Just as you sometimes see geese flying south even before the weather breaks, it’s the small signs that often portend the larger transformations. And so it is in the Middle East. In late October, reports began to filter out from Mosul that young men were shaving their beards. Styles were changing, not through the world of fashion but rather through the fortunes of war.
In many places, the beard is the sign of the committed jihadist. It’s so common, in fact, that when a family describes their son’s descent into violence, his growing of a beard is often on the checklist of symptoms. He prayed on schedule and without fail, he went on the hajj, he memorized vast sections of the Koran, and he grew his beard. Shaving the beard is the shedding of an identity, done to conceal one’s true nature — or to signal a changing allegiance.
Indeed, one of the keys to understanding the Middle East is discerning which of our enemies are true enemies — the committed, believing jihadists — and which are opportunists. Or, more accurately, survivors. When the price of losing is death, the truly savvy learn to abandon ship at just the right moment. When I deployed to Iraq, my commander illustrated this reality with a simple question: “In a room of 100 people, what do you call the man with the gun?” The leader.
In other words, our lasting enemy was the committed jihadist, the “man with the gun.” Our temporary enemy was the frightened survivor, the man who joined the side he thought would win. Show him that he’s wrong, and he might actually switch sides.
America benefited from this phenomenon during the 2007 troop surge in Iraq, when Sunni tribes either came off the sidelines or switched sides en masse, backing U.S. soldiers and Marines over al-Qaeda. They allied with U.S. forces not so much because they’d been convinced of the bankruptcy of jihadist theology as because they discerned that America was the “strongest tribe” (as Bing West so memorably relates in his book of that name). The result was a messy victory based less on political reconciliation than on brute force.
America is on the verge of another messy victory in Iraq — messier in many ways than the last. A combined force that cobbles together American air power and American advisers with a fragile alliance of Iraqi-government forces, Shiite militias, and Kurdish peshmerga is slowly encircling Mosul, trapping its ISIS remnant, and attempting to drive the Islamic State from its last Iraqi stronghold.
It’s not an overstatement to note that this offensive — if executed properly — gives America a second chance to win the Iraq War. If and when ISIS is driven from Mosul, it will suffer its first truly catastrophic military defeat — one that it cannot mitigate through pinprick terror attacks abroad. It has been in retreat for months, but until now it has securely held two significant cities, Raqqa in Syria and Mosul in Iraq, which allowed it to create something that loosely resembled a jihadist nation-state.
Ejecting it from Iraq will reduce ISIS in many ways to being just another Syrian militia, render its claim to govern an actual caliphate a sad joke, and possibly strain its ties with allied militias in North Africa and Southwest Asia. After all, they signed on to the ISIS brand when it was ascendant. If a successful Iraqi offensive — combined with continued pressure in Syria and escalating pressure against ISIS strongholds in Libya — sends the message that ISIS is in sharp decline, then expect barbers to do a brisk business in Syria, the Sinai, Libya, and beyond.
In the near term, the outlook is good. The Obama administration has indicated that it has no intention of ending the fight against ISIS until the group is routed in its remaining Syrian strongholds, and that means a continued, decisive American military presence. With Special Forces, artillery, and advisers on the ground, along with the might of the Air Force in the air, we are, once again, the strongest tribe.
The fight for Mosul represents the culmination of one of the more curious (and quiet) military engagements in recent American history. After intervening with aerial attacks that helped save both Erbil and Baghdad from the ISIS blitzkrieg in 2014, the Obama administration has (very) slowly ramped up American military commitments largely without any meaningful congressional — much less public — debate.
Indeed, Americans largely learn of each escalation through a back-page story when something goes wrong. We learned Special Forces were engaged in direct ground combat when a soldier died in an Iraqi raid. We learned we had artillery assets on the ground when a Marine died in an ISIS rocket attack. We learn of expanding air strikes when news of civilian casualties filters into the outside world.
In June 2014, Obama ordered 275 troops into Iraq to assist in the fight against ISIS. Now the number has grown to at least 4,460 as the Second Brigade Combat Team (BCT) of the 101st Airborne Division has taken up its positions in support of the drive to Mosul. Indeed, that number may well be higher, because the Pentagon has proven resourceful in using troop-rotation schedules and other means to boost the actual number of deployed soldiers above the publicly announced numbers. Troops on various short-term assignments often aren’t counted in the announced total.
Senator John McCain has called these deployments a form of “grudging incrementalism that rarely wins wars but could certainly lose one.” In this instance, however, it looks as if incrementalism will soon yield a rare win — at least in Iraq. The initial, tiny deployments were enough to stop ISIS. The larger deployments are helping roll it back, and as ISIS faces battlefield pressures in Syria, it simply doesn’t have the resources to counter allied gains.
The result should soon be a battlefield victory that leaves allied forces in control of every significant Iraqi population center, with American forces back on the ground in Iraq in sufficient numbers at least to block any foreseeable counterattack. (There is not a single combat force in the Middle East outside the Israel Defense Forces that can match an American BCT with associated air support.)
That’s the good news. But next comes the uncertain future. Although we are strong, we haven’t deployed a fraction of the force that allowed us not just to take and hold ground in Iraq in 2007 but also to impose a level of control while we worked out an orderly transition of power. In other words, we’ve deployed enough force to guarantee that our allies win, but not necessarily enough force to exert our will. We are relying on a collection of Shiites, Sunnis, Kurds, and Turks to work out a shaky truce or (one can dream) a temporary agreement carving reconquered land into new zones of influence and control.
And the competing interests can be dizzying in their complexity and sobering in their mutual hostility. For a brief time, post-war, post-withdrawal Iraq was drifting toward becoming a virtual Iranian client state, with talk of a new Russian, Syrian, Iraqi, and Iranian axis dominating the Middle East. Despite renewed American influence, Iran has not given up its designs on Iraq and is — as always — playing the long game.
The Kurds have been our most steadfast allies, but undying Turkish and Arab hostility toward them means that American support for the Kurds strains relationships not just with our NATO partner Turkey but also with the same Arab governments and tribes that we need to maintain Iraq in at least nominal alliance with the United States. Leaving the Kurds defenseless is unthinkable. Granting their ultimate desires for independence could further destabilize the Middle East. The result is a continued, uneasy limbo — with Kurds enjoying a high degree of autonomy in Iraq but without the security that comes from formal recognition and real alliances.
Compounding the challenge is the dawning realization that national boundaries mean less than they did when strongmen ruled Syria, Iraq, and Iran with iron fists. A map of influence in northern Syria and northern Iraq looks like a pizza carved by a drunk man — with lines crossing and curving crazily across the pie.
In other words, the Obama administration is likely to leave its successor with a military victory and a diplomatic morass. And since the administration has failed to outline any kind of long-term military strategy or realistic diplomatic endgame, Americans have been left with a series of strongly held but often inconsistent ideas. They are weary of long-term deployments to the world’s most dysfunctional region, but they also hate ISIS with a burning passion. They recoil from large-scale humanitarian catastrophes but also from large-scale migration to the U.S. from Middle East conflict zones.
The next president must understand that simply declaring victory and going home (again) will likely result in history’s quickly repeating itself, with allies turning on one another, jihadists growing back their beards, and Iran and Vladimir Putin waiting in the wings, eager to exploit emerging tactical and strategic advantages. The next administration has to remember that power vacuums are always and everywhere filled, and, given the paucity of true friends in the Middle East, when America retreats, it is almost always our enemies who advance.
It is to the Obama administration’s credit that when it faced a catastrophe similar in scale to that faced by the Ford administration and Congress when Saigon was threatened in 1975, it responded with air strikes and not evacuations. And in so doing it stopped an avoidable disaster from becoming a historic defeat. So now we stand on the verge of yet another decisive victory in Iraq. Will our leaders fail us again?
There are few things more bittersweet than reading and watching news of our allies’ advance. This advance carries with it the memories of American sacrifices of the all-too-recent past. Even now, Iranian-backed Shiite militias — toting American-made weapons — are advancing toward the city of Tal Afar, taken from al-Qaeda at great cost in 2005, during one of the most intense urban battles of the war. Iraqi special forces are preparing to enter the very sections of Mosul that elements of my own regiment, the Third Armored Cavalry Regiment, fought and bled for during the surge. As each city is reconquered, Americans need to be reminded that there was a time when we held that ground, when we dictated terms, and when we had a chance to achieve a degree of stability.
And while we can win the same fights a second time, there are still many things broken beyond repair. The ISIS genocide of Christians and other religious minorities has claimed tens of thousands of lives. ISIS has been granted two years to control the education and development of Mosul’s young people, leaving behind an unknown number of youthful radicals who — beard or no beard — are primed to wage war against our allies and, ultimately, against us.
Moreover, the Obama administration’s decision to follow up its holding action with an agonizingly slow counterattack has allowed ISIS to spread its influence far beyond its Iraqi and Syrian “homeland.” Swift action could have meant that there was no ISIS in Libya, the Sinai, and the great cities of Europe. Having granted it not just a few glorious months of victory but rather years of psychological dominance, Americans and their allies are likely to continue to reap a whirlwind of terror and instability.
The Obama administration’s overriding concern was avoiding American combat casualties as it de-escalated the War on Terror. Yet absent surrender, it is impossible to end a war unilaterally. The enemy always has a vote, and in the Middle East, Afghanistan, and North Africa, the enemy voted to keep fighting. As a result, Obama will leave office with a war that has re-escalated. In recent weeks, American warships have fired missiles into Yemen, Americans have died in both Iraq and Afghanistan, and Americans are treated to the terrible sight of terrorist Shiite militias driving American tanks in Iraq while operating in alliance with Iran.
The lessons are clear but painful to apply. As the Syrian civil war demonstrates, what happens in the Middle East rarely stays confined to the Middle East. As the collapse of Iraq after the 2011 American withdrawal demonstrates, the region is inherently unstable without a stronger, guiding hand. And as terror attacks from Chattanooga to San Bernardino to Orlando demonstrate, the lack of combat casualties abroad does not mean that American blood isn’t still flowing and that the war can’t come home.
When Mosul falls, American troops must not come home. Instead, the next administration must seize the second chance to get Iraq right. Keep a brigade on the ground. Retain the overwhelming air advantage. Stay the strongest tribe. That’s the only way to keep the barbers busy and the opportunists and survivors on our side.