A Drone’s Eye View of Killing Jihadists

As strange as it may seem to some, for guys like us it was a scene of somber beauty to see our enemy cut down and lying in pieces on the ground,” writes United States Air Force Master Sergeant Wes Bryant of dead Islamic State jihadists. Such raw intensity characterizes the new book Hunting the Caliphate: America’s War on ISIS and the Dawn of the Strike Cell, a gripping modern war diary about the American-led air campaign against the Islamic State (ISIS).

Modern technology allowed Bryant and his coauthor, United States Army Major General Dana Pittard, the coalition commander for the anti-ISIS airstrikes begun in August 2014, a detailed view of air power’s devastation of ISIS. Ensconced in high-tech command centers in Baghdad, Pittard and Joint Terminal Attack Controllers (JTACs) such as Bryant with years of Special Forces experience observed Iraq and Syria’s battlegrounds though reconnaissance drone videos. The coauthors could then methodically rain down death and destruction upon ISIS forces from coalition warplanes and armed drones operating in the Mesopotamian skies.

Bryant and Pittard both related how they fought ISIS after years of deployment in countries like Afghanistan and Iraq in America’s long wars in the Dar al-Islam that began after Al Qaeda’s September 11, 2001, terrorist attacks. Pittard recounted how he was on fellowship at Harvard University’s John F. Kennedy School of Government that fateful day when about 300 students and faculty gathered in the school’s foyer auditorium. As they watched “CNN in horrified silence as it projected images on a giant video screen,” a “collective groan came from the crowd and several ‘Oh my Gods,’” yet he “was stunned when a couple of Middle Eastern students actually clapped!”

Bryant likewise detailed his combat experience in the “one big mess that was the war in Afghanistan.” For almost two decades, American forces here “were constantly taking ground, losing it, and then taking it again—an endless cycle to nowhere.” Amid ever-shifting strategies, unrealistic, politically-influenced Rules of Engagement (ROE), and Afghan government corruption, “most of us felt like we were sacrificing everything for absolutely nothing.”

The warrior Bryant reflected upon the corresponding toll upon his psyche. His “experiences in Iraq and Afghanistan had given me a deep suspicion of all Arabs and Middle Easterners—all Muslims, really.” He “knew deep down that it was irrational to feel that way,” but he “had only seen the bad in that part of the world.”

Accordingly, even while temporarily in America’s regional Gulf ally Bahrain, Bryant “still felt uncomfortable” among Muslims as he struggled to reconcile his aversions with a common humanity. A group of teenage girls in a Bahrain shopping mall impressed him with their “traditional black burkhas with just faces showing,” albeit “extravagantly made-up.” He speculated: was this glamour the “one method of self-expression they had within the confines of the subjugating dogma of their religion” that “exemplified some sort of internal struggle?”

However hardened veterans like Bryant and Pittard were, ISIS jihadists, perhaps just as skilled as savage fighters, presented a rude shock. Pittard contrasted President Barack Obama’s amateur assessment in a New Yorker profile that ISIS was the “jayvee [JV] team” among jihadists with Pittard’s long experience with “quite a few radical Islamic terrorist groups.” None “were as well financed, highly disciplined, and competently led as ISIS,” a force that even defeated the Kurds’ Peshmerga troops, who “had become legendary during their many years of fighting Saddam Hussein’s troops.”

Bryant concurred that ISIS “displayed tactical abilities and a level of organizational discipline unprecedented for an insurgency force” while being the “most fanatical group we’d ever seen.” He and his colleagues “were often surprised at the level of capability ISIS showed even in comparison to some of the best-trained Iraqi ground forces.” When drones videoed unidentified forces, the “going rule became ‘if they move tactically sound, they’re probably ISIS.’” Where fanaticism was insufficient motivation, he noted that ISIS encouraged fighting spirit with drugs including cocaine and punishments like torture for battlefield failure.

Even when Pittard commanded an air campaign that ravaged ISIS, he noted its adaption. ISIS responded by rarely moving in convoys larger than three military vehicles or using civilian cars to camouflage fighter movement. ISIS forces also “tried to use our respect for humanity to their advantage” by sheltering behind mosques and “human shields.”

While ISIS showed decisiveness, Pittard condemned that Obama and Congress’ “response to the ISIS threat was truly underwhelming” and “embarrassing” to the “world’s last remaining true superpower.” “More decisive action earlier on by the Obama administration…might have stopped ISIS from taking over nearly a third of Iraq” during the summer of 2014. Particularly Kurds and Iraqis “were incredulous that we offered such limited assistance,” as they were “fighting for their very existence.”

With only “limited authorizations for airstrikes,” Pittard “couldn’t do anything about a lot of what we saw,” like a drone’s “gut-wrenching live video that haunts me to this day” of ISIS massacring 80 Yazidis. Similarly, on August 9, 2014, as many as 600 ISIS fighters in over fifty captured American armored Humvees and other military and civilian vehicles approached the Kurdish town of Makhmur. Merely two days before he had received Obama’s authorization to stop ISIS’ advance into Kurdish territory.

Pittard had accordingly directed United States Marine Corps Colonel Eduardo Abisellan and other officers “to draw a red ‘no penetration line’ on our operational maps.” Yet Makhmur was mere kilometers outside the “no penetration” zone and the “ISIS fighters never crossed our arbitrary Abisellan Line.” Advised by military lawyers, Pittard’s superiors refused airstrike permission and his coalition “never got another shot at such a lucrative target,” which included, later intelligence showed, as many as three top ISIS leaders.

Bryant as well chafed at operational directives. The first American Special Forces arrived in Baghdad under a State Department non-combat authorization that forbade close air support, even as their airport base regularly received ISIS rocket attacks. A few weeks later, the Special Forces received a military mission but with “incredibly stringent” close air support ROE that required direct approval from Pittard himself, and meant that “we may as well have not even had the airpower at hand.”

Bryant analyzed how this “quite lengthy” communications chain involved a busy commander for Iraq who might be unavailable and would require considerable deliberation in any crisis. “The ROE, to put it simply, were dangerous” and “yet another case of senior military officers and politicians in Washington risking the lives of those on the ground for the sake of political perception.” This situation reflected that “no one in Washington wanted U.S. bombs dropping in Iraq again, regardless of the reason, based on the potential perception that we’d be initiating another Iraq War.”

Later when the mission mandate expanded to ISIS targets in Syria, Bryant recalled how one military lawyer interpreted ROE to refuse authorization for a follow-up attack on two ISIS fighters wounded in a prior airstrike. His decision “truly stemmed from a general culture of apprehension rooted in a political climate of wavering support for the mission in Syria combined with an enduring fear of public perception toward America’s airstrike campaigns in general.” This culture was “pervasive throughout America’s war on terror.”

While Bryant and Pittard often railed against their superiors, Pittard found equally frustrating that the “anti-ISIS coalition was like herding cats—wildly cunning feral cats” in a “contentious coalition that was basically at war with itself.” This coalition included American allies, Iraqi Security Forces, Iraqi Kurdish Peshmerga, Iraqi Sunni tribes, Shia militias, Syrian Kurds, and even Syrian Army troops as well as American foes Iran and Russia. A “common enemy could help bring together strange bedfellows,” he quipped.

Correspondingly, Pittard noted that “we were only allowed to talk to certain members of the anti-ISIS coalition through certain other members,” a critical weakness during fast-paced military developments. “If we had any official coordination with the Syrian military, we would have lost the support of the Sunni Arab nations in the region who were all vehemently” supporting Syrian dictator Bashar al-Assad’s the overthrow. Yet some “under the table” intelligence coordination with Syrian forces facilitated coalition strikes on ISIS.

Pittard’s motley crew created tense situations, like when American Special Forces teams on inspection tours in Baghdad overcome a tense standoff with Shia militia only with a show of force that included an overflying F-16. Other such inspection tours were aborted when intelligence detected the presence of Iranian Quds Force Special Forces among Shia militias. “Iranian Quds Forces were in Iraq embedded with and enabling Shia militias with arms. Interaction with the Quds Forces could have created an even more convoluted situation.”

Bryant similarly “had really never seen such a unique and complex battlefield as Syria” in his 15 years serving in America’s war on terror. Russia’s 2015 entry into the conflict only made things worse, as Russian planes and drones pursuing their own military objectives had perilously close encounters with coalition forces. Many American military personnel had the “overarching feeling that we were on the brink of another world war.”

Such tensions abound in Bryant and Pittard’s war memoir, which will certainly become an important primary document for understanding the global ongoing struggle against jihadists. This knowledge is critical for a world in which developed democracies such as the United States entrust their security to a thin line of war fighters. The enlisted man Bryant and the General Pittard have given invaluable insight into the various quandaries facing these proud professionals.

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