How the War Against ISIS Was Won, Before It Was Lost

As Donald Trump seized on fears of refugees and ISIS in his rise to the presidency, the battle to take down Mosul, the group’s crown jewel in Iraq, was just beginning. This is what those moments felt like.

If you ask an Istanbullu where to find plant food or pesticide, you will be directed to a shopping arcade in an underpass beside the Galata Bridge, in the neighborhood of Karaköy, where these items are sold in rows of identical shops. Fishing equipment is sold a few blocks over, where nets and harpoons hang from awnings and mannequins in wetsuits clutter the sidewalks. A little farther along are the shops that sell construction supplies, crowded together along the narrow streets of the Perşembe Pazarı, one after another, hard to tell apart. Neighborhoods like these are vestiges of another age in the timeworn city, before the internet and the phone book, when buying a certain thing meant going to a certain place—engagement rings in Nişantaşı, wood products in Tahtakale. Modern Istanbul has its chain stores and shopping malls but also plenty of areas where the old style remains, if for no other reason than the classic Turkish mind-set that says, Because things have always been this way. Down the hill from central Istanbul’s Taksim Square is Çukurcuma, home to the antique sellers. Farther west, in Galata, are shops stacked with musical instruments. On the nearby hilltop in Şişhane, store windows are filled with light fixtures, glittering above the sea. Eminönü has the spice bazaar, and Sultanahmet is home to the carpet traders. Aksaray, a working-class neighborhood in the heart of the conservative Fatih district, is home to the human traffickers.

The neighborhood was founded in the 15th century by migrants from a region in central Turkey of the same name. They were brought to Istanbul by its conqueror, Mehmet II, to help populate the city with ethnic Turks after his victory over the Greeks. The transitory feel of the place has continued into the present day. Aksaray is home to the city’s main bus depot, a seething compound that sees long-haul arrivals from places as far as the Balkans and Iran. Traces remain of the immigrant communities that have sprouted in the neighborhood over the years, from the riotous Georgian restaurant hidden in a corner of the bus depot to the Iraqi café and Iranian restaurant on the streets around it. In the fall of 2012, Munzer al-Awad, a Syrian journalist with whom I’d eventually partner to cover the Islamic State and the criminal networks across Turkey that supported it, stepped out from a taxi and into the disorienting crush of Aksaray for the first time. He was surprised to find new Syrian restaurants along its streets. Syrian refugees like him crowded by the hundreds into its parks and squares as agents of the human traffickers canvassed among them, working to fill their smuggling boats.

He had arrived at the Istanbul airport two hours earlier, still caught in the mental fog that trailed him after his confinement and torture in one of the Assad regime’s prisons. The only thing he could communicate to the taxi driver was that he was Syrian, and so the man drove him to Aksaray. Unsure what to do with himself, Munzer found a cheap hotel, sat at the bar, and ordered a drink.

Refugees like Munzer had been receiving this sort of welcome to Aksaray for decades. Before Syrians, it was Iraqis fleeing the carnage of the U.S. war. In the 1980s, it was Iranians, fleeing the newly established Islamic Republic. All of them were directed to smugglers who worked from hotels and offices and seemed to be part of Aksaray, as enduring as the medieval fountains along the busy streets. The particular smugglers changed with whatever national or ethnic group was passing through at a given time, taking over from the traffickers who’d come before them, always with the Turkish Mafia providing protection from police. The traffickers sent their charges onward to Europe and beyond: by plane; via the land borders with Greece and Bulgaria, both a three-hour drive away; and on dangerous voyages in overcrowded migrant ships.

By the time Munzer and I began working together, in the fall of 2014, the Syrian-refugee crisis had become the worst in modern history. People were fleeing ISIS as well as the daily bombardment by the forces of Syrian President Bashar al-Assad, and more than half of the 4 million people who’d left the country were spread around Turkey, joined by a rising number of Iraqis. When Munzer arrived in Aksaray, 80,000 Syrians were refugees in Turkey, but as Assad’s warplanes strafed the country’s cities, it was clear that the deluge was coming. Munzer had been one of the early revolutionaries, flying home from an accounting job in Doha to help organize the protests when they began in Daraa, his home city, where the country’s Arab Spring protests had started with small demonstrations against police brutality. Eventually the mukhabarat, Syria’s secret police, arrested him at his home, and he was thrown into the unlit basement of a prison. For years he would tell me only outlines of what had happened to him—that he’d been tortured repeatedly, that he’d tripped over dead bodies in the pitch black of his crowded cell. I knew that he’d been released only by what he considered a freak chance and that the rest of the dozens of people he was imprisoned with were almost certainly dead. In a database run by a monitoring group in an effort to keep track of the tens of thousands of men and women who’d disappeared into the regime’s prisons, Munzer himself was listed as deceased.

When he first arrived in Aksaray, he tried and failed to find a job—as a waiter, as a cashier. Then he booked passage on one of the smuggling journeys to Greece, hoping to get to London, in the belief that the limited English he spoke then might help him find work there. Instead he was detained by the Greek authorities, who sent him back across the land border into Turkey. Out of money and options, he took a bus from Istanbul to a city called Antakya in southern Turkey, near the Syrian border, looking for work as a translator for the international journalists who had flocked to the region to cover the civil war.

Two years later, in the summer of 2014, I was drinking one night at a restaurant near the border when Munzer walked in with a couple of German journalists. We had a beer and agreed to start working together on an investigation into ISIS’s underground oil economy. Munzer also had a unique set of contacts of his own in the human traffickers he’d first encountered on his ill-fated journey to Greece. It was from them that he first heard an alarming rumor—ISIS was slipping fighters in among the thousands of refugees and migrants leaving Turkey on boats bound for Europe.

This nightmare scenario was not yet a focus of Western governments, which had been incensed by the establishment of ISIS’s physical caliphate and were still scrambling to put together a plan to destroy it. America and its allies, such as the United Kingdom and France, were pounding ISIS territory in Iraq and Syria with air strikes. ISIS had vowed retaliation. At the same time, it was pushing, as its propaganda made clear, to make Muslims everywhere see that they were in conflict with the West, whether they wanted to be or not. Prime targets for ISIS were those Muslims already living in the West—it wanted to show that despite what they might think, they could not peacefully exist there. It would put liberal democracies, which said they welcomed all kinds of people, to the test. An ISIS attack, especially by someone who had slipped into Europe posing as a refugee, might create a backlash against Muslims in the West, and ISIS knew that there were populists and nativists who would seize on this. Donald Trump, of course, would do this more effectively than anyone during the presidential campaign he launched the following year.

On a cold afternoon in December 2014, Munzer and I took a taxi to Aksaray. We walked down a set of stairs and into a bar lit dimly by halogen lights. Men in leather jackets sat at tables with women in tight jeans and miniskirts, smoking hookah pipes. The trafficker we’d come to meet was alone at a table in the center of the room. As we joined him, he said the café was run by smugglers and that he’d picked it for our meeting because it was “safe” from police.

A former white-collar professional in his 30s, he used his smuggling business to support his young family in Europe. He’d been doing the work even before the Syrian war, sending Iraqis and other desperate migrants to the Continent, but he said business had picked up considerably. According to Frontex, the European Union’s border agency, more than 20,000 refugees, many of them Syrians, had already been smuggled from Turkey into Greece and Bulgaria alone that year. He charged $2,500 for each refugee he sent by speedboat from Turkey to Greece. He said he viewed it as “humanitarian work,” on top of the profit he made. But he’d grown uncomfortable with the turn this work had taken.

He had a connection to an ISIS official, who, in the fall, had sent a client his way. He recalled him as a clean-shaven man who looked “like a simple refugee.” The two struck up a friendship, and he learned that the man was an ISIS member. The man was blunt about his reason for heading to Europe—he wanted to be ready to stage attacks there. “The Western world thinks there is no ISIS in their countries—that all the jihadis have gone to fight and die in Syria,” the trafficker said. “But this man said, ‘No. We are sending our fighters to take their places.’”

Meanwhile, ISIS was working to keep civilians trapped in its territory. They were a revenue stream, thanks to the group’s infamous tax regime, and could be used as human shields. It issued orders against leaving, killed some people who tried, and kept its territory ringed by checkpoints. It cost what some families considered a fortune to pay a smuggler to escape. Others looked at the sad situation of refugees in Turkey and decided that, if they had a job and a house, they were better off staying put. The intensifying campaign of U.S. air strikes were just another thing they left to fate.

The Obama administration had sold the American public on a certain kind of war. It was meant to be guilt-free. Keeping in line with that aim—and with no NGOs or journalists on the ground in ISIS territory to challenge the narrative—the United States insisted that its air attacks almost never killed civilians. But over the course of several weeks in the summer of 2015, Munzer and I traveled along the Turkey-Syria border to seek out civilian victims and witnesses to the U.S. strikes, and we learned that the administration’s narrative was obviously not true.

In all, we documented about a dozen cases where U.S. strikes had killed civilians but the official U.S. line was that only ISIS members had died. We knew there must be many more, and even U.S. diplomats privately told me the numbers were much higher. One man recounted how his father and mother were killed along with his two brothers, his sister, and her two children in one U.S. strike in July. A 67-year-old man described seeing “whole families” killed in another U.S. attack. One son lost his aging father; another lost his mom. A 28-year-old mother was sitting with her three children on their rooftop in Raqqa when a U.S. air strike hit a nearby bridge. She saw something like a flash, she recalled, and a wall crumbled onto her kids. Another strike killed five little girls and wounded their pregnant mother, who suffered a miscarriage, and her older brother. Another three civilians were killed in a house nearby: a 55-year-old woman, her 21-year-old son, and her 17-year-old daughter.

Trump would eventually claim credit for winning the war against ISIS, but he more or less followed the plan set in motion by the previous administration. One of his few signature changes was to loosen restrictions on U.S. air strikes that were intended to prevent additional civilian harm. And under Trump, the U.S. government’s already suspect reporting on civilian casualties has become even more opaque; earlier this year, he revoked a 2016 executive order requiring the intelligence community to submit an annual report on civilians killed in U.S. strikes conducted outside of official combat zones. The independent monitoring group Airwars estimates that 8,000 to 13,000 civilians have been killed in strikes by America and its allies in Iraq and Syria since 2014. The U.S. government puts the number at about 1,300.

As Munzer and I sought out victims around southern Turkey in the summer of 2015, we realized that many people had no idea who had hurt them. Various nations were bombing Syria at once, and America’s obfuscations about civilian casualties only exacerbated the bewildering chaos. Soon Russia would join Assad in attacking opposition towns and cities, showing far less concern than the coalition did for minimizing civilian harm and sometimes seeming to intend it, adding the power of its air force to the destruction.

With summer moving toward fall, the refugee crisis, already four years in the making, began to take on the feeling of an exodus. It seemed as if Syrians were realizing en masse that the country would never be put back together again. The number of migrants making the journey from Turkey to Europe was skyrocketing. Munzer and I would call our friends and sources in southern Turkey and find that they were gone. A friend who’d been our driver, shuttling us up and down the border region in a dusty minivan, texted Munzer a shaky smartphone video that showed him piloting a small speedboat toward a Greek island off the Turkish coast; sometimes the traffickers gave discounts to passengers who agreed to captain these craft. As he steered through a foggy dawn, his fellow migrants serenaded him with an Arabic take on “For He’s a Jolly Good Fellow,” their voices rising above the hum of the motor and the lapping of the waves.

Migrants travel to Lesbos on an overcrowded raft.
Syrian refugees approach a beach on the Greek island of Lesbos, November 19, 2015. (Yannis Behrakis / Reuters)

The decisions to leave seemed sudden, but they were the result of years of suffering. I remembered all those times I’d heard the friend and his wife screaming at each other on the phone, the stress of watching their children grow up in a refugee camp overcoming them. It was the piling on of misfortune, as unforgiving as the march of time. I knew a rebel commander, a defected colonel, whose battalion had U.S. backing and plans to bring the people engineers and a steady supply of bread. Their cause was hopeless; they were losing. We had dinner at a restaurant in Antakya, where he was a refugee. With him was a friend, who told me that one day early in the war, a tank had fired outside his house in Damascus. Tanks stink like rust and brown exhaust and grease, and the sound their cannons make when they fire is an abomination, ear-splitting, screeching. The tank fired right next to the man’s house, when his son was 3 or 4, and at that moment the boy had stopped talking. Years had passed—silence, suffering. At the schools in southern Turkey, the teachers tried to shuffle the boy to special ed. They gave no thought to psychological care, the man said. He threw his hands up: What am I going to do? This was one window into the breaking point many refugees were reaching. Eventually the colonel had enough and quit the war and moved his family to Germany. He had connections, so his family got visas, and they arrived in Germany legally, by plane. Most Syrians couldn’t get visas to Europe, so they were going on the boats.

Western governments were becoming alarmed as they realized that the surge of new arrivals made them impossible to vet. At the same time, it was dawning on some that the refugee crisis was not just collateral damage from the war effort run by Assad and Moscow and Tehran, but part of their strategy. Assad had lost control of about three-quarters of the country, and by making those areas unlivable, it was easier to regain control. The people fleeing were almost exclusively Sunni, meanwhile, meaning that each departure helped a government bent on promoting Shia-Alawite dominance accomplish its goal. And the refugee crisis was destabilizing many of the same countries that had united in support of the opposition. The more Muslim migrants poured into Western countries, the stronger far-right populist and isolationist currents there were becoming, promoting hostility not just toward the newcomers but toward institutions like NATO and the European Union. A terrorist attack on their own soil would only help them make their case.

Assad’s jets bombed schools and hospitals and markets and homes. His forces carried out sieges that choked off food to opposition-held areas. They dropped barrel bombs—crude devices that were exactly what the name suggests, explosives packed into a barrel and dropped from a helicopter, relatively useless for attacking military targets but good for terrorizing civilians.

And Assad and his allies weren’t the only ones trying to turn the refugee crisis toward their own ends. Turkey took on by far the largest burden of refugees from the conflict. But Recep Tayyip Erdoğan, its ever more authoritarian president, also repeatedly used refugees as a negotiating tool, threatening to pull back enforcement on the smugglers and open the way into Europe unless its leaders acceded to his various demands. As European countries condemned Erdoğan’s invasion of northeastern Syria this week, he made the threat again.

In Aksaray in the fall of 2015, orange life vests hung from shop stalls along the crowded streets. One vendor told me that his cheaper vests could only keep a man afloat for a few minutes and billed his more expensive versions as “guarantees.” Syrians crammed into the parks by the dozens, waiting for the nightly buses the traffickers arranged to take their clients to the coast. Families carried black trash bags stuffed with their possessions. The buses idled at the edge of a park as Turkish policemen watched; it was one of those times when the Turkish government had decided to ease enforcement on the traffickers. One night, as Munzer and I sat in the office of one Syrian smuggler, a cop burst in. The smuggler jumped up from his desk, pulled out a wad of cash with a look of annoyance, and put it into the man’s hand. The cop gestured for more, but the smuggler ended the transaction by sticking his middle finger in his face.

With ISIS and the refugee crisis roiling European and American politics in the fall of 2016, the battle for Mosul, the crown jewel of the ISIS caliphate in northern Iraq, took on an additional sense of urgency. One evening that October, the photographer Warzer Jaff and I sped a Land Cruiser to a small village north of Mosul, in the shadow of the Zagros Mountains. There we found some 50 men in green fatigues and red berets standing at attention in the yard of a sympathetic farmer.

This was the Counter-Terrorism Unit (CTU), an elite group of Iraqi-Kurdish soldiers who were a model of the way America had decided to wage the ISIS war. They had been trained and armed by the U.S. government and often worked alongside U.S. commandos, whose operations in the war were officially secret. The CTU and the Americans sometimes hunted down high-value ISIS targets on missions behind enemy lines. Jaff and I had first encountered the CTU the previous summer, while investigating the death of a master sergeant from the Delta Force, Joshua Wheeler, who had become the first American casualty in the war with ISIS during a hostage rescue with the CTU.

In the yard, a CTU commander addressed the men in Kurdish in a voice inflected with a laryngitic squeak. The unit also carried out more traditional assaults, and they would be launching one the following morning, without the Americans. The plan was to punch through ISIS lines in a column of Humvees, driving a wedge into its territory to move the battle lines closer to Mosul, helping to pave the way for an attack on the city. As they fought their way southbound in a small convoy, they’d be all but surrounded. “Listen up,” the commander said. “They will throw everything they can at you. They have car bombs, tunnels, IEDs. And they are looking for every chance to attack us. Remember that. Whenever we stop, that gives them a chance to attack. Remember the discipline of your training. Don’t be lazy. Don’t open the windows of your Humvee. Don’t say, ‘I need to go and take a leak.’ You have everything you need.”

A photograph of wreckage in the Old City of Mosul.
Destroyed buildings are seen during fighting between Iraqi forces and Islamic State militants in the Old City of Mosul, July 7, 2017. (Ahmed Saad / Reuters)

A pair of soldiers leaned on each other’s shoulders as the commander spoke, and somehow in that soft fall breeze, I was reminded of a pregame speech at a high-school football game, my mind moving, for a few pleasant moments, to the quiet innocence of an athletic field somewhere on Long Island. But the commander’s words were like a madman’s, the danger of the task conveyed in his simplicity: Don’t stop, don’t pee. Fear this enemy. The speech was done, and the men began to make their preparations—a soldier carefully placing a machine gun in its turret, the officers removing the ranks from their sleeves.

I walked over to the Humvee that would occupy the eighth spot in the convoy, where a 33-year-old captain named Saeed was readying the anti-tank missile launcher mounted to its turret. I would accompany his crew into the battle on my own, because the unit’s commander had agreed to surrender just a single spot in the Humvee, leaving Jaff to trail behind in a hulking armored vehicle known as an MRAP. Standing erect, with his beret cocked to the side, Captain Saeed greeted me in English and smiled warmly. He had been a soldier since he was 17 and was one of the first to sign up for the CTU program in the midst of the ISIS emergency. I asked about the American commandos he sometimes fought alongside. “That’s secret stuff. I don’t want to talk about it,” he said. “Right now, my profession is the rockets. That’s what I do.”

As the man who defended the convoy against suicide car bombs, Captain Saeed knew he would have a busy day. His weapon, called a BGM-71 TOW missile launcher, fired rockets attached by a thin metal wire to a console in his turret, allowing him to direct them toward his target with a joystick. Hoping to neutralize the convoy’s defense, ISIS often sent car bombs straight at Captain Saeed’s Humvee.

He said, “All of us have considered the day when we’re going to be killed. And we have a goal. And for the goal it’s worth spilling any amount of blood.” He wasn’t just talking about defeating ISIS. He was a hard-line Kurdish nationalist—a man who, though he knew it fluently, refused to speak Arabic. He saw pushing ISIS off Kurdish land as a prelude to drawing the boundaries for a new Kurdish state; what territory they took he did not intend to be leaving. Captain Saeed ticked off the atrocities and injustices that had been perpetrated against the Kurds—an ethnic minority that had been suppressed, often brutally, in Iraq, Syria, and Turkey—across the decades. To him, independence was the only way to make it right.

This was the same hope held by the Kurds across the border in Syria, who had their own emerging partnership with the Americans against ISIS. Both forces hoped that the new stature they gained from this—and the blood they spilled to clear ISIS from what they considered Kurdish lands—would boost their long-held dreams of independence, or at least greater autonomy from governments that had historically oppressed them. These dreams came despite a history of American betrayal. And they would eventually be dashed in both countries. In Iraq, a controversial 2017 Kurdish referendum on independence was met with an incursion by Iraqi forces that saw them retake much of the land Kurdish forces had won from ISIS. In Syria, meanwhile, America’s Kurdish partners are currently bearing the blunt of a Turkish invasion, following Trump’s vow to Erdoğan that America would stand aside and watch it happen.

These competing motivations—between the Americans and its local partners and between those partners themselves—were part of what made the strange alliance that had come together to defeat ISIS feel so improbable. And that improbability only seemed to underscore the battle’s epic stakes.

Mosul covered 70 square miles, and by then the coalition had pushed back the ISIS defense lines to a ring of towns and villages that surrounded it. As the CTU prepared to push toward Mosul from the north, more fighters were mustering all around the cordon, waiting for the signal to begin a coordinated assault meant to mimic a noose tightening. There were the Kurdish peshmerga as well as the various factions of the Iraqi security forces, ragtag groups of Sunni Arab tribesmen, Shiite militia who were backed by Iran’s Islamic Revolutionary Guard Corps, small Yazidi and Christian battalions, and the neo-Marxist YPG blocking supply lines from Syria. Many of these groups had fought one another before and believed they would do so again one day—but they had agreed to put aside their differences, for a little while at least, and band together.

The CTU troops arranged their vehicles into a caravan to head to the front lines, and Jaff and I got into the Land Cruiser to follow them. I steered it into line as the unit rumbled through darkened villages. Bystanders stopped and waved when they saw the men passing, the vehicles rolling slowly. A child scampered in the sidelong glare of the headlights.

The soldiers stopped outside a town called Tel Skof at a great berm that stretched for miles through fields that farmers had stopped working. For about two years, this had marked a boundary with ISIS. Jaff and I had been there before and knew that on the other side stretched no-man’s-land and then, just in rifle range, an ISIS berm that mirrored the one the CTU men now parked their vehicles behind. Regular Kurdish soldiers were stationed along the berm. I could also see a few Western soldiers camped out on their own, their bearded faces lit by a small fire. I backed the Land Cruiser against the berm and pushed back my seat. Jaff, who was livid at being relegated to the MRAP for the next day’s battle, fell asleep beside me in a silent rage.

In The Forever War, a book about the Iraq War by the journalist Dexter Filkins, Jaff had played a starring role, working alongside Filkins, then a New York Times correspondent in his 40s. The pair carried on in the heart of the civil war, and Jaff, in the book, was all bravado and aggression. He hailed from a big Kurdish clan, had done hard time in the Kurdish resistance, and seemed unfazed by the danger they faced—Filkins likened him to the cool-blooded detective played by Clint Eastwood in Dirty Harry.

Jaff was a man who would not be rushed through a meal, and Filkins relates a scene in which they receive a hostile welcome from fellow diners at a kebab house in a tense town north of Baghdad. “We walked in and Jaff said something to the owner, and then we headed toward the back and sat down. And everyone in the restaurant was staring at us,” he writes. “Under my breath, I suggested to Jaff that perhaps we ought to leave. Jaff didn’t say a word, but reached down and unstrapped his Browning 9 mm pistol and laid it on the table in front of him. Then he ordered his kebab, as if nothing was amiss. Within a few minutes, everyone got back to minding their own business.”

When the Twin Towers fell, I was in third period at my high school, 20 miles to the east on Long Island, and after the students whose parents worked in the towers were called one by one to the principal’s office on the loudspeaker, we were sent home early. Standing at Ground Zero on September 11, Filkins saw a transformation coming. “My countrymen were going to think this was the worst thing that ever happened, the end of civilization,” he wrote, explaining that in the places he’d worked, such death and destruction was, if not commonplace, then not extraordinary—a cyclone in India, an earthquake in Turkey, decades of war in Afghanistan. “I don’t think I was the only person thinking this, who had the darker perspective. All those street vendors who worked near the World Trade Center, from all those different countries, selling falafel and shawarma. When they heard the planes and watched the towers they must have thought the same as I did: that they’d come home.”

It was hard to be in Iraq during the ISIS war and not feel the repercussions of that moment: in the security-choked streets of Baghdad and in soldiers marked by more than a decade of fighting and in civilians who had lived through all of it. I wondered how the terrorist attacks that ISIS was carrying out might affect the American mind-set all over again, and I wondered too about the other countries ISIS was targeting. After the 2015 terrorist attacks in Paris, there had been more: Sometimes, as in Brussels, there were operational links to ISIS, while other times, as in San Bernardino, California, the attackers were only inspired by it. The distinction didn’t seem to matter to many politicians. The forces of nativism and populism were rising in Europe, and with a presidential election less than a month away, Donald Trump was within striking distance in the polls at home. The previous December, he had made his infamous call for a Muslim ban, playing right into ISIS’s propaganda. It proposed to block the same soldiers who were dying by the thousands to defeat ISIS in Iraq and Syria. I would recall this when Trump later took credit for a victory that, in truth, these local soldiers had won—and when, with his move to abandon America’s Kurdish allies in Syria this week, he cast all the progress that had been made in the fight against ISIS into uncertainty.

In the lead-up to the war’s signature battle in Mosul, which coincided with the last days of the 2016 campaign, the battles in Iraq and Syria seemed linked inextricably to the politics of the West. ISIS had mastered the use of social media to amplify every attack, whether carried out by one of its fighters or by anyone at all with ISIS sympathies, turning even lone wolves into extensions of its global reach. Within this strategy was an evolution: While Osama bin Laden’s al-Qaeda had focused on sophisticated, high-profile operations, ISIS embraced the ordinary. Shooting up random office parks and driving trucks through crowds were the kinds of attacks that made it seem like anyone could be a threat. They were designed to get people to turn their suspicions on one another. And I felt it happening, in conversations with people around the world, often total strangers, who would let out their anxieties when they found out where I lived and worked. Or there were conversations like this one, over email with a friend from home: “Frank had a baby, Dan is president of a company … Know I said I wanted you home where it’s safe—but in a few weeks not sure that will be the case. It’s really getting weirder and weirder and I’m not sure when the weirdness will start to become legitimate fear for your own safety.”

To me it was an open question whether the forces that ISIS had helped to set in motion could be stopped with its defeat, but as the Mosul battle commenced, these were the stakes. Local soldiers across the anti-ISIS alliance often spoke of the war in the context of this greater upheaval, saying they were the world’s front line against the militants. None of them were saints, and each force was there to pursue its own geopolitical interests; yet they also saw themselves as foot soldiers in a global struggle.

The alarm on my iPhone was set for 4 a.m., and when it blared, I stepped out into the darkness and heard the rumble of the heavy engines starting along the berm. Headlights flashed on. The unique sound of Kurdish filtered through the chilly air, a variation of an ancient Iranian dialect preserved by the isolation of the mountains: Ew kata bash. Beyanee bash. Hello. Good morning. I put on my body armor and stuffed my notebook into its front pocket.

I left Jaff sleeping in the Land Cruiser and walked along the berm until I found Captain Saeed standing beside his Humvee in his red beret. I used my flashlight to scan the Humvee’s roof: binoculars, a fire extinguisher, a pair of assault rifles. Captain Saeed climbed into his turret, and I slid into the back. The turret’s manhole was cut into the middle of the roof, and Captain Saeed hung down from it, sitting on a thick strap that came under him like a swing, the toes of his boots touching the seat beside my thigh. I craned my neck to look up through the turret. It was that spectral time when night is brushed with the first shades of day, and a gibbous moon still shone. Captain Saeed was staring up at the brightening sky, as if meditating.

Kurdish nationalists like him, just as Syrian rebels once did, sometimes likened themselves to America’s revolutionary patriots, ready to die for their vision of a new country, and he seemed in that moment like a figure from another time, though I couldn’t say whether it was in the past or the future. On the one hand he was an anachronism, with the migrant crisis and the dissolution of global boundaries making the idea of statehood difficult to imagine in the pure way that he saw it. On the other, perhaps he was a harbinger of a time when new territory would be carved from the world’s disarray.

The rest of the team took their seats in the Humvee: a boyish driver whose helmet almost covered his eyes, another soldier in the back seat behind him, and a man who introduced himself in broken English as Ahmed in the passenger’s seat. Captain Saeed gave me a set of noise-canceling headphones. When the men gave the signal that he was about to fire his weapon, he said, I should take off my helmet and put them on.

Sixteen Humvees lined up and rolled through a gap in the berm. Peshmerga watched as we passed, waving and filming on their phones. The hellish roar of a missile battery cut through the air behind us. The convoy moved slowly through the dead fields, pausing as an armor-plated tractor swept the ground for improvised explosive devices. Plumes of dirt shot into the air as the IEDs detonated. Between each explosion was the mechanical rumble of the vehicles and the slow creak of our turret, as Captain Saeed turned it with a hand crank, scanning.

As the Humvee rocked and rumbled, I began to drift to sleep. The sky had turned a bright blue, and the sun was heating the metal shell around me. As I dozed, an alarm vibrated the fitness tracker on my wrist; it was set for 7 a.m., still synced to my schedule at home. Briefly I imagined the night table beside my bed, the soft light through the curtains, and the warmth of my fiancée. It grew hotter in the Humvee as the sun continued to rise, and I began to sweat beneath my armor.

The first gunshots sounded from one of the vehicles at the head of the convoy, and our driver cast his eyes about worriedly. We rolled forward, dry reeds scratching at the Humvee’s shell. Captain Saeed kept rotating in his turret, a predator on the hunt. There was a quiet to the proceedings, as if we were sneaking on foot, as we approached the ISIS berm. We paused for a long while inside a little dip in the landscape, and an armored bulldozer rolled past us. An air strike hit to the left, then the right. It chilled me to imagine what the pilots might have seen creeping toward us.

My eardrums pulsed twice, and then again, to the sound of nearby air strikes. It felt like a long-present static had been cleared from my head. Captain Saeed had his iPhone charging from the cigarette lighter near the driver, and it was ringing in the tone of an old rotary phone. Through the thick film of my window, I saw a dragonfly land on a reed. A mortar hit beside us, and there was a set of three air strikes.

Mortars continued to explode around us. The heat was pulsing in the Humvee. As we rolled forward, I again felt myself being rocked to sleep as the Kurdish crackling on the radio, the dated ring of Captain Saeed’s phone, and the thud of the mortars seemed to blend into nothing more than a dream.

It was around noon when thick rounds from a heavy machine gun began flying at us from a compound about 100 yards away. A frantic voice on the radio warned that an armor-plated truck bomb was headed the convoy’s way. The soldiers saw it from the Humvee’s windows, coming right at us from the direction of the compound. They pointed and yelled as Captain Saeed faced his weapon toward the vehicle, which was trailing a long tail of dust. I saw the soldiers rip off their helmets and put on their noise-canceling headsets, but it seemed crazy to do that with the truck bomb so close, so I put my head down and jammed my fingers into my ears. There was a deafening shriek as Captain Saeed fired, and a powerful explosion rocked the Humvee. With a joyful expression, the man beside me flashed a thumbs-up. Then, as if with the flick of a switch, his expression turned deadly serious again. He flung open his door, grabbed another missile from the back of the Humvee, and handed it to Captain Saeed, who reloaded the weapon.

The battle continued like that, with both sides firing frantically, until I saw that bulldozers had appeared on a hill beside us, each flying the bright Kurdish flag. They began to push up berms, creating a defensive cordon around a patch of dirt about the size of a football field.

The Humvees took up positions behind the berms, their weapons pointing outward. Regular Kurdish forces were rushing to cement control of the wedge of territory the CTU had cleared, but here we were, at the tip of a peninsula surrounded by a hostile sea. As the troops stepped out from their vehicles, mortars rained down from the south, east, and west, but the berms offered the illusion of protection.

I stood to stretch my legs in the fresh air and took a selfie with a soldier who thought it was cool to have a foreign journalist there. From the center of the cordon I could look out in all directions. Black smoke rose up all along the horizon, an easterly wind bending the plumes sideways. My bag was in another Humvee, and I walked over to a group of soldiers to ask whether anyone knew where to find it. Someone pointed to a vehicle near the berm. I had stepped about 15 yards from those soldiers when a mortar crashed into them. I felt the heat on the back of my neck as I careened forward. When I caught my balance, I ran my hands over my body to see whether I’d been hit. Then I heard the sound of moaning. More bombs came crashing down as the mortar team realized they’d hit their mark.

Soldiers were scrambling for cover inside the Humvees, and someone pulled me into one with him. There were four of us crowded in the front seat as I sat like a child on the lap of the man who’d grabbed me. The Humvee faced toward the blast site, and I watched through the foggy windshield as an injured soldier wandered through the settling dust, blood dripping from a gash on his head. Another was laying on the ground, his stomach gashed, bleeding to death. A third was carried by his comrades with one foot severed and the opposite leg shredded. The injured man was set on the ground, and medics rushed to him. Jaff walked over and handed someone the tourniquet from his med kit. Then he snapped a photo.

Jaff and I spent the night in the back of an MRAP crowded with soldiers, seated on a bench, as air strikes boomed one after another. The mission had been a success, but it was also sobering to see how even some of Iraq’s best-trained and best-equipped soldiers had been slowed by the guerilla defense. And in this battle, the open fields made it easy for the coalition pilots to see ISIS positions and hit them with air strikes. That wouldn’t be the case in Mosul, where ISIS could take cover in the rows of buildings and among the civilians trapped there. From here, the casualties that the Kurds and America’s other local partners would take in Mosul—and in the other final battles for the caliphate in Iraq and Syria—would only mount. The night sky seemed to rip open as a helicopter gunship roared nearby, helping to keep whatever was moving toward us at bay.

This post was excerpted from Mike Giglio’s forthcoming book, Shatter the Nations: ISIS and the War for the Caliphate.