2020 Election
Then US Vice President Joe Biden meets with US soldiers at Baghdad's Camp Victory on January 13, 2011.
Ahmad al-Rubaye—AFP/Getty Images
September 23, 2020 12:01 AM EDT

As the so-called Islamic State captured eastern Syria and marched across northern Iraq in the late summer of 2014, then-U.S. Special Forces Maj. Gen. Michael Nagata promised then President Barack Obama and Vice President Joe Biden that he would turn raw Syrian recruits into an effective fighting force to decimate tens of thousands of ISIS fighters. “I had high confidence we could impart the skill necessary,” Nagata tells TIME. “Whether or not we could create a force large enough to do it was a completely different question.”

By the spring of 2015, only a few dozen Syrian men agreed to the terms of the U.S. train-and-equip program, rather than the thousands that Pentagon officials had hoped to train. Many were put off by the requirement that once they enlisted, they couldn’t use their weapons or skill to fight the Syrian regime attacking their loved ones. On their very first major engagement in Syria, the small, green cadre was nearly overrun by al-Nusra, another militant group operating in the country. “Even though they won, they got scared,” says Nagata, who, six years later, sees it as his personal responsibility that the half-a-billion-dollar program failed. “They gradually either melted back to their homes” or got picked off by other militia groups, often surrendering their U.S.-supplied weapons, he says.

But another ally was found to partner with, almost accidentally, just as the money to train them was being approved in September 2014. ISIS had already seized major Iraqi cities, and was menacing Iraq’s Yezidis on Sinjar mountain, spurring Obama to approve U.S. airstrikes and later, advisors to help Iraqi forces, including Iraq’s Kurdish Peshmerga. That battlefield partnership paved the way to the U.S. working with Syria-based Kurdish separatists the U.S. once termed terrorists, who honed their fighting skills by attacking Turkey.

The Syrian-based Kurds proved their mettle when they drove ISIS out of the northern Syrian Kurdish town of Kobane, Nagata says. “Suddenly, we have this very formidable fighting force.” Based on that success, the train-and-equip program was transformed, but this time with a small number of U.S. forces on the ground to help a force of mostly Kurdish separatists with a smattering of local Syrian Arabs, leading to the campaign that eventually broke the ISIS caliphate.

The costly and painful initial failure of Obama’s train-and-equip program has informed the Middle East strategy of Democratic nominee and former Vice President Joe Biden today. Since his election, Trump has said he wants to end America’s “forever wars.” After initially sending extra troops to Afghanistan, he has reduced forces there as well as drawing down numbers in Iraq and Syria, and frequently threatened to go to zero in all three countries. As Trump’s rival, Biden isn’t arguing to keep U.S. troops embroiled in expensive, years-long conflicts, but he has indicated he’s willing to keep small numbers of mostly special operations forces in countries that are unstable or beset by terrorism.

Biden told Stars and Stripes earlier this month he’d keep up to 2,000 U.S. troops in troubled parts of the Middle East, with a particular emphasis on special operations forces. “We have to be in a position where we can make it clear that if need be, we could respond to terrorist activities coming out of that region directed toward the United States,” he said at a CNN Town Hall on Sept. 18. “It does not require a large force presence.”

Biden’s former National Security Advisor Colin Kahl, now an informal advisor to the Biden campaign, says he believes the former Vice President’s regional military strategy would entail keeping a small U.S. special operations presence in places like Iraq and Afghanistan, with the permission of those governments. “Where we have enduring counterterrorism missions, we’ll keep a few thousand troops,” Kahl tells TIME.

This “indirect approach” means working through local forces, but also keeps enough U.S. troops on the ground to act as “sensors,” Kahl says, able to assess the stability of the country and their partner military’s skill, and to fill in gaps in intelligence with U.S. drones and other technology. Though Biden has “very modest views on what we can accomplish through military action across the greater Middle East,” Kahl says, the Democratic nominee also believes “that we have to stay laser-focused” on terrorist organizations like ISIS and al-Qaeda “that threaten the American homeland.”

Kahl compares the two times the U.S. defeated al-Qaeda in Iraq, first under President George W. Bush, and again against the organization’s next incarnation as ISIS. During the 2007-2008 Iraq surge, the Bush Administration deployed up to 175,000 troops, losing more than 1,000 American forces and spending roughly $275 billion, he says. But the Iraqi government’s subsequent failure to protect and serve Iraq’s Sunni Muslims then helped give rise to ISIS.I think Biden looks at that experience and says that it’s not sustainable, militarily …politically … economically,” Kahl says. “It didn’t produce sustainable results on the ground.”

The second time, after the abortive first training effort, the Obama Administration sent fewer than 15,000 U.S. troops to work alongside Iraqi and Kurdish forces in Iraq and Syria. In the Obama years of Operation Inherent Resolve, Kahl says roughly a dozen U.S. troops were killed, and the campaign cost about $25 billion, the same amount spent in two months of the Bush-era surge. “There’s no question which model is more sustainable, at least from a U.S. perspective,” he says.

“Sucked into war”

Biden’s education in what a large U.S. military presence can — and cannot — accomplish is rooted in the failure of the Obama Administration’s 2009 troop surge to bring lasting stability to Afghanistan.

Former U.S. Ambassador to NATO Douglas Lute says Biden was against the surge from the beginning. “Biden saw it as a step toward nation-building that was unlikely to work, as Afghanistan’s government was too weak and corrupt” and the Taliban had a safe haven in Pakistan next door to retreat to wait out the increased U.S. campaign, recalls Lute, a retired U.S. Army Lt. General who advised both George W. Bush and Obama on Afghanistan and Pakistan. “Biden wanted to keep the effort focused on transnational terrorists — those like al-Qaeda who had aspirations to attack U.S. and western targets outside the country — and not get sucked into war with the Taliban.”

Ultimately, Biden’s point of view did not prevail within the White House. Shortly after taking office, Obama sent roughly 20,000 U.S. troops to Afghanistan in the spring, and then another tranche of more than 30,000 in the fall, bringing the total number of U.S. forces to around 100,000, another costly effort in terms of both lives and dollars that did not manage to defeat the Taliban.

“What Biden got right is that adding more conventional U.S. troops would not win the war,” says former CIA officer Bruce Riedel, who ran the first of two Obama Administration Afghan reviews in 2009 and now runs Brookings Institution’s Intelligence Project. What did work, Riedel says, was the Administration’s counterterrorism strategy, a combination of CIA drone strikes in Pakistan and special operations raids in eastern Afghanistan. “The al-Qaeda infrastructure in Pakistan is a pale reflection of its former self” — so ineffective, he notes, that U.S. mainstream media barely reported a lengthy 9/11 anniversary statement by current leader Ayman al-Zawahiri.

Riedel says Biden may be overestimating what a small number of U.S. special operations forces can do — or would be allowed to do — against a resurgent al-Qaeda in Afghanistan today, particularly if the hosts aren’t getting something in return for allowing them to operate counterterrorism missions, like continued training of Afghan forces. And there are some things that simply require being there, like flying drones, which Riedel says “can’t operate from the Gulf. … They need a base close to the target area.” The crews loading the missiles onto drones have to be American, which means they need U.S. military forces to protect them.

Kahl says Biden is aware that whatever Afghan government arises out of the U.S.-facilitated Afghan peace talks now underway in Doha, Qatar, might determine how many U.S. troops are welcome to stay there.

“We spent two decades trying to remake Afghanistan. …It didn’t work. So we don’t want to do that again,” Kahl says. “You also don’t want to go to absolute zero.” Biden doesn’t want to outsource the job of keeping tabs on al-Qaeda to the Taliban, the says. The UN says the groups’ leaders maintain close ties despite the Taliban’s pledge to cut ties in the Trump Administration’s description of the 29 Feb. peace deal it signed with the Taliban.

“They’ll be on the hook for not allowing al Qaeda and the Islamic State to operate in Afghanistan,” says Kahl. The U.S. will have the right to go kill those guys — ISIS and al-Qaeda guys — if they set up shop.”

“Not going to zero”

The rise of ISIS in Iraq is the other cautionary tale in Biden’s mind as he crafts his Mideast security policy. The Obama Administration pulled all U.S. forces from Iraq in 2011 after failing to agree on their legal status with a pro-Iranian government in Baghdad. But the withdrawal was so swift that Iraqi, former CIA and special operations officers say it left both the U.S. and their Iraqi security counterparts blind, as the U.S. pulled its drones and other equipment from the country and closed down the joint command centers where they would share intelligence.

It took ISIS raging through northern Iraq and capturing the second largest city of Mosul in June 2014 for Baghdad to request U.S. air strikes and military support, and more than a year for combined U.S. and Iraqi forces to drive ISIS out of the major Iraqi cities in the north and west. Linda Robinson, a senior international and defense researcher at RAND Corp. who has been working on a review of the ISIS train-and-equip mission, says the Iraqi military still needs help to hold back ISIS today. That could come from a smaller U.S. and European mission, to make up for “chronic deficits” in intelligence, logistics, military air support, and coordinating forces on the ground with those in the air, she says.

If a future Biden Administration, or a continued Trump White House, opted to withdraw all support from the majority Kurdish Syrian Democratic Forces, they would likely be unable to maintain security of large parts of eastern Syria, and also might free the roughly 9,000 ISIS prisoners they’re holding, including 2,000 foreign fighters. “ISIS could come back to life,” Robinson says. “To remove a helping hand from that big dual mission would be … just foolhardy.”

Proponents of Biden’s Mideast strategy agree that keeping some U.S. presence on the ground is integral to keeping the country safe. “If you can’t have any Americans on the ground then you really don’t know what the hell is going on,” says former ISIS envoy Brett McGurk, adding that was also the problem that hamstrung Nagata’s training program in northern Syria: too many enemies and not enough intelligence on where they were, to risk inserting U.S. forces. Finding a reliable partner in the Syria-based Kurds changed that. “That meant we did not need a large-scale deployment,” McGurk says. “Force protection came largely from the partner.”

Kahl agrees that the flaw in that first training plan wasn’t Nagata, but the lack of a reliable local partner on the ground in large enough numbers to protect U.S. advisors. Now that the U.S. has found such partners, he believes Biden would seek to keep at least a thin layer of special operations forces in Iraq and possibly Syria to keep watch for another rise of the estimated 10,000 ISIS fighters who went to ground, while adding more resources to the diplomatic side of the equation. “What it is about is narrowing our interests…and doing what is achievable,” Kahl says. “He’s committed to ending ‘forever wars.’”

Now-retired Lt. Gen. Nagata is appreciative that his former colleagues do not blame him for the failure of a training program hobbled by the restrictions from an Administration and Congress that did not want to be sucked into another forever war, this time in Syria. But he cautions the next president, whoever that might be, against thinking just a few special operations forces can fix every problem, because the enemy always gets a vote.

Nagata says special operations forces can “mow the grass” — meaning kill the terrorists — but says he hasn’t heard a plan yet that would keep more terrorists from being created, from either presidential campaign. “I vote for mowing the grass because that grass is freaking dangerous, but this is not a solution,” he says. “Every ISIS fighter or al-Qaeda fighter who gets killed will be replaced.”

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