For more than a month, Dakheel Ahmed’s family has been living under a bridge in northern Iraq. They are members of Iraq’s Yazidi minority sect, and each night they sleep in the open surrounded by others like them. The families have nowhere else to go. They were displaced earlier this summer when Islamic State — the well-funded, ultra-violent militant group alternately known as IS, ISIS or ISIL — swept into their country, took over major cities, and declared the Yazidis devil worshipers who could either convert to their brand of radical Islam or die.
Ahmed, who has lived in the United States since 2012, says his calls home are often grim; he recently learned that a grandfather who couldn’t flee was shot to death by the militants. President Obama’s televised pledge last week to fight the Islamic State did little to lift his family’s spirits.
“They were just waiting for Obama to say something and they’re kind of disappointed because, according to Obama’s speech, this is going to take a long time,” Ahmed said.
“We’ve killed children. We’ve killed entire families getting at one or two people.”
Ahmed says his relatives had hoped to hear a detailed plan to eliminate the fundamentalist forces that have uprooted their lives. So did he; Ahmed worked as an interpreter for U.S. Special Forces in Iraq in the early years of the Obama administration in the hopes of making a better future for his country.
The plan articulated by the White House for combatting the Islamic State has been challenged on legal, political and strategic grounds. There are some veterans of U.S. counterterrorism operations, like Ahmed, who believe it doesn’t go far enough. There are others, meanwhile, who after years of participating in lethal operations in undeclared war zones, see the latest assertion of U.S. military power as the extension of years of short-sighted and dangerous policies. What is clear is that the administration has expanded the list of people it believes it can lawfully kill and that doing so will remain an integral facet of U.S. foreign policy for the foreseeable future.
When he took to the lectern last Wednesday, just hours before the thirteenth anniversary of the September 11 attacks and more than a decade into the longest war in U.S. history, the president declared a new post-9/11 enemy eligible for elimination. Like the administration’s other counterterrorism adventures around the world, Obama said the fight against the Islamic State would be composed of air strikes and the training and advising of local forces. He also emphasized the borderless nature of his approach to counterterrorism, pledging that the U.S. military would begin killing or capturing members of the Islamic State “wherever they exist,” including in Syria. U.S. forces have yet to officially strike inside Syria despite carrying out 158 strikes in Iraq.
The administration has staked its authority for attacking the Islamic State on the same 13-year-old authorization of military force that opened the door for an ongoing and international war against al Qaeda and its associates. Despite the fact that al Qaeda has officially disassociated itself from the Islamic State, and despite the fact that there is no evidence the group is plotting against the U.S. — a point Obama conceded in his speech — the administration insists the Islamic State is ideologically close enough to the perpetrators of the Sept. 11 hijackings to permit military action against them wherever they may be.
The president also said his efforts against the Islamic State will resemble U.S. counterterrorism operations in Yemen and Somalia. This was apparently intended to evoke confidence, but many have argued it should not: In both countries the White House relies on partnerships forged with questionable warlords, dictators and security forces, along with CIA operatives and special operations forces, to remove names from secret lists through lethal means.
While this approach has unquestionably succeeded in killing and occasionally capturing people deemed U.S. enemies, the strategy is also legally dubious, frequently counterproductive, devoid of transparency and, perhaps most importantly, responsible for the deaths of scores of innocent men, women and children. By some counts, U.S. counterterrorism missions in Yemen and Somalia have killed as many as 351 civilians since 2002, with the vast majority of the attacks taking place under the Obama administration.
In his six-year career as a drone sensor operator with the U.S. Air Force, Brandon Bryant flew missions over Iraq and Afghanistan, as well as Somalia and Yemen. He reels at the suggestion that U.S. counterterrorism operations in either country should be viewed as worthy of implementation against the Islamic State.
“They’re actually the worst examples of success,” he says. When Bryant left the Air Force in 2011, the military informed him that his squadron had killed 1,626 people. He is haunted by the toll, which he believes included a number of civilians.
Watching the president describing IS Wednesday night, Bryant saw the extension of what he now considers an uncountable, global killing machine.
“He calls them ‘unique in their brutality,’ but we’ve got prisoners in Guantanamo Bay that haven’t seen the light of fucking day,” Bryant says. “We’ve killed children. We’ve killed entire families getting at one or two people. We’ve killed entire weddings or funerals just to get at one or two people.”
“It doesn’t really seem like there’s much of a difference in our military actions versus what they do, other than we justify it because they’re a terrorist group and we’re an official government,” he adds.“I’m pretty sure that acts of barbarism like we have would be considered acts of terrorism by anyone else in the world.”
Whether the administration’s new campaign will actually succeed in destroying the Islamic State remains to be seen. If the past is any indication, the results are likely to be messy. Both Ahmed and Bryant say that without reliable and robust human intelligence on the ground, U.S. missiles aimed at the group could easily miss their targets. Even with intelligence assets in place, civilian causalities — and the blowback they invite — can be difficult to avoid. In Afghanistan, for example, a country where the U.S. has had a military and intelligence presence for thirteen years, civilian deaths from U.S. air strikes are not uncommon.
Efficacy and wisdom aside, the new war on Islamic State has further expanded the already-wide aperture of individuals the administration believes it can lawfully kill. In May of last year, Obama delivered a historic speech at the National Defense University, laying out the administration’s rules for carrying out lethal operations around the world. The address – delivered in conjunction with a set of written rules for such operations – was widely received and characterized as a step away from “perpetual war.” Still, for many who have tracked Obama’s inheritance of the war on terror, the speech raised as many questions as it answered.
“The claims of who can be bombed has grown during Obama’s term in office,” says Micah Zenko, the Douglas Dillon Fellow at Council on Foreign Relations and close tracker of U.S. counterterrorism operations. “Three years ago, they pretended only senior Al Qaeda leaders who posed an imminent threat to the U.S. homeland could be killed, then in the NDU speech Obama said any ‘continuing and imminent threat to the American people,’ and now the continuing and imminent is gone and it’s ‘anyone who threatens America’s core interests.”
Zenko added that, “Obama has established a broader category of who can be killed, for less specific reasons, and more preventively, all in the course of just three years.”
The frustrations expressed by Dakheel Ahmed’s family, the fear that any return to normalcy is a long way off, has also been echoed by high-ranking veterans of the U.S. war effort.
“We’re not going to see an end to this in our lifetime,” retired Air Force General Charles F. Wald told the Washington Post recently. Wald, who oversaw airstrikes in Afghanistan during the opening salvos of the war on terror in 2001, added that, “there isn’t going to be any time where we all of a sudden can declare victory. This is what the world is going to be like for us for a long time.”
Photo: Associated Press