored trucks.
“What is going to be different? I’m not convinced that anything in the short term is going to be different,” Kaio said, inside a headquarters conference room.
He’s not alone. Critics and veterans of the conflict in Washington complain that nothing changes in Iraq (or Afghanistan, for that matter) and that the fighting just continues with no end.
It is different, though. The Iraq project is a long way from finished, but this is not 2003. It’s not 2006, when the U.S. troop surge started, or 2010, when major combat operations ended, or 2011, when President Obama ordered all U.S. troops withdrawn after Iraqi leaders refused to keep them.
“This time, in Iraq, they are focused like a laser beam never to let something like ISIS happen again,” Lt. Gen. Paul Funk told us in his headquarters office. The highest-ranking American officer in country, Funk commands Combined Joint Task Force – Operation Inherent Resolve.
Funk and other coalition commanders told us that Iraq’s combat-experienced forces today are better trained and more loyal than the ones that fled the ISIS advance in 2013, and their leaders are trying to reorganize and institutionalize security forces for the post-war years.
“Now we’re at a point where the Iraqis have some choices to make,” said Maj. Gen. Robert White, who leads Combined Joint Forces Land Component Command – Operation Inherent Resolve. Iraqis first must decide their priorities, including where to assign forces, how many to keep committed to the counterterrorism campaign, and how many to start sending through a reorganization of the three main bodies of Iraq’s security forces: the Iraq army, the counterterrorism service, and the federal police. Once defense leaders convince the government of those plans, Iraq needs new agreements with the U.S. and other nations deploying troops here.
“Those are the discussions that I think are ongoing, at this level and above with the ministers, and back to the host nations,” White said.
That’s the obvious difference from 2011: Iraqi commanders actually want American troops to stay, especially for training and intelligence support. Kaio noted another thing that’s new: He’s seen Iraq’s higher ranks pull different organizations and ethnic bands together for the combined (multinational) and joint (multi-service branch) operation. They haven’t seen that before, the New Zealander said, with officials spread across different security agencies, trusting each other. As a result, coalition leaders are seeing more Iraqi “commanders w battlefield experience being promoted, we think, on merit rather than allegiances that may have occurred a few years back. Whether that will continue, one would hope so. I’m not sure, though, because they’ve got to set all these other institutions in place.”
“Quite frankly,” interjected Col. Ryan Dillon, lead coalition spokesman at Baghdad, “the difference between what we have seen over the last three years is Iraqis fighting and dying and going up against Daesh, and building up all these capabilities, and getting this experience compared to what we’ve seen in the past.”
Indeed, the Americans were eager to display a new comity between the leaders of Iraq’s various security forces. Three of Iraq’s top generals — leaders of the nation’s army, elite counterterrorism forces, and the national police force — had agreed to meet together with American press at the operational headquarters. “This never happens,” they told us.
What the Iraqi generals had to say over the course of an hour was at once encouraging and unsettling. Clearly aware of Iraq’s second chance, they sounded ready to move on and move forward. In a secret basement conference room, behind checkpoints, concertina wire, and fortified walls, Iraq’s generals have hope. What they want is simple: They want American troops to stay, indefinitely, and help keep a lid on any post-ISIS troubles. And there are troubles.
Related: What Are We Doing In Iraq, Anyway?
In Washington, the few national leaders who are still watching Iraq seem to have little faith that Iraqis can get it right. Sandwiched between the political poles of Iran and Saudi Arabia, American observers warn of a fractured and weak central state and Prime Minister Haider al-Abadi’s ability to lead it. Kurdistan’s referendum vote on independence last fall tested Iraq’s national fabric. Baghdad’s response left Kurds humiliated. Iraq is barely holding together, if you believe the critics, and the U.S. doesn’t know what to do about it. If the problem is not Iran, allegedly propping up Iraqi leaders like a puppeteer’s hand, then it’s the pesky Kurds or the lingering extremists who keep signing up for al-Qaeda, or ISIS, or the next ISIS lurking in the shadows.
That’s not the Iraq these generals see.
“We gave so many martyrs and casualties, thousands of them — and more of them from middle and south area of Iraq so they can liberate the north and western areas of Iraq — so that Iraq can stay as one,” said Staff Lt. Gen. Abdul-Ameer Yarallah, commander of the Mosul campaign and deputy of the Combined Joint Operations Center, through an interpreter. “Our country is one, and our plan is one, and inshallah, we’ll stay as one unified country.”
One measure of that unity is Yarallah’s eagerness to embrace the controversial Iranian-backed Popular Mobilization Forces militia, or PMF. Trump’s Secretary of State Rex Tillerson dismissed the militias in October, drawing scoffs at the time.
“They will become a military institution,” Yarallah said, alongside the army, federal police, and the counterterrorism forces. The three generals are working now with the defense ministry to change the law to make it official, he said. “What I’m trying to say is the PMF is an entity that exists in Iraq. We cannot cancel that. But it is a main force, one of the main forces, like the three other forces, and I think personally that they gave big sacrifices, and they were good cooperatives in achieving the victory — and they worked for three years, also, either with the FedPol, the Army, or the CTS. And it unified them, also. So we think their presence is a necessity, but they need to reconstruct themselves and reorganize.”
The general rejected Washington’s worries about a meddling Iran. “What distinguished us in Iraq is we defended our country, and we gave martyrs and casualties. It was not Iran or [any group] other than Iraq who were fighting instead of us, for Iraq. And nobody can interfere with the reorganizing. This is internal,” he said. “This is out of their business. Iran, whatever they are, they were a good help for the PMF; they were backing up [the PMF with] arms and ammunition.”
Yarallah said it no longer matters to him that Iraqis in the regular army were backed by the United States while Iraqis fighting in the PMF militias were backed by Iran. “Either way, the victory of the people was achieved 100 percent with the support of [U.S.-led] coalition forces and Iran.”
Some U.S. commanders more accurately described the fighting as down to “a simmer.” They’re no longer targeting large formations, or “battalions in black pajamas running and chanting.” But ISIS lurks.
“The Iraqi Security Force still kills bad guys almost every day. Just not scores of them,” said one senior U.S. military official at the compound, who spoke only on background. “To say that the threat is gone would be to completely misrepresent what’s going on. It’s gone to ground. It’s dispersed. It’s harder to find, right? I mean, they’re there. Many times you’ll only find them through reaction. You know, the Iraqi Security Force acts, [ISIS] move, and then it’s like, ‘There they are.’"
Out here, nobody is declaring victory, despite President Donald Trump’s wish for it.
“I think there’s danger in being too digital about it. You know what I mean? As if all of the sudden it was bad and then all of the sudden we woke up one morning and they were defeated. It’s not like that,” the senior U.S. military official said. “Their active military — thier physical territory, caliphate, in terms of — they don’t hold ground, per se, but they’re not gone. So yeah, I think it would be a mistake to equate the defeat of the physical caliphate with the elimination of ISIS. Because they’re not eliminated. They’re here. We were chasing them around last night.” What were U.S. forces doing that night? Oh, it was nothing special, he said. “Ordinary work.”
At some point, too, terrorists become mere criminals, and it’s no longer a military mission to chase criminals, Lt. Gen. Funk has told his commanders.
“We're not here crime-fighting,” the senior military official said. “We’re here killing ISIS. But then there’s some ISIS criminals running around. ...Yes. All the traditional hot spots still exist. There’s still some bad dudes in Ramadi. There’s bad dudes in Fallujah. There’s lots of bad dudes in Diyala.” All of the traditional pockets of violent extremism in Iraq did not just flip to the good guys, he said. “There’s still problems. …peace did not just break out everywhere, to be sure.”
Indeed, U.S. and Iraqi commanders argued American troops should stay in Iraq because they are needed to counter the lingering ideological ISIS and threat of a new insurgency here in Iraq and the rest of world.
“The ideology exists,” White said, and is expected to spread to other regions for decades. “We all recognize that there is intent to do harm, not just to Iraqis, but globally. And if those guys can find space to sort of settle themselves in and develop the capacity to export that violence elsewhere, you know, they’re going to do that. So, part of what the Iraqis have done is not just help themselves, they’ve helped the world.”
Lots of commanders spoke with concerned tones about the frankly non-military mission of countering extremist ideology they want to see follow their combat gains. Votel practically begged for global attention, after visiting the old ISIS capital of Raqqa, in Syria. For now, coalition forces now are watching for ISIS nodes to emerge across Iraq and try to connect into a new network. Iraqi forces have been returning to places like Ramada, Fallujah, and Mosul to round up or put down resurging ISIS elements, so that there will be no ISIS 2.0.
“Insurgency would be one way to describe it” if it materializes, White said. “Once an insurgency is set somewhere, all the conditions are ripe for them to develop to capability to export that violence elsewhere. As long as the Iraqis are successful to fight ISIS within the borders of Iraq the less chance there is the violent will be exported from Iraq…that’s why it’s important we continue to help them out.”
Funk said later, in his office, ISIS’s attempts to form networks were only “aspirational.”
“I think they would like it to be an underground insurgency. I don’t think they can get there,” he said.
“I think if you actually call it an insurgency, they would have the capability to be conducting more attacks than they are conducting right now. But they’re in such disarray and dismantled that the level of violence, it’s very minimal comparatively over the historical norms here in Iraq,” said Maj. Gen. James Jarrard, who leads special operation forces in Iraq and Syria. “Some folks try to call it an insurgency, but I don’t see it right now.”
“We think that we are able to control them and eliminate them,” Iraq’s Lt. Gen. Yarallah said. “What matters is the ideology of ISIS is still there, so we need a plan at the level of the [whole] government that we should eliminate the ideology of ISIS, and we think this is more than our responsibility.”
Yet when asked how long into the future they’re planning, or what guidance they have received from the Trump administration, Pentagon or White House officials for the future, many commanders gave blank stares. Kaio’s training command had just solidified their joint training plan with Iraq for the year, but not beyond. Combat commanders seem to be operating night-to-night until someone tells them to stop.
The fact is there’s no known mission end for Iraq, yet. Top commanders, waiting to be told by Washington to get bigger or smaller, just keep going. And that’s the worry of Americans back home, who largely marked the invasion’s 15th anniversary — if they noted it at all — by wondering what the U.S. is still doing there, and how long it’ll last.
“We need to be very careful about rushing to the exit, and secure this win,” said the senior U.S. military official. “This is a significant win. With a good partner. We should be careful about rushing to the exit…and inadvertently giving something away that was difficult to win and then not placing enough value in it, as we seek the next thing — whatever that is.”