The RAND Center for Middle East Public Policy hosted a book discussion featuring Michael Gordon, a national security correspondent for the Wall Street Journal. Gordon, along with a panel of Middle East experts, discussed his new book chronicling the war against the Islamic State in Iraq and Syria during the Obama and Trump administrations.


Linda Robinson, Director of the Center for Middle East Public Policy; Senior Policy Researcher

Hello. I'm Linda Robinson. I'm director of RAND's Center for Middle East Public Policy. I'd like to welcome all of you to this on-the-record event with distinguished journalist Michael Gordon to talk about his new book, "Degrade and Destroy: The Inside Story of the War against the Islamic State, from Barack Obama to Donald Trump." [inaudible] campaign that has been less well [inaudible] than the previous Operation Iraqi Freedom and Desert Storm, both of which Michael has also written about. Michael is renowned for a long career of rigorous and objective reporting on national security and his particular devotion to the military interventions by the U.S. and coalition members in Iraq.

On one of my some 30 trips to Iraq, I found myself happily in the company of Michael as we were invited to travel with General Votel, then CENTCOM commander, to several frontline locations in Iraq and Syria at the height of the campaign. This is illustrative of Michael's devotion to battlefield reporting, as well as the Woodward style policy and military decision making chronicle. I am delighted to welcome Michael, welcome all of you. And I will now turn it over to Ryan Haberman, who will be serving today as moderator in our discussion.

Ryan Haberman, Policy Analyst

Thanks, Linda. And again, welcome, everyone, to today's event with the RAND Center for Middle East Public Policy. I'm Ryan Haberman, a policy analyst at RAND and special projects coordinator for the Center for Middle East Public Policy. We're excited to be joined this afternoon by Michael Gordon, along with several Middle East experts, to discuss Michael's new book.

As for today's event, we'll open with an introduction by Michael to discuss his new book. And then I'll open the floor to a panel discussion between four Middle East researchers who have been involved in research surrounding the war against the Islamic State. Following that panel discussion. I'll leave some time at the end for the audience to submit questions using the Q&A function on Zoom. The Q&A feature will remain on throughout. So I invite all the everyone in the audience to please submit questions and identify yourself in that response. And I'll be compiling those questions throughout. I look forward to hearing Michael and the panelists' reactions to those questions.

So with that, I'll go ahead and introduce all of our speakers. Our special guest is Michael Gordon, national security correspondent for The Wall Street Journal. Michael was formerly chief military correspondent for The New York Times. He is co-recipient of the George Polk Award for International Reporting for work on Germany's chemical weapons sales to Libya. Throughout his career, Michael has reported from war zones in Afghanistan, Kosovo, Chechnya and Panama. Michael is coauthor of several books with Lieutenant General (Retired) Trainor. And of course, he's the author of the book "Degrade and Destroy," which was published in June 2022. The book chronicles the war against the Islamic State, with an emphasis on the frustrating quest to establish a stable and representative government in Iraq.

Our panelists are four experts with extensive work in the region and on Operation Inherent Resolve. Today, we're joined by Ben Connable, a senior nonresident fellow with the Atlantic Council's Middle East programs. Ben is a retired Marine Corps Middle East foreign area officer and former RAND researcher. From the RAND side, we're joined by Shelly Culbertson, senior policy researcher and associate program director of the Disaster Research and Analysis Program. Shelly has led a number of projects focusing on international development in the Middle East and post-conflict stabilization. Next is Eric Robinson, senior research analyst and associate director of the RAND Research Programming Group. Eric was previously a policy advisor with the Office of the Assistant Secretary of Defense for Special Operations and Low-Intensity Conflicts, SO/LIC. And finally is Karen Sudkamp, a management scientist and former all source intelligence analyst at the Defense Intelligence Agency, where she spent twelve years focusing on Middle East and counterterrorism issues. We have a great list of panelists today, and I'm looking forward to our conversation. So with that, I'll turn the floor over to you, Michael, to begin our our conversation. Michael.

Michael Gordon, National Security Correspondent for the Wall Street Journal

Well, I really appreciate the opportunity. And I think what makes this event special is all of you, the experts here and the people who are watching, because this is a group that has a lot of expertise on the Middle East in this area and these kinds of conflicts. And a war like the fight against the Islamic State raises a lot of complex questions and it's good to have an in-depth discussion of it. And in fact, this is one of the rare groups that is prepared to engage in that, really.

So first off, I'm just going to talk for about ten or fifteen minutes so that there's time to have that kind of engagement among this panel and among the audience. A question is, I think just first off the bat, why did I do this book in the first place, because it's a lot of work and wasn't easy, and it's a really complicated subject. But throughout my career, I've had the opportunity through the newspapers that I have worked for, to get a front row seat on a lot of conflicts, wars, and the like. And but when you're in the midst of these momentous events, I've always wondered what was really going on and what were the key decisions that were made? Why did they attack this way and not that way? How did we get into the situation in the first place? What were the roads that were not chosen?

And so what I've done in the past, what I did with General Trainor, who unfortunately has passed away, is I would go back to Washington and try to run down those decisions as they were made in the National Security Council, in the Pentagon and the State Department, and then try to discern what happened in the battlefield and put the two together. And that's the approach I took here, as well.

One disadvantage that I had in this conflict is, or an obstacle really, is the Pentagon has abandoned the practice of embedding correspondents with U.S. forces. They didn't do it in Operation Inherent Resolve. They're not doing it today, even in Poland, where there is no fighting. But I was able to go with the partner forces and they were happy to take journalists. So, I had a number of opportunities to go to Sinjar, to east Mosul with the Peshmerga, with the counterterrorism service in west Mosul, and the like. And so you could get pretty close to the situation and get that that sort of perspective. And I did have the opportunity to do what's called battlefield circulations with General Townsend and Colonel Pat Work, now a general, and people like that were involved in the advisory effort. And so that gave me a sense of verisimilitude about what was happening on the battlefield.

Now, what are my big points that I was trying to get across here? One is, I was really interested, and I think it's very important to understand how the strategy evolved over time. When the U.S. returned to Iraq in this mission of what they called By, With, and Through, this strategy was really embryonic. And the decision was made in 2014 after ISIS took Mosul and after Nouri al-Maliki was essentially removed as prime minister of Iraq and replaced with a government the U.S. found more amenable and more, well, less divisive, really, in terms of Iraqi society. And but in the initial phase, the strategy was just U.S. advisors were confined to bases.

There was not a unified command structure for Syria in Iraq. Much of the Air Force activity was really limited to airstrikes along the front lines, which the Air Force detractors would call nefarious dirt. They weren't doing strategic targets. All of that had to be overhauled while the war was going on. And indeed it was. So by the time Mosul came around in 2016, the U.S. had gone from having advisors within the confines of large bases to allowing them to deploy with Iraqi battalions. That was done under General Votel at CENTCOM and General MacFarland and the OIR Command. That was essential because you had to be out on the battlefield with the forces. You couldn't — you couldn't do this remotely even if you weren't going to be in the front lines.

Another important step was to put a commander in charge of both Syria and Iraq. That was also done under Defense Secretary Ash Carter and General MacFarland. They never fully achieved complete unity of command, but they got close enough so that there could be some synchronization between these two efforts. And indeed the Air Force campaign evolved significantly, too. The RAND has done some important work in documenting the air war campaign against Raqqa. But it went off from doing a very tactical oriented approach to doing strikes against ISIS banks, ISIS's energy supplies, and ISIS's economic targets, command and control in Syria. This was all like building an airplane in flight, and it happened during the course of the campaign. It wasn't as if this was all designed at the start and then just implemented. It was in part a process of trial and error.

Now, one thing that was absolutely essential to the success of this was the U.S. role, the U.S. advisory effort. And when one thinks about the — the variety of partner forces we worked with, it's really extraordinary. I mean, the Iraqi security forces, as this panel well knows, is not one thing. It's the Iraqi army. It's the Iraqi counterterrorism service. It's the Iraqi federal police. They don't even report to the same ministries. They kind of each have their own chain of command and their own structure. Well, the U.S. advisors had to be the glue that held this together and imposed some degree of synchronization among the Iraqi forces.

Then there's the Kurdish Peshmerga. That's — yes, they're part of Iraq, but no, they don't work with the Iraqi security forces. And there would have been no coordination between the two had there not been a U.S. presence. And that was essential because in the early part of the Mosul battle, the Iraqi forces went into KRG territory and actually passed through Peshmerga lines. All of that was facilitated by the U.S., which was not only advising these individual elements, but helping them coordinate among themselves and averting misunderstandings. There was no Syrian partner force when the U.S. began this campaign that had to be created. It was established pretty early on, thanks to the work of then Colonel and now Lieutenant General Chris Donoghue, who ran the Delta Force in northern Iraq and is now the 18th Airborne commander working the Ukraine problem in Europe. But that was not only relationship that had to be built, but with a force that we had never previously encountered, the YPG.

Now, I think there's some broad lessons here, which is when you're working with a partner force, you can't tell them what to do. They're doing the main fighting and the main dying. In the main, the ground combat was carried out by these Iraqi and Syrian and Kurdish partners, not by U.S. forces, although there were some notable exceptions where the U.S. did engage in ground combat contrary to what people were being told in Washington. And, but when you're working with these forces, you can't order them around. You can guide them, you can influence them, you can encourage them, but you can't order them. That's just not how these relationships work.

And so during the course of this campaign, there were indeed cases where the Iraqi forces didn't fight the way the Americans wish they had. That happened in the early phases of the East Mosul campaign, when the Americans came up with a plan for how the CTS, the Iraqi army and the federal police should work together. And the Iraqis said, well, thank you very much. We're going to all basically fight our independent battles and and see how that works out, which is it didn't work out very well.

And there were other instances in which the U.S. wished the Iraqis had not undertaken the operation to liberate Fallujah because they thought it would eat up too much time on the road to Mosul, but it was a priority in Baghdad for a whole variety of reasons, and the U.S. had to accept it. But when push came to shove in the climactic battle in Iraq, which was the battle for west Mosul, when they got the Iraqi campaign stalled out around the April 2017 timeframe, the U.S. was able to influence it.

And by working behind the scenes and by encouraging and giving, sharing intel with the Iraqis, making their case in private to the Iraqi prime minister, to the Iraqi generals, the U.S. was able to — this is done under General Townsend, Colonel Pat Work, Joe Martin— they were able to persuade the Iraqis to open up a second front and to send their lone armored division into western Iraq, despite a statement that I heard myself from Iraq's prime minister that he would never do that, because in my travels there was one occasion which I ended up in a council of war with the Iraqi prime minister and all of his top generals, almost by accident. But I was there.

So the way — a guy who summed this up best was then Colonel Pat Work who said, his philosophy was to deposit deposit deposit in the hope that one day you could make a withdrawal. And by that, he meant help the Iraqis with the intel, help them with air support, help them with logistics, make yourself as indispensable to that partner as you can in the hope that when you got into a jam, you would have the influence, street cred, and ability to steer the strategy in a direction that you thought might be more successful. And indeed, that's what happened in the in the west Mosul campaign.

Now, one thing I would say is, this is to conclude and then open it up for questions and from the panelists and from the audience, is this is a campaign that from American standards, by all reasonable expectations, was a success. The ISIS caliphate was destroyed. Yeah, they're running around in small groups in Syria and Iraq creating problems, but it's not what it used to be and doesn't have much of an external plotting dimension anymore.

It was done at extraordinary light cost to the U.S. about 20 KIA. Nothing compared for a battle of this intensity. It's about on the order of what I saw in Panama way back when. But the cost for the partner forces was huge. Thousands of Iraqis killed and wounded and Kurdish killed and wounded and Syrian democratic forces killed and wounded. And the cost for civilians, because so much of this was done in an urban setting, was also high. This was a part and parcel of the By, With, and Through approach, because while we had partners who were willing to do the fighting on the ground, these partners depended on an inordinate amount of air power to advance in in an urban setting.

And when that happened, unfortunately, there were a lot of civilians who are caught up in that. All of this being compounded by ISIS's tactics of trying to prevent civilians from fleeing in the first place and using them as human shields. So those are my broad observations. But at this point, I'd like to open it up to the panel and to the audience to see what questions you have. And as we try to sort out what I think was actually a very important war and one which has not merely an artifact of history, but has relevant lessons for the future in the Middle East and even in a great power context.

Ryan Haberman

Thanks, Michael. And before we turn to some of those panel that panel discussion, I'd like to encourage the audience to, again, submit any questions you have, and I'll get to those after after we speak with our panelists. And so first, I'd like to turn the floor over to Ben Connable for your initial reaction.

Ben Connable, Retired Marine Corps Middle East Foreign Area Officer; Former RAND Researcher

Thanks, Ryan, and thanks, Linda, for inviting me. Michael, I just want to commend you on a terrific and tremendously important book. Anybody that's viewing this now that hasn't read it yet, I really couldn't recommend it without any more enthusiasm. I mean, it's it is, I think, the only really structured history of this of this really critical event.

So I just want to touch on — you brought up unity of command and a range of other issues about By, With and Through. And I know some of my colleagues are going to touch on those points. I wanted to hit on four quick points and then ask you questions. The first, and you know, you brought up so many important issues that are relevant, as you point out, not only to the Middle East, but the broader context of of great power competition. One is just the importance of adaptability in our armed forces. And that there were, you know, you describe a series of problems that are thrown in front of our officers and senior enlisted leaders. And each one of them is solved with a debate, with a lot of energy and an intense discourse back and forth. And we're watching an army now in Ukraine and Russia, where the Russians are not adapting and we're seeing the consequences of that lack of adaptability.

The second is the critical importance in as part of our partner development program, of not ignoring the regular armed forces, as we tend to put a tremendous amount of effort and resources into building up special operations forces around the world. I think sometimes we we neglect the regular forces that in this case were so essential to securing places like Mosul and Ramadi and Fallujah. The — you brought up the risk aversion that was really evident in the troop limitations that were put on the force levels in Syria and Iraq at various times and the impact that that had on the ability of our advisors to get the job done. And it really was a tyranny of of troop limitation that reminded me of the El Salvador troop cap, I think, of fifty-five advisors. And then finally, the lack of organized learning, which you point out at the very end of the book that this there's really just not a tremendous amount of effort being put into recording these battles in a constructive way and then learning important lessons from them.

So to that last point, I'd like to ask you how you view this since you observed a lot of this firsthand, the fighting that took place in Iraq in, you know, just, you know, five years ago here, it's not that long ago. How does that reflect on the modern character of warfare and how should we be thinking about reshaping the armed forces in the United States globally, reflecting not only on the threat from China and Russia, but the the requirement to conduct operations like the one you described.

Michael Gordon

It's an important and very difficult question. But my my sense of that is now as a correspondent at The Wall Street Journal, I'm covering the new national defense strategy and the shift toward China. And as number one is the pacing threat and Russia's the acute threat, which I guess the Pentagon's assumption is that it will be of less duration than the China threat and where the military is trying to go on that. But notwithstanding those efforts which are important, it's clear that in the Middle East and in ungoverned spaces, militant threats and — are going to continue to arise. They're not going to go away just because we decided to focus on a different paradigm. And, but the day in which we have spent tens of thousands of troops to Iraq or to Afghanistan is unlikely to come again any time soon because of it's not popular in the United States and I don't know of too many administrations that would want to take that step. And plus, we have to husband resources for the great power dangers.

In that context, some variation of By, With, and Through, of taking a small number of U.S. forces or a relatively small number since we had an excess of five thousand in Iraq during this conflict, and linking them with partner forces that have some degree of credibility in their local environment may be the most effective and indeed the only way to project power in these other areas of the world where dangers are not going to go away just because we decided to switch the channel and focus on on other threats. So that — now what kind of work is going on in the Pentagon on that to actually make that happen? That's a good question. But that's one of the — my own thoughts about what this sort of conflict shows, a small number of advisors with U.S. air power, U.S. ISR or U.S. INTEL and a capable partner force or one that's at least willing to fight can be a very lethal combination when you put it all together, if you put it all together right. It might even have utility in some great power contest — contexts where we don't want to go toe-to-toe with a nuclear armed adversary.

Ryan Haberman

Great. Thanks. Thanks, Ben and Michael. And next, I'd like to turn the floor over to Shelly.

Shelly Culbertson, Associate Program Director of the Disaster Research and Analysis Program; Senior Policy Researcher

Hi, Michael. Thank you also for the opportunity to read your book and to comment here. I'd like to echo Ben and note just how tremendous I think your book has been, very thorough discussing the challenges, the ethical considerations, how decisions were made, the relationships and so forth. So thank you for contributing that. My question is also about By, With, and Through. And I wanted to focus on civilian impacts and how By, With, and Through impacts both civilian daily lives as well as can can contribute to or prevent displacement and refugees and and so forth.

So one thing that's been striking is just the huge range of estimates for the civilian casualties in some of these fights in Mosul and Raqqa. There's not even agreement on what those — what the levels of of of of casualties have been. And so we've seen the Yazidis displaced in Iraq. 5.7 million Iraqis were internally displaced at the peak, although most of them are home now. We see of ISIS family still in Al-Hol. 60% of Syria has been displaced either internally or externally, although not, you know, a smaller proportion of that has been from this particular campaign. We're also seeing those questions in Ukraine, where they're six million refugees from Ukraine and seven million internally displaced persons.

So with this model of By, With, and Through, you know, this, as you've pointed out, it relies on a huge, tremendous on air power, which can also lead to a lot of destruction of cities and so forth. And so my my question to you is, what are your views on the lessons learned for how By, With, and Through impacts civilians and refugees and what can be done to — what are lessons learned about what to do to protect those those those interests, what to do, what not to do. I'd also note that in your epilog you mentioned that the By, With, and Through model is is really in many ways new and we're just learning about how that that's worked with with the campaign against ISIS as kind of the the the key example of that to date and that there are a lot of questions for how that works. So, you know, related to civilians, you know, what what are those big questions that we need to understand about how to do this more effectively?

Michael Gordon

So by By, With, and Through, which has kind of become defense jargon, we mean the fighting is done by our partner on the ground with American and coalition support and through some sort of legal and policy framework. So that's and it's a it's an old Special Forces term that's kind of what A Teams and special forces groups have been doing for, for decades. But what was done here was done on a much greater scale across two countries with thousands of forces and massive amount of air power and and intelligence. So it's partly the scale on which it was applied.

So they're they're tradeoffs in at least in how it worked in this conflict. One tradeoff is that these partner forces are just less capable than U.S. military personnel when you're fighting in cities or fighting in other environments. And they became, as I noted before, are much more dependent on air power to advance. And we wanted them to advance because we couldn't leave Mosul in the hands of ISIS forever. And so as a consequence of this, I think a much greater amount of air power was applied to targets in these urban settings than might have been necessary if U.S. forces had done some more of the direct fighting. And they didn't do very much. They did some. And but is that a tradeoff American society is prepared to take? In other words, we'll risk more American lives so that there are fewer civilian casualties, but that at one level is a bit of a tradeoff. And so all you can do with that problem is try to mitigate it, in my view, by having maybe more responsive, well, more determined effort to assess civilian casualties as they arise, and maybe a more determined effort to adjust tactics to the extent you can.

On the other hand, I don't want to paint an overly dark picture of this because there were instances, particularly in Syria, where our By, With, and Through partner, the Syrian democratic forces that General Mazloum expressed a lot of concern for civilian casualties and damage to infrastructure to the extent that it caused some concerns for the Americans. One example is TOPGUN, where I was at one point during a trip there with Brett McGurk and some others, and I think we were the first Americans to come in there who weren't Special Forces. And in that conflict, the U.S. is trying to apply Jim Mattis's annihilation doctrine of surrounding the city and not letting ISIS get out. And the SDF negotiated an agreement with the SDF that allowed that would be — with ISIS that allowed them to leave the city alive and intact. And the premise was, well, less of the city would be destroyed, including the dam, which was important to the survival of that town. And their own casualties would be somewhat reduced. The U.S. was opposed to that. It wasn't really consulted. They cut the deal anyway. It tried to stop it to the extent it could and it wasn't able to.

Another example is Raqqa, where the amount of firepower expended on that city may have been precise, but when you hit something precisely a thousand times, it does a lot of damage. Got to the point where the local tribesmen and people in that part of Syria went to General Mazloum in turn to the American Delta commander Jeff VanAntwerp and said, "you got to stop it". It's gotten to the point where the civilians are pressed up against these ISIS fighters. Their — they got their back against the wall. They're not going to give in. Too many innocents are going to die. And guess what? The Americans did stop it. And they abandoned the annihilation doctrine and they accepted an understanding where the ISIS was allowed to leave the city in a convoy. In theory, they were going to have their biometric data taken and all that. That never really happened and went into the middle Euphrates River Valley. And so there's a case where our partner said, "you're going to destroy the village to save it", so to speak. And the Americans listened because of some of what we were doing was an anathema to people in Middle East warfare. What kind of adversary, what kind of force fights an adversary and doesn't leave them a way to to leave.

So so it shows you a little bit how complex the By, With, and Through issues; there are pros and there are cons. On the larger issue of stabilization, the U.S. essentially dropped that ball in the Trump administration due to White House policies because President Trump was against it and he canceled the hundred million dollar effort to do stabilization there. And that led H.R. McMaster and others to have to run after the Saudis and other Arab, the UAE, to try to get some funds in there. That's a separate issue. To what degree is the U.S. — it won't do nation building anymore. So but it can do some degree of stabilization. And, but in order to do stabilization, you have to be in these countries and you have to stay in them even when the shooting stops to maintain some degree of order and also to observe and monitor the stabilization process. I think that remains a weakness in our overall strategy, whether it's By, With, and Through, or whether it's competently prosecuted entirely ourselves.

Ryan Haberman

Thanks, Michael. And with some of our discussion on Delta and Special Operations, I think it'd be a good segue now to give the floor to Eric.

Eric Robinson, Former Policy Advisor with the Office of the Assistant Secretary of Defense for Special Operations and Low-Intensity Conflicts (SO/LIC)

Thanks, Ryan, and thanks, Michael, for this really great discussion so far. I think you highlighted something very interesting in the intro to your last comment that this By, With, and Through approach isn't necessarily new for America's Special Operations Forces. And I think throughout particularly the early pieces of your book, you really documented several instances in which America's special operators were out in the lead, providing a form of kind of deep understanding of the conditions on the ground in Iraq in particular. The example was early 2014 of Mike D'Agata and Chris Donoghue traveling to Baghdad, sort of of their own volition to go and scope out the extent to which the ISIS threat was actually having a broader impact on the Iraqi government. There are other plenty of examples in Syria as well.

But at times as you also document, there were examples where SOF's sort of more forward leaning, risk tolerant approach to this sort of a conflict often created unique challenges for the broader coalition and for C — for the CJTF-OIR headquarters as well. You know, instances of remote Green Berets putting at risk of harm in portions of Syria that require pretty significant movement to protect a distributed command and control system between SOF in one theater versus conventional forces in another. And obviously the militarily beneficial but diplomatically challenging relationship with the Syrian Kurds and the YPG. So I'm curious your thoughts on kind of the overall balance of SOF's contributions in this campaign and and really thoughts on how the U.S. policymakers should look to leverage this very specific capability in future conflicts like this or even in future great power conflicts as well.

Michael Gordon

Well, I think the Special Forces and Special Operation Forces' contribution was essential in this conflict because they are the ones that carried essentially the war and the load in Syria, supported by artillery, you know, conventional artillery and Marine, Army, and all sorts of assets. And the war wasn't only in Iraq, it was in Syria. Plus, and really the whole concept for how to fight the war in Syria was developed in the Special Operations community by Chris Donahue and Mazloum. It was codenamed Talon Anvil. And that was the idea that they were going to — the U.S. was going to partner with SOF plus the SDF to cut off the flow of foreign fighters to ISIS troops. It was the oxygen that allowed them to to really expand the caliphate.

Interestingly, in the original concept, they were quite cognizant of Turkish sensitivities, and the original Delta Force concept was to push to the Euphrates and then stop and then pivot south and not to take it as far as Manbij, where things get to — became a little more problematic with the Turks. So I think they have an essential role to play. They were never fully subordinated under the conventional commanders. They were, there was a, you know, I know when they did raids in Iraq, General McFarland could red card things that he didn't think were wise, but he didn't have direct control of them.

Interestingly, in the period of 2013 and 2014 that you mentioned, there really was the potential to do more than we did, even with minimal numbers in Iraq before the fall of Mosul, but it was constrained by the lack of authorities from Washington. And an example is in 2013, when the — it was quite evident to the U.S. Special Forces community that the Iraqi security forces, the CTS were overmatched that they couldn't handle this new ISIS threat. And the ODAs that were in there at the time that we're trying to work with them. We're trying to help rehabilitate the CTS and train them. But they were proscribed from helping them plan to take Fallujah. That went beyond the authorities they had. They had to give non-operational advice. They were — and they certainly couldn't accompany them onto the battlefield. They could work in Area Four near the Baghdad airport.

So if we had given the special forces a little more running room in 2013 and 2014 without putting Americans too much in harm's way, we would have had a better understanding of the problem and the Iraqis would have been better prepared. You brought up General Ngata and Chris Donahue. They went to Iraq in February of 2014. They each took home the message that the Iraqis couldn't handle this new threat and that ISIS was a much more capable enemy than AQI. They didn't hide those observations. They shared them up the chain of command. It had no effect whatsoever on the White House, which was still determined to put Iraq in the rearview mirror until Mosul fell and they were shocked out of their complacency. But the Special Forces community understood it to the extent that they actually said okay. They made plans to go back in, assuming that that day would come at some point.

In the nomenclature, by the way, in Syria, there was Task Force Nine, which was Delta and Task Force 9.5, which was the Special Forces Group. And the reason they use that is because you really needed the additional bodies of the Pitts Special Forces Group combined with Delta, to do all the training and advising of an SDF force that numbered in the tens of thousands. So I don't know if that directly answered your question, but I see I — they played an absolutely indispensable role in their theater, and could have been more helpful than they were allowed to be in the — before the fall of Mosul.

Ryan Haberman

Yeah, thank you. And with that, I'll turn it over to you, Karen.

Karen Sudkamp, Management Scientist; Former All Source Intelligence Analyst at the Defense Intelligence Agency

Well, thank you, Ryan, and and and also thank you, Michael, as well. As everyone has has noted the the book is fantastic and and the conversation today has been wonderful as well. I just wanted to kind of pick up on a couple of things that that have been themes in kind of all of the questions and the answers, but maybe kind of take it up a level from just the military to to the policy discussion and debates and and what lessons we can be learning from that. You know, I was — I found it very interesting that in a lot of the discussions with military in country with whether it was Syrian or Iraqi partners, there was a recognition of, okay, yes, we need to do the fighting, but we also need to make sure that it's either not destroyed too much, you know, not a lot of civilian casualties, or we also need to make sure that we're leaving infrastructure behind so rebuilding and reconstruction is easier. But there seemed to be that combination of whether it was risk aversion or other kind of U.S. policy goals that focused on not getting into the reconstruction game or entering into a new Middle Eastern quagmire seemed to be driving a lot of those policy decisions and limits.

So I think we all could argue, you know, we — there was a really great job done on territorially defeating ISIS. But, you know, now, five years later, we're having, you know, some pretty significant humanitarian issues. You know, northeastern Syria with the camps in the prisons, you know, the status of reconstruction in Iraq is, you know, is is also an issue as well. So kind of going forward, how can, you know, how can we think about, you know, what lessons can we take of realizing that, you know, and implementing kind of, you know, the further of ensuring that we understand and then actually act upon realizing that it's not just about the military defeat, but also the other humanitarian, stabilization, reconstruction, that also matters, so we hopefully don't have another repeat of, you know, an ISIS resurgence, for example.

Michael Gordon

Well, I think that was understood at the conceptual level at the start by the Obama administration. I mean, one of President Obama's requirements for reengaging in Iraq was that Prime Minister Maliki vacate his post and make way for a more a government that was less sectarian in its orientation. And it wasn't really until that happened that the U.S. committed to carry out this mission. So there was a sensitivity that there was a political dimension to it. It couldn't all be purely military. There was also some sort of effort made to limit damage to infrastructure not only by us, but by the Iraqis, because they didn't want to have to fix everything.

But so when they bridges in Mosul, initially they tried to put holes in them instead of just destroy them. There was the famous al-Jamhuri hospital in west Mosul. But, you know, in the end, when the enemy takes over a building that used to be a hospital and turns it into an armed fortress and knocks down the interior walls and puts in anti-aircraft guns and use it to fire on your forces as they advance, those things not only become legitimate targets, but they have to be attacked. And it took a bit of importuning on the part of the Americans to persuade Prime Minister Abadi to do that. But they said, look, it's not a hospital anymore, it's just an ISIS Pentagon. And we can't — you can't afford not to not to deal with that.

And that war, if you've been to west Mosul or Raqqa, I've been to west Mosul. I haven't been to Raqqa. But the amount of damage was just extraordinary. ISIS fighters who'd had years to dug in, there were civilians there who were who were trapped, stone buildings going meter by meter. A lot of it was just destroyed. It was inherent in the in the problem of urban warfare with a partner partner force. Where they are now, I know there were, there were all sorts of high profile conferences where various Gulf states pledged billions of dollars to help the Iraqis with the massive task of rebuilding their their infrastructure. There's been a considerable amount of work done in Ramadi, which I haven't been to recently, but I've read about. But there's obviously a lot more to be done.

And and there was a problem of corruption that delayed some of the efforts that the U.S. wasn't and the international community wasn't able to move in Nineveh until some personnel changes were made there, due to the people on the Iraqi side who were controlling the funds. But yes, you're absolutely right. There's a whole overhang left. There's the Al-Hol camp with, what, sixty thousand to eighty thousand? I don't know how many people are there now who still have to either be repatriated or can't just be left in there in a camp. And there's refugee camps all across the Middle East. And this is — these are all problems that have to be addressed. And it's not solely the U.S.' responsibility to do that, but the U.S. will be impacted negatively if it isn't done done well.

And I just know Syria has become so problematic due to our own ambivalence about being there and the intervention of the Turks and the Russians and the Iranians and the militias and occasional Israeli airstrikes, or not so occasional, that it's not an easy environment to operate in. I don't have an easy answer for it. It's part of the unfinished business that is necessary in these kind of conflicts to to solidify your gains. I think H.R. McMaster once wrote in his Army Operating Concept, you need a politically sustainable outcome or it slides back into a morass.

Ryan Haberman

Yes. Thank you, Michael. And now we'd like to turn to some questions from the audience. So I encourage everyone once again to use the Q&A feature. And before we turn to that, I'd like to specifically introduce CMEPP board chair and former U.S. ambassador to Iraq, Ryan Crocker, to ask a question.

Ryan Crocker, CMEPP Board Chair; Former U.S. Ambassador to Iraq

Thank you very much, Ryan. Michael, I'll join the chorus here. It is a truly great book. I hope that among the many readers will be those who are setting our defense policies and priorities right now. My question is, as you signaled in your book and just now, not about this last war, but about the next one. You've expressed the concern that lessons of this campaign were not or have not yet been fully reviewed and internalized by the the government, our government. Take a look into your crystal ball and tell me — tell us what you think the next war in that theater might look like, and against that, the things that concern you most about our current posture and ability to respond to it.

Michael Gordon

Well, thank you for that easy question, Ryan. I don't I don't know what the next war in the Middle East might look like. I don't know if it's going to be an intensified skirmish with Iranian-backed elements who've already attacked American forces in Syria and Iraq multiple times, including at the al-Tanf Garrison most recently, or some new group that's going to emerge that we're going to identify that's a source of external plotting. But I do know there are these kind of tendencies as Ambassador Crocker pointed out, which is that I think there's a bit of a tendency in the Pentagon to just say, well, we're never going to have to do this again, or I hope we're never going to have to do this again. It reminds me, I mean, there are counterinsurgency lessons learned in Vietnam, also, that were forgotten and then had to be recalled when David Petraeus and Jim Mattis put out their counterinsurgency manual because people said, we're never going to do this again or we don't really want to do this again. We're going to focus on great power.

So I think one thing that's a bit disconcerting is the assumption, I think, in portions of the Pentagon that it's all about China and Russia. And absolutely, you have to compete more intensively against China and Russia. Look what's happening now in Taiwan. We need new operational concepts, new forces, funding, all of that. But you have to have an answer for the rest of the world. You can't just make an assumption that that's not going to be a problem for us. Nor can you assume that over the horizon is always going to be a solution. You know, the Zawahiri, the droning was effective. But, you know, let's think what we had there. We had a stationary target who was there for months, never left that house, but did us the favor of repeatedly going out on the balcony so it could be ID'd by the CIA over an extensive period of time, long enough to build a model of the house and think about how to do it, and then finally pick a time.

Well, that's really an anomaly if — you're going to have people who are moving around, who have some sense of operational security, who are plotting against you. And it's going to be very hard to do that in a purely over-the-horizon fashion from a drone launch from this or that country. You're going to have to have allies or partners or transactional partners on the ground and a way of working with them. And so you might have to get back engaged to that extent. So my — my line is, you know, forever is a really long time and you can't say we're not going to be back engaged and on the ground in one of these parts of the world. Plus, as Bob Gates once said, apart from the wars we started ourselves, we don't have a very good track record of identifying where the next adversary and and is going to come from.

So I'm going to be very interested in seeing what the Biden administration's national defense strategy has to say, not only about the pacing threat in China, but how to deal with the lesser threats that may be perhaps not an existential danger for the U.S., but more likely conflicts that we have to attend to and don't have the luxury to ignore. And yes, it's a bit surprising the Pentagon hasn't done a serious history of Operation Inherent Resolve. There is a RAND Corporation air power study. There is a few piecemeal army asymmetric warfare group things in Mosul and Raqqa that people who are into those things don't find adequate. And there is — Ash Carter put out an interesting report explaining what he was trying to do. General Townsend has a declassified history, but there's not a comprehensive institutional effort to learn from this experience.

Ryan Haberman

Thank you, Michael, and thank you, Ambassador Crocker. And with that, I think we have time for about one, one more question, so I'll turn it over, Shelly, if you'd like to ask your question.

Shelly Culbertson

Sure. I'll ask. I think Ben has a question as well, if you've got time for two. My question, Michael, is about the role of women in the operations against ISIS and within ISIS. I think one thing that I found intriguing were a number of anecdotes sprinkled throughout your book about womens on both sides.

So the Kurdish — Syrian Kurdish forces had an all female brigade that did quite a lot of fighting and was viewed as very effective. And then you also mentioned a number of cases where ISIS women were playing roles in violence. There was a Khansaa morality police, you mentioned women's suicide bombers after some of the battles that would blow up other forces. And they could often break through defenses because they were paid less. There was less scrutiny on the women, in a way providing some kind of vulnerability because they weren't being paid attention to. Or I guess the last example that really stuck out to me was that ISIS women were being — were communicating on social media. But this was below the radar of U.S. Intelligence because there were assumptions that that women weren't involved.

And so in some of these cases, the lack of attention to what the women were doing created vulnerabilities. So I wanted to ask if you could comment more on what was the role of women in this war. How are these assumptions about their roles involved in creating vulnerabilities? And what do you think this looks like in terms of women in warfare in the future in the Middle East?

Michael Gordon

It's a big subject. In the Iraq context, well, in the Syrian context, you're absolutely right. I remember when I was in Sinjar in 2015 for the operation to retake Sinjar from ISIS and I went with the Srabani Force and went down this mountainside. And I was really struck by, once we got to the bottom of this hillside and on the outskirts of town, just, I did see a fair number of women SDF fighters. Now, they weren't in the absolute frontline shock troops. They were — tended to be protecting roads and things of that sort. But they had guns. I saw them practicing how to use them. They know how to use them better than I do. And, and they were there and their their — I saw their female commanders and they seemed to be treated by that organization, perhaps due to its own ideology, with a fair degree of respect and camaraderie. And they were another unit on on the battlefield. They weren't integrated into the SDF forces. They were like female forces. They tended to be female, all female units. But they're on the battlefield doing doing their thing.

I didn't see any of that on the Iraqi side of the Iraqis we were supporting. On the ISIS side, women played and still playing an important role in that when the U.S. SOF did one of their raids in Syria, they — one of the things they learned is that ISIS had a network for passing messages among its commanders; it was the wives. I guess they thought there would be less scrutiny and the wives would pass messages to other wives. It was one way they had to get information around. They were sort of partners and sort of command and control nodes, so to speak, for messaging.

And then, of course, in Mosul, the — they were the female, I forget, seventeen or so suicide bombers at the very end, which was a scary phenomenon. There was also female suicide bombers of Baghuz because in Middle East culture they tend not to get searched as have heavily. They don't — they're not ordered to take off their shirts and at a distance or anything of the kind. And indeed, one thing that makes Al-Hol, I think, such a difficult problem is that they're not merely refugees. They're — it's a conglomeration of refugees, displaced people, innocent victims, and probably hardened female ISIS operatives who are just parked at the Al-Hol camp while the men were taken to prisons elsewhere. So women played an important role in ISIS. They played an important role in in the SDF in Syria. I didn't see them play a big role in the Iraqi security forces, given the nature of that society. But they were an important factor.

Ryan Haberman

Thanks, Shelly, for that great question. And we do have time for one more question, so I'll turn it over to you Ben.

Ben Connable

Michael, very briefly, you describe the different parts of the Iraqi security forces. I want to focus in on the Iraqi army. If you can speak to the U.S. defense cooperation folks, what would you tell them to do in terms of developing the Iraqi army?

Michael Gordon

I was, you know, it's a little discouraging, but there's a new Inspector General report out that the Pentagon just issued on Operation Inherent Resolve because many people don't realize this, but this operation continues. It's not over formally. The caliphate's no more. The operation continues. We have twenty-five hundred people in Iraq; nine hundred in Syria. It continues to this day and the U.S. continues to mentor the Iraqi forces and still has a relationship with the SDF. And I expect it to continue. I don't think the Biden administration will change that. They did that in Afghanistan, and I don't think they need another one of those experiences.

But one thing that was disconcerting in this report was there were some familiar problems. And it's all — I just read it this morning. There was — logistics are a big problem for the Iraqis still. Artillery; how to use that precisely. They weren't receptive to all types of mentoring. They're still dependent heavily on coalition intelligence. So I think it's it's still even at this late day a work in progress. And with all of its limitations, the end of the U.S. presence would just lead to a further deterioration of this force. They're not as good as I think we'd like them to be, but they're out there doing things.

And then there are also problems in Iraq that with their own political upheaval, that that I think is hurting recruiting and and provision of fund to the counterterrorism service, which is the the element of the Iraqi security forces the U.S. created when it went to Iraq, and which is really — did the bulk of the fighting in the campaign against ISIS. And it is really the force that we have to nurture. So I think that there's still a need for the U.S. to stay there and continue mentoring; try to remedy these deficiencies. And instead of maybe thinking of ways to get the force down, maybe think of ways to expand the effort and get coalition forces more involved to remedy these capability gaps, as General Mike Barbero put it in 2010, that still exist to this day. That doesn't seem to be an easy way out. You can't neglect it and they're still there.

Ryan Haberman

Couldn't agree more. Thank you. Great. Well, thank you so much, Michael, and thank you to the rest of the panel for this excellent discussion on Michael's new book, "Degrade and Destroy." I'd like to also especially thank Ambassador Crocker for being able to join as well as ask that question at the end there. Thank you to the audience for joining. We're really glad to have you join us today. Please be on the lookout for future events like this, and we hope that we will see you there. So thank you all and have a great rest of your afternoon.

Research conducted by

This report is part of the RAND conference proceeding series. RAND conference proceedings present a collection of papers delivered at a conference or a summary of the conference.

Our mission to help improve policy and decisionmaking through research and analysis is enabled through our core values of quality and objectivity and our unwavering commitment to the highest level of integrity and ethical behavior. To help ensure our research and analysis are rigorous, objective, and nonpartisan, we subject our research publications to a robust and exacting quality-assurance process; avoid both the appearance and reality of financial and other conflicts of interest through staff training, project screening, and a policy of mandatory disclosure; and pursue transparency in our research engagements through our commitment to the open publication of our research findings and recommendations, disclosure of the source of funding of published research, and policies to ensure intellectual independence. For more information, visit

This document and trademark(s) contained herein are protected by law. This representation of RAND intellectual property is provided for noncommercial use only. Unauthorized posting of this publication online is prohibited; linking directly to this product page is encouraged. Permission is required from RAND to reproduce, or reuse in another form, any of its research documents for commercial purposes. For information on reprint and reuse permissions, please visit

RAND is a nonprofit institution that helps improve policy and decisionmaking through research and analysis. RAND's publications do not necessarily reflect the opinions of its research clients and sponsors.