The War That Is Testing America’s Patience

A new history of the United States’ war against the Islamic State.

By , a Pentagon and national security reporter at Foreign Policy.
U.S. troops patrol the roads of the Syrian town of al-Jawadiyah.
U.S. troops patrol the roads of the Syrian town of al-Jawadiyah.
U.S. troops patrol the roads of the Syrian town of al-Jawadiyah near the border with Turkey, on Dec. 17, 2020. Delil Souleiman/AFP via Getty Images

“You may not be interested in war,” former Russian politician Leon Trotsky once allegedly said. “But war is interested in you.” Whether or not these words ever passed the lips of the Russian communist revolutionary and Soviet founding father, they find resonance in Wall Street Journal reporter Michael Gordon’s narrative of the ongoing U.S.-led campaign to defeat the Islamic State in Iraq and Syria, a war that nobody in the White House really wanted but one that sought them out anyway. 

Then-U.S. President Barack Obama wanted 2014 to be his so-called year of withdrawals, Gordon writes in Degrade and Destroy: The Inside Story of the War Against the Islamic State, From Barack Obama to Donald Trump, cementing his legacy by bringing U.S. troops home from Afghanistan, already America’s longest war. (U.S. troops had left Iraq three years earlier.) And after using a NATO-led coalition to freeze the skies over Libya in 2011 in support of rebels opposing then-Libyan dictator Muammar al-Qaddafi, Obama hoped any future U.S. intervention in the Middle East could be similarly cost free—or at least, with limited (if any) U.S. boots on the ground.

The Islamic State became a foreign-policy problem for the United States at the exact time that Washington was bound to be the least interested in dealing with it. Obama famously dismissed the militant group and other local al Qaeda offshoots and affiliates in the Middle East and Africa as the “JV team” (compared to what he saw as the more serious threat of the core al Qaeda organization responsible for the 9/11 attacks) in a New Yorker article in January 2014. Gen. Lloyd Austin, then the head of U.S. Central Command and now U.S. President Joe Biden’s defense secretary, reportedly characterized the Islamic State as a “flash in the pan” when advising Obama on the group, though a spokesperson for Austin at the time denied the general had ever considered the group that way. 

“You may not be interested in war,” former Russian politician Leon Trotsky once allegedly said. “But war is interested in you.” Whether or not these words ever passed the lips of the Russian communist revolutionary and Soviet founding father, they find resonance in Wall Street Journal reporter Michael Gordon’s narrative of the ongoing U.S.-led campaign to defeat the Islamic State in Iraq and Syria, a war that nobody in the White House really wanted but one that sought them out anyway. 

Then-U.S. President Barack Obama wanted 2014 to be his so-called year of withdrawals, Gordon writes in Degrade and Destroy: The Inside Story of the War Against the Islamic State, From Barack Obama to Donald Trump, cementing his legacy by bringing U.S. troops home from Afghanistan, already America’s longest war. (U.S. troops had left Iraq three years earlier.) And after using a NATO-led coalition to freeze the skies over Libya in 2011 in support of rebels opposing then-Libyan dictator Muammar al-Qaddafi, Obama hoped any future U.S. intervention in the Middle East could be similarly cost free—or at least, with limited (if any) U.S. boots on the ground.

The Islamic State became a foreign-policy problem for the United States at the exact time that Washington was bound to be the least interested in dealing with it. Obama famously dismissed the militant group and other local al Qaeda offshoots and affiliates in the Middle East and Africa as the “JV team” (compared to what he saw as the more serious threat of the core al Qaeda organization responsible for the 9/11 attacks) in a New Yorker article in January 2014. Gen. Lloyd Austin, then the head of U.S. Central Command and now U.S. President Joe Biden’s defense secretary, reportedly characterized the Islamic State as a “flash in the pan” when advising Obama on the group, though a spokesperson for Austin at the time denied the general had ever considered the group that way. 

But the ability to ignore or downplay the Islamic State threat didn’t last long. By September 2014, the group had beheaded two American reporters on camera in separate incidents and controlled a swath of land bridging the Syrian and Iraqi borders that was perhaps as large as Great Britain, according to the U.S. National Counterterrorism Center’s estimates. By the end of the next year, it would carry out attacks on foreign soil, including in Paris. And U.S. troops would be back in Iraq, preparing to fight the terror group.

Degrade and Destroy: The Inside Story of the War Against the Islamic State, From Barack Obama to Donald Trump, Michael Gordon, Farrar, Straus and Giroux, 496 pp., , June 2022
Degrade and Destroy: The Inside Story of the War Against the Islamic State, From Barack Obama to Donald Trump, Michael Gordon, Farrar, Straus and Giroux, 496 pp., , June 2022

Degrade and Destroy: The Inside Story of the War Against the Islamic State, From Barack Obama to Donald Trump, Michael Gordon, Farrar, Straus and Giroux, 496 pp., $30, June 2022

That the United States got sucked back into Iraq for the third time in as many decades probably didn’t surprise Gordon, who had covered for the New York Times both Operation Desert Storm in 1991 and the 2003 U.S. invasion that ousted then-Iraqi President Saddam Hussein as well as had written three books about U.S. wars in the region by the time the United States went back into Iraq in 2014.

Gordon picks up the narrative as the U.S. military—which had no legal agreement to house troops in Iraq after the 2003 war—began to descend into Baghdad on fact-finding missions. If the Islamic State was a JV team, like Obama said, it was one that was far more capable that anything the United States had seen before. Iraqi officials, already overstretched, described an infantry terrorist force that was laying waste to their front lines with car bombings and sophisticated assaults. “I will say it very bluntly. It scared the shit out of me,” retired Army Lt. Gen. Michael Nagata, who led U.S. special forces in the Middle East at the time of the Islamic State’s rise, told Gordon. 

From there, Degrade and Destroy is a baton relay between different military figures who played a leading role in the campaign, with periodic stops in the White House Situation Room in a style that’s half-journalist Bob Woodward and half-British military historian B. H. Liddell Hart. As Iraq’s military wilted, Gordon writes, Obama faced greater pressure within his administration and from the Iraqis—who were relying on small Cessna airplanes for air cover—to send in remotely piloted drones and then air power. From the doves in the administration, like Biden as then-U.S. vice president, Obama faced pressure to keep the mission narrow—if there was to be a mission at all. 

Events, as Gordon’s book shows, would force Obama’s hand. The Islamic State’s massacre of Yazidis in Iraq’s northern Sinjar Mountains brought withering U.S. and British airstrikes that would become a staple of the fight, after U.S. Central Command had been lobbying for them for months. And the most promising ally to root out the Islamic State on the Syrian side of the border—the Kurdish People’s Defense Units, despised by Turkey—were pinned down by the terrorist group on one side and shut off from crossing the Turkish border on the other. With U.S. military power the only antidote, Obama approved airstrikes and air drops. 

If the battlefield was mostly the same over the course of three decades, the political climate in the United States was barely recognizable. What changed in the three decades since Operation Desert Storm, which saw U.S. air power flatten Hussein’s forces and drive them out of Kuwait in just over a month in 1991, is not just the United States’ waning interest in seeking monsters to destroy but also the amount of military might the United States is willing to bear to defeat them. After events forced the Obama administration back into Iraq—and later, into Syria—the White House kept a vise grip on troop levels, Gordon writes, resisting an urge within the U.S. Defense Department to deploy U.S. air power and, upon relenting, trying its best to keep U.S. forces away from the front lines. 

But even though the Obama and then Trump administrations weren’t interested in the war, the war was still interested in them. By 2016, the Iraqi military was knocking on the door of Mosul, Iraq, and the U.S.-backed Syrian Democratic Forces were preparing for their climactic battle in Raqqa, Syria—the dual hubs of the Islamic State’s self-described caliphate. And U.S. military advisors, who were supposed to be just advising and assisting the Iraqi (and then Syrian) forces, were getting far closer to the front lines than some leaders were comfortable with: U.S. rules of engagement eventually had to be expanded to put U.S. troops closer to the front lines and give lower-level commanders the ability to independently call in airstrikes. It turned out that military advising isn’t a job for remote work.

If this book is a bit different from Gordon’s previous dry military histories, it’s because the war the United States fought in Iraq and Syria against the Islamic State was different from its previous fights in Iraq. This is not a hard-edged battle memoir like journalist James Verini’s They Will Have to Die Now: Mosul and the Fall of the Caliphate or reporter Mike Giglio’s Shatter the Nations: ISIS and the War for the Caliphate

But Gordon’s voice-of-god-like narration helps show that there was a cost to trying to fight cost free. Deployments that limited troop rotations in Syria to 120 days, for instance, left U.S. troops near Islamic State lines, dependent on partner forces for protection and worried that they could become sitting ducks. “Nobody could say precisely how long the deployment would last, but it looked like it could be a ‘hello-I-must-be-going’ mission,” Gordon writes of the U.S. Army’s 5th Special Forces Group, which deployed to Syria’s Euphrates river valley after Trump had already twice called for U.S. forces to leave the country—only to be overruled by his advisors. “There was a paradox at the heart of the enterprise, which could be managed but never really resolved: [A]s the U.S. military footprint shrank and its capabilities diminished, the risk to the security of U.S. forces in Syria could mount.”

Even though I sat alongside Gordon at countless press conferences where military officials tried to lull reporters to sleep with the idea that all U.S. forces were doing was training, advising, and assisting, what he conveyed in the book is that they were doing so on a messy, multinational battlefield. Iran-backed militants were in the fight, and the United States had to deconflict airstrikes with their positions through Iraqi intermediaries. Washington had to accept that Iraqis had their own priorities if they were going to do the bulk of the fighting, and later, it had to learn the same lesson in Syria. 

And that’s the issue with “by, with, and through,” the Pentagon’s catchphrase for the mission that saw Iraqi and Syrian forces taking the lead in fighting the Islamic State, with air power and artillery assistance from the United States and other Western powers. The Obama and Trump administrations were often stuck, sometimes unsuccessfully, trying to dictate military strategy. In Mosul, as the Americans tried to open up a second front to attack Islamic State positions in the city, U.S. military commanders learned to keep their mouths shut with Iraqi politicians and make their arguments in private. “The Iraqis could not be ordered or even pressured to embrace the Americans’ strategy,” Gordon writes. Later, in Syria, the United States had to push the Kurdish leaders of the Syrian Democratic Forces to mop up motorcycle-riding Islamic State hitmen in Arab areas even as Turkey assaulted their home turf. 

And the partnerships are more like shotgun marriages, with the United States sometimes having to hold its nose and work with groups that it finds unsavory or that, in other contexts, may even be U.S. enemies, as it did with Iranian-backed Shiite militias in Iraq and al Qaeda-linked groups in Syria. With the Islamic State fight not designed or sold like a U.S. foreign-policy priority, it increasingly became a political albatross in a Trump administration that was weary of Middle East wars. Trump, himself, true to form, thought U.S. allies “should open their wallets and pay for it,” Gordon writes. 

This is also a story of unseen costs. Gordon’s portrait is helpful to explain how a military mission intended to be kept small took on dimensions of its own. The military’s Joint Special Operations Command sometimes conducted raids in Iraq without getting the top U.S. general leading the mission in Iraq and Syria’s sign off or without consulting Iraqi authorities. In one particularly hair-raising early episode Gordon described, U.S. Marine Raiders visiting their Kurdish counterparts in the Iraqi city of Duhok found themselves calling in airstrikes to shoot their way out of an ambush. “It was a lesson that the line between a special operations forces advisory mission and combat was a porous one and could shift in the blink of an eye,” Gordon writes. And all the while, the specter of U.S. and Iranian forces crossing paths in Iraq and Russian paramilitaries threatening U.S. troops in Syria loomed large. 

The narrative lets up at the end of the Trump administration, only dipping briefly into Biden’s periodic drumbeat of strikes against Iranian targets in Syria. Yet, in spite of it all, U.S. troops remain in both countries in minor advisory roles—an acknowledgement that the United States will have to stay present in the Middle East, if not happily so. Michèle Flournoy, a former top Pentagon official, recounted at an event for the book that a Middle East counterpart had once told her that while Americans think every problem can be solved, “[m]any problems in our part of the world can only be managed.” Unfortunately for Americans trying to divert their attention away from that region, that aspect of war in the Middle East has not changed.

Jack Detsch is a Pentagon and national security reporter at Foreign Policy. Twitter: @JackDetsch

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