In December 2001, when the war on terrorism was only weeks old, victory appeared at hand with the fall of Kandahar, the southern Afghanistan city Osama bin Laden had called home. Now that the question is how best to confront a fresh horror, it’s worth noting that the city was taken not by U.S. troops but by the same tag team that liberated the rest of the country: scruffy Afghan militias advancing in pickup trucks behind U.S. air strikes. As Christmas approached, there couldn’t have been more than 50 Americans in town, most of them Special Forces so at home in local clothes that they were easier to spot by the bumper stickers on their pickups: I ♥ NY. The rest of us were reporters haunting public venues like the central market, where one morning I noticed a man standing apart. He wore a black turban and a knowing look, both markers of the Taliban, and had a question. “Why didn’t you come on the ground?” he said. “It would have been lovely if you came on the ground.”
I knew what he meant, but not nearly as viscerally as I did two years later, in Iraq, where we came on the ground. Why we came at all is a bit of a mystery, but it was pretty clear pretty early that our physical presence created its own reality, armored up yet vulnerable both to labels–“occupier” at best, but also “crusader”–and constant ambush. “If you’re trying to win hearts and minds,” a Marine major told me in Najaf, “maybe sending 100,000 19-year-olds with machine guns isn’t the best way to go about it.”
Not massing U.S. troops in Afghanistan after 9/11 was a masterstroke, even if it came about mainly because the Pentagon lacked a ready war plan for the country that had sheltered bin Laden. It’s not just that Afghanistan has a way of swallowing armies. (Ask the British; ask the Russians.) There is an essential elegance to using what the military calls standoff weapons in a fight made infinitely more difficult by your actual presence. Which is why it’s fortunate that Americans have shown little appetite for a large-scale ground war against ISIS.
The group was, after all, spawned by the occupation of Iraq. Many of its leaders are veterans of the U.S. military prisons that turned out to double as universities for jihad. But their aim is no longer to expel the invader. Just the opposite. Now they want to lure us in. The fundamentalist narrative embraced by ISIS calls for a return of U.S. forces to Iraq, modern legionnaires fulfilling the role of “Rome” in the end-time narrative the group believes it has set in motion. It’s a millennialist vision as complicated as the Book of Revelation, but the U.S. role is pretty simple: show up. For anyone seeking a logic behind the gruesome decapitations of American journalists and aid workers, there it is–provoke a reaction.
The bloodletting does summon the associations of terrorism, barbarity and peril that have beset Americans for more than a decade now. But associations are almost all they are. To date, ISIS has demonstrated no particular ambition to attack the West at home. (That remains the raison d’être of al-Qaeda, whose Syria affiliate Jabhat al-Nusra harbors the elite al-Qaeda bombmakers dubbed the Khorasan group.) ISIS eyes another prize. Having declared a caliphate on the river valleys and desert land it has conquered in Syria and Iraq, it aims to turn the clock back to the 7th century. It functions both as a government and as a sectarian killing machine, slaughtering Shi’ites and many others in the name of purification.
To retain its sense of inevitability, however, ISIS must expand–something it’s been unable to do in Iraq since U.S. air strikes began in August. Recent growth, such as it is, has all been virtual, via pledges of fealty from existing jihadi groups in Sinai, Libya and other ungoverned dots on the map. The mother ship itself is hemmed in. Shi’ites and Kurds man the bulwarks to the east. To the west lie Syrian state forces that ISIS–nominally a rebel group–has mostly left alone.
What to do? The U.S. clearly has a national interest in preserving Iraq. (We broke it; we bought it.) But sending Americans back into Anbar and Saladin provinces would provide ISIS with pure oxygen and fresh waves of volunteers, while feeding the narrative that the U.S. is in a war against Islam. We have the planes, but this looks like a fight for guys in pickups who want to take their own country back.
Vick is a TIME editor at large and was previously the Jerusalem bureau chief