Every month, Gen. Joseph Votel, the veteran special operator who leads U.S. Central Command, leaves his Tampa, Florida, headquarters to travel across his vast domain — the patchwork of American bases stretching across the greater Middle East from the Hindu Kush to the Persian Gulf. I was invited to accompany him recently along with two reporters, Helene Cooper of the New York Times and Lolita Baldor of The Associated Press. What follows are some observations from this sprint across five countries (Iraq, Afghanistan, Oman, Saudi Arabia, Bahrain) in 10 sleep-deprived days. The journey does much to illuminate the current state of U.S. military engagement in this strategically important region.
Despite President Donald Trump’s genuflections to isolationism, I soon learn, the U.S. military commitment to the Middle East remains wide and deep; it has not, in fact, changed significantly since the inauguration of the “America First” president. The United States remains fully committed — but that does not mean that it is able to achieve its objectives.
In the morning, we head from the Tampa Airport Marriott to MacDill Air Force Base. In the afternoon, we take off in a cavernous, noisy, jet-powered C-17 cargo aircraft. Votel and his senior aides, all colonels aside from a State Department political advisor, sit in comfy leather chairs that lean back like business-class seats, and they are connected to the internet the whole time; Votel spends much of the flight on a video conference. The rest of us are in economy class: narrow cloth-covered seats that barely lean back. But at least there is one amenity not found even in business class — cots that we can use to take a nap. During a stopover at Ramstein Air Base in Germany, we are ushered in for a middle-of-the-night chat with Votel, who is open, approachable, and thoughtful. He is entirely lacking in the bluster and certitude so often handed out with a general’s stars.
I’m groggy when we step into the blast-furnace heat of Baghdad’s airport. We don’t spend long there, quickly transferring to helicopters for a ride to the Green Zone, a fortified government area in the city center. All we see of the city is out the Black Hawk window. At the sprawling U.S. Embassy complex, we check into dorm-style rooms. Baghdad is safer than it used to be, but still not a city where American officials are allowed to stay in hotels. While Votel goes off to meet with the prime minister and other muckety-mucks, we speak with embassy staffers. All are enthusiastic in describing their work — helping Iraqis to demine newly liberated areas, providing humanitarian assistance, preparing a plan for long-term engagement with Iraq. It is a reminder that despite the circus in Washington, the bureaucracy continues to grind away as if the commander in chief were in his right mind. Reassuring or simply surreal? I can’t decide.
We board another helicopter for the ride back to Baghdad’s airport and then a brief C-130 hop to Erbil, the capital of the Kurdistan Regional Government. Of course, we don’t see Erbil either. We spend our time at the airport getting briefed on military operations at the Joint Operations Center, which looks a little like the bridge of the Enterprise in Star Trek. From here, American and allied personnel direct airstrikes against the Islamic State. When we arrive, they are targeting Tal Afar, Mosul having already fallen. An American contractor, a former military technician specializing in explosive ordnance disposal, tells us of the heroic efforts that his teams are undertaking to clear improvised explosive devices under a State Department contract. The Islamic State left a wasteland behind, even booby-trapping a stuffed toy, wiring house doors, stove doors, anything that can trigger an explosion. It will take months to make west Mosul safe to enter for civilians and years to rebuild it. (East Mosul was less damaged and is making a more rapid recovery.)
That evening, after a typically tasteless dinner in the embassy’s military-style chow hall, we have a late-night conversation in our dorm lounge with Stephen Townsend, the folksy, silver-haired lieutenant general who commands U.S. operations in both Iraq and Syria. He expresses confidence in Iraqi forces, which are about to start the liberation of Tal Afar, and offers a chilling account of the final hours of Mosul after the hardest combat he has seen in his whole career: “It was like the Marines on Iwo Jima rooting the Japanese out of their bunkers with flamethrowers. It took bulldozers to plow the last fighters into the rubble.” Townsend is smart, personable, and outspoken. But he admits that he is so focused on the defeat of the Islamic State that he has little time to plan for what comes next and no mandate to stop the growth of Iranian influence. My fear is that U.S. success in defeating the Islamic State will simply open up more space for Iran to dominate — and that in turn will lead to the rise of ISIS 2.0.
Early call for bag drop — 5 a.m. By the time I am in the lobby, Votel is already coming in from his morning run. He gets up, I am told, at 4 a.m. every day. Clearly there’s a reason why he’s a general and I’m not. On to Afghanistan. En route, Votel calls us forward to share, via headsets, his impressions of the trip so far — something that he does at regular intervals during the journey. The four-star (V4 to his staff) and most of his aides disembark during a brief stop in Islamabad for meetings with the Pakistanis. The rest of us proceed on to Bagram Airfield, north of Kabul, the main U.S. hub in Afghanistan. In Iraq, most of the U.S. bases I remember are long gone, but in Afghanistan, Bagram remains essentially unchanged: a big airfield, with ugly steel and concrete buildings surrounded by gravel walkways, concrete blast walls, and Hesco bastions. There’s not much to do aside from go to the gym and the Green Beans Coffee shop. The placidity of life on this megabase is occasionally interrupted by Taliban rockets. A personal assistant announces on our first night that, because of the rocket threat, all personnel must wear body armor after 7 p.m. Not having brought body armor, we hurry to the chow hall for overcooked steaks and vegetables to eat on takeout trays in our modest DV (distinguished visitor) quarters. I fall into a fitful, drug-induced sleep, broken by the boom of F-16 fighter jets taking off on a nearby runway.
After a hearty breakfast — I’ve learned to eat a lot in the morning on such trips because you never know when you will catch your next meal — we head to a shura (council), where some of the U.S. Army troops who guard this base meet with their Afghan counterparts to discuss protection from Taliban attacks. The meeting itself is tedious if important, full of details of security work relayed through interpreters. For me, the most interesting part comes later when we ask questions. One of the Afghans tells me that the security situation and corruption are both worsening, even though Afghanistan’s attorney general has scored some high-profile convictions of corrupt officials.
The afternoon is spent touring Bagram, including the Craig Joint Theater Hospital, the most advanced medical facility in the country, where state-of-the-art care is delivered to wounded American and Afghan troops alike. I can testify to the doctors’ skill, having once been treated here for a severe stomach bug. But some patients are beyond saving. We witness a solemn procession as hospital staff accompany the corpse of an Afghan soldier, draped in an Afghan flag, who was killed in a recent attack. As a parting gift, the hospital commander gives us each a tourniquet, a $3 piece of equipment that has saved countless lives and limbs by preventing soldiers from bleeding out after being hit.
In the morning, we take helicopters to Camp Morehead, the base of the Afghan commandos located southeast of Kabul. This is a big day for the commandos — they are standing up a new corps as part of a push to double this force to 24,000 troops. The Afghan Special Operations Forces have become the most proficient part of the Afghan National Security Forces; they account for only 7 percent of the military but launch 70 percent of all offensive operations. For the ceremony, the commandos line up in the hot sun in their berets. A band in red British-style uniforms plays merrily. The reviewing stands, where dignitaries sit in easy chairs, are surrounded by hard-eyed men wearing suits and flak jackets, submachine guns gripped tightly. This is the presidential guard — Ashraf Ghani is in attendance. The Afghan president gives what seems to be a stirring speech even though I can’t understand a word. Likewise, presumably few of the Afghans can understand the U.S. commander, Gen. John Nicholson, who gives a pep talk in English. It’s a good speech, but his assurances of America’s unwavering commitment to Afghanistan ring hollow in light of news reports that President Trump gave serious consideration to withdrawing troops and firing Nicholson before endorsing a modest increase in U.S. forces.
The additional American advisors are needed to cope with a deteriorating security situation; the government controls only about 60 percent of the country, and in Helmand province it’s more like 40 percent. Even Kabul has become insecure because of terrorist attacks such as the May 31 truck bomb in front of the German Embassy, which killed 150 people. The U.S. Embassy is so afraid of the roads that it insists on ferrying its staff by helicopter to Kabul’s airport. But the generals we speak to at NATO’s Resolute Support headquarters in Kabul stress, as is their wont, the positive. This fighting season, they say, is going better than the disastrous one last year because the Taliban haven’t taken any provincial capitals and the Afghan Special Operations Forces have responded quickly to attacks in the capital. I don’t doubt their sincerity, but I can’t help remembering that in all of the briefings I’ve received in numerous visits to Iraq and Afghanistan since 2003, never once have I heard any commander tell me that the situation is deteriorating. Such heresy is whispered only by lower-level soldiers in informal settings.
The morning is spent visiting the 201st Afghan National Army Corps and the U.S. TAAC-East (Train Advise Assist Command-East), both located at Tactical Base Gamberi in Laghman province, east of Kabul. Maj. Gen. Mohammad Zaman Waziri, the mustachioed corps commander, comes in with a mysterious bandage on his right hand; he won’t explain what happened. He expresses confidence that with U.S. help he can continue to drive back the Islamic State’s Afghan branch, which has established strongholds nearby in southern Nangarhar province, and he recalls fondly the dropping of the 18,000-pound “Mother of All Bombs” in April as a morale booster for his command. U.S. advisors, in turn, express admiration for Waziri’s ability to control eastern Afghanistan, tempered only by their frustration that the Afghan army won’t get out of its static, defensive positions.
That afternoon, we fly to Oman, going from one of the most dangerous countries in the world to one of the safest. A jewel of stability and prosperity near the Persian Gulf, Oman hasn’t had a terrorist attack in living memory. That’s a tribute to a legitimate and popular, if hardly democratic, ruler. Sultan Qaboos bin Said has transformed his country since taking charge by overthrowing his father in 1970. After days in military housing and eating at chow halls, it’s a luxury to once again stay in a civilian hotel and eat in regular restaurants. There’s even alcohol available. In the evening, we attend a diplomatic reception hosted by U.S. Ambassador Marc Sievers and his Iraqi-born wife, Michelle Huda Raphael, whom he met while working for the Coalition Provisional Authority in 2004. At least, I remark to the contented couple, a few good things came out of the U.S. invasion.
Trump announces his decision on Afghanistan while we sleep. I spend the morning writing analyses of the new policy, which doesn’t look much different from the old one. The afternoon is spent on a brief visit to Duqm, a coastal city on the Arabian Sea that Oman is developing as a port. There is little here but dirt at the present. The plan is to create a new city, complete with an American/British depot that will give U.S. forces a way to move supplies across the Arabian Peninsula without transiting the dangerous Strait of Hormuz. The destroyer USS Kidd is docked at Duqm, and Votel goes aboard for a visit. I feel sorry for the sailors, given that there is literally nothing to do or see in port, unless they like playing in the dirt. In the evening, we fly to Riyadh.
Votel heads off to Saudi Arabia’s southern border with Yemen to discuss with Saudi commanders the state of their ill-starred war against the Iranian-backed Houthis. We — the two reporters and I, accompanied by Centcom’s personable public affairs chief, Col. John J. Thomas — drive to the fortress-like U.S. Embassy for off-the-record discussions about U.S.-Saudi relations. Between the war in Yemen and Saudi Arabia’s confrontation with Qatar, there is much to talk about. Then we drive to the kingdom’s new Global Center for Combating Extremist Ideology. Its operation room looks like the lair of a James Bond villain, with more than a hundred analysts in identical white robes (thobes) and red-and-white head coverings (ghutras) sitting in front of computers monitoring extremist ideology online. The room itself is vast and full of marble, with cathedral-high ceilings and massive LED screens displaying multiple data feeds. It’s an imposing edifice, but I remain skeptical that the Saudis will have much success in countering extremist ideology — something that they have spread across the world in the form of their Wahhabi ideology. Preaching tolerance and moderation isn’t very convincing, after all, coming from a country where women can’t drive and only Muslims are allowed to practice their religion. That evening, we fly to Bahrain, Saudi Arabia’s more laid-back neighbor.
The trip ends on a high note: a visit to the nuclear-powered aircraft carrier USS Nimitz, steaming in the Persian Gulf (or, as the U.S. Navy prefers to call it, in deference to the sensibilities of American allies, the Arabian Gulf). We travel on a propeller-driven airplane called a COD (carrier onboard delivery), which slams into the flight deck on arrival to catch the landing wire with its tail hook and, a few hours later, takes off with a rocket-like burst of acceleration, courtesy of the steam catapult. We would have been thrown out of our seats had we not been tightly buckled in. The whole experience is like a roller-coaster ride.
The Nimitz dispatches strike aircraft — there are 44 F-18s on board — every day to support anti-Islamic State operations in Iraq and Syria and also copes with regular incursions by Iranian UAVs (unmanned aerial vehicles) while braving a heat index that can reach 140 degrees Fahrenheit on the flight deck. It’s a thrill to watch F-18s landing and taking off with a roar of their jet engines. But what’s even more impressive is to see the skill and dedication of the 4,800 personnel who operate this city at sea. I was particularly impressed by a briefing delivered by Lt. Cmdr. Vern Jensen, a bullet-headed former noncommissioned officer who is the aircraft handling officer. He keeps track of all aircraft on the ship the old-fashioned way — with multicolored toy-sized symbols that he moves around a mock-up of the flight deck. On newer aircraft carriers, his low-tech system will be replaced by computers, but that will hardly render obsolete such skilled sailors who have decades of experience managing the complexities of carrier operations at sea. “You’re our secret weapon against the Chinese,” I tell him. “They can buy all this hardware, but they can’t replicate your knowledge.”
Later that night, on the flight home via commercial aircraft following a farewell dinner at the hotel with Votel and his aides, I reflect on the bravery, skill, and dedication of all the U.S. military personnel I met on this trip. From the Centcom commander on down, they would make any American who met them proud. That makes it all the more frustrating that the United States, for a variety of reasons, has not had more strategic success to show for its extensive commitment to the Centcom region. Yes, the United States is helping defeat the Islamic State — but peace and stability in this volatile area are as elusive ever. Votel remains relentlessly upbeat, but more junior officers and enlisted personnel, especially in Afghanistan, quietly grumble that they are fighting a “forever war.”
So does that mean that the isolationists are right to want to pull American troops back? Hardly. Even if the United States can’t achieve its maximal objectives, it can prevent the worst from happening — and that is what U.S. armed forces are currently doing by fighting the Islamic State, al Qaeda, the Taliban, and other Sunni extremist groups while acting as a counterforce to Iranian-backed Shiite extremists. The Middle East may be bad enough now; it would be a whole lot worse if the men and women under Votel’s command were not present to protect American interests.