TIME Iraq

180,000 People Flee Western Iraq as ISIS Inches Ever Closer to Baghdad

Mideast Iraq
Iraqi civilians sift through rubble in the ruins of homes that were damaged by fighting after an attack from the Islamic State group, in the town of Heet, in western Anbar province, Iraq on Oct. 6, 2014. AP

The Sunni jihadist group has largely consolidated control over western Iraq as terrified civilians flee its advance

Iraqi security forces evacuated another military base in restive Anbar province on Monday in the face of an offensive by the Islamic State of Iraq and Greater Syria (ISIS).

The base is the latest in a string of military installations to fall into ISIS hands, according to CNN. Its abandonment comes less than two weeks after ISIS fighters captured nearby Heet on Oct. 2, which lies just 85 miles west of Baghdad.

“Our military leaders argued that instead of leaving those forces exposed to attacks by ISIS, they would be best used to shore up the defense of Asad air base,” a senior Iraqi security official told the Agence France-Presse.

On Monday, the U.N. said that an estimated 180,000 Iraqis have fled Heet since it fell earlier this month to the radical Islamist group, which continues to cleave away large swaths of the country’s Sunni heartland from central government control.

“The town was one of the few parts of the governorate where humanitarian aid has been delivered in recent months,” read a report released by the U.N.’s Office for the Coordination of Humanitarian Affairs. “This is the fourth major displacement in less than a year in Iraq.”

ISIS is currently believed to control 80% of Anbar province, which is home to a majority of Iraqi’s Sunni population.

Over the weekend, reports circulated that ISIS fighters had also infiltrated the suburb of Abu Ghraib on Baghdad’s outskirts that lies just 8 miles from the capital’s airport.

On Sunday, U.S. Joint Chief of Staff General Martin Dempsey made a candid admission that Apache helicopters were deployed earlier this month to prevent ISIS fighters from overrunning Iraqi security forces just 15 miles from the terminal.

“The tool that was immediately available was the Apache. The risk of operating in a hostile environment is there constantly,” Dempsey told ABC’s This Week.

“And had they overrun the Iraqi unit, it was a straight shot to the airport. So, we’re not going to allow that to happen. We need that airport.”

A U.S.-led coalition of nations continued to launch fresh air strikes against ISIS personnel and infrastructure in both Iraq and Syria this week; however, analysts say the aerial assaults have largely failed to reverse the group’s momentum on the ground.

TIME conflict

ISIS Defends Enslaving Women in New Magazine

A member loyal to the ISIL waves an ISIL flag in Raqqa
A fighter from the Islamic State in Iraq and Greater Syria (ISIS) waves a flag in Raqqa, Syria on June 29, 2014. Reuters

Article appears in the latest edition of its English-language online magazine

The militant group Islamic State of Iraq and Greater Syria (ISIS) appeared to defend its enslavement of women on Sunday in the latest edition of its English-language online magazine.

An article in the fourth issue of Dabiq said the practice of taking women and girls of the enemy is firmly established in the Quran and allowed under the strict laws by which they claim to abide. Anyone who criticized the group’s taking of women and girls as sex slaves, the article continued, would be criticizing Islam and mocking the Prophet Muhammed. Analysts and journalists, among others, began to parse out its contents on Twitter.

The publication came as Human Rights Watch (HRW) published an extensive report on ISIS’s sexual enslavement of women, specifically of the Yezidi minority in Iraq. The organization interviewed 76 Yezidis displaced in Duhok, Zakho, Erbil and other areas of Iraqi Kurdistan. They reported that ISIS was holding 366 of their relatives.

One 17-year old girl who escaped told HRW that a “big bearded man” picked her out from a group of detainees in Mosul. “You are mine,” he said.

TIME Syria

Kerry Says Kobani’s Fate Is Not Key to U.S. Strategy in Fighting ISIS

The Secretary of State calls the situation in Kobani a tragedy, but insists that the enclave does not “define” the American-led coalition’s battle plans

U.S. Secretary of State John Kerry said keeping Kobani out of ISIS’s hands was not the top priority for the coalition of nations bombarding the Sunni extremist group in Iraq and Syria.

He voiced concern over the potential fall of the besieged Kurdish enclave, also known as Ayn al-Arab, to extremist militants, but was quick to note that the city’s survival did not “define” the U.S.-led coalition’s strategy.

“Kobani is one community, and it’s a tragedy what is happening there,” Kerry told reporters during a press conference in the Egyptian capital, Cairo. “We have said from Day 1 it is going to take a period of time to bring the coalition thoroughly to the table to rebuild some of the morale and capacity of the Iraqi army and to begin to focus where we ought to be focusing first, which is in Iraq.”

Kerry’s admission comes as coalition forces steadily increase the number of air strikes targeting ISIS forces surrounding the conflict-torn city in northern Syria. If it falls under ISIS control, it will give the terrorist group a large strategic corridor running along the Turkish border.

U.S. Central Command confirmed launching three air strikes in Kobani on Sunday that “destroyed an [ISIS] fighting position and an [ISIS] staging area.” However, it appears the strikes have failed to reverse ISIS’s momentum.

Syrian Kurdish militia fighters, known locally as the Kurdish People’s Protection Units (YPG), have been battling thousands of heavily armed ISIS militants in and around Kobani for weeks. Despite exhibiting incredible tenacity, the YPG has steadily lost ground thanks to a lack of reinforcements and access to sophisticated weaponry.

Analysts have also expressed growing concern that the loss of Kobani to ISIS could reignite civil war in Turkey. Ankara continues to prevent thousands of Kurdish fighters and supplies from crossing the border into Syria — a move that sparked days of rioting across Turkey that claimed at least 33 lives.

Cemil Bayik, who helps lead the Kurdistan Workers’ Party (PKK), warned that the fall of Kobani would incite fresh insurrection in Turkey, during an interview with the New York Times published over the weekend.

“Negotiations cannot go on in an environment where they want to create a massacre in Kobani,” Bayik told the Times. “We cannot bargain for settlement on the blood of Kobani.”

The PKK, which backs the YPG, has kept a shaky cease-fire with Ankara since 2013, after three decades of bitter civil war.

Bayik went on to promise to “mobilize the guerrillas” if Turkish forces allowed a massacre to ensue after preventing Kurdish forces from entering the fight for the city. Human-rights groups and the U.N. have voiced similar concerns over an imminent humanitarian catastrophe.

If Kobani fell, up to “12,000 people, apart from the fighters, will be most likely massacred,” warned U.N. envoy Staffan de Mistura on Friday.

On Sunday, ISIS boasted, in an article published by its official propaganda outlet, of taking Yezidi women as slaves during the group’s conquest of northern Iraq in August.

Human Rights Watch (HRW) confirmed the admission by ISIS. “The group has systematically separated young women and teenage girls from their families and has forced some of them to marry its fighters,” said HRW in a statement published on Sunday.

TIME Iraq

60 Dead in Iraqi Suicide Bombings

Men wounded by a car bomb in Qara Qubah are transported to a hospital in Kifri, Iraq on Oct. 12, 2014.
Men wounded by a car bomb in Qara Qubah are transported to a hospital in Kifri, Iraq on Oct. 12, 2014. Reuters

The police chief of another province was also killed in a roadside bombing

Updated at 4:31 p.m. ET

More than 120 people were wounded and 60 people were killed after three suicide bombers targeted a group of government offices in the Iraqi province of Diyala on Sunday, authorities said.

Many of the people injured and killed were there in the district of Qara Taba in order to collect government subsidies for people who had been displaced or forced to leave their homes in other parts of the country, the New York Times reports.

The police chief of the province of Anbar was also killed Sunday after roadside bombs detonated as his vehicle passed. Authorities say Maj. Gen. Ahmed Saddag’s death sets back efforts to keep control of the province out of the hands of the extremist group Islamic State of Iraq and Greater Syria (ISIS), which has expanded its control throughout the country over the past few months.

The offices targeted in the suicide bombing included the mayor’s office, a building used by the local Kurdistan government’s security unit and a Patriotic Union of Kurdistan office.

[NYT]

TIME Military

Ex-Blackwater Chief Urges Hired Guns to Take on ISIS

Blackwater Founder & XE Worldwide Chairman Erik Prince Interview
Erik Prince, founder of Blackwater Andrew Harre—Bloomberg/Getty Images

If Obama won’t send in troops, he says, time to send in mercenaries

The man who founded and ran Blackwater—the company that sent thousands of private workers into Afghanistan and Iraq—says President Barack Obama should hire a mercenary corps to fight the Islamic State of Iraq and Greater Syria.

“The American people are clearly war-fatigued,” writes Erik Prince, now the chairman of Frontier Services Group, a company that provides logistical support for much of Africa. “If the Administration cannot rally the political nerve or funding to send adequate active duty ground forces to answer the call, let the private sector finish the job.”

Some Americans might be willing to write private fighters a check (Prince himself has reportedly been linked to developing a mercenary force for the United Arab Emirates). But Blackwater—which earned more than $1 billion in Iraq—shows the dangers inherent with subcontracting out war. Its guards killed 17 civilians in Baghdad in 2007; a jury continues to deliberate the fate of four ex-employees implicated in the shooting.

One of its top officials in the Iraqi capital allegedly threatened to kill a State Department employee who had questions about its contracts with the U.S. government. And U.S. military officers routinely grumbled about the lack of “unity of command” that Blackwater’s presence in Iraq created. But that wouldn’t be a problem if there were no U.S. troops around.

Prince sold Blackwater Worldwide in 2010. The company changed its name to Xe a year before he sold it, and changed it again, to Academi, in 2011. In June, Academi merged with rival firm Triple Canopy to form Constellis Holdings, Inc. Constellis’ board includes John Ashcroft, attorney general under President George W. Bush, Bobby Ray Inman, a retired admiral and former director of the National Security Agency, and Jack Quinn, counselor to President Bill Clinton.

Prince echoes many U.S. military officers when he says “the President’s current plan seems half-hearted at best.” Air power will not be able to go into Syrian towns like Kobani—which ISIS has been fighting to take for three weeks—and root them out. The militants increasingly are taking cover among civilians, knowing that the U.S. and its allies will not obliterate buildings where innocent civilians may be mixed in among the jihadists.

“Clearing operations ultimately fall to the foot soldier,” Prince writes, but those available aren’t capable of what needs to be done. The Iraqi army “is demonstrably inept after billions spent on training and equipping them.” The Kurds—including those defending Kobani—“now find themselves outgunned, under-equipped, and overwhelmed.”

Prince, a one-time Navy SEAL, doesn’t think much of the way his old service is waging the campaign:

Unfortunately, the DOD has mastered the most expensive ways to wage war, adding only very expensive options to the president’s quiver. Flying off of an aircraft carrier in the north end of the Persian Gulf may be a great demonstration of carrier air power suitable for a high tempo war, but the costs will quickly become staggering, far higher than they need be for what will quickly become a counter-insurgency effort.

The U.S., he implies, could save money by contracting out the ground war he believes is needed. “The private sector has long provided nations around the world with innovative solutions to national defense problems in a variety of ways, from the kinetic to the background logistical support necessary to keep militaries humming,” he writes. “If the old Blackwater team were still together, I have high confidence that a multi-brigade-size unit of veteran American contractors or a multi-national force could be rapidly assembled and deployed to be that necessary ground combat team.”

The Pentagon could hire such personnel “for their combat skills in armor, artillery, small unit tactics, special operations, logistics, and whatever else may be needed,” he adds. “A competent professional force of volunteers would serve as the pointy end of the spear and would serve to strengthen friendly but skittish indigenous forces.”

Prince warns whatever gains the U.S. has achieved in the wars it has fought since 9/11 hang in the balance:

Defeat [in Iraq] was already snatched from the jaws of victory by the rapid pullout of US forces in 2009. Afghanistan will likely go the same way after never truly defeating the Taliban. Now the danger of a half-baked solution in Iraq is that if ISIS isn’t rightly annihilated, they will portray their survival as a victory over the forces of civilization; thus, there is no room for half-measures. The longer ISIS festers, the more chances it has for recruitment and the danger of the eventual return of radical jihadists to their western homelands.

TIME Military

General Who Championed Air Power Challenges Pentagon on ISIS

Clashes between ISIL and Kurdish armed groups in Kobane
Smoke rising from the Syrian town of Kobani Thursday marks where clashes between its Kurdish defenders and ISIS attackers are underway. Emin Menguarslan / Anadolu Agency / Getty Images

Architect of U.S. air war in Afghanistan says U.S. strikes too limited

Once a United States military effort bogs down, as is now happening in the battle for the Syrian border town of Kobani, two things happen: Pentagon officials explain why what is happening should come as no surprise, and experts carp about how it is a surprise and could be done better.

Rear Admiral John Kirby, the Pentagon spokesman, explained Wednesday why the U.S. and its allies are basically powerless to stop the Islamic State of Iraq and Greater Syria (ISIS) from taking Kobani, which sits on Syria’s border with Turkey, and the 200,000 residents still living there. ISIS is now reported to control about a third of the town, half of whose population has fled to Turkey. “Airstrikes alone,” Kirby said, “are not going to . . . to save the town of Kobani.”

Them’s fighting words to air power advocates like David Deptula, a retired Air Force lieutenant general who ran the successful air campaign over Afghanistan in the opening months of the U.S. campaign there.

Deptula responded to Kirby’s comments in an overnight email from Australia:

The issue is not the limits of airpower, the issue is the ineffective use of airpower. According to [The Department of Defense's] own website, two B-1 sorties can deliver more ordnance than did all the strikes from the aircraft carrier Bush over the last six weeks. Two F-15E sorties alone are enough to handle the current average daily task load of airstrikes in both Iraq and Syria.

Wise analysts understand that those blaming airpower for not ‘saving Kobani’ are confusing the limits of ‘airpower’ with the sub-optimization of its application. One can see [ISIS] tanks and artillery . . . in the open on TV, yet the coalition forces for ‘Operation Un-named Effort’ are not hitting them. Airpower can hit those targets and many others, but those in charge of its application are not—that’s the issue—not the limits of airpower.

The airstrikes to date have been very closely controlled, tactical in nature, and reflect the way they have been ‘metered’ in Afghanistan. The process that is being used to apply airpower is excessively long and overly controlled at too high a command level. The situation in Iraq/Syria with [ISIS] is not the same as Afghanistan with the Taliban. What we are witnessing now is a symptom of fighting the last war by a command that is dominated with ground warfare officers who have little experience with applying airpower in anything other than a ‘support’ role.

The situation requires a holistic, complete, air campaign, not simply a set of ‘targeted strikes.’ It requires a well planned and comprehensive air campaign focusing on achieving desired effects at the operational and strategic levels of war.

The coalition should establish 24/7 constant overwatch, with force application on every element of [ISIS] leadership, key infrastructure, forces and personnel—apply unrelenting pressure day and night on [ISIS] throughout Syria and Iraq. Airmen have the capacity, equipment, training, tactics, and knowledge needed for this fight, but airpower needs to be applied like a thunderstorm, and so far we’ve only witnessed a drizzle.

Fighting words, indeed.

TIME faith

Meet the Iraqi Couple Attending Pope Francis’ Synod

Riyadh Azzu and Sanaa Habeeb Elizabeth Dias

The Synod bishops have already voted to send a letter of encouragement to Iraqi families

Baghdad has been home to Riyadh Azzu and Sanaa Habeeb for their entire lives. It is where they first met at church in 1969, married in 1976, developed their careers—he is an engineer, she is a pharmacist—and raised their son and daughter, who are now both doctors. Their part of town has long been an area where Christians and Muslims have peacefully coexisted. But now all that’s changing—Iraq’s economic, political, and religious turmoil, especially with the Islamic State of Iraq and Greater Syria’s (ISIS) attacks on minority Christian communities, is uprooting their lives.

This week Azzu, 61, and Habeeb, 60, are sharing their story with Pope Francis and the bishops gathered at the Vatican for the Extraordinary Synod of the Bishops on the Family, a special gathering of church leaders to discuss practical issues of marriage and family in the modern world. They are one of the fourteen couples appointed by the Holy Father to participate as auditors, a term for the non-voting attendees. On paper, their role is to serve as “witnesses of Christian family life in an Islamic context.” In person it is to witness to the larger story of the issues Christian — particularly Catholic — families face in the Middle East.

The couple previously represented Iraq with 10 other families at the 2012 World Meeting of Families in Milan. They are humbled by the opportunity to be the ones to share their story at the Synod, they tell TIME. They were likely selected because their English skills are good and they are regular church attendees, Habeeb says, but she added that lots of families deserve this honor. The two main issues are on their minds as they prepare to speak to the Synod fathers: the impact of war on Christians, and immigration’s role in fracturing the family.

Both are experiences they have lived firsthand. ISIS has driven more than 100,000 Iraqi Christians out of the country over the last few months. The June 11 assault of northern Iraq was a disaster for their community. While Azzu and Habeeb were relatively safe in Baghdad, they watched as fellow Christians were driven from cities like Mosul and are now living in tents and church yards. “That did it for us. They were people like us—they had good homes, good jobs, they were driven away just like that,” Habeeb says. “It’s like the 9/11 of Iraq.”

The pair’s family has been torn apart as conditions have worsened in recent years. Their distant relatives have all left the country. Their son moved to Michigan and is now an American citizen. Their daughter, who has a PhD in diagnostic imaging, and her husband, moved with their grandchildren to Germany to try to build a new life. “She has to start again, from zero,” Habeeb explains, talking about how many youth are leaving the country, in many cases along with older family members, which fractures the close family ties Arab countries have developed over centuries. “She had no future. It is a hopeless case, Iraq.”

For now, the couple is staying in Iraq, but they are considering a move to the United States with their son. The burden brought on by being required to pay religious taxes and not be able to openly celebrate Christian feast days and big holidays like Christmas is taking its toll. Many of their moderate Muslim friends have already left the country. Their own church, St. Joseph Chaldean Catholic, has shrunk to 200 families, compared to 2,000 families two decades ago.

The bishops at the Synod are aware of the challenges Christians in Iraq have been facing, and already voted to send a letter of encouragement to Iraqi families. In the midst of it all, Habeeb and Azzu are trying to bear testimony to their Catholic faith and to loving their neighbors, whether they be Muslim, Christian, or anything else. Church, they say, is what has sustained them and given them social community and friends. But they also recognize there are limits to what the Catholic Church can do to improve the situation.

“[The Church has] shown wonderful acts of solidarity, this is beautiful. They are making their voices heard in the world community . . . they are praying, there are contributing financially,” Habeeb says. “What else can they do? It is a moral voice.”

The U.S. and its military power is another matter. “It is [a] very slow reaction, they are saying it takes a lot of time, years maybe, I don’t know why,” Azzu says of the American response. “It is baffling,” Habeeb adds. “They say you people have to tackle their problems on your own, and they are right. . . . I’m sure our politicians are to blame also. . . . We had large expectations when America liberated us the first time, a beautiful sense of freedom. All of this disappeared.”

TIME Military

No Can Do: The Pentagon Explains Why It Can’t Save a Syrian Town

An allied air strike hits a hill in Kobani Wednesday near where ISIS fighters had planted their flag.
An allied air strike hits a hill in Kobani Wednesday near where ISIS fighters had planted their flag. Aris Messinis— AFP/Getty Images

Limits of air power and lack of allies on the ground doom Kobani

The U.S. military’s motto often seems to be “Can-do!” But the motto at Wednesday’s Pentagon briefing might as well have been “Can-dor”.

That’s because, as the building readied for a visit by President Obama, its spokesman made clear there is little the U.S. military can do to save the more than 200,000 people fighting for their lives in the Syrian town of Kobani, just south of the Turkish border.

It’s strange, as the U.S. war in Afghanistan enters its 14th year, that the U.S. public has this abiding faith that there is nothing the U.S. military cannot do. But it cannot defeat the jihadist fighters of the Islamic State of Iraq and Greater Syria as they storm Kobani, Rear Admiral John Kirby said.

“Time matters here,” Kirby told reporters at the Pentagon. That means that while the U.S. and its allies can do little for Kobanis now, they believe they will be able to help them later.

Kurdish leaders in Kobani fear a massacre if ISIS overruns Kobani. But the Pentagon seems unconcerned. “I know of no plans for a humanitarian relief mission in Kobani,” Kirby said. “Many of the residents have already fled.”

The U.S. has been restricted in its ability to battle ISIS for two reasons: it waited for months before taking action, and then—per Obama’s orders—it decided not to commit any U.S. ground troops to the fight. Even a small number of them on the ground in Syria and Iraq could be a major help in improving the lethality of air strikes.

Kirby’s comments about the reach of U.S. military power no doubt echoed what Obama heard later in the day when he met with the nation’s military leaders, including Defense Secretary Chuck Hagel, Army General Martin Dempsey, chairman of the Joint Chiefs, and Army General Lloyd Austin, who as head of U.S. Central Command is leading the fight against ISIS.

“There is a broad-based consensus, not just in the region but among nations of the world, that [ISIS] is a threat to world peace, security and order,” Obama said at the Pentagon. “Their barbaric behavior has to be dealt with.”

But the Pentagon spokesman took pains to explain that the limits of air power and the lack of allies on the ground in and around Kobani likely doom it to fall to ISIS. “Airstrikes alone are not going to do, not going to fix this, not going to save the town of Kobani—we know that,” he said. “We don’t have a willing, capable, effective partner on the ground inside Syria.”

The bombing in and around Kobani, while stepped up in recent days, is modest in scope. That, in part, is due to the fact that there are so few targets. “I’m counting 11 strikes just in the last two days,” Kirby said.

“It’s not like we’ve ignored the crisis around this town of Kobani,” he added. “We have hit some dynamic targets, smaller tactical targets there. And we do believe that they have had an effect on [ISIS] in and around that town. [ISIS] does not own Kobani right now.”

Kirby, a Navy surface warfare officer, explained what attacks from the sky can do on their own. “Airpower can have an initial effect on forcing them out of an area or denying them structure, whether it’s hard buildings, or the infrastructure of governance that they have, or revenue,” Kirby said. “You can deny some of that temporarily from the air, but it’s not going to be the long-term fix. The long-term fix is… going to be competent ground forces that can retake territory from them.” That’s more than a year away.

Sure, the U.S. could send in forces that could stop the onslaught, but it’s doubtful that Congress—or the public—would agree with such a move. They were spoiled by 1991’s Gulf War against Saddam Hussein, when a 43-day air campaign was followed by a four-day romp by U.S. ground troops. About 25,000 Iraqis died in the U.S.-led campaign to push them out of Kuwait, compared to 148 U.S. troops.

There’s only one real solution to the problems posed by ISIS, Kirby suggested. “What really has to happen, long term, is good governance in Iraq and good governance in Syria,” he said. “There is an element of strategic patience here that I think everybody needs to consider, all of us, all of you, the American people, everybody.”

Unlike faith in their military, however, strategic patience—or any kind of patience, for that matter—has never been an American trait.

TIME Military

Pentagon to Brief Obama on Grim Battle Against Jihadists

Smoke rises after an U.S.-led air strike in the Syrian town of Kobani, Oct. 8, 2014.
Smoke rises after an U.S.-led air strike in the Syrian town of Kobani, Oct. 8, 2014. Umit Bektas—Reuters

Commanders to tell Commander-in-Chief about tough fight to keep key Syrian border town out of ISIS hands

President Barack Obama is heading to the Pentagon Wednesday afternoon for an update on the battle against the Islamic State of Iraq and Greater Syria (ISIS), and he’s not going to like what he hears. The key Syrian town of Kobani is likely to fall to ISIS fighters in coming days, senior U.S. military officials will tell Obama—and there’s not a whole lot the U.S. and its allies can do to halt the ISIS victory or the expected bloodbath following its collapse.

“We’re not expecting any change to our strategy as a result of today’s meeting,” Pentagon spokesman Rear Admiral John Kirby said Wednesday afternoon shortly before the 3 p.m. ET session. “This is going to be a long, difficult struggle.”

An air offensive to protect Kobani from being overrun by ISIS totters on the verge of failure. Stepped-up allied air strikes and Kurdish defenders, armed with only small arms, are fighting up to 9,000 jihadists outfitted with tanks and rockets. But it seems to be too little, too late as ISIS’s black flags rose above an eastern neighborhood Monday and remained flying Wednesday. Kurdish officials have warned that ISIS militants would kill thousands if they prevail.

The fight for Kobani is a key test of a U.S. military strategy limited to air strikes, while its local allies on the ground in Iraq and Syria are proving ineffective or non-existent. Turkish troops with tanks are simply watching from across the border as the battle for nearby Kobani rages. Nearly half of the area’s 400,000 residents have fled to Turkey. U.S. officials are angry that Turkey, a NATO ally, has refused to do more to avert a slaughter, they say largely because of its bloody history with the Kurds. American officials are heading to Ankara to urge Turkish officials to do more.

The second piece of the U.S. strategy is training up to 5,000 moderate Syrian rebels a year to fight ISIS on the ground. But that’s a long-term gambit with no guarantee of success, because many of the rebels are more interested in fighting their three-year old civil war against Syrian strongman Bashar Assad than ISIS.

For now, the jihadists are doing their best to frustrate air strikes by abandoning key outposts and breaking into smaller units. They have given up little ground. The terrorist fighters are moving into civilian areas where they know the U.S. and its allies will not bomb—especially without hard intelligence from on-the-ground scouts they trust. Obama has refused to dispatch such spotters as part of his ban on U.S. ground troops in the conflict.

Obama will be meeting with Army General Martin Dempsey, chairman of the Joint Chiefs of Staff, who has told Congress he will ask Obama to dispatch U.S. ground troops—especially forward air controllers to call in air strikes—if Dempsey thinks it’s required. Kirby said the Pentagon would not be making such a request of Obama during Wednesday’s meeting.

The growing U.S. frustration has been evident as the U.S. ordered AH-64 Apache helicopters into action beginning Oct. 5 against militant targets in western Iraq. The low-and-slow gunship is better than a jet bomber for attacking moving targets. But that capability also makes its two crewmembers more vulnerable to ground fire. ISIS has shot down a pair of Iraqi choppers in recent days, killing all four pilots aboard.

TIME war

Stop Pretending Drone Warfare Is Casualty-Free for America

The Invisible Front
The Invisible Front

Yochi Dreazen is managing editor of Foreign Policy. His new book, The Invisible Front: Love and Loss in an Era of Endless War, is out today.

Make no mistake: U.S. troops may not die during the fight against the Islamic State, but there will be a human cost

President Barack Obama has been delivering a single message again and again in the weeks since U.S. warplanes started bombing Islamic State targets in Iraq and Syria: there will be no American boots on the ground in either country. Bombing the militants from the air rather than sending U.S. forces to fight them on the ground means that there is virtually no chance of U.S. casualties, which is crucial to maintaining the support of a war-weary American public.

But the White House is wrong to suggest that the current campaign will have no human costs. U.S. pilots may not get killed in combat or suffer physical wounds, but they aren’t immune to post-traumatic stress disorder and the other invisible wounds afflicting hundreds of thousands of veterans of the long wars in Iraq and Afghanistan. Quite the opposite: reams of military-funded research has found that growing numbers of the pilots flying both manned fighter planes and armed drones are suffering from PTSD and depression because modern technology gives them uncomfortably vivid views of the carnage that results from one of their airstrikes. Have no illusions about the current campaign: U.S. troops may not die or suffer grievous physical injuries during the fight against the Islamic State, but it will exact a human toll all the same.

Drone operators are being hit particularly hard, and understanding why means taking a closer look at what those responsible for wielding the Obama administration’s weapon of choice against militants around the world see and experience every time they pick up the controls. The drone pilots typically work out of windowless trailers at bases in Nevada and California, spending 12 hours at a time hunched over video screens beaming back high-resolution imagery—better and clearer that what the average American watches on an HD TV—of the people and vehicles moving on the ground thousands of miles away. They track their targets for days or weeks before pulling the trigger. And that’s when, researchers say, the problems really start.

The results of the growing number of studies examining what long-distance war does to those who fight it are stark and striking. An Air Force survey in 2011 found that 41% of the Air Force personnel operating the unmanned aircrafts’ advanced surveillance systems reported “high operational stress,” along with 46% of those actually piloting the robotic planes.

The survey’s findings on post-traumatic stress disorder, one of the worst psychological maladies of the long wars in Iraq and Afghanistan, were just as striking. It concluded that 7% of the drone crews were in danger of developing PTSD, roughly half the proportion of troops returning from actual combat (the civilian rate is about 5%). PTSD is linked to depression and anxiety and is thought to be the primary reason for the military’s record suicide rate.

Last year, a study by the Armed Forces Health Surveillance Center found that drone operators were at “similar risk” for mental health issues like PTSD, depression, and anxiety as the pilots of the manned warplanes and other aircraft flying over Iraq and Afghanistan from bases in the two war zones because they were experiencing — even from the safety of their trailers thousands of miles away — “witnessing traumatic experiences” like the deaths of U.S. troops or the militants they had just killed by pulling a trigger on what looks like a video game joystick.

To understand what that means in human terms, consider the story of former Airman First Class Brandon Bryant, who flew drones over Afghanistan. In searing interviews with GQ, Bryant described the strange intimacy of using infrared cameras to watch the purported militants he was tracking as they went about their daily lives: having sex with their wives on the rooftops of their houses or playing soccer with their children. Then he would pull his trigger, and some of those the men would disappear in a flash of white flame.

“The smoke clears, and there’s pieces of the two guys around the crater. And there’s this guy over here, and he’s missing his right leg above his knee. He’s holding it, and he’s rolling around, and the blood is squirting out of his leg, and it’s hitting the ground, and it’s hot,” Bryant told the magazine, remembering one strike. It took him a long time to die. I just watched him.”

Another time, Bryant was using his drone to fly over a convoy of Humvees traveling down a dusty road in a blood-soaked stretch of Iraq, looking out for possible buried bombs. He spotted something suspicious, but a communications problem prevented him from being able to warn the Humvee commander on the ground. He watched, powerless to help, as a bomb tore through one of the vehicles, killing three soldiers and wounding several others.

The vivid imagery of the deaths he’d caused and seen sent Bryant over the edge. He drank so much whiskey and Coke that he would pass out and sleep in a parking lot near his hometown. Once, his mother woke up to discover that he had left a loaded semi-automatic pistol. She immediately worried he was getting to the point where he would take his own life. He began to seek help and was quickly diagnosed with PTSD. Therapy eventually pulled him back from the brink, but it had been a close call.

Bryant’s invisible wound is all-too-common among the pilots flying manned and unmanned warplanes in war zones. The White House has been deliberately vague about how long the current campaign against the Islamic State will continue, but has warned that it could take years. That means America’s pilots will be at war for a long time to come, even if America’s ground troops are not. Those pilots may never set foot in Iraq or Syria, but they could become casualties of war all the same.

 

Yochi Dreazen is managing editor of Foreign Policy. He covered the wars in Iraq and Afghanistan for The Wall Street Journal and has reported from more than 30 countries. His new book, The Invisible Front: Love and Loss in an Era of Endless War, is out today.

TIME Ideas hosts the world's leading voices, providing commentary and expertise on the most compelling events in news, society, and culture. We welcome outside contributions. To submit a piece, email ideas@time.com.

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