“‘Degrade and Destroy’ chronicles the U.S. war against ISIS”, PBS NewsHour

Aman Awaz, Nick Schifrin and Michael Gordon, July 19, 2022

When the Obama administration withdrew U.S. forces from Iraq in 2011, it declared it was turning the tide of war. But by 2014, the group that calls itself the Islamic State seized territory across Iraq and Syria. Reluctantly, the U.S. went to war again using a new approach. These details are captured in a new book “Degrade and Destroy.” Author Michael Gordon joins Nick Schifrin to discuss.

Read the Full Transcript

  • Amna Nawaz:

    Well, five years ago this month, the Iraqis declared victory over the Islamic State, or ISIS, in the battle for the city of Mosul.

    That marked a major turning point in the war against ISIS militants across the region. In the earlier American war in Iraq, the U.S. committed large numbers of ground forces and did the bulk of the fighting. But in the war against the Islamic State, Iraqi forces led the way, with the United States providing only limited military support and advising.

    Nick Schifrin is back now with a conversation about a new book that looks at the U.S. role in battling extremism in Iraq.

  • Nick Schifrin:

    When the Obama administration withdrew U.S. forces from Iraq in 2011, it declared it was turning the tide of war. But, by 2014, the group that called itself the Islamic State seized territory across Iraq and Syria the size of Belgium.

    Reluctantly, the U.S. went to war again, this time with a different approach than previous invasions, using proxy forces, a small number of U.S. trainers, and vast amounts of airpower.

    That’s the story told in “Degrade and Destroy: The Inside Story of the War Against the Islamic State From Barack Obama to Donald Trump.” The author is Wall Street Journal reporter Michael Gordon, who joins me now.

    Michael, welcome back to the “NewsHour.”

    Michael Gordon, Author, “Degrade and Destroy: The Inside Story of the War Against the Islamic State From Barack Obama to Donald Trump”: Right. Thank you.

  • Nick Schifrin:

    You write that this book isn’t just about the past. It’s a window into the future, because it will reveal the methods that the U.S. will use again.

    Why is that?

  • Michael Gordon:

    Well, I think after several wars in the Middle East Afghanistan, Desert Storm, there’s not much appetite on the part of American public to send tens of thousands of troops back into the Middle East, nor is there interest on the part of policymakers.

    They’re focusing now on China, on Russia. Those are the main threats driving Pentagon strategy. But the threats aren’t going to go away. So the concept of using a small number of advisers, coupling them with a proxy force, partners, on the ground, and accessing airpower and reconnaissance is likely to be a template that the U.S. is going to use again in the Middle East, ungoverned spaces, and even in some great power scenarios, like we’re seeing in Ukraine.

  • Nick Schifrin:

    Before that template was created, you write that the Obama administration, in the early days of ISIS’ emergence, misunderstood the evolution of the Islamic State.

    President Obama, of course, famously called it the J.V. team at one point. What was the impact of that misunderstanding?

  • Michael Gordon:

    Well, it left the U.S. unprepared for what it later had to do.

    The very month that President Obama called ISIS the J.V. team was the same month that the head of the Delta Force and the senior special operations commander for the Middle East went to Iraq, saw Iraq’s counterterrorism service in action, and reported up their chain that it was overmatched, that it was having a hard time coping with this ISIS, which was really an evolution from an al-Qaida in Iraq group.

  • Nick Schifrin:

    What was overmatched, of course, was the Iraqi military at the time. And you describe it as rudimentary, what one soldier referred to as a Valley Forge scenario, of course, a reference to the American Revolutionary army at its lowest point.

    Why had the Iraqi military deteriorated to that point by 2014?

  • Michael Gordon:

    In 2011, 2010, when the U.S. still had forces in Iraq, it was very well understood on the part of the Iraqi generals and the American generals that there was a continuing need for a small American presence to mentor, train enable Iraqi forces.

    But the politics in Baghdad and the politics in Washington were such that American forces left at the end of 2011. They were unable to reach a diplomatic agreement that would allow them to stay. As a consequence of that, the U.S. was not monitoring the deterioration of the Iraqi forces.

    And, also, they weren’t able to really check the worst sectarian impulses of the Iraqi prime minister at the time, Nouri al-Maliki, who not only put in his sort of cronies, but took actions that alienated the Sunnis in his country, and provided a fertile ground for ISIS to gain a hold in the countryside.

  • Nick Schifrin:

    And so by the time the ISIS gained a hold in the countryside, we’re in 2014. And the plan that the U.S. created in September 2014 uses local forces to take the lead.

    How important, looking back, is choosing the right partner in that fight? And, in general, how different was that approach to what had preceded it?

  • Michael Gordon:

    What was really extraordinary about this particular campaign — and I was in a lot of it in Mosul and Syria and saw a lot of it firsthand — is that there was no one partner. There were a multitude of partners.

    There were partners who didn’t even get along with each other and wouldn’t have even dealt with each other if the U.S. hadn’t been there as a kind of a glue to hold it together. And what President Obama was determined to do was, he didn’t want to send American troops back into ground combat. Now, there were some instances we were in ground combat. I have them in the book.

    But, in the main, it was the local forces who were in ground combat, but they were to be advised by small teams of Americans.

  • Nick Schifrin:

    One of the forces fighting on the same side against ISIS were actually Iranian forces.

    And you’re the first to report that an American Marine general encountered Iranian Quds Force commander Qasem Soleimani, who, of course, would later be killed during the Trump administration. What does their meeting in Iraq say about the fight against ISIS?

  • Michael Gordon:

    In the very first years of the war, Americans and Iranians were on the same battlefield.

    And — but they weren’t fighting each other and they weren’t trying to kill each other. It’s a different situation now. And they were basically trying to stay out of each other’s way. What happened in that instance was pretty extraordinary.

    An Iraqi general led Qasem Soleimani into a command post at Union III, which is across the street from the American Embassy. And Gerald Castellvi, who was the Marine general then, was rather surprised to come face to face with the Quds Force commander. They had a discussion. It wasn’t about cooperation. It was more about the situation on the battlefield and where forces were, because they were in a deconfliction mode.

    But, over time, as the war — it was clear the U.S. was going to win this war, which it did win, the Iranians became more assertive and became more of a threat to Americans. And, ironically, Qasem Soleimani was later killed by an American drone just a few miles from where that event took place at the Baghdad International Airport.

  • Nick Schifrin:

    You reveal for the first time the U.S. has been reviewing in advance Israeli airstrikes in Syria that have been going on for years. There have been 400 of those strikes since 2017.

    What is that review, and why is that important?

  • Michael Gordon:

    Well, Syria is a very crowded place now. It’s sort of the strategic equivalent of the “Star Wars” bar.

    You have Turkey threatening to intervene still. You have the Russians very active in there, and actually quite successful in intervening in that country, at minimal cost to themselves. You have the Iranians in there. You have Shiite militias in there. You have Americans in there, about 1,000 in Eastern Syria in Al-Tanf garrison from these — and you have the Israelis taking action in the form of airstrikes against the Iranians and arm shipments the Iranians were trying to send to Lebanese Hezbollah to make their weapons more accurate.

    So it’s all mixed up. And, in this environment, is Israel has a deconfliction arrangement with the Russians. They tell them they’re coming, but they have a much more formal process with U.S. Central Command. It’s intended basically to let the Americans know, if they’re going into Eastern Syria, this is what’s going to happen, because there are American troops there and they might have to suffer the consequences, in the form of Iranian retaliation.

    The Americans have vetoed a few of those strikes, but, in the main, they don’t interfere.