The War Against ISIS, With Michael Gordon

James M. Lindsay sits down with Michael R. Gordon, national security correspondent at the Wall Street Journal, to discuss the U.S. war against ISIS. 

 

July 26, 2022 — 37:28 min
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Host

James M. Lindsay

Senior Vice President, Director of Studies, and Maurice R. Greenberg Chair Full Bio

Episode Guests

Michael R. Gordon

National Security Correspondent, Wall Street Journal

Show Notes

James M. Lindsay sits down with Michael R. Gordon, national security correspondent at the Wall Street Journal, to discuss the U.S. war against ISIS. 

 

Mentioned on the Podcast

 

Michael R. Gordon and Bernard E. Trainor, Cobra II: The Inside Story of the Invasion and Occupation of Iraq, 2006

 

Michael R. Gordon, Degrade and Destroy: The Inside Story of the War Against the Islamic State, from Barack Obama to Donald Trump, 2022

 

Michael R. Gordon and Bernard E. Trainor, The Endgame: The Inside Story of the Struggle for Iraq, from George W. Bush to Barack Obama, 2012

 

Michael R. Gordon and Bernard E. Trainor, The Generals' War: The Inside Story of the Conflict in the Gulf, 1996

 

Becca Wasser et al, “The Air War Against the Islamic State: The Role of Airpower in Operation Inherent Resolve,” RAND Corporation, 2021

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Transcript

Jim Lindsay:

Welcome to The President's Inbox, a CFR podcast about the foreign policy challenges facing the United States. I'm Jim Lindsay, Director of Studies at the Council on Foreign Relations. This week's topic is the fight against ISIS. With me to discuss the lessons of the campaign to degrade and destroy the Islamic State is Michael Gordon. Michael is the National Security Correspondent for The Wall Street Journal. He was previously the chief military correspondent for the New York Times. Michael has co-authored three critically acclaimed books with the late Bernard Trainor, a retired Marine Corps Lieutenant General, on America's wars in Iraq. The first, The General's War covered the Gulf War. The second, Cobra II examined the 2003 invasion of Iraq. And the third, The End Game covered the war through the US withdrawal from Iraq in 2011. Michael is now out with his fourth book about America's involvement in Iraq, Degrade and Destroy: The Inside Story of the War Against the Islamic State, from Barack Obama to Donald Trump. Michael, thanks for joining me.

Michael Gordon:

Glad to be here.

Jim Lindsay:

Congratulations on the publication of Degrade and Destroy. Like the three books you wrote with General Trainor, it has gotten rave reviews. One review I'm looking at right now calls it, and I quote, "The definitive record of a critical chapter in the fight against extremism." So I'm wondering, Michael, as we sort of look back on the rise and fall of the Islamic State, why was the Islamic State able to come to power?

Michael Gordon:

Well, it was a result of a number of factors, many of them indigenous, and some of which had to do with the United States. But on the first count, the Islamic State or ISIS, as it came to be known is really a rebranding and a follow-on to Al-Qaeda in Iraq, which was the militant organization that arose during the US occupation. It was a group that the United States defeated but did not entirely destroy during its period in Iraq. After US forces left in 2011, it was able to reinvent itself and find fertile ground. Part of that was the result of sectarian policies of Nouri al-Maliki, Iraq's prime minister, who alienated further many of the Sunnis in the country and made them more receptive to the sort of message that ISIS was putting out. Part of it was a result of the fact that the US left Iraq militarily at the end of 2011 and then took its eye off the ball. Wasn't mentoring the Iraqi forces and didn't have a good feel for what was happening in the country.

Jim Lindsay:

So, Michael, why did we underestimate the adversary in Islamic State? You report that Major General Mike Nagata, after visiting Iraq in February of 2014 remarked that, "The Iraqis were now telling me about enemy tactics, weaponry in a degree of combat sophistication that was alien to me, even though I spent three years doing multiple rotations in Iraq."

Michael Gordon:

Well, there was a civilian military divide by and large in the American government, where the US military had a better understanding of the threat and what needed to be done to counter it than the civilians in the Obama Administration, including in the White House. Even before US forces left Iraq, it was well understood by Iraqi generals, by American generals that there was a need for a continuing US presence to train and enable Iraqi forces. After they left, there were defense attaches in the embassy. And there were people like General Nagata and people like Colonel Chris Donahue, the head of the Delta Force who visited Iraq and reported back that the best of the Iraqi forces, its counterterrorism service was having a really hard time dealing with this ISIS threat.

ISIS was applying paramilitary tactics. It was conducting itself more as a terrorist army than as a terrorist organization. And the Iraqi forces were stretched thin, worn down and were having a lot of difficulty contending with it. This was well known on the US military side, to the point that the Delta Force began making plans for when they thought they would have to go back in. But at the White House, they were contending with an array of crises in the Middle East, Egypt, chemical weapons in Syria. There was also a sense on the part of President Obama and his aides that the US had turned the page on military involvement in Iraq. So it took a shock for them to change their assessment of that, and that shock was the fall of Mosul to ISIS in June of 2014.

Jim Lindsay:

Well, it certainly came as a shock to President Obama because he had told the American public that he had brought the war in Iraq, or at least the American involvement in the war in Iraq to a respectable end. He himself had dismissed the threat posed by the Islamic State. There's the famous quote he made of "If a JV team puts on Lakers uniforms that doesn't make them Kobe Bryant." I'm curious, Michael, how was it that the Islamic State was able to make the transition from being a terrorist organization, as you put it to actually fielding what looked like an effective terrorist army?

Michael Gordon:

Well, first off, the very month that President Obama made that statement to The New Yorker about the JV team was the very same month that General Nagata and Colonel Donahue went to Iraq and reported back that the situation was very fragile and that the Iraqis couldn't attend to this new threat. So what President Obama's assessment then would not have been supported by what the assessment on the ground from the US military at the time. There were also a number of entreaties on the part of the Iraqis for help, to include an August 2013 meeting between Hoshyar Zebari, then the Iraqi foreign minister and General Dempsey. There was a letter to Jake Sullivan, who was then the National Security Advisor to Vice President Biden from the Iraqi ambassador in Washington, Lukman Faily in May of 2014 asking for help. So it was sort of known by people who were paying close attention that the situation wasn't a good one. Now clearly President Obama was surprised by the extent to which the situation had disintegrated, in fact, expressed his disappointment in that to his own commanders in a famous session.

Jim Lindsay:

Can you tell us a little bit about that session, Michael?

Michael Gordon:

Sure. And of course I wasn't there but-

Jim Lindsay:

But you're an ace reporter and you've talked to a lot of people who were in the room.

Michael Gordon:

Well, I do have information about it. I think in his mind that President Obama was very much committed to turning the page in Iraq, and he very much didn't want to have to go back in militarily and was hoping that the Iraqis would be able to handle it. But it became abidingly clear, after the fall of Mosul in June and then after ISIS pivoted and began to threaten Erbil, the capital of the Kurdish Autonomous Region in Iraq, that the US would have to do something. There was a meeting in the situation room that was attended by President Obama, General Dempsey, the chairman of the Joint Chiefs of Staff, and Lloyd Austin, the CENTCOM commander was beamed in.

Jim Lindsay:

Current secretary of defense.

Michael Gordon:

Current secretary of defense. I was told reliably that President Obama expressed, for a man who was famous for maintaining his sense of composure and not expressing emotion and being cool and unflappable, in this case his frustrations bubbled over, and he expressed his disappointment in rather pointed terms at his own generals for having let the country down. And why was this Iraq crisis have been allowed to happen to the point where he had to make a decision about intervening militarily to, at a minimum, stop Erbil from falling into ISIS hands. In the book, I quote General Dempsey on the record as on this session. And he said, well, he was philosophical about it. He said, "Well, I took it as the president was disappointed that the Iraqi Army had fallen apart so far." But I think President Obama was not expressing his concern at the Iraqi Army, he was asking his commanders, "What gives here?"

I think, I was told General Austin at the time took it harder. But it was soon after that, that Obama did make the call, to his credit, to intervene with air strikes, prevent ISIS from moving on Erbil, and set in motion a process whereby the US would come back into Iraq, but in a very different way that it had been in before, not with tens of thousands of troops, but with small teams of advisors, and that Iraqis were to do the main fighting. That said, it was two years of learning before the US arrived at the right formula to really make it work. But while President Obama has been criticized along with Nouri al-Maliki for presiding over a failed negotiation that allowed American forces to leave Iraq, he has to be credited with making a tough call to send them back in once ISIS was gaining ground in Iraq.

Jim Lindsay:

Mike, I want to talk about what this by, with and through strategy means in practice or meant in practice. But before we do that, can you give me a sense of why it is that the Iraqi military, which the United States invested a lot of time and money in, fell apart so quickly in Mosul? After all, Mosul isn't a small outpost. It is Iraq's second largest city.

Michael Gordon:

Yes. This is the Afghan military didn't do so well either after the US left, and nor did the Iraqis. Part of it has to do with the way the US mentors these forces. I saw a lot of that since I was involved in all three of our wars in Iraq, Desert Storm, the invasion of Iraq and occupation, and then the fight against ISIS. But when the US left Iraq, there were still a lot of gaps in Iraqi capabilities when it left in 2011, in the area of logistics, in the area of combined arms, maintenance, they didn't have an air force. And this was no surprise. General Mike Barbero gave a briefing to the Iraqi military and basically anyone who would listen of what the deficiencies would be, were the US to leave at the end of 2011. But when you're fighting an insurgency, usually what happens is the US wants to maximize the number of troops, partner forces it can get on the ground, soldiers that can get into the fray.

Things like logistics and air power and maintenance are generally left for last. And the US can buttress the partner forces with contractors, with its own capability, with its own air. But if a military is going to be left on its own entirely, which is pretty much what happened at the end of 2011, they really need to have these capabilities. So number one, the Iraqi military was a work in progress, and that work was not done by the time the US left Iraq, which is why the US military kept urging the White House not to leave. They understood it would be taking a chance. So that's one reason. The other reason is after the US left Iraq, Prime Minister Maliki acted in an increasingly autocratic and sectarian way. He installed a lot of cronies in the Iraqi military. That certainly didn't help.

Then as his regular forces failed to maintain security, Maliki increasingly turned to the CTS, the Counter-Terrorism Service, which was an elite force but became jack of all trades in Maliki's Iraq. It was used to do everything from guard prisons to retake cities. They were pretty much worn out. So there are a number of reasons why the Iraq forces didn't perform well, to include corruption and bad leadership. But if the US had been in Iraq after 2011, it would've been in a position to at least address this deterioration and try to ameliorate it. It certainly would've been cognizant of it. The reason Mosul was such a shock to the White House was not only that ISIS was more capable than Al-Qaeda in Iraq, which it was, it was, as I said, more of a terrorist army than just a terrorist group, but it was also because the Iraqi Army had disintegrated to an extent that the White House didn't appreciate. They lost their window into what was happening to the very force the US spent billions creating. The confluence of those two events is what led to such surprise at the fall of Mosul.

Jim Lindsay:

Mosul fell in just about a week in June of 2014. By the end of 2015, the Islamic State would dominate territory going from western Iraq to northeastern Syria with as many as eight to 12 million people under their rule. Let's talk about the Obama Administration's response. I guess the operation was called Operation Inherent Resolve, but the basic logic was this by, with and through. How did it actually play out, Michael?

Michael Gordon:

Well, there was a little bit of trouble coming up with a name for the operation because you can't just name an operation in the US military. There's a naming convention and it has to, different commands can name operations that have to start with a certain set of letters and they can have a certain number of words.

Jim Lindsay:

Everything's bureaucratized.

Michael Gordon:

It was a process that took weeks and involved a large number of general officers because I read a FOIA of the naming process.

Jim Lindsay:

Freedom of Information Act request.

Michael Gordon:

One of the early candidates was Iraqi Resolve, even though the Iraqi, what had happened in Mosul was the absence of Iraqi Resolve. Then Iraqi Unity, even though ISIS' advance had shown the degree to which Iraq was not unified. And they were keying in on those names. Then somebody came to the realization that an American response would of necessity have to include military action in Syria, which is where ISIS had its capital at Raqqa, couldn't allow them to have a sanctuary. So Iraqi Unity, Iraqi Resolve didn't work. So they wanted to start it with an "I" and it became Inherent Resolve. No one quite knew what it meant, but at least it didn't offend anybody and it seemed innocuous enough. The original vision of the Obama Administration, which was feeling its way was first Maliki had to go before they would go back in a significant way. And that did happen, largely thanks to Ayatollah Sistani, who decreed there had to be a new prime minister as the foremost Shia cleric.

Jim Lindsay:

And Maliki is Shiite and the Islamic State is Sunni Muslim.

Michael Gordon:

Right. So the Shia had to pick a new leader, and that was a requirement for American reentering the war, so to speak. But Obama's requirement was that the US was not to go into ground combat. We weren't going to do the fighting on the ground for them. That, by the way, held largely for the campaign, although there were some conspicuous exceptions, including in West Mosul that were made to help the Iraqis along. But A, he didn't want to send us forces back into ground combat. His second thing is that their US role was to basically be an advisory role, and the local forces were to do the fighting. In fact, in the early months and really years of the conflict, the US advisors with the exception of Special Operations were confined to bases and were trying to advise Iraqis and the Kurdish Peshmerga remotely. By the way, that didn't work very well. But they were operating within these constraints that were imposed by Washington. So Obama's vision was the partners will do the fighting. We will advise them.

Now there's a long tradition, to get to your question, in the US military, by, with and through. It's really a Special Forces, Special Operation Forces concept. By meaning your partners, the fighting is done by your partners, with US support and help, enablers, air power, intel, whatever you want to provide, and through some set of agreements or legal framework. What was unique about this war was while by, with and through had been done with Special Forces A teams, been applied on a much more, a smaller scale in Afghanistan, this was really done, in the end, on an industrial scale.

You had US forces working with a multitude of partners who, by the way, didn't all like each other or get along. Iraqi military, Iraqi Counter-Terrorism Service, Iraqi federal police, three separate forces to report to separate ministries. Kurdish Peshmerga, Syrian Kurds, YPG, Syrian Arabs. They had to work with all of these different elements in two different countries, simultaneously harnessing the US monopoly of air power in this conflict and reconnaissance, and had never really been done on such a scale before. But it really took a few years to get it right in terms of the balance of risk and that the US was willing to entertain to make this work.

Jim Lindsay:

Now, Michael, at some point you spent time on the ground in Iraq, you were embedded, I believe at some point. What was that like?

Michael Gordon:

Well, I spent time in all of these conflicts because you can't cover them from the Pentagon briefing room, but it's important to go back and forth. So the way I've approached my coverage for The New York Times and/or for any publication, for The Journal and/or for these books is I would do a lot of shoe leather reporting in Washington on the policy decisions as they were being debated. Then I would go out to the battlefield and see what the situation was there. Very often, these are parallel universes that did not overlap.

Policy decisions that were being pondered in Washington sometimes had something to do with what was happening on the battlefield. And what was happening on the battlefield sometimes was occurring independently of what was being discussed in the Congress and then in Washington. In this conflict, there was no US embedding. Don Rumsfeld had created that for the invasion of Iraq for a variety of reasons, but the US military and the Obama Administration didn't have an embedding policy. If you asked to embed with US forces, as I did, they'd say, "You can't do that." But this was by, with and through. So I didn't need to.

Jim Lindsay:

You're an ingenious determined reporter.

Michael Gordon:

Well, this is what everybody did who covered this. You can go with the Kurdish Peshmerga, as I did to Sinjar in 2015 or as I did Mosul in 2016. You can go with the Iraqi Counter-Terrorism Service, as I did in West Mosul in 2017. They're happy to take you. You go without all the, well, security and safety that you would have if you were a US military unit. There are no US advisors in sight, by the way. They're behind you. There's no obvious medevac either if a situation arises, other than somebody might throw you in a vehicle and drive you back to where you came from. So there were those possibilities. And they were doing the main fighting, so it enabled you to get up close to the action.

The other thing I would say, while the US military didn't embed, I was able to do what the Pentagon calls battlefield circulation. So I went around with General Townsend once for a day, which had the unintended consequence that ended up in a top-level meeting with the Iraqi prime minister and all of his generals that neither General Townsend, the commander of the whole war for the US and I anticipated when we set about that day. It just sort of happened. And I went around with Colonel Pat Work, who was the advisor to the Iraqi commander for the Battle of Mosul, Abdul Amir. So there were those kind of opportunities to learn things and soak up information. And that material really forms the heart of the book.

Really what I spent a number of years doing was taking that material, and then going back and trying to understand, so what was happening while I was in this place? What were the decisions that were made before then? What were the alternatives to the extent they were debated? Why did they do it this way and not some other way? And what was happening in other parts of Mosul where I wasn't at the same time? What was the actual strategy that the US and its allies had? Because there was a strategy. And it was really only afterwards that I was able to establish what that strategy was, because at the time there's just so much activity and violence and human misery that it's overwhelming. You have to go back afterwards and report out these decisions.

Jim Lindsay:

Michael, when you say there was a strategy, do you mean this by, with and through, or do you have something else in mind?

Michael Gordon:

No. There was an actual strategy for how to take West Mosul and East Mosul. One of the challenges early on is when you have a local partner, the plus for the US side is, well, you don't have to occupy the place. That's their problem. Second, they're taking most of the casualties, not you. The US only lost 20 KIA in this whole war.

Jim Lindsay:

Killed in action.

Michael Gordon:

Iraqi's lost thousands. The Syrians lost thousands, our Syrian partners. Civilians were much greater. They take most of the casualties. They have the occupation duties. But because you're advising them and you're not directly in the ground warfare, except in some occasions when it became necessary and limited, your influence with them is a very delicate thing. And you can't tell them what to do. You can try to guide them what to do. You can try to exert your influence. And in order to have influence, you have to help them when they need it. And Pat Work, who was the colonel who advised Iraqis for the Battle of Mosul said the philosophy was deposit, deposit, deposit so you can make withdrawal. Help them with logistics, with armored bulldozers, with the air power they need to move forward. Then at key moments, try to influence the decision making.

A key moment came in April 2017 when the Iraqis were stalled in the battle for Mosul. They were pushing up from the south and the campaign wasn't getting much of anywhere. ISIS had had years to prepare its defenses. The Iraqis were taking a lot of casualties. There were horrible situations. In one case, federal police battalion commander and a few of his policemen took a wrong turn in Mosul, were captured by ISIS and held. And this became known to the Iraqi federal police commander. And what he decided to do was call an artillery strike on his own soldiers because he felt he had to put them out their misery and prevent ISIS from exploiting it. That's the kind of war.

Jim Lindsay:

He feared that they were going to torture then kill his soldiers.

Michael Gordon:

Yeah. He figured they're as good as dead, and that was the action he took. It's something the US military couldn't have done, but again, it's their war. So that was the situation in April of 2017. It was stalled. I know Jared Kushner went out there with the US Homeland Security Advisor, the NSC and all that and gave some exhortations to the Iraqis around that timeframe. But it was a difficult thing. But to unstick it, the US had to persuade them to open up a second front. It had to come from the north, and it had to involve Iraq's lone armored division. That was the ground strategy. To make that happen, the US had to persuade General Townsend, Pat Work, US intel, the Iraqis at all level of their command that they had to overhaul their strategy and do something that, in the meeting I sat in, the Iraqi prime minister said he was never going to do. Send Iraq's lone ground force into urban combat again in West Mosul because they'd had their nose bloodied earlier in the war.

So there were those kinds of strategic decisions. There was a rationale behind them, a logic behind them. They were key milestones in the war. And that's a lot of what I tried to flesh out and pin down in doing this book. What were they and how did they come about? The US role was essential because the US provided the air, it provided the intel, provided a lot of other forms of support. But its military advice at key junctures of the war was also essential, although there were times when the US was just unable to call the shots.

Jim Lindsay:

Now, Michael, I will note the Battle of Mosul takes place in 2017. This is when Donald Trump is president. You mentioned Jared Kushner. Donald Trump obviously during the election campaign in 2016 ran as a staunch critic of Barack Obama, said he was going to do things differently in Iraq. Did the Trump Administration change the contours of the American strategy in Iraq after Trump took the oath of office in January of 2017?

Michael Gordon:

The short answer is no. The longer answer is the Battle of Mosul actually begins in the eastern part of the city in the fall and winter of 2016, and it's carried over into the Trump Administration in 2017. By the time President Obama leaves office, a number of important decisions have been made by the military. They had pushed advisors forward, so they were no longer being confined within the limits of US military bases. That happened just before Mosul. They were able to go down and heed the battalion level. Then during the Mosul fight, General Townsend signed an order that allowed them to move even more forward. They still weren't supposed to be directly involved in combat, but they were closer to the action. US Apache helicopters were in there. The command structure was overhauled. Air power, the use of air power was extended to involve what we call deep strikes against ISIS targets. A lot of things happened during President Obama's tenure by the military essentially, but with White House acquiescence.

So by the time President Trump took over, the strategy was pretty well developed and he didn't change it. He didn't do any of the things he implied he was going to do during the election campaign. He didn't change the rules of engagement. I think during the campaign he vowed we would bomb the heck out of ISIS, except he didn't use the word "heck." And none of that was changed. What did happen was the level of micromanagement that the Obama Administration sometimes engaged in at the White House of military operations was pretty much washed away by H.R. McMaster, the national security advisor. So there was less scrutiny of what was happening out there, and there were fewer requirements for approval of specific operations. So as a consequence, what President Trump did essentially was he carried out the Obama strategy, but at times somewhat more efficiently than Obama himself because he was paying ... the White House was delegating a lot of those decisions to Mattis at the secretary of defense who was in turn delegating him to the commanders in theater.

Jim Lindsay:

Michael, we've talked a lot about the battle against the Islamic State in terms of what happened in Iraq, but there was also fighting in Syria. I think one of the really interesting parts of the book is when you talk about some of the risks for escalation, particularly in early 2018, when US forces destroyed a convoy of Russian private military contractors, first time US and Russian forces had come into contact since the end of the Cold War. Can you tell us a little bit about that and how the Syria piece fits into all of this?

Michael Gordon:

Syria was an extraordinary and still is a complicated situation where you have a lot of outside forces threatening to intervene or actually intervening there. The Russians came in, in 2015 and what the Russians did there was rather effective. It's in contrast to what they've done in Ukraine, in terms of the military skill that they've used. It's primarily on the Russian side an air war. They don't have a large ground component. They let the Iranians and the Shia militias be the cannon fodder. They did pretty much prop up this Ashar Asad regime. They accomplished their goal of keeping Asad in power and also establishing a Middle East presence that everybody in the region has to reckon with including Israel. But the Russians had their own version, by, with and through so to speak. They were doing air power, but on behalf of the Asad forces. Iranian-backed militias were on the ground.

There was also a paramilitary force out there called the Wagner Group, which was separate from the Russian Armed Forces. And it's actually active in Ukraine right now. There was an operation that began, where there was a lot of jockeying between the Russians and the Americans for some of the oil assets and gas fields east of the Euphrates, and the Euphrates served as a dividing line, more or less, between where the US advisors were and the US forces' backed partners were, the Syrian Democratic Forces under Mazloum, Syrian Kurdish commander. The Russians and the Iranians and the Syrian Army and all those guys were, and there was an occasion where a fairly substantial force began to gather, and it became pretty apparent to the Americans that they had every intent of moving east. And this was going to be a potential clash.

It wasn't a surprise. This was studied. The US thought about its response. And there were communications on a hotline between the US and Russian military. The Americans kept saying, "Are these your guys? Because this looks like it could be a problem." The Russian military pretended that it didn't know anything about it. When the attack came, the US initially tried to ward them off with a few warning shots, but it became a full-borne fight. And a couple of hundred probably Russians were killed in that. That's what Secretary Pompeo said at his confirmation hearing. He was the first one to put on the record what was then considered a classified assessment. And during the middle of this, of the fray, the Russian military contacted the Americans and said, "Well, hey, can we have a pause so we can retrieve the bodies?" So it was quite clear at that point they had a little better understanding of what was going on than they initially pretended.

One thing that was really striking about this, after this was over, there was a meeting between then the US National Security Advisor, H.R. McMaster and his Russian counterpart, Patrushev, who's here today advising Putin on Ukraine. And I asked so, "My God, the US has just killed a couple hundred Russian paramilitary guys. Granted they weren't wearing Russian military uniforms but they're clearly affiliated in some way with the Russian effort in Syria. What were the repercussions of this?" I was told McMaster didn't raise it and Patrushev didn't raise it. The entire episode was swept under the rug and the Russians publicly sort of denied they had anything to it. There were a few other instances of US-Russian near confrontations. There was a time when a Russian general demanded the US leave a base in southeast Syria, Al-Tanf garrison in 48 hours or else.

He was pretty much talked down from that by General Townsend, who said, "Are we going to talk or fight?" There were a few other episodes where, when the US Delta Force flew to northwest Syria to get Baghdadi, the leader of ISIS, they had to clear into airspace that was pretty much controlled by the Russians. They asked permission to do that, were denied permission, went anyway. Nothing happened in terms of US-Russian dynamics. A lot happened to Baghdadi. So there were those sorts of tensions. So what's the lesson? The lesson is the US and Russian military were pretty careful about managing the risks of direct conflict between their two militaries, and that when there was conflict, it was carried out by a Russian proxy force that they were prepared to disown if things turned bad, which they did for that force.

Jim Lindsay:

Michael, I want to close by talking about what you take to be the lessons of this by, with and through strategy. Is this a template for the future? Is this something we're seeing in Ukraine today? Or was this a one off that succeeded because the conditions were just right in Iraq in dealing with the Islamic State?

Michael Gordon:

So there's a saying that people often want to refight the last war. But what's happened now is among the pundits and even to some extent in the Pentagon itself, everybody has moved on from this conflict. The focus of the Pentagon, the National Defense Strategy is on what Secretary Austin calls the pacing threat, China, which is the main threat they're concerned about, at least in terms of their policy and doctrine. Russia is the secondary threat, they call it the acute threat, which is something you got to worry about but not as bad as the pacing threat, which is the looming danger on the horizon. The Pentagon has not done a history of the counter-ISIS fight. It hasn't done one.

Jim Lindsay:

You've done it for them.

Michael Gordon:

They may not see it that way, but there's a RAND Corporation study of the air side. There's a few little short pieces by the Army's Asymmetric Warfare Group on Mosul and Raqqa that don't go very deep. There's not been an overall look at this by the Pentagon, which to my mind's rather astounding. But I believe that this counter-ISIS fight has significance and relevance for the future, and it is as follows. While our focus is on China and Russia, what the 2018 National Defense Strategy calls great power competition, the Biden team is going to change the label and call it integrated deterrence, basically the same thing, the threats in the Middle East and in other ungoverned spaces have not entirely gone away. And you can't say that they'll be gone for all time. But we're not going to send tens of thousands of troops back to fight these terrorist or militant organizations should they arise again.

We're going to have to do some variation of by, with and through, where you have small teams of US advisors, significant US air power, intelligence, reconnaissance lashed together in a way that you can carry out effective operations. Now, didn't work so well in Afghanistan, but it did work in Iraq and Syria. So how do you do this? You have to have it a partner that has street cred in whatever culture you're operating in. They have to have a certain degree of credibility with their own environment. And you have to deal with a situation, where the enemy doesn't have an obvious sanctuary, as was the case in Afghanistan but wasn't the case for ISIS since we followed them into Syria. But it has utility certainly against those kind of threats in the future. I would argue that scaled-back versions of it could also have some use in a great power competition.

We don't have advisors with the Ukrainian Army now, but we did train the Ukrainian Army 10th Special Forces group. We're not carrying out the air strikes for Ukraine now, but we're at least providing HIMARS and some of the intelligence that's enabling them to carry out precision strikes. So you could say that some attenuated version of this strategy is what's being pursued in Ukraine now because the US doesn't want to go toe to toe with a nuclear armed adversary. So I think there are lessons there. It is also a war the US by any reasonable measure won, at least militarily. There certainly haven't been that many of those lately. So it deserves recognition.

Jim Lindsay:

On that note, I'll close up The President's Inbox for this week. My guest has been Michael Gordon, National Security Correspondent for The Wall Street Journal and the author of the terrific new book, Degrade and Destroy: The Inside Story of the War Against the Islamic State, from Barack Obama to Donald Trump. Michael, thanks for joining me.

Michael Gordon:

All right. Thank you.

Jim Lindsay:

Please subscribe to The President's Inbox in Apple Podcast, Spotify, wherever you listen, and leave us a review. We love the feedback. You can find the books and documents mentioned in this episode, as well as a transcript of our conversation on the podcast page for The President's Inbox on cfr.org. As always, opinions expressed in The President's Inbox are solely those of the host or our guests, not of CFR, which takes no institutional positions on matters of policy. Today's episode was produced by Rafaela Siewert with senior podcast producer, Gabrielle Sierra. Rafaela did double duty as our recording engineer. Thank you, Raf. Special thanks go out to Margaret Gach for her assistance. This is Jim Lindsay. Thanks for listening.

 

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