Degrade and Destroy: The Inside History of the War Against the Islamic State, from Barack Obama to Donald Trump
By Michael R. Gordon
Farrar, Straus and Giroux, 475 pp., $30
Tsunamis of dire news tend to wash away memories of other recent serious threats. With Ukraine, Taiwan and North Korea dominating our attention, it’s easy to forget the dangers that were posed by the Islamic State (better known as ISIS) at its peak of power in 2014-2015, or what’s become of it since. But lacking a sense of that period makes it difficult to understand current turmoil in Iraq and Syria. Both the United States and Israel have continuing stakes in those lingering conflicts, which Iran exploits for its own ends.
In Degrade and Destroy, Michael R. Gordon provides a comprehensive account of the tortuous U.S.-led campaign to dismantle ISIS’s main structure while decimating its forces. Gordon is a respected national security writer who knows the Middle East well. His description of how Washington groped toward an effective strategy to avert catastrophe without committing significant U.S. ground forces is compelling in itself; the book is also an implicit reminder of the serial blunders that stud America’s struggle to maintain stability in North Africa and South Asia. Forty-four years ago, Jimmy Carter’s National Security Adviser, Zbigniew Brzezinski, famously called that blood soaked region the “arc of crisis.” The label still fits.
Barack Obama’s ill-advised decision to withdraw all U.S. troops from their occupation of Iraq in 2011, followed by Iraqi Prime Minister Nouri al-Malaki’s abandonment of deals with Sunni and Kurdish interests, left the governing Shiite regime impotent. ISIS, even more virulent than al-Qaeda, exploited the power vacuum. At first Obama, like George W. Bush before him, underestimated the danger. But as it evolved from a fringe terrorist group to a quasi-government in parts of Iraq and Syria, ISIS captured Washington’s attention. It beheaded Western captives on camera as a recruiting gambit and made sex slaves of women prisoners as it imposed a seventh-century form of Islam. But the group’s 21st-century skill in using the internet to radicalize Sunnis living in the West raised the stakes in Europe and the United States.
Obama, understandably, was determined to avoid mission creep that might get the U.S. involved in a new ground war. An initial step was to provide some training and advice to Iraqi forces, but discreetly and at a low level. In one telling vignette, Gordon describes a squad of Green Berets arriving in Baghdad to coach an anti-terrorist unit. The GIs wore civilian dress and were so poorly equipped that they had to borrow GLOCK pistols from the embassy’s CIA crew.
These efforts gradually expanded over Obama’s second term, though initially in a herky-jerky fashion. Gordon’s impressive access to sources at all levels elicited copious detail (probably too copious for most readers) describing how factions on the scene—at Central Command in Tampa, in the Pentagon and in the National Security Agency—jostled over turf and tactics. The White House gradually allowed local commanders more personnel, along with more leeway to coordinate regional players, who all feared ISIS and distrusted each other.
At first, this effort failed to slow the militants’ progress. In July 2014, Abu Bakr al-Baghdadi proclaimed himself caliph at the Great Mosque in Mosul, Iraq’s second largest city. Baghdad itself seemed in danger of falling to the caliphate. That summer ISIS ruled 41,000 square miles of Iraqi and Syrian territory, home to eight million souls. It financed operations with sales from captured oil fields. Its sophisticated propaganda attracted streams of recruits. Iraq’s al-Malaki gave way to Haider al-Abadi, a more competent prime minister. In September, Obama announced his determination to “degrade and ultimately destroy” the Islamic State.
The Kurdish Peshmerga were great fighters, but animosity between Kurdish leadership and Iraq’s government impaired cooperation. Syria was a mosh pit of contending militants. The Assad government still controlled part of the country, braced by Russian air support, advisers and equipment, and Iranian operatives also aided Assad. The predominantly Kurdish Syrian Defense Forces (SDF), having fought Assad for years, became a vital U.S. surrogate. Turkey, wary of Kurdish separatists, staged interventions in the north. Israel conducted occasional raids to thwart the transshipment of Iranian weapons to Hezbollah.
By mid-2015, after Obama installed Ashton Carter as Defense Secretary, the administration began solving its coordination challenges, synchronizing air and ground operations along with intelligence functions. British, Canadian and French contingents helped mentor the locals. One ongoing debate was whether coalition warplanes should be used mainly for close air support of Iraqi, Peshmerga and SDF combat operations, or be sent to attack ISIS command centers and financial operations. The answer: Do both, though the latter option increased the prospect of civilian casualties in urban centers.
One tragic incident Gordon describes in poignant terms followed discovery of the ISIS “banking emir’s” headquarters in Mosul. It contained millions in hard cash. It also housed civilians. Minutes ahead of the air strike, U.S. Air Force intelligence, having hacked the ISIS phone system, sent a warning to evacuate the building. A surveillance drone observed two men running out, followed by a woman with an infant in her arms and a small child at her side. But the boy ran back in. His mother pursued him, entering the building seconds before bombs obliterated it.
As 2015 ended, the horrific attack staged by ISIS agents in Paris (130 dead, 416 injured) followed by the mass shooting in San Bernadino (16 dead, 24 wounded) perpetrated by an American-born acolyte of al-Baghdadi, gave Obama a new sense of urgency. He told his team it needed to adopt a war room mentality; he wanted ISIS “in a box” before he left office. While the grind of combat intensified, with ISIS steadily losing ground and men, the caliphate still stood when Donald Trump took office.
The new administration followed its predecessor’s strategy with minor tweaks. When, later in 2017, ISIS was forced out of its Syrian capital of Raqqa as well as Mosul, the pseudo-state collapsed. But ISIS forces, now dispersed in smaller pockets, continued to fight while thousands of others were incarcerated under SDF control in Syria. By 2019 Trump had lost all patience with the Syrian operation. Impulsively, he yielded to Turkish President Recep Tayyip Erdogan’s demand to withdraw U.S. personnel immediately, leaving the mopping up to Turkey. That also meant leaving the SDF—America’s strong ally—to Erdogan’s untender mercies. Incredibly, Trump justified his betrayal of the Kurds by telling reporters: “They didn’t help us win World War II.”
The sudden absence of American troops enhanced the chaos in northern Syria. Another of the fresh nuggets Gordon provides quotes the cable sent home by the chief U.S. diplomat on the scene, William Roebuck. It was headed: PRESENT AT THE CATASTROPHE. In Washington, Republican realists convinced Trump to reconsider. Americans returned to the fray. But Russian leverage had gained in the interim. Within days of redeployment, a Special Forces detachment cornered al-Baghdadi. Rather than surrender, he killed himself and two of his children. His demise put at least a symbolic punctuation mark on what the Pentagon called Operation Inherent Resolve.
Gordon’s reckoning that the campaign was a qualified success is fair. It liberated millions from subjugation by a barbarous regime. ISIS’s ability to perpetrate atrocities in non-Moslem countries was impaired. And while the offensive cost the U.S. a lot of money, little American blood was shed—20 dead and 270 wounded in hostile action over six years, as local allies did nearly all the ground fighting. But thousands of Iraqi, Peshmerga and SDF fighters died, along with many civilians. ISIS casualties were higher yet.
Trump never made good on his pledge to bring U.S. forces home. The Biden administration didn’t even try; it continues military support of allies in both countries, including air strikes against ISIS, despite President Biden’s boast to the UN that “a new era of relentless diplomacy” had replaced 20 years of war. Last February, Special Forces trapped al-Baghdadi’s successor, Abu Ibrahim al-Hashimi al-Qurayshi, in his Syrian lair. His family, along with some associates, perished with him when he detonated explosives pre-positioned for that contingency. This fall, in a risky ground attack and a separate drone raid, U.S. forces killed three other senior ISIS leaders in Syria.
Yet ISIS cells continue to recruit fighters and have continued guerrilla raids in both Iraq and Syria. It is believed to be striving for attention-getting spectacles. Israel is another possible target. The terrorist’s cousin in Afghanistan, ISIS-K, routinely inflicts carnage on Shiites. And last year, ISIS-K managed to kill 13 Americans and hundreds of others during the U.S. botched withdrawal from Kabul.
Gordon avoids historical what-ifs, though they can be tantalizing. It’s tempting to speculate what might have happened had George W. Bush heeded the advice emanating from his father’s circle that he not invade Iraq. Or if, having invaded, he hadn’t botched the occupation. It’s logical to theorize that ISIS wouldn’t have flourished, that Iran would be in a tighter box, unable to prop up Assad, threaten Israel, or promote civil war in Yemen. Of course, it’s impossible to know. More certain is that conditions in Brzezinski’s “arc of crisis” remain as fraught as ever.
Laurence I. Barrett, formerly Time magazine’s White House and national political correspondent, is a freelance writer.
Top Image: A destroyed neighborhood in Raqqa after the 2017 battle for the city. Photo credit: Mahmoud Bali (VOA), Public domain, via Wikimedia Commons