• How ISIS Filled the Power Vacuum Left By US Forces In Iraq

    Michael R. Gordon on the Origins of America’s War Against the Islamic State

    In February 2014, Major General Mike Nagata flew to Baghdad for a stocktaking mission. The head of special operations in the Middle East, Nagata had extensive experience in battling militant cells, lawless militias, and terrorists whose fanaticism magnified their lethality. Name the fight, and Nagata had been there. As a young trooper he had mastered martial arts, and after a stint in South Korea he had taken command of a Special Forces A-team at Fort Lewis, in Washington State.

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    Forging a path in the world of special operations, Nagata had joined Task Force Orange, a classified unit that gathered human and electronic intelligence and in the years that followed worked with the Central Intelligence Agency in Mogadishu during the Black Hawk Down clash that had led to the deaths of nineteen American soldiers. That assignment had been followed by a stint hunting war criminals in the Balkans and eventually command of Orange as it gathered intelligence in Afghanistan, the Middle East, and Africa. By June 2013, Nagata had become the commander of SOCCENT, the special operations component of Central Command, which oversaw U.S. military operations throughout the Middle East and Afghanistan.

    Also making the visit was an up-and-coming colonel: Chris Donahue, a West Point graduate who had forged his own path through the special operations community. After stints with the Army Rangers, special operations, and conventional units, Donahue had become the commander of Delta Force, one of the military’s elite units for carrying out secret raids to kill and capture insurgents and conduct hostage rescues. That assignment was listed only euphemistically on Donahue’s official résumé but was well known among the military’s shadow warriors.

    What made the trip truly exceptional was that, more than two years before, Washington had declared the Iraq War to be over.

    The trip to Baghdad by Nagata and Donahue had not been officially announced, but to the small circle of officials in the know, it was clear that this was an unusually experienced, high-powered, and operationally minded team.

    What made the trip truly exceptional was that, more than two years before, Washington had declared the Iraq War to be over. After eight hard years, American forces had left the country at the end of 2011. The Obama administration’s overarching strategy was summed up by a mantra that the president and his aides had recited in their speeches and included in their party’s political platform: “The tide of war is receding.” There was turmoil in Iraq to be sure—the very name of the country had, in the American mind, become synonymous with trouble—but nothing was taking place that the White House considered a danger to the United States.

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    Still, the situation in Baghdad was tense. Prime Minister Nouri al-Maliki had aggravated sectarian passions in the country and was struggling to hold off a marauding band of militants who deemed themselves participants in the new Islamic State. The group had profited from the civil war in Syria—a magnet for would-be jihadists who had flocked to the country to fight President Bashar al-Assad and those who were also drawn by ISIS’s mission to build a caliphate there and in neighboring Iraq.

    In Iraq, the militants had orchestrated a series of brazen jail breaks at Abu Ghraib and Taji in July 2013, freeing thousands of their former comrades and demonstrating the fecklessness of the country’s security forces. Their ranks bolstered by former prisoners of war, the fighters had moved on Ramadi and Fallujah, two of the bloodiest battlefields in the U.S. military’s years of battling Sunni insurgents. The Americans had taken the cities at great cost, and now they were in danger of being lost again.

    After arriving in Baghdad, Nagata and Donahue helicoptered to the U.S. embassy compound, the better to avoid the airport road, which Iraq’s sovereign government was often not able to secure. Their meeting with a CIA hand at the embassy revealed few apprehensions about the militant threat. A different picture emerged, however, when they went to the headquarters of General Talib Shaghati al-Kenani, the commander of Iraq’s Counter Terrorism Service, which the acronym-loving Americans dubbed the CTS.

    Over the course of the Pentagon’s many decades in the Middle East, Arab armies had been neither formidable foes nor powerful partners. The American military had rolled over Saddam Hussein’s divisions in its 2003 invasion of Iraq and then dismantled the country’s armed forces, only to mount a multibillion-dollar effort to rebuild them so they could deal with the hydra-headed threats that had sprung up.

    A bright spot in the endeavor had been the CTS, which the American military had created in the image of its own special operations forces. U.S. officers had selected many of the CTS’s field officers and had equipped its soldiers with vehicles, assault rifles, machine guns, body armor, and tactical radios. Attached at the hip to their American partners, who often fought with them and whisked them to their door-busting missions on Black Hawk helicopters, the Iraqi commandos had been enthusiastic partners—so much so that some had taken not only to affixing patches of the U.S. Special Forces A-teams they had worked with to their uniforms but also to sporting baseball caps and sleeve tattoos. During the heyday of the collaboration, when General David Petraeus commanded forces in Iraq, the Special Forces teams had been supplemented by one hundred American advisors positioned at all levels of the CTS.

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    An old terrorist nemesis had been reawakened, and…the United States was on a path toward yet another Middle East war.

    To ensure that its operations were not compromised by leaks from within Iraq’s multisectarian government, the Americans had arranged for the CTS to have a unique chain of command: it reported directly to the nation’s prime minister instead of to the minister of defense. The CTS cadre had been carefully vetted. Its members were not allowed to belong to political parties, and they received $800 a month in pay, far more than run-of-the-mill Iraqi soldiers or policemen earned.

    The Americans had insisted that the CTS recruits undergo high-level training, and to that end, they had revamped Area IV, a former regime compound at Baghdad International Airport that was modeled on the U.S. Special Forces schoolhouse at Fort Bragg—the Iraqis called it Academiya. But after the Americans left Iraq in 2011—taking their intelligence, air strikes, logistics capabilities, and medical care with them—the CTS had struggled. On the surface, it had maintained its elite identity, going so far as to repaint its Humvees black and replace its desert camouflage uniforms with menacing-looking black fatigues.

    The organization posted music videos on Facebook and reveled in its past glory as an elite fighting force. Without American air support and advisors, however, Iraq’s army and police had begun to fray, and Maliki had responded by saddling the CTS with a burgeoning array of missions that included manning checkpoints, escorting convoys, protecting voting centers, and doing battle with militants in densely populated Iraqi cities. A specialized force that had been designed to carry out lightning raids against terrorist cells (with considerable American support) had become a jack-of-all-trades that was being tasked to deal with the upheaval in Iraq.

    To take the measure of the force, Donahue headed west on an Iraqi convoy with General Kenani. The two officers disembarked on the outskirts of Ramadi to confer about the situation, while the vehicles drove on to resupply Iraqi units inside the embattled city. Within minutes, the convoy was ambushed. The Iraqi Humvees were ripped apart by armor-piercing rounds. Some of the soldiers were captured by ISIS militants, who demanded that they FaceTime their families on their cell phones to say their final goodbyes. Much of the mayhem was recorded by the surviving Iraqi troops on their iPads and cell phones, and Donahue set about collecting copies of their videos to share with the U.S. military.

    Nagata, meanwhile, huddled with Major General Fadhil Jamil al-Barwari, a chain-smoking Kurd from Duhok, who led the 1st Iraqi Special Operations Force (ISOF) Brigade, which reported to the CTS. Barwari was no longer the confident commander the Americans had known in years past, Nagata later confided to one U.S. officer.

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    After Donahue returned to Fort Bragg that February, his Delta Force began to redouble its focus on the streams of jihadists who were flocking to the region to join ISIS. It renewed its contacts in the region, drew up contingency plans for joining the fight, and began to eye potential bases, even beginning to establish some in the region.

    Nagata, for his part, drafted a memo that reported on the emerging danger and sent it up the chain of command. Years later, the visit was still seared in Nagata’s memory. “I will say it very bluntly. It scared the shit out of me,” Nagata told me. “My response was, ‘What in heaven’s name is going on here?’ The Iraqis were now telling me about enemy tactics, weaponry, and a degree of combat sophistication that was alien to me even though I spent three years doing multiple rotations in Iraq.”

    The United States could not simply withdraw its forces from Iraq but had to do so in a way that ensured the Iraqis could handle security on their own

    Few officials involved in the policy wars in Washington sensed where events were headed, but for those special operations officers who had visited the battlefield two points seemed to be apparent: first, an old terrorist nemesis had been reawakened, and second, the United States was on a path toward yet another Middle East war.


    Winding down the Iraq War had been among Barack Obama’s signature promises when he ran for president in 2008. His rhetoric was intended to mark more than just a pivot from the strife-ridden Middle East and toward the economic challenges in Asia. It also represented an effort to deemphasize the use of American military force and its potential for quagmires and distraction from the unattended problems at home. To carry out his agenda, the United States could not simply withdraw its forces from Iraq but had to do so in a way that ensured the Iraqis could handle security on their own—what Obama called a responsible end.

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    Obama’s opening gambit was to take the Bush doctrine and stand it on its head. George W. Bush had seen his American-led 2003 invasion of Iraq as a way to deal with the scourge of terrorism by implanting democracy in the heart of the Arab world; in this scenario, the overthrow of Saddam Hussein would turn a totalitarian Iraq into a catalyst for change in the region. “The defense of freedom requires the advance of freedom,” Bush asserted.

    Obama, in contrast, vowed to engage personally with the leadership of Iraq’s autocratic neighbors, including Syria and Iran; he would calm the situation from without. With a yellow legal pad in hand and a retinue of loyal aides standing by, Obama outlined the concept for me in his Chicago office in November 2007: “Once it’s clear that we are not intending to stay there for 10 years or 20 years, all these parties have an interest in figuring out: How do we adjust in a way that stabilizes the situation.” The idea, not an entirely new one, reflected a growing consensus among the war’s skeptics and even the foreign policy establishment about how to bring the conflict to a close.

    Both the Bush and Obama theories, however, were more of a projection of Washington’s hopes than a reflection of the hard realities in the region. Once in office, Obama was forced to confront the fact that the insurgency by al-Qaeda in Iraq (AQI)—the Sunni jihadist group formed in 2004 by the Jordanian militant Abu Musab al-Zarqawi—was reduced but not fully defeated and that Iraq’s Syrian and Iranian neighbors were more interested in meddling than in cooperation. He tempered his heady campaign talk about removing all U.S. combat forces within sixteen months, and moved toward a policy that would enable him to declare an end to the U.S. intervention but that accepted the premise that some elements of the U.S. military might need to remain, at least temporarily, to train Iraqi forces so that they could stabilize the country.

    There were no doubts in the upper ranks of the U.S. and Iraqi militaries that Iraq’s armed forces remained dependent on American training, equipment, intelligence, logistical support, and air strikes. In 2010, General Ray Odierno, the towering Iraq War commander, instructed Mike Barbero, the three-star general who oversaw the effort to train Iraq’s military, to investigate that military’s shortcomings. Barbero outlined his findings on the so-called capability gaps in a PowerPoint presentation that he delivered to everybody who was anybody in Iraq: Prime Minister Maliki; Maliki’s principal Shiite rivals; leading Sunni officials; Kurdish officials; the heads of Iraq’s defense, interior, and finance ministries; and the Iraqi generals themselves.

    Both the Bush and Obama theories, however, were more of a projection of Washington’s hopes than a reflection of the hard realities in the region.

    The Iraqi military had some strengths, including elite forces capable of carrying out counterterrorism operations. Still, for all the U.S. efforts, Iraq’s special operations forces continued being flown to their targets on American helicopters and relied heavily on U.S. intelligence to plan their missions. Iraqi tank crews, artillery batteries, and infantry battalions had been trained separately and were not practiced in combined arms warfare.

    Logistics remained a challenge, and the Iraqi Army had an enormous and costly maintenance backlog. The Iraqis had no counter-battery radar system to pinpoint the location of rocket attacks on the Green Zone—the fortified sanctuary that served as the seat of the Iraqi government—or, as yet, an air force that could protect the nation’s skies. In short, Barbero concluded, Iraq had a “checkpoint army” that was very much a work in progress. “The final part of the briefing was an assessment of their capabilities, and in this we were very blunt,” Barbero recalled. “I told Maliki and all of the Sunni, Shiite, and Kurdish leaders that none of their security forces would be capable of providing adequate security by December 2011. Their almost universal response was ‘General, then you must stay.’ I told them that then they had to make it easier for us. Because of the tone coming from Washington, it was clear that it was going to be a hard sell to keep a force in Iraq.”

    For months, it was unclear if the president who had promised to extricate American forces from Iraq was prepared to extend their deployment, even for the relatively modest mission of mentoring and backstopping the Iraqi military. The status of forces agreement (SOFA) that Bush had concluded in 2008 with Maliki, which provided the legal underpinnings for the deployment of U.S. troops in a sovereign country, was due to expire at the end of 2011. Retaining forces in the country beyond then would require the Obama administration to work out an agreement for an ongoing troop presence through the next presidential election, notwithstanding its past campaign promise to turn the page on military involvement in Iraq.

    For the Pentagon, at least, the soft landing it envisioned for post-occupation Iraq would depend on retaining a residual presence. During a swing through the Middle East, Robert Gates, Obama’s first defense secretary, got an earful from King Abdullah of Saudi Arabia, Crown Prince Muhammad bin Zayed of the United Arab Emirates, and the Israelis, who were worried about the United States’ staying power. Gates favored keeping a substantial presence in Iraq, as did his successor, Leon Panetta, who took over at the Pentagon in July, and their counterpart at the State Department, Hillary Clinton. To avoid signaling a decision that had yet to be made, the military’s initial planning for a potential residual presence was heavily classified and carried out under the code name “Impala Rider.”

    Once the White House accepted the proposition that troops might remain, troop numbers were debated behind closed doors as officials sought to sketch out what America’s future relationship with Iraq would entail. The U.S. military, which was intimately familiar with the Iraqi military’s weaknesses and was intent on preparing for all eventualities, initially planned for a residual force of as many as twenty-four thousand troops: three brigades whose primary missions would be training Iraqi forces for counterterrorism operations, protecting Iraqi airspace, tamping down Arab and Kurdish tensions, and maintaining American influence.

    In the face of countervailing pressure from the White House for low troop numbers, Michael Mullen, the mild-mannered admiral who served as chairman of the Joint Chiefs of Staff and by law was the top military advisor to the president, shaved that number down to sixteen thousand troops—a force level that he told the White House in a confidential letter to Tom Donilon, the national security advisor, represented his “best military advice” on how to mitigate the risks. His view was endorsed by General Lloyd Austin, the top U.S. commander in Iraq, and Jim Mattis, the general who led Central Command.

    With an eye on Obama’s campaign promises and the federal budget, Donilon had pressed the Pentagon to accept a force of no more than ten thousand troops. He was so distressed by Mullen’s letter that he called over to the Pentagon and had Michèle Flournoy, the top civilian policy official at the Defense Department, pulled out of a meeting so he could complain to her that it should never have been sent, fearing that if the document ever became known, it could box in the president.

    To some top U.S. military leaders, it appeared that the White House had mainly been going through the motions.

    As the months passed, Obama and his aides drove the force level lower. Following a July 2011 trip to Iraq, Antony Blinken, who was serving as Vice President Joe Biden’s national security advisor, and Denis McDonough, the White House chief of staff, explored whether the U.S. military could reduce troop numbers by dispensing with its mission of deterring conflict between Iraqi and Kurdish troops in northern Iraq.

    Biden, for his part, took a special interest in planning for a small military footprint. He met with General James “Hoss” Cartwright, a Marine aviator who was serving as the vice-chairman of the Joint Chiefs of Staff, and who had broken with other general officers by promoting the idea of a force just several thousand strong. The final number on which Obama settled—5,000 troops, 3,500 of whom would be stationed in Iraq permanently while the remainder would rotate through the country—was influenced more by U.S. politics than by a sober assessment of security requirements in Iraq, but it would allow the American military to at least keep its foot in the door.

    In the end, the talks with the Iraqis foundered not over troop levels but over a separate issue: the White House’s insistence that a new SOFA be reached with the Iraqi prime minister and also be formally approved by Iraq’s parliament. Among former and current U.S. officials, the question was whether such approval was even necessary. Some of the U.S. officials who had negotiated the Bush-era SOFA had envisioned at the time that it might be extended by a future administration via a simple exchange of notes that left the guts of the original text intact while stipulating a new end date and and some necessary amendments, but dispensing with a fresh parliamentary debate. But the Obama administration insisted that its new SOFA be approved by the parliament to underscore that the accord was legally airtight and to demonstrate that there was broad political support in Iraq for some American troops staying on.

    As the clock wound down on the talks, Maliki told James Jeffrey, the U.S. ambassador in Baghdad, that he was prepared to conclude an executive agreement authorizing American troops to stay but would not take the matter to his parliament, a move that would have required an Iraqi leader who had styled himself as the nation’s protector to take on Sadrists and Iranian-backed delegates in the legislature to make the case for a continued U.S. military presence. “He said, ‘I don’t really want to go to the parliament. How about the alternative? We just sign an agreement,’” said Jeffrey, who recalled that Maliki noted that Saddam Hussein had once hosted thousands of Russian advisors without a formal legal agreement at all.

    By October 21, 2011, the diplomacy had ground to a halt and the effort to draft a new SOFA was abandoned. Reflecting the coolness between the two sides, the secure videoconference in which Obama and Maliki formally drew the talks to a close was only the second direct interaction the two leaders had over the course of the five-month-long negotiations.

    At that point, the United States had about forty thousand troops in Iraq; all would need to leave by the end of the year.

    The outcome heightened the tensions between civilian and military leaders in the United States and did nothing to ease the mistrust between the American and Iraqi leaderships despite their joint success in largely defeating their primary insurgent adversary, AQI. Jeffrey placed the blame on Baghdad. “Certainly, I got the impression that many in the White House would have been happy to see no troops stay on as long as they could blame the Iraqis. But in the end the Iraqis refused our conditions, and they were reasonable conditions,” he said, referring to the requirement for the parliament’s approval.

    To some top U.S. military leaders, it appeared that the White House had mainly been going through the motions. “We were part of the process, but it was pretty obvious to me that their number was zero,” Mullen recalled years later. “That was what the president promised the American people during the campaign. They did not put much effort into getting a status of forces agreement.”

    Publicly, the White House put the best face on the outcome—as if an unsuccessful negotiation that led to the end of a robust program to train and mentor the Iraqi forces had been intended all along. Nearly three weeks before the end-of-December deadline for the last American troops to leave Iraq, Maliki traveled to Washington to consult with Obama on the future of Baghdad’s partnership with the United States. Following the one-on-one meeting, Obama said at a press conference that Iraq would host an Arab League summit. It would be a sign that the country was being accepted by other countries in the region. “A war is ending,” the president said. “A new day is upon us.”


    Excerpted from Degrade and Destroy: The Inside Story of the War Against the Islamic State, from Barack Obama to Donald Trump by Michael R. Gordon. Copyright © 2022. Available from Farrar, Straus and Giroux, a division of Macmillan, Inc. 

    Michael R. Gordon
    Michael R. Gordon
    Michael R. Gordon is the national security correspondent for The Wall Street Journal and former chief military correspondent for The New York Times. He is the co-author with the late retired General Bernard Trainor of three definitive histories of the United States’ wars in Iraq: The Endgame, Cobra II, and The Generals’ War.

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