At the height of its influence in the Middle East, the Islamic State of Iraq and al-Sham (ISIS) flew its notorious black flag over a region stretching across 42,000 square miles of Syria and Iraq and ruled eight million people through extortion, violence, and murder. Religious zealots, ISIS jihadists were fanatical in their desire to restore an ancient Sunni caliphate, impose their own iron-fisted version of Sharia Law, and renew a terrorist offensive against the West.
Michael R. Gordon’s new book, Degrade and Destroy: The Inside Story of the War Against the Islamic State, from Barack Obama to Donald Trump, is an insightful, well-crafted, and highly readable account of the American-led effort to destroy ISIS in Iraq and Syria. It is also an objective reckoning of an “unorthodox way of waging war . . . a ‘by, with, and through’ strategy in which operations were carried out against a common foe by a diverse array of local allies, with support from American allies and their coalition partners, and through a US legal and diplomatic framework.”
The author focuses his account on the American-led campaign and had signal advantages in writing this book. A respected journalist—former chief military correspondent for the New York Times and later correspondent for The Wall Street Journal—Gordon was an eyewitness to key events during Operation Inherent Resolve; had access to senior commanders, tribal sheiks, U.S. personnel on the ground; and later, to principals in the Obama and Trump Administrations.
Gordon is an acknowledged expert on the US wars in Iraq. He is the co-author, with the late General Bernard E. Trainor, of The Endgame: The Inside Story of the Struggle for Iraq, from George W. Bush to Barack Obama; Cobra II: The Inside Story of the Invasion and Occupation of Iraq; and The General’s War: The Inside Story of the Conflict in the Gulf. His current work, like his previous volumes, is carefully researched, extensively noted for attribution and explanation, and makes use of personal interviews, archival materials, primary sources, and classified documents.
Strategy and Policy
In the pages of Degrade and Destroy, Gordon crafts a clear narrative that traces a complicated and inter-related series of events and byzantine layers of political, tribal, ethnic, nationalistic, and military considerations that factored into decisions about when, where, and how to take the fight to ISIS.
The first part of Degrade and Destroy describes the Obama Administration’s struggle to develop a coherent foreign policy and effective strategies in the face of mounting evidence ISIS was growing its base of power. At the same time, the civil war in Syria was spinning off jihadists and weapons that made their way into Iraq. Gordon describes that process as “a dizzying series of policy reversals,” hamstrung by President Obama’s own expectations, involvement, and perceptions. “Obama was known for his caution, but sometimes his White House advisors doubled down on this trait; they could be more Obama than Obama himself.”
Gordon explains how the Obama Administration misread and misplayed the steadily deteriorating security situation in Iraq. The administration wrongfully attributed the rise in violence to Prime Minister Nouri al-Maliki’s sectarian practices which widened fissures that were cracking open Iraqi society. Obama insisted on political change in Iraq as a pre-condition for continued US support and failed to understand that American support for Iraq’s internal security—and the stability it afforded—was, in fact, the key enabler for political change.
The administration also failed to recognize the impact of the President’s realization of his 2008 campaign promise. By the end of 2011, the Obama Administration had orchestrated a complete withdrawal of American combat troops, contractors, and advisors from Iraq. In subsequent interviews and research for Degrade and Destroy, Gordon discovered that officials in both countries understood this was a grave misstep. “The presence of an American force in Iraq after 2011 would have given Washington a window into the erosion of Iraq’s military forces, an earlier heads-up on ISIS’s capabilities, and more influence on Baghdad to try to counter Maliki’s sectarian policies.”
The power vacuum created by the untimely withdrawal of the U.S. from Iraq in 2011— only a normal diplomatic complement remained—enabled ISIS to take advantage of the civil war in Syria and a porous Turkish border to draw in jihadists from across the Middle East. The militants exploited the deterioration of Iraqi security forces to occupy small Iraqi villages, control broad rural areas, and eventually take-over Iraqi cities. Mosul, a sprawling urban center of more than 1.5 million people was overrun and occupied in June 2014. By the fall of that year, as many as 100,000 jihadists swelled the ranks of the ISIS army. The militant movement took on all the apparatus of a functioning, authoritarian government, and extended its occupation all the way to Fallujah, 35 miles from the Iraqi capital in Baghdad.
Operation Inherent Resolve
In the second part of Degrade and Destroy, Gordon recounts the 2014-2019 campaign that eventually destroyed ISIS in Iraq and Syria. Operation Inherent Resolve did not emerge from a dedicated planning process, nor was its ultimate objective clearly defined at the outset. The author recounts how the White House considered two distinctly different courses of action: direct US military action, including airstrikes—or a limited advisory role of planning, intelligence, and logistics for US forces.
The author explains how Obama’s National Security Council planning team was then simply overcome by events. The ISIS offensive in eastern Iraq took Pentagon and White House planners by surprise. The administration was faced with a stark choice: commit US forces to a combat role with close air support of pro-American Iraqi-Kurdish forces, or risk losing a modern airport, the US consulate, and a hub of new US commercial interests to the militants.
Faced with the dilemma, and reportedly upset by the turn of events, Obama ordered the air attacks that eventually became a doctrinal approach during Inherent Resolve: massive and unopposed air power would be wielded in support of proxy boots on the ground. During the last three years of the battle against ISIS, operational fires from manned and unmanned airstrikes and from American artillery were engrained in the battle plans.
Then, a few weeks later, the objective of Operation Inherent Resolve was stated with remarkable clarity for an administration that had long relied on subtly nuanced statements and carefully parsed language about the war. In a national address, Obama told the country, “Our objective is clear. We will degrade, and ultimately destroy, ISIL through a comprehensive and sustained counterterrorism strategy.” Gordon here shares his keen insight that “destruction” raised the bar for US planners, advisors, and operators. The objective now was not merely to regain lost territory, but to destroy ISIS as an effective fighting force, as an insurgency intent on toppling the Iraqi government, and as a jihadist movement exporting terrorism abroad.
As president, Donald Trump inherited both the operational strategy and the objective of the war against ISIS. For all the bombast of his campaign pledge to “bomb the shit out of ISIS,” Trump made no change to either that strategy or the objective of Inherent Resolve. According to Gordon’s account, Trump relied on Pentagon leadership and U.S. Central Command to direct the war effort with little if any direction from the Oval Office. The Trump White House apparently did not need to make detailed reviews of concepts of operations (CONOPS) that summarize the commander’s planning assumptions, intended outcome, strategy, tactics, and even rules of engagement. This was, writes Gordon, “a stark contrast to the weeks and sometimes months of scrutiny the Obama White House was known to give when briefed on a CONOPS.”
For all its merit as a solid narrative of the evolution of strategy and policy in the war on ISIS, Degrade and Destroy is also a sturdy and engrossing account of combat operations. The third part of this work neatly avoids the trap of becoming a unit or even regimental combat history of the brutal battles in Syria and Iraq. Gordon wisely chose to use selected incidents from those battles—and especially the four-month battle for Mosul, Iraq—to capture the evolving role of American advisors, the grinding meter-by-meter nature of the fighting, the steep learning curve of American advisors and local ground forces, and the tactics adopted by both sides, while remaining true to the larger scope of the narrative.
By, With, and Through
In his introduction to Degrade and Destroy, the author suggests “the tactics, procedures, and strategies that were forged” in the proxy war on ISIS “are likely to serve as a template for operations against terrorist foes in distant reaches of the globe.” Gordon notes the “by, with, and through” strategy is rooted in a doctrine that calls for indigenous fighters to be trained, equipped, and supported by the United States—missions typically assigned to special operations units in what have euphemistically been called “small wars.”
The “by, with, and through” approach employed in Inherent Resolve expanded greatly on these missions. It involved mounting a robust training mission, fielding a substantial corps of advisors, and then lashing them to an air armada, including round-the-clock reconnaissance as well as rocket and artillery fire. The strategy evolved throughout the campaign and was applied not just to a lone battle or a phase of the campaign but to the entire war.
According to the author, the objectives of the strategy were to reduce the exposure of US forces, minimize casualties among proxies, spare civilians, and destroy an implacable and entrenched enemy. Gordon’s overall assessment here is objective and informed: the strategy works but is not without its flaws. Achieving the operational objectives often “presented commanders with imperatives that were difficult to reconcile.”
Pin-point air attacks intended to limit proxy force casualties and collateral damage, for example, eventually destroyed whole urban areas with “precision air strikes—so many of them that they precisely destroyed one structure after another,” block by block—until the result was no different than unaimed carpet bombing. There is a need writes Gordon, “to formulate a better strategy for reducing harm to civilians . . . reducing civilian casualties . . . mitigating the risk to innocents when their infrastructure is destroyed, (and) populations are displaced.”
Implementing the operational strategy in combat also proved to be fraught with political intrigues, compromises, setbacks, and stalemates, and was executed at a great cost. Throughout the book Gordon explains how recruiting proxies from among tribal and ethnic forces—often with vastly different political goals—often compromised unity of effort and delayed the onset of operations. “The United States held down its own military casualties by employing a strategy under which proxy forces—and by extension civilians—assumed more of the risks.” More than 70,000 ISIS fighters died. The conflict killed and wounded tens of thousands of Iraqi Security Forces, Kurdish and Sunni militia partners, and Syrian Defense Forces. Thousands more Iraqi and Syrian civilians were made homeless, wounded, and killed: casualties of bombing and crossfires, murdered in ISIS reprisals, and sacrificed by the jihadists as human shields.
Degrade and Destroy, then, is a solidly researched, well-written account of Operation Inherent Resolve. The author’s eyewitness accounts and his interviews with senior commanders add welcome insights to this book. This work is more than a battlefield account. It is also an even-handed assessment of the development of and the lessons learned in implementing the “by, with, and through” operational strategy, a strategy that came about “by trial and error, evolved over several years, was adapted to local conditions, involved breakthroughs as well as setbacks,” and that “still calls for more study.”