On the morning of May 17, U.S. soldiers file into a converted wing of the international airport in the northern Iraqi city of Erbil. The occasion is a Transfer of Authority ceremony, held whenever one group of soldiers rotates out and hands the reins to another. This one has the awkwardly forced feeling of an office party, only with enormous geopolitical stakes.
The Americans aren’t the social problem. They chat with one another as an Army brass quartet plays swing tunes. The tension rises from the Iraqis, who arrive in two distinct groups. One group–officers of the army that lost a large fraction of the country’s territory to ISIS in the jihadi group’s 2014 blitz–answers to the central government in Baghdad. The other group are Kurdish fighters, who answer to the semiautonomous regional government that was crucial to stopping ISIS’s advance. But a common enemy has not engendered mutual respect. General Sirwan Barzani, a veteran Kurdish commander, nods toward the officers in the Iraqi army, which has been criticized for its pace in retaking territory. “The best army in the world,” he says sarcastically. “Three months to liberate one village.”
Small wonder that when U.S. Colonel Scott Naumann, the commander of troops from the exiting 10th Mountain Division, begins his address, the talk is of a glorious past. Naumann compares his troops’ efforts to help Iraqi forces cross the Tigris–a key step toward loosening ISIS’s grip on the region–to the division’s legendary push toward northern Italy’s Po River in the final months of World War II. That action more than 70 years ago, Naumann says, represented “a significant transition in a campaign to defeat a brutal enemy in a faraway land.”
The campaign pushes on. The U.S. military’s role in Iraq in 2016, of course, is supposed to be nothing like it was even 10 years ago here, when more than two American soldiers, on average, were dying each day. Yet there are now officially 4,087 U.S. troops in Iraq, supporting the campaign against ISIS. It’s the biggest military presence in the country since President Obama completed the withdrawal of American forces from Iraq in 2011, and the true number is likely larger, owing to the presence of special-operations forces, contractors and other undeclared U.S. troops. The American soldiers are at risk: three have been killed since last fall as part of the campaign, most recently Navy SEAL Charlie Keating IV, who was killed in a gun battle with ISIS forces on May 3.
No one doubts that the U.S. is at war with ISIS. Although he acted on his own, Orlando shooter Omar Mateen made a pledge during the massacre to “Abu Bakr al-Baghdadi of the Islamic State”–the leader of ISIS. CIA Director John Brennan, testifying to Congress just a few days after Mateen killed 49 people, warned that ISIS “is training and attempting to deploy operatives for further attacks.” Obama, while highlighting the efforts of Iraqi forces, emphasized the military steps the U.S. had taken against ISIS, including deploying additional special forces and launching thousands of airstrikes against the terror group. “Our mission is to destroy [ISIS],” Obama said.
But the Americans–as the Americans themselves are the first to point out–are not in charge of the campaign against ISIS in Iraq. The U.S. boots on the ground–and the power in the air–are there to support the local forces meant to be doing the fighting. “I wrote my campaign plan in direct support of [the Iraqi] campaign,” says General Gary Volesky, the overall commander of U.S. forces in Iraq. “We’re not in the lead of this.”
Which leaves Iraq–or rather, the myriad and sometimes conflicting forces on the ground in Iraq: the Iraqi government army, the Kurds and Shi’ite-dominated militias–to do the leading. But as two weeks of on-the-ground reporting near the front lines in northern Iraq show, absent a massive U.S. redeployment to the region–which Obama has ruled out–military victory against ISIS will be achieved only when those local groups are able to come together to create a unified political alternative to the jihadist group’s caliphate.
Nowhere is that more true than in the northern city of Mosul, the regional capital of more than 1 million Sunni, Shi’ite Arab and Kurdish Iraqis, which ISIS seized in June 2014, and where many of the country’s underlying political disputes over territory, resources and influence remain unsettled. Mosul–the largest city conquered by ISIS and a key source of prestige for the group–is a test case for the larger effort to rebuild the sectarian, ethnic and political ties in Iraq whose destruction after the U.S. invasion helped lead to the rise of ISIS.
While some progress has been made–the Iraqi army has all but retaken the central city of Fallujah–the military campaign to destroy ISIS is constrained by the country’s deep political divides. For the soldiers on the front lines, that’s turned the long campaign to recapture Mosul into a long exercise in waiting.
On a ridge line east of Mosul, Kurdish troops look directly down onto the city, a mass of gray buildings set against the brown of the plain below. Plumes of smoke rise from distant fires. The troops here are part of a broad range of Iraqi Kurdish units known as the peshmerga, which means “those who face death.” The militias began as a rebel force that waged a long struggle with the government of Saddam Hussein. In the wake of the Iraqi army’s collapse in 2014, Kurdish militias including the peshmerga were the only forces left to block the ISIS advance in the north of the country.
The Kurdish government has benefited from repelling ISIS, taking control of crucial sites like the Mosul Dam and the disputed, oil-rich city of Kirkuk. But on the front, many of the troops complained about poor pay and lack of equipment. Captain Abdel Baki Majid claimed that the 600 men on the line had been given only 150 rifles among them. Others said they had spent their meager wages to buy their own guns. “We get 500,000 [Iraqi dinars] a month and spend 500,000 on rent,” one officer jokes as his men pass around small, bulbous glasses of tea.
Boredom is part of every soldier’s rations, but some of these men have been holding the same position for nearly two years with no real change, and the wait is wearing. “During Saddam’s time, we were fighting with honor,” says Selim Fattah, a fighter wearing a tan vest branded with a Jeep logo. “We knew we were doing something. But now we’re dying here so some politician can benefit.” He is doubtful about the prospects for an attack on Mosul. “ISIS has weapons. We can’t fight them like this,” he says, pointing at the assault rifle slung over his shoulder.
Those frustrations are echoed at Black Tiger Camp near the town of Makhmour, the headquarters of General Barzani. In addition to being the nephew of Masoud Barzani, the longtime president of the Kurdish region, Barzani is the millionaire owner of a telecommunications empire. He has dipped into his personal wealth to outfit his troops with needed equipment, like a radio jammer to stop the remote-control bombs used by ISIS.
Barzani is middle-aged with black hair, a thick mustache and an unusual penchant for plain talk. He says that while he expects Kurdish forces to participate in the Mosul operation, the depth of their involvement hinges less on military necessity than on the political dance between Baghdad and the Kurdish capital of Erbil.
“As a military, we are ready, of course,” he says. “But it depends on the agreements: until when, how many peshmerga they will attend in the operation. Where is the line, let’s say, the target for the peshmerga jointly with the Iraqi army.”
The Kurds are the dominant military force in northern Iraq, and there will be no retaking Mosul without their cooperation. But actually seizing the city would set up a showdown over how to divide and govern the territory. For now the Kurdish leadership refuses to join a full-scale assault on Mosul, a majority-Arab city that the Kurds do not claim as part of their homeland.
Barzani, who commands one sector of the front line south of Mosul, doubts the Iraqi army’s abilities. “There is something missing, something wrong inside this army,” he says. But Barzani also claims the peshmerga lack the equipment to join an assault on the city in earnest. In December, the Pentagon approved deliveries of equipment sufficient for 2,200 fighters. The Kurdish government wants more, but Western officials worry that sending too much support to the peshmerga could tip the scales in a future showdown between the Kurds and Baghdad. It’s another reminder that uncertainty over what will happen in Iraq after ISIS is defeated is hampering the effort to beat the terrorist group in the first place.
For his part, Barzani has made it clear that his fighters won’t be going anywhere soon. “I need more ammunition,” he says. “I need more weapons. If not, I cannot stay here for long.”
Mohamed El-Shamari stands on the grass with other men from his unit in the Iraqi army in the village of Kharbardan, one of several settlements south of Mosul that have recently been retaken from ISIS. The unit seized Kharbardan on March 24, nearly two months earlier, fighting house to house. The offensive was part of Operation Valley Wolf, in which the Iraqi army is reclaiming villages along the Tigris River south of Mosul one by one.
A wiry 26-year-old with black hair and a thin mustache, Shamari wears a helmet and a tan bulletproof vest over brown fatigues, and a second vest loaded with ammunition clips. He is from the town of Rabia, near Sinjar, in an area where Kurds and Arabs historically lived in peace. Rabia fell to ISIS in 2014, but though the jihadists were pushed out later that year, the town remains in a kind of limbo between Kurdish and Iraqi government control. “We’re all brothers,” Shamari says of Kurds and Arabs. He speaks earnestly. “We have the same enemy.”
That enemy is brutal–one soldier passes over a smartphone to show pictures of a pile of human bones they found when they entered the village. But the mood among the troops in Kharbardan is confident, as if the embarrassment of 2014, when many Iraqi soldiers ran in the face of ISIS, had never happened. As they speak, gunshots echo from somewhere near the front line about 100 yards away. “That’s just the beginning!” one soldier jokes.
For all their bravado, much of the Iraqi army is still ill trained and ill equipped. Some of those problems are the legacy of the last war in Iraq. After 2003 the U.S.-led military coalition chose to dismantle the Iraqi army and build a new one from scratch, but as the antigovernment, anti-American insurgency gathered strength, the coalition was forced to train thousands of new soldiers in a hurry. Groomed to fight a counterinsurgency, the new troops were unprepared to face the standing army marshaled by ISIS, which included veterans of the original Iraqi army disbanded by the Americans.
There is also the basic problem of numbers. The army doesn’t have enough troops to retake all the ISIS-held cities, and certainly not simultaneously. Volesky, the overall commander of U.S. forces in Iraq, notes that the Iraqi army is forced to play a “shell game” as it moves troops around the country. “Every unit in the Iraqi army is engaged in combat,” he says. “For them to generate forces to go to Mosul, they’ve got to pull a force out and then plug that hole with another force.”
That leaves the U.S. military as an essential part of the operation against ISIS–but only in a supporting role. The White House doesn’t want to be drawn into another full-fledged, U.S.-led war in the Middle East–and neither do most Americans. The Administration also doesn’t want the military campaign in Iraq to get too far ahead of the postmilitary planning, lest fighting against ISIS be succeeded by fighting between Baghdad and the Kurds, or between pro-Shi’ite militias and their rivals. It’s notable that the number of bombs and missiles used against ISIS by the U.S.-led coalition peaked at 3,227 last November and had dropped by nearly 40% to 1,982 in March.
The military campaigns against ISIS in Iraq and Syria are working, albeit ploddingly–ISIS has lost more than 40% of its territory. But weapons alone won’t eliminate ISIS as a terrorist threat to the West. Even as ISIS loses ground on the battlefield, it is attempting to reclaim publicity and momentum by ramping up its attacks on civilians both in the Middle East and beyond. “ISIS spews an ideology of extremist beliefs, hate and destruction that in all likelihood cannot be destroyed by military means,” says Dave Barno, a retired Army lieutenant general who commanded U.S. and allied troops in Afghanistan from 2003 to 2005. “That reality makes our military actions against ISIS necessary but not sufficient to destroy this deadly phenomenon.”
But if the fight against ISIS in Iraq may not make the U.S. instantly safer, it can do something to help the Iraqis who have suffered far more at the hands of the terrorist group–like the people of Sinjar. The town in northern Iraq is home to Iraq’s Yezidi religious minority, and in August 2014 ISIS swept in, forcing thousands to flee and killing hundreds of others. Thousands of women were pressed into sexual slavery, and the dead were left in mass graves. A U.N. commission of inquiry declared in June that ISIS had committed genocide against the Yezidis.
It was the horror of the ISIS rampage against the Yezidis of Sinjar that helped tip the scales toward U.S. intervention in Iraq, and in November 2015 Kurdish forces backed by coalition airstrikes retook the city. But while the town is free of ISIS, it lies in ruins–the same fate that likely awaits Mosul and other occupied Iraqi cities when they are finally liberated. A short drive from the front line, a few dozen families have returned to a precarious existence, but Sinjar is otherwise deserted. ISIS fighters still rain mortars and rockets on the town. Even winning the war on ISIS comes with a price: while the U.S. government says only 42 civilians have died in Iraq and Syria since the anti-ISIS operation began in 2014, a study by the London-based nonprofit Airwars estimates the toll is at least 1,323 civilians. “The town is sh-tty,” says Colonel Nizar Hamzo, a Kurdish militia commander, as he sits in the house outside Sinjar that is serving as his headquarters. “It’s not sustainable to live here.”
Even as he speaks, gunfire pops outside. Incoming fire. Hamzo bolts to the door and pulls on his shoes, then races to join his men at the sandbags. In the twilight, they fire back down the road. The camp transforms into a frenzy of men running and calling orders. A truck screeches back to the house, and fighters load boxes of ammunition into the back before it careers again toward the front line. Bullets streak across the dusk.
After 20 minutes, the firefight dies out and Hamzo and his men gather in a circle behind the sandbags. A fire burns in the distance, down the empty road in ISIS country. In the desert dark, the few sounds become more pronounced: a yawn, a cough, crickets. An airplane buzzes overhead. Hushed conversations dribble out of the dark. The talk is of the mundane work of war: We have to make a strong front line, says one, avoid gaps in the sandbags. How much ammunition do we have, wonders another. They light cigarettes, orange dots in the blackness.
Then, without warning, an explosion rocks the land outside the camp. A coalition warplane has struck the ISIS side of the line. “Did it hit the spot?” the commander asks. “Yes sir, the spot we located,” someone responds from the darkness. Laughter erupts, but it’s not clear what’s funny.
Minutes later, two intelligence officers stroll into the tent. They look as if they have showered more recently than the front-line soldiers. The officers carry tablet computers, which have become the deadliest weapons in this war when used to dial in the coordinates for airstrikes by the U.S.-led coalition.
When ISIS conquered Sinjar, routing the peshmerga force stationed there, tens of thousands of Yezidi civilians fled in terror to the mountains that rise abruptly out of the plains east of the city. ISIS militants trapped the Yezidis in the mountains without access to food or water, beginning a siege that lasted for days until Kurdish militias cut an escape route through Syria. Thousands of displaced people still live in a makeshift camp atop the mountain.
Born in 1984, Qubad Miqdad Murad had been a police officer in Sinjar, although he was outside the town when the ISIS invasion took place. In April he became one of the few residents to move back into Sinjar, bringing his wife and their two young children. Murad reported for duty at his old post guarding a hospital, but within days the ugly reality began to set in. ISIS rockets fell daily on the town, and another police officer was killed by the shelling near the hospital. A month later they left again, moving into a tent in the displacement camp. “I decided to leave, for the safety of my family,” he says.
Six months after its “liberation” from ISIS, Sinjar is still a skeleton of a town. Rubble is everywhere, the buildings destroyed by the very airstrikes that helped drive ISIS out. The twisted metal doors of the remaining shops bear graffiti, some of it left by ISIS fighters. (The most bizarre tag is written in Russian, presumably left by a foreign fighter: Lovex each other, it reads.) Many of the shops and houses have been tagged according to ethnicity and religion–Yezidi, Kurd, Sunni, Shi’ite–a haunting reminder of the sectarian pogrom ISIS has carried out everywhere it can. But it’s a warning as well, of the next war this multiethnic, multisect country may face, the morning after it finally defeats ISIS.
–With reporting by MASSIMO CALABRESI and MARK THOMPSON/WASHINGTON
This appears in the July 04, 2016 issue of TIME.