What Muslims Fighting ISIS in the Middle East Say About Trump
Some hate him for his rhetoric, while others cheer the Republican nominee as the surest way to see America bite the dust.
Peshmerga soldiers show off their weaponry on the frontline near Kirkuk, Iraq. Photos by the author.
At an outpost near the town of Tuz Khurmatu, Iraq, a dozen or so members of the Badr Organization, an Iran-backed Shiite militia fighting the Islamic State, seat themselves on the floor and begin to eat lunch. They dip bread into a meat stew poured over hot mounds of rice, then sip from cups of Kurdish ayran, a watery, yogurt-like drink swimming with white chunks.
When the men are finished, they light slim Iraqi cigarettes and smoke them over small glasses of dark, sweet tea. The subject of the upcoming 2016 United States presidential election is raised, a topic that, unsurprisingly, has sparked some interest among the Badr fighters. The Popular Mobilization Forces (PMF) or Hashd al-Shaabi, an umbrella group of Iraqi Shiite militias to which the Badr Organization belongs, are ideologically opposed to the United States, which considers some of its leaders to be terrorists. But the PMF's fight against ISIS has called for a tenuous quasi-alliance with American forces providing military assistance to the Iraqi army and other enemies of the notorious terrorist group.
One round, mustachioed captain offers his thoughts on a certain former reality TV star and presidential candidate.
"I can tell from Trump's words that there is something wrong with him," he says with a chuckle. "He says he will not allow Muslims in the US, and he will bring an army to conquer Iraq. I do not think a person who says this is an appropriate candidate. It is illogical.
"If the Americans have any reason, they will not vote for Trump," the captain continues. "But if he wins and says he will come to Iraq by force—well, he can try it. The Americans left [the country] based on [diplomatic] agreements. Let Trump come without any agreements and see what will happen. We would love to welcome him to Iraq."
It's unlikely that the Badr fighters, whom I visited earlier this month, watched the first debate between Republican presidential candidate Donald Trump and Democratic candidate Hillary Clinton on Monday. Middle Eastern militiamen aren't usually that plugged into domestic American politics, and there isn't all that much time for livestreaming on the front lines of the war with ISIS. But as their discussion suggests, the outcome will almost certainly affect the lives of the Muslims fighting ISIS in a tangible way—even if the various militant groups engaged in the struggle are reacting rather differently. After all, with the help of Iran, the militia is in the midst of battling ISIS forces in Iraq alongside the Iraqi army and the Peshmerga, the fighting force of the Kurdish Regional Government—both of which are being assisted and trained by the United States.
Trump has roundly attacked the Obama administration's approach to fighting ISIS and doubled down on his strategic criticism at Monday's debate. At one point, the moderator, Lester Holt, raised the question of how the candidates would approach the issues of terrorism and ISIS.
"Trump is a fool, and those who follow him are bigger fools."—an officer with the Badr Organization fighting ISIS in Iraq
"We're working with our friends in the Middle East, many of which, as you know, are Muslim majority nations," Clinton said. "Donald has consistently insulted Muslims abroad, Muslims at home, when we need to be cooperating with Muslim nations and with the American Muslim community. They're on the front lines."
Trump's long, semi-coherent response included at least one item that would be of special interest to the Badr fighters in Iraq.
"I think we have to get NATO to go into the Middle East with us, in addition to surrounding [Muslim] nations, and we have to knock the hell out of ISIS, and we have to do it fast," he said.
In conjunction with past rhetoric about seizing Iraq's oil as spoils of war, these oblique hints of another Western invasion of the country are raising eyebrows in the Badr Organization—as is the candidate's Islamophobic political rhetoric.
"I have heard that Daesh [ISIS] supports Trump," a lanky younger fighter says when I visit. "What is in Daesh's interests besides creating antagonism between Muslims and Americans? That is the aim of Daesh, to divide ethnicities and religions. Their strategy and Donald Trump's strategy are the same."
According to Chris Harmer, a retired naval commander and strategic expert, Trump's rhetoric does, in fact, sometimes seem to bolster the ISIS mythology here.
"The most radical Islamists and jihadists look at Donald Trump as an absolutely undeserved gift," he explains. "You've got a guy who lives down to and thoroughly embraces every negative or false stereotype about America. People say, 'The Americans are here to take your oil.' Well, Donald Trump just said, Let's go take their oil."
Of course, not everyone embroiled in the fight against ISIS is opposed to the idea of another American invasion—or even a Trump presidency. When I raise it with him, one brigadier-general in the Kurdish Peshmerga talks about the GOP nominee with hopeful admiration.
"I think Iraq should be invaded again," the general says. "It's already been invaded by terrorism. There is no government here, just a bunch of different groups. We need democracy, and if America will invade and give us democracy, I support that... I know Hillary is against ISIS and friendly with the Kurds, but she's soft in politics... If Trump is elected, he will not be soft with the Arabs, or on Islamic governments like Iran, because they are the monsters in the regions."
The general's comments are less incongruous when viewed through the lens of the Peshmerga's current predicament. Caught between America and Iran, both of which support them to some extent, the Kurds are fighting ISIS with one eye fixed on garnering whatever support they can for an independent nation. An American invasion would almost certainly make the Peshmerga even more valuable as a US ally, increasing the likelihood of a Kurdish state being carved from conquered Iraqi land when the dust settles.
"We're at the front of a great identity-based war in the Middle East that makes it very difficult for these different local military or quasi-military organizations to all pull together completely," says Larry Goodson, professor of Middle East Studies at the US Army War College. "They're not always going to see ISIL as the only enemy or even necessarily the most important enemy."
At a Peshmerga outpost on the front line near Kirkuk, a fighter clad in green camo peers through binoculars at an abandoned factory less than a mile away.
"That's where Daesh is hiding," he says. "They send cars to us sometimes. The drivers try to blow themselves up and take as many of us with them as possible."
He points to a charred metal shell not far from the outpost. "That's where the last suicide car exploded," he says. "The Americans hit it with an airstrike, so it didn't kill anyone."
Asked if he worries that the results of the upcoming election might change the nature of US support on the ground, the fighter shakes his head confidently. "Why would it matter who wins?" he asks. "ISIS are terrorists fighting against America, and the Kurds are fighting ISIS here in Iraq as the representatives of America, so whichever candidate wins will certainly help us."
Likewise, some Hashd al-Shaabi leaders and fighters are dubious a Trump win would change the game on the ground. In his office at a headquarters near the village of Bashir, Abdul-Hussein Mohamed, second-in-command of the Badr Organization's forces in the area, is circumspect when asked about the American election.
"There are two powers ruling the US, the Democrats and Republicans, but they are just empty slogans," he says. "America has only one system, but the American people don't have a voice in it. Democracy is a lie in America... We hope that a good government will come to power that does not... help other countries only for its own interests. But I think we will just see more of the same, no matter who wins."
And then there are the fighters cheering on the catastrophic impact they believe a Trump presidency might have on American ambitions, both domestically and in the Middle East. At the Badr Organization outpost near Tuz Khurmatu, an officer who's mostly been quiet during my visit suddenly offers his take.
"Trump is a fool, and those who follow him are bigger fools," he begins dismissively, before pausing for a moment. The other fighters must respect him, because they wait for him to finish his thought.