After the Islamic State seized large swathes of Syria and Iraq in 2013-14, the United States led a yearslong effort to roll back the group’s gains. Journalist and author Michael Gordon has written four books on the wars in Iraq, and in his latest, Degrade and Destroy, he takes us inside the war on the Islamic State, detailing the key White House deliberations and military struggles that finally resulted, in 2019, in the liberation of all the territories occupied by the group. Why did the United States fully withdraw from Iraq in 2011 only to return in 2014? What was the strategy for “degrading and destroying” the Islamic State adopted by the Obama administration, and how did it evolve over time? What did the advent of the Trump administration mean for the war effort? How successful, ultimately, was Operation Inherent Resolve, and why was it called this?

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Cole Bunzel: Welcome, today is June 29, 2022, and you are listening to The Caravan podcast, a venture of the Herbert and Jane Dwight working group on the Middle East and the Islamic world at the Hoover Institution. I'm Cole Bunzel, a Hoover Institution, fellow and member of the working group. And today, I'm very pleased to be speaking with journalist and author Michael Gordon. Michael was the National Security Correspondent for the Wall Street Journal, and is the former Chief Military Correspondent for the New York Times. His brand new book, which we'll be discussing today, is titled Degrade and Destroy: The Inside Story of the War Against the Islamic State from Barack Obama to Donald Trump, which is the fourth of his books on the wars in Iraq, the first three having been written with his late co-author General Bernard Trainor. In Degrade and Destroy, Michael tells the story of the US led effort to roll back the gains made by the Islamic State, or ISIS, after it seized large chunks of territory in Iraq and Syria in 2013 and 2014.
That is to "degrade and ultimately destroy ISIS," as President Obama put it in a speech in September 2014. It's a fascinating account that takes you behind the scenes everywhere from the senior most deliberations at the White House to the grinding battlefield triumphs and tragedies in Iraq and Syria, and it has a lot to say about the current state of affairs in the region as well. Michael, thank you very much for taking the time to be here.

Michael R. Gordon: All right, thank you.

Cole Bunzel: So, as I alluded to above, you're the author of what is now a tetrology of books on the Iraq wars. I don't know if it's the last, but it's many, many pages on Iraq. The first book was on the first Gulf War, the second on the 2003 invasion. The third was on the struggle for Iraq from George Bush to Barack Obama, and now this fourth book is on the campaign to degrade and destroy the Islamic State. So, I'm curious, first of all, if you could tell us what was different this time around when it came to writing this book. What was different about the US effort against the Islamic State compared to previous us military forays in Iraq?

Michael R. Gordon: Well, one thing that was different about this book is I did the first three with my partner, retired general Mick Trainor, who unfortunately passed away, and I did this one solo, but I did it in the same spirit. And the way we approached these books was that we weren't trying to be the first out of the gate. We were trying to do a work that would endure, and that would be a contribution that people years from now would return to for a record of what transpired in the war. And one thing I learned in doing these books was that you really have to report them intensively and quickly, right after the event occurs. You can't wait years for documents to be declassified, because they never really are and so much is not really written down, but you have to write it in a kind of a painstaking and methodical way. So, the goal, with Trainor and I, was always to try to get as close to ground truth as we could, and keep the ideology out of it. In this conflict, all the wars... And I was in all of these wars as a correspondent on the ground, in the field, but the first war was notable, The Gulf War, Desert Storm, for really being the application of overwhelming force but with limited aims. A massive number of troops, a very broad coalition, including Syria, Egypt, Gulf States, France, Britain, but the goal was limited to evict Saddam Hussein's troops from Kuwait and deliver a body blow to the Republican Guard. That was Desert Storm. The second war, Operation Iraqi Freedom, the invasion of Iraq, had a much smaller force, but vastly expanded objectives to topple a dictator, occupy a country, and install a democratic regime in the heart of the Arab world, which they hoped... The Bush Administration hoped... Would have a catalytic effect on the region.
So, the third war, Inherent Resolve, the counter ISIS campaign, was very much influenced by the American public and politicians' reaction to the two previous wars. They wanted to destroy ISIS, but they certainly weren't going to deploy a large number of American troops to do it, nor did they want the Americans to be the principle combatants on the ground. In the air? Yes, but not on the ground. So, the concept was to use a small force, small teams of advisors, partnered with the Iraqi military, the Kurdish [inaudible], and whoever you could find in Syria to join our side, to go after the Islamic State. I would say, at the very start, the concept was embryonic, and it evolved over time.

Cole Bunzel: So, when does it become associated with this phrase "by, with, and through," and could you explain what that means?

Michael R. Gordon: Well, if you go back in special forces history of special forces... And I was recently down at Fort Bragg, soon to be named Fort Liberty... It's a special forces term, which means you work primarily through partners. You work by, with, and through partners. They are the principal fighting force. You're an advisory element, and it's something that is well known in the kind of special operations community, but it's not generally applied more broadly in major conflicts, and what was different in this case was that when President Obama sent troops back to Iraq, he sent them basically to advise and train the Iraqi Army, and have the Iraqis do the main fighting. In fact, at the onset of the campaign, US advisors were not even allowed to leave bases. They were within the wire trying to do remote advising for Iraqi forces in the field, a practice that didn't work very well in terms of building momentum on the battlefield.
And it got expanded... The latitude of the advisors got expanded over time to the point where they were in the battlefield, though not doing the main fighting, a little bit behind the lines, but close enough that they could see what was happening and call in air strikes. And that process really took a couple years. It was a learning experience for the Obama Administration, and the guys on the ground were tied into a very substantial reconnaissance, intelligence, surveillance network that could identify developments on the battlefield, and substantial air power. So, it's a pretty potent combination. A relatively small number of troops, coupled with a larger number of partner forces, who can leverage air power and reconnaissance, can be quite a lethal force on the battlefield, and that's what happened in the Counter ISIS Campaign, although it took a couple of years for it to gain momentum.

Cole Bunzel: So, I want to go back in time, just a little bit, to what some see as one of the principle reasons for the rise of ISIS in 2013 and 2014, and that is the failure of the Obama Administration to achieve what is called a new Status of Forces Agreement, or SOFA, with the government in Baghdad in 2011, something that you write about in the book. This, of course, would have allowed for forces to have legal immunity like our diplomats do. Of course, all the troops were withdrawn by December 2011. So, what is the story here? Why didn't the troops stay, and how consequential, in your view, was the fact that we had this full withdrawal at the end of 2011?

Michael R. Gordon: Well, the principle reason for the rise of ISIS, really, I think has nothing to do with the US, has everything to do with the Iraqis and the divisions between Sunni, Shia, and their own difficulties in forming a cohesive and unified government that represents a diverse array of interests. Beginning with the American invasion of Iraq, the Sunnis were dislodged from their favorite position at the top of the hierarchy in Iraq, and the Shia were empowered, and there was obviously deep enmity between the two groups. When the US was an occupying power in Iraq, it was more or less kept in check, because the US had more influence, [inaudible], and clout within the country to do that. But, under Prime Minister Malachi, his impulses were really, at base, were pretty sectarian, and he took actions that aggravated these tensions. And as a consequence of that, the Sunnis, as particularly disenfranchised Sunnis, became more receptive to Jihadist influences, and in [inaudible] and in Northern Iraq. An aggravating factor, as you point out, was the departure of American troops in 2011, and without American forces there, one, Washington did not foresee the rise of ISIS in time, in order to react, even though it was foreseen by the US special operations community, and they indeed warned of it, but to no avail, and the White House turned a deaf ear to that, but Washington didn't foresee it. Also, they weren't in a position to mitigate Malachi's worst sectarian impulses, and to arrest the deterioration of the Iraqi Army, the way we would've been if we had had five or 10,000 troops there to do mentoring and training. Now, as to why American troops left, the Bush Administration successfully negotiated a SOFA agreement, a Status of Forces Agreement, and it was due to expire at the end of 2011. And the Bush Administration's concept was that it would merely be extended, but when the Obama Administration came in, they raised the bar for what constituted a satisfactory SOFA, and it required not merely approval by the Iraqi government, but it also required approval by the Iraqi Parliament. For Malachi, that was a bridge too far. He didn't want to take this agreement to the Iraqi Parliament. And I think perhaps he thought it would be a hard fight. He didn't want to be in the position of having to argue that he needed American help. His party was called State of Law. He positioned himself as a sort of a stalwart figure in Iraqi politics. And he made it clear to the Americans that that was a step he wouldn't take. He was willing to sign an agreement. He was willing to do an executive agreement, but he wasn't willing to take this agreement to the Parliament, but for President Obama, it was a requirement, and they could never get over that hurdle. So, as a consequence of that, US forces left Iraq at the end of 2011. And I would say that everybody in the US Military and everybody in the Iraqi Military, at a senior level, understood that it was an imperative that US forces remain in Iraq passed 2011, in a mentoring, training, advisory, enabling role, not as a primary combatant, but the politicians in Baghdad and the politicians in Washington couldn't overcome their own domestic politics, and as a consequence, the negotiations failed. It's also noteworthy that President Obama and Prime Minister Malachi did not have a good relationship. George Bush, who saw Iraq as a special project, was talking to Malachi all the time. But President Obama talked to Malachi to start the SOFA talks and then to end them, and never in between, which showed the degree of estrangement between these two leaders. The end result was US forces were not in Iraq in any substantial way. The rise of ISIS was not given sufficient attention. Iraqi sectarian divisions, which were already great and aggravated by Malachi, became deeper, and we had to go back in all over again.

Cole Bunzel: So, one of the reasons I bring this up is because I remember reading all these stories in 2011 about the SOFA agreement and the difficulty that we had in trying to achieve one, and that this was the reason why we had to leave, and there was a big, partisan brawl in the newspapers over this. But then, when ISIS starts seizing territory in Iraq, in January 2014... I think that's when they take Fallujah and then Mosul in July and then US forces go back into Iraq in August 2014... I read almost nothing about this issue, and it made me think, "Well, gosh, what was that all about?" And so how was this issue effectively just side stepped a few years later?

Michael R. Gordon: Because when governments want to act, they do act, and when they're looking for an excuse not to act, they find recourse in the law. President Obama... And I had interviewed him in Chicago when he was a candidate... He had campaigned on a platform of ending the war in Iraq and turning the page on Iraq, and he was prepared to stay in a training role, but his bar for remaining in that capacity was high, parliamentary approval. By the time ISIS had taken over Iraq's second largest city, which was a huge setback, not for the Obama Administration, not merely in Iraq, but for its broader policy in the region. It had come into end wars, not rejoin them. Somehow, standing up the Iraqis and helping them fight this terrorist army became an imperative, and Iraq was in a total state of disarray, and it was [inaudible] one requirement that President Obama had was that there be a new government in Iraq, that Malachi no longer be there.
He achieved that, but it was simply impractical to try to have a long negotiation, and get the parliament to approve agreements, so we could have airtight immunities to stay in the country. So, that was basically dispensed with. I know people in the Administration just held their breath, hoped the media would never raise it. But on the Iraqi side, Hoshyar Zebari, who was the Foreign Minister, told me that what he did was he wrote a letter saying the US troops would have the same immunity and protections as people at the US Embassy. He did that in his capacity as Foreign Minister. He didn't even tell Malachi he was doing that. He did it on his own authority, but certainly, it didn't have the kind of Parliamentary approval and legal kind of standing that the US had hoped for. So, the US proceeded. It all worked out, but I think there is an interesting lesson there about how law is applied in different circumstances.

Cole Bunzel: So, Obama, he finally decides he's going to reengage in Iraq and then the question becomes, "In what way?" So, the President gives this speech in September 2014 that I kind of alluded to above, in which he says, "We will degrade and ultimately destroy ISIL," his word for ISIS, "through a comprehensive and sustained counter-terrorism strategy." So, what was that strategy that the President adopted, and how would it change over time?

Michael R. Gordon: So, first, it has to be said that president Obama was caught off guard by the ISIS seizure of Mosul, not withstanding the fact that they had taken Fallujah, notwithstanding the fact that the head of the Delta Force had visited Iraq in February 2014, and the head of the special operations component of CENTCOM Mike Nagata had also visited at that time, and sent memos up saying, "ISIS is coming like a locomotive. The Iraqis can't handle it.
The Counter Terrorism Service is outmatched." So, within the military chain, these warnings were sent up, Red Star Cluster. But back in DC, they had such a range of issues they were dealing with, Egypt and Afghanistan and Syria and Assad, and this and that, that they didn't pay sufficient attention to this. When he was caught by surprise and faced the choice of re-entering the war, President Obama was basically a very controlled, sober, careful, modulated individual and leader, expressed his deep unhappiness, in a somewhat angry way, to the Chairman of the Joint Chiefs, and to Lloyd Austin, then the Head of CENTCOM, in an episode that I have in the book that I've confirmed, but it's never come out before. But, eventually, I had to face the fact they had to go back in there. So, what they tried to do is do it carefully. One, they had to have a new Iraqi Government, and Malachi couldn't be the head of it. Once that was achieved, they were prepared to send advisors in to... It was called "building partnership capacity..." Retrain the Iraqi Army and advise them, so they would do the main fighting. So, the concept was, "We're going back in." Actually, Marty Dempsey... He was then the Chairman of the Joint Chiefs of Staff... Was told by the White House, "No way are we going to send 5,000 troops back in Iraq?" Ironic, since, by the end of the Obama Administration, we had well over 5,000 troops back in Iraq, as the campaign grew, but the requirement was, "They would not be in ground combat," and that was stipulated. "We're going to have advisors. They're going to be behind the wire. The Iraqis will be out front, doing the fighting. The Us is not going to do the ground combat for them. That's how the cam campaign is going to proceed. And over time it was just imperative that those restrictions be relaxed just because they were unrealistic for the kind of warfare that we had to engage in.

Cole Bunzel: I know you talk a lot about those restrictions on troop deployments, on how and where the US Military advisors could be on the battlefield, on the bureaucratic processes that made airstrikes difficult to actually carry out in the early days of the campaign. So who... I mean, the process by which these restrictions were loosened seems to be a very gradual one. Sometimes, the Trump Administration gets a lot of credit for the kind of... What is it... The "rules of engagement being loosened as it," as it was said, but the way the impression I got from reading the book was that, actually, most of the rules of engagement, as it were, were were relaxed before Trump came into office. Is that how you would characterize it?

Michael R. Gordon: Well, I would say the rules of engagement, actually, on the ground, were not relaxed. But, what happened is the appetite for risk grew. And so, at the start it, apart from the Delta Force, which was running around Northern Iraq and Syria, under Chris Donahue, who later became famous as the last man out and is now the 18th Airborne Commander in Europe, led the 82nd airborne back to Poland after the Russian invasion of Ukraine... But, at the start, the US, we had advisors there, but they were restricted to operating within the confines of large Iraqi bases, and the Iraqis would be out there. And US commanders, General Sean McFarland, now retired, others, kept appealing and saying they needed something called "accompanying authority." We need to send our advisors with the Iraqi troops, and not do it remotely, so we can get a better picture of what we're up against, call in airstrikes more efficiently. We also want to back them up with Apache helicopters."
There's an army system. So, it sort of smacks of ground combat, boots, even though they're helicopters, and it took some substantial period of time for the commanders in the field, who are the [foreign language], to get that authority. Ramadi fell in May 2015 to ISIS before they had that authority. So, now you had a situation where, "Well, they took Mosul. Now they took Ramadi. Now what?" But President Obama, to his credit, stuck with it. And so what happened over time was there was... The Obama Administration gave commanders. It didn't happen under Lloyd Austin. It happened under his successor, General Votel at CENTCOM. He gave the commanders in the field the authority to send advisors with Iraqi... Not merely Iraqi brigades... But Iraqi battalions. And it wasn't until the summer of 2016 that US advisors went with an Iraqi battalion at that level, which was for an operation across the Tigris. As the Mosul campaign unfolded, they needed to expand these accompanying authorities even further. They needed to let the advisors go more forward on the battlefield. They needed to employ just to... And had needed to even allow them to directly call in fires, as opposed to routing it back to a command center. That happened in December 2016, when then General Townsend, who was leading it, issued Tactical Directive Number One. So, it took all that time to kind of reach the appropriate balance between letting the Iraqis do the main fighting and having advisors on the battlefield. But it all happened under President Obama. What president Trump did was he executed Obama's strategy. All the things he said he was going to do in the campaign, "Take the gloves off," "Bomb the heck out of them," that never happened. He executed Obama's strategy, pretty much as he inherited it, with one difference. Obama didn't remove all of the constraints. And when he left Office, there were still a lot of issues. For example, the military still didn't have as much latitudes as it would've liked. And one example is Syria. General Townsend wanted to set up an Apache base, Apache attack helicopter base, in Syria to support the offensive Raqqa after Mosul, and he could not get the authority to do that, because, again, the Obama Administration was moving carefully. And so what they agreed is he could have three helicopters in Syria for 72 hours at a time. There was a certain degree of micromanagement, and again, it was risk mitigation on the part of the Obama White House, but it was frustrating for the commanders in the field. That kind of thing was removed under the Trump Administration, by people like HR McMaster who have been on the battlefield, didn't see the need for it. So, Trump didn't change the rules of engagement. That never happened. I've talked to all the commanders. They'll tell you that on your podcast. What happened is the White House removed a degree of micromanagement of the campaign that existed under Obama and Susan Rice. And as a consequence, the irony is Trump executed the Obama strategy more efficiently than Obama himself, simply because he remained aloof from it.

Cole Bunzel: Interesting... So, The United States' role... I mean, The United States is front and center in this book, even though we're not the ones doing most of the fighting. And I think you say at the end of the book that only about 20 US service members were killed in all of Operation Inherent Resolve, which is pretty impressive, given how much territory was taken back. But it does seem like the United States was critical to this venture. Do you think that anything like this could have been done without the United States playing the role that it did?

Michael R. Gordon: No, and the reason is the Iraqi Military was in shambles when the US came back in. The Iraqi leader Malachi was an impediment to progress, political and military, in his country. And while the US played a modest role on the ground, it played an essential role, because these small teams of advisors, who occasionally did, by the way, engage in ground combat in some limited circumstances, including in West Mosul, but they enabled the Iraqis to call on US and coalition air power. They enabled the Iraqis and the Syrians with intelligence, and what defeated the Islamic State was not just the skirmishing on the ground, but massive amounts of air power. Now, there was a trade off to this strategy. Our proxy forces, our partner forces, the Iraqi Military, the Kurdish Peshmerga, the Syrian SDF, are not nearly as proficient as the US military, and they were well equipped, or deft, at maneuver warfare. And so they required an inordinate amount of firepower to move forward, and these battles were fought in urban settings, Mosul, Raqqa, and as a consequence of this, civilians often were put in danger, not deliberately, not because the rules of engagement were loose... They weren't... But because the ground force required a lot of firepower to move forward. And I think one of the lessons of the war is going to be, "If we do these things again in the future, the military is going to have to come up with a better way to try to mitigate civilian casualties," although the very concept of this kind of strategy does create and present a certain degree of risk for them. If we wanted to reduce the risk to civilian casualties further, one way to do it is to use American ground forces less than proxy forces, but there are huge political barriers to that in The United States, and we'd be taking more casualties, on the military side, of our own.

Cole Bunzel: Right, and the number of civilian casualties, including civilian casualties inflicted by the United States via air power, is pretty, pretty stunning, something in the thousands, I think maybe 8,000, according to one estimate. I wanted to get back to the partner forces. You mentioned in Iraq, we had the Iraqi Military and the Kurdish Peshmerga. And in Syria, we had this Kurdish group called the Syrian Defense Forces, the SDF, which is problematic for number of reasons, mainly because Turkey, our NATO ally, considers it to be a terrorist organization linked to the PKK.
But there was another organization we haven't mentioned yet, which isn't necessarily a partner force, though some have kind of painted it as effectively one, and that is the PMF, or the Popular Mobilization Forces, in Iraq. These are the Shiite militias, many of them backed by Iran, and while in the book, so far as I've read, they don't seem to be working in coordination with the United States, there are a number of times where you bring us into these NSC meetings in the White House where President Obama seems to have an interest in working more closely with them. Can you talk a little bit about that?

Michael R. Gordon: Yeah. So, one striking feature of this war is we not only had a partner force. We had a multitude of partner forces, and they didn't all like each other, or even cooperate with each other. And so this is a hydro headed set of partners. So, if you just take the Iraqi Military, for example, that's made up of the Iraqi Army, the Counter Terrorism Service, the Federal Police. They all report to different ministries. They didn't really have a strict unified chain of command in Mosul. The US just had to deal with that. That was just a fact of life. The Counter Terrorism Service was the best of all of them. That's the one the US created and nurtured during its occupation, but we had to advise all of them even though they were rivals and claimants for authority and resources within Iraq. Then there was the Kurdish Peshmerga, which didn't work well with the Iraqi Army, and yet they were both part of the battle for Mosul. And then, as you pointed out in Syria... Actually, it's the Syrian Democratic Forces.

Cole Bunzel: Excuse me.

Michael R. Gordon: I think they came up with the name themselves.

Cole Bunzel: Hard to keep track of all their acronyms.

Michael R. Gordon: And that was basically a Kurdish led force that included some Arabs that was dominated by the YPG, which, for the purposes of this conflict, the US insisted did not have a strong connection to the PKK, which was designated as a terrorist group by the US. And somehow, the US had to keep all of these... I mean, it was really an extraordinary advisory effort just to keep this whole thing moving forward... And it meant that, at times, the US had to bend to local political realities just because they were fighting the war, and if they wanted to stop, then and you couldn't order them forward, and you couldn't... If they wanted to fight [inaudible] instead of Mosul, you couldn't tell them to do otherwise. The Iranians had their own by, with, and through a program from the very start that Qassem Soleimani himself directed, and he was present in Iraq. In fact, I revealed in the book, he even had an impromptu meeting with the US General at Union Three, across from the American Embassy. And they were known generically in Iraq as the Popular Mobilization Forces, the PMF, the [foreign language], and they really span the spectrum, from what were called sort of the "loyal PMF" that work for the [inaudible] and to more hard line Iranian elements. In my view, they did not play a decisive role in the fight after the first couple weeks. They were important in the first couple weeks, because the US wasn't there, because it took some substantial period of time to engineer a new Iraqi Government for the US to come back in and train them.
And in that period, the Iranians were in there providing arms, weapons, militia, and support, something that the Kurds will tell you. But after that, they weren't, because they... I saw some of these guys... They weren't that capable. Plus, we wouldn't support them directly with air power, because they were not under direct Iraqi Government command. So, we said, "Look, we'll support the Iraqi Army. We're not supporting the PMF," and a huge effort was made to keep them outside of Mosul... There were only a few exceptions of when they were inside there... Because it was felt that, "These are hard line Shia elements, and it'll aggravate and irritate the Sunnis, and that'll inflame sectarian tensions and make this mission all the much harder." So, the US strategy was to de-conflict with these Iranian backed elements, keep them out of mole, not support them with air and try to marginalize them. By and large, it worked. Although, in the end they, they did get into Fallujah, and they did play a role, and they're consequential now because their ultimate objective was not merely to fight ISIS but to establish a land bridge from Iran to Syria, to supply Lebanese Hezbollah and elements there with arms, and they were successful in that endeavor, but I don't regard them as consequential in the defeat of ISIS.

Cole Bunzel: I thought that was a clarifying omission, if I could put it that way, how much of the focus, when it came to the battles in Iraq and in Syria, was really through our partner forces, and that the Iranian backed forces were not the principle factor.

Michael R. Gordon: Qassem Soleimani understood that himself, and there was US intelligence. When we came back in, there was US intelligence on Qassem Soleimani saying, "The Americans are coming back in. They're using this as an excuse to reoccupy Iraq. We've got to stop them," but then he had a change of heart, and there was US intelligence saying Qassem Soleimani came to the view... He said, "Look, the American can fight ISIS better than we can. Let's let them do the dirty work and then we'll move in afterwards and try to amplify our influence, which is exactly what they tried to do."

Cole Bunzel: Well, that brings me to my last question, or questions. So, we talked about the campaigns in Mosul and Raqqa. Mosul is taken... It is liberated... In July 2017, and Raqqa and Syria falls a few months later in October 2017. It would take a little bit longer, until March 2019, until the last bit of ISIS held territory was recovered. That was Baghuz, Syria, in March 2019. But when it comes to what we have achieved, and how successful Operation Inherent Resolve was, I think we have to look at how politically sustainable the outcome that we have helped to generate is. So, how do you kind of evaluate, in your mind, the success of Operation Inherent Resolve when we survey the ground of Iraq and Syria today?

Michael R. Gordon: Well, first, I feel like there're some military lessons there, which is that if you want to work with a partner force, or a proxy force and it's important to accompany them on the battlefield, you can't do them from inside the confines of large bases. It just doesn't work that well. I think that's an important lesson. Second, I think it's good not to allow security vacuums to emerge in the first place, and we have a tendency, sometimes, to think of a complex as a so-called "forever war, and if we have troops in a foreign place, we're not ending the forever war." And I think the way we should think of it is not as a forever war, but as the forward deployment of a small number of US forces in an area that's strategically important to us guard against the emergence of new risks. So, "Don't let the vacuum arise in the first place, if you can. Go with your partners on the field." Third, as I mentioned before, "We've got to think of a way to mitigate civilian casualties." I wouldn't put this all on the US, by any means. ISIS used these people as human shields. They kept them trapped in Mosul and Raqqa. They fought from behind them. They fought from within civilian structures. They're the ones that put the civilians at risk. The Iraqis and the Syrian forces had to dig them out, and it took some significant firepower to do that. But, in terms of "sustainability," you asked an absolutely essential question. And I think, militarily, what we have now is sustainable, because we haven't pulled our troops out. We still have 2,500 troops in Iraq. They are inside the wire. They're not going out too much, but they're there. We have about 1,000 troops in Syria, in Eastern Syria, the East Syrian Security Area and at the [inaudible] combined. There's still-

Cole Bunzel: And they're not going anywhere either.

Michael R. Gordon: Well, we occupy some territory in Eastern Syria where there's some [inaudible] and some oil interest. There was a lot of to-ing and fro-ing within the Trump Administration, who twice ordered the troops out and then twice ordered them back in, but they don't occupy the same terrain that they did before, but they occupy some important terrain. That gives the US a certain degree of leverage discussions about the future of Syria, not unlimited but not insignificant, but at least we didn't make the mistake we made in 2011, in mishandling the SOFA talks and leaving the country. We still have forces there. Indeed, Operation Inherent Resolve continues to this day. It is still literally in existence, and it's under the command of a Two Star General now, not a Three Star, but we have a presence. Now, "political sustainability," well, Iraq has its own... Going through its own difficult process of government formation. We have to stay involved in that diplomatically and economically, in every which way we can. Syria is just a sad, sad story, and under the original concept within the Trump... Well, originally, the idea was that at the end of this conflict, we would do something called "stabilization." It wouldn't be nation building. It wouldn't be a reconstruction, because that was too much for the American pocketbook and the American public to sustain. We tried that in Iraq. It was going to be much less. It was going to be stabilization. It was going to be de-mining, help them get essential services back, working with the De-ISIS Coalition of 80 something nations, and help them get back on their feet. President Trump canceled after reading an article in the Washington Post that we were doing the stabilization, canceled it. I think we were spending all of 100 million dollars on it, because he didn't want to do it, demanded other nations pony up, which they were doing anyway. And so the stabilization thing, between the Trump Administration's ill advised decision to cancel it against the wishes of Brett McGurk, President Trump's repeated efforts to yank forces out of Syria without consulting with his own commanders about the implications of that, only to leave them there, and when he was told we'd lose controllable the oil, created a lot of chaos. So, we don't really have a mature stabilization effort underway, and that would've been important to H.R. McMaster. He was a big proponent of that, along with McGurk, because when McMaster, due to his own experience in Iraq, believed you needed the Army's operating concept should you need a sustainable outcome. Well, we don't have that in Syria, but ISIS has been weakened, and in Iraq, there's a certain degree of stability, and that's really maybe the limit of what the US can achieve at this time. Syria, as you know from your own experience there, we have interventions by Turkey, a Russian presence now. The Israelis do air strikes against the Iranians. The Iranians are there with their Shia militias. The US is there. It's a kind of a geopolitical Star Wars bar, and I don't think its prospects are particularly promising, as you know, because there're no countries who will step up to rebuilding it. The areas where the US is not present anymore, Raqqa, other places, are not being reconstructed by Iran, or by Russia, or by the Assad Regime, or by Turkey, or any of these other powers. So, I don't think the US should assume all of the blame and responsibility for the mess that persists in Syria now, but it is a situation where there isn't a particularly good outcome, but it has to be said that ISIS has been severely weakened, not eliminated, but weakened, and by all reasonable criteria, you'd have to say that the Inherent Resolve Campaign was a success, although you need to keep your eye on the ball to see that that particular adversary doesn't reemerge again.

Cole Bunzel: So, I said that was the last question, but I do have one bonus question since you said that Operation Inherent Resolve continues. Where did this name "Inherent Resolve" come from, something that you call an "ungainly name" in the book?

Michael R. Gordon: Cole, if you did a poll of American public, and you ask them, "Do you support Operation Inherent Resolve," 99% of the people in our country would say, "What's that?" In fact, in doing this book, I had to get a quote from a quite senior retired American officer on the record, which I did get on the record. It's in the book. And I said, "Listen, I'm doing a book on OIR, and I want to put your quote on the record." And that guy said, "What's OIR?" I said, "It's Operation Inherent Resolve," and he went, "Yeah." So, in fact, I would say very few people in the country realize it's still underway even though they still carry out missions. There was just a big ISIS prison break in-

Cole Bunzel: In January, in [inaudible].

Michael R. Gordon: ... January and then we still do operations to against ISIS [inaudible], and other notables. But the way it resolved, and the way the name came about was... The reason it's a clunky name is it's a product of the Pentagon bureaucracy, and in the US Military, when you name an operation... And it's important to have a named operation, as they call, it in terms of resources, commitment, attention, funding... You can't just go out and name it whatever you want. The Brits always come up with these kind of names that don't mean anything, [inaudible] or [inaudible], or whatever, but American names have to sort of mean something. And yet, there's a naming convention, and Central Command is allocated certain letters that it has to use. The name should be two words, and it can begin with certain letters, and the second word can begin with other letters, and it has to all be conceived within these kind of strictures.
And so the initial name that came up [inaudible], and I think it was the General [inaudible] supported it... He was the general of the US Embassy at the time... Was Iraqi Resolve, because even though Mosul had fallen when the Iraqi Military fled the city and handed it over to a couple thousand militants, it was meant to encourage them to show resolve and take their country back, and everybody liked that. They socialized it with the Iraqi Government. They liked it too even though they hadn't shown much resolve, but they were... It was, I guess, perspective. And then somebody woke up to the fact that this campaign, very early on, was going to go into Syria. President Obama decided in September 2014 that US airstrikes would have to go into Syria. And then later, we sent special forces in after Kobani. So, they said, "Well, we can't have an Iraqi Resolve, because there's Syria in there too." So, then they played with a whole bunch of different names and couldn't really come up with anything, and eventually, they settled on Inherent Resolve, which nobody really liked, but at least it didn't leave anybody out. You weren't saying, "It's all about Iraq and not about Syria," and that became the name and it's the name today, and it goes on, and just on a personal note, I'd say it's a shame that the public doesn't know much about it, because we've gone through this wrenching setback in Afghanistan, which even General Milley would acknowledge, and said was a strategic setback and defeat after 20 years. What do we have to show for it? But Inherent Resolve, the counter ISIS campaign, that was a big war that Americans were killed. Delta Force did some successful operations. Lots of air was employed. Some of it maybe hit the wrong target, but a lot of it hit the right target, and it was successful. This is a war we actually won, and we shouldn't forget that. And it could have been done better, perhaps, in places, and it was a learning process, but it was actually a successful operation in that part of the world, and those don't come easy. So, I think that it's something that a lot of sacrifices were made by a lot of people, particularly the people who live there, the Iraqi forces, the Kurdish forces, the Syrian forces. They took enormous casualties, fought in terrible conditions, and I just think it'd be my hope, anyway, apart from just trying to preserve the history for posterity, would be that there's sort of a greater appreciation of that, and awareness of that, I think, not only of the sacrifices the American forces made, and the coalition forces, Brits, French, Norwegian, others in there, but of the people who live there themselves.

Cole Bunzel: Now, what you describe in the book is certainly exemplary of "resolve." Perhaps the word "inherent" means nothing, but certainly, all of the people who sacrificed their lives and limbs demonstrated a high degree of resolve in pushing back ISIS. With that, I think we should bring this conversation to a close. Michael Gordon, thank you very, very much for coming on the Caravan Podcast. Once again, Michael's new book is Degrade and Destroy: The Inside Story of the War Against the Islamic State from Barack Obama to Donald Trump, and I do highly recommend it. Please rate and subscribe to the podcast. We will be back soon for the next episode.

Michael R. Gordon: Thank you.

Speaker 3: This podcast is a production of the Hoover Institution, where we advance ideas that define a free society and improve the human condition. For more information about our work, or to listen to more of our podcasts or watch our videos, please visit

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