On December 11, 2016, just before my time as secretary of defense ended, I stepped off a C-130 transport plane onto a cold and dusty patch of northern Iraq that had been on my mind for more than a year: an Iraqi military airfield called Qayyarah West. Q-West was a talisman of progress on one of the defining issues of my service, the fight to defeat ISIS. A year before, General Joe Dunford and I had briefed President Obama on a plan to step up the fight against ISIS. We had laid out the series of military tasks in Iraq and Syria that would lead us to the liberation of ISIS’s strongholds in Mosul, Iraq, and Raqqa, Syria. Q-West was a fulcrum of that plan. Ejecting ISIS and turning the airstrip into a logistics hub was essential to seizing Mosul, just 40 miles north.
The plan had become reality, and I was there to see it in person. Iraqi forces, with the support of a U.S.-led global coalition, had seized Q-West. This summer, they defeated ISIS in Mosul. And this month, partner forces in Syria enabled by the U.S.-led coalition liberated Raqqa—the putative capital of the caliphate. Though ISIS still holds pockets of territory and can inspire violence, its pretensions of statehood are over. For the first time in years, people in the Middle East can dream of a future free from this brutal terrorist organization.
How we got there is a story of good fortune, immense skill and bravery on the part of young men and women in uniform, and some key decisions to change a fight that had been going poorly. The outcome is not the result of some secret strategy from the new administration, but instead the execution of a campaign plan developed under President Obama and completed under President Trump. We should all cheer the end result. Americans are safer and we have learned important lessons about the use of our military might.
By the time I was nominated secretary in December 2014, ISIS had rapidly expanded its reach. It had seized Mosul, Tikrit, and wide swaths of northern Iraq, including key oil and gas fields. It had openly declared an Islamic caliphate in Iraq and Syria, and announced its intention to expand into Yemen, Saudi Arabia, Egypt, Algeria, and Libya. Tens of thousands of foreign fighters had streamed into Iraq and Syria to bolster its ranks. And it had set a new bar for brutality, with savage executions of the American journalist James Foley and the British aid worker David Haines, its enslavement and mass murder of ethnic and religious minorities such as the Yazidis, its repressive rule over millions of Iraqis and Syrians, and its use of social media to foment hate and violence around the world.
Over the next four months, ISIS would capture At Tanf and Palmyra in Syria, and Ramadi in Iraq—following a “battle” in which a small ISIS band chased away a much larger Iraqi force that simply refused to fight. As General Martin Dempsey, then the chairman of the Joint Chiefs, put it: “The ISF [Iraqi Security Forces] was not driven out of Ramadi. They drove out of Ramadi.”
Meeting this urgent challenge was clearly going to be a big part of my job. So two days after I was sworn in, I flew to Kuwait to hear personally not just what we were doing, but why.
I gradually concluded in my first weeks on the job that the United States and its coalition partners lacked a comprehensive, achievable plan for success. We lacked clear objectives or a coherent chain of command. Americans, Europeans, and Middle Easterners saw this and had little confidence in our success.
What would follow over the next 23 months was a massive reorganization of the counter-ISIS campaign. My first task was to change the way we talked about it. Officials at the time spoke of the need to “degrade, and ultimately defeat” our enemy. But an enemy like ISIS, violent and without conscience, couldn’t just be “degraded.” It had to be defeated in a lasting way, and articulating the goal of “lasting defeat” reflected the lesson of the Iraq and Afghanistan wars. I had no doubt that our troops could have marched into Raqqa and Mosul and ejected ISIS. But a defeat of ISIS by U.S. force of arms would be fleeting unless communities taken from ISIS could rebuild and secure themselves to prevent such extremism from once again threatening the Americans it was my job to protect. So any military success had to be followed quickly by improved political and economic conditions guided by functioning local government. Getting there, in turn, required a clear set of military objectives that would turn our purpose into plans: dealing ISIS a lasting defeat in its homeland of Iraq and Syria, eliminating the cancer’s parent tumor; combatting metastases in places like Libya and Afghanistan; and protecting our homeland from ISIS terror.
I often refer to the U.S. military as the finest fighting force the world has ever known. Even so, I was extremely frustrated over the status of operations at the start. Intelligence on ISIS was almost entirely lacking. ISIS’s capture of Ramadi, with zero warning, three months after I took over the Pentagon, epitomized the problem. We needed a clearer picture of their capabilities and weaknesses. Our initial counter-ISIS plan relied on Iraqi army formations that barely existed on paper. Attempts to train and equip counter-ISIS forces across the border in Syria, already under way when I arrived, were, at the start, an embarrassing failure. In July 2015, I had to acknowledge to the Senate Armed Services Committee that despite spending several months and millions of dollars, we had trained and deployed only about 60 dependable anti-ISIS fighters in Syria. Some units we had trained and equipped had reportedly handed over U.S.-supplied equipment to the Nusra Front, al-Qaeda’s Syrian affiliate.
The scant intelligence and shoddy planning partly reflected the fact that no one was really in charge of the counter-ISIS campaign. So we consolidated the campaign under a single operational commander.
That commander was Sean MacFarland. Sean had deep knowledge not just of Iraq’s physical geography—he had walked the streets of Ramadi and Mosul in previous tours—but of what the military calls “human terrain:” the tribal relationships and political rivalries that drove so much of what happened there. Finally, there was one (exceedingly competent) officer responsible for the entire campaign. The same month that Sean took command, General Joseph Dunford was sworn in as chairman of the Joint Chiefs—one of the ablest men I have worked with in defense going back to my first job in the Reagan administration.
In October, the president made some decisions that would make a major difference in the months ahead—and would replace the failed train-and-equip program in Syria with the structure that would eventually bring us to the gates of Raqqa. We received authority to deploy a small group of special operators into Syria, where they established contacts with members of the Syrian Arab Coalition (SAC), Arab fighters organized under the umbrella of Syrian Kurdish groups. The existence of the SAC was one of many lucky breaks during the campaign. When our operators came out of Syria saying, “We can work with these guys,” it opened a whole new set of possibilities for collapsing ISIS’s control over northern Syria and, eventually, its capital. The training and equipment we provided these forces, along with our air campaign, would prove decisive.
By November, we had a command structure. We had gone from a vague plan to specific steps, which the president supported. But we didn’t have a way of showing how the steps would get us to our destination. And I didn’t have the full backing of the president for a whole, specific campaign. Both would come in December.
In the previous weeks, I had been working with Dunford and others to develop the campaign plan that would lead to capturing Mosul and Raqqa. By the time the president traveled to the Pentagon on December 14 for a National Security Council meeting on the ISIS campaign, we were ready to brief him on it. I pointed out that ISIS was targeting everyone in the room, including me and my family. I turned to the president and said, “To hell with that.” Taking inspiration from World War II newsreels representing the relentless march of the Allies with big, sweeping arrows, I showed him a map with two bright red arrows, pointed to Mosul and Raqqa. And then Joe and I told him how we would get there, step by step.
In Iraq, the coalition would assist the ISF in retaking Fallujah, in part to help ease the pressure of daily terror attacks in nearby Baghdad. At the same time, the ISF would advance to the isolation and liberation of Mosul. Iraqi forces would move north, up the Tigris River from the area north of Baghdad into ISIS-held territory, first along the right bank, into Makhmur, southeast of Mosul. And then Iraqi forces would bridge the Tigris to move farther north against the airfield at Qayarrah West. Q-West would become a logistics hub for the daunting task of building up a massive Iraqi-led force for the assault on Mosul. After a period of rest, refitting, training, and equipping the additional Kurdish and ISF units necessary for the task, those two forces—never comfortable together, now indispensable to one another—would cooperate to first isolate, and then assault, Mosul, Iraq’s second largest city.
In Syria, we would leverage our fortunate find in the Syrian Democratic Forces, which included the SAC, to clear ISIS-held territory including Dabiq. Dabiq is a small town west of Manbij that held outsized importance in ISIS’s ideology as the prophesied location of an apocalyptic battle; ISIS even named its propaganda magazine after the town. These operations would begin to isolate Raqqa, both in preparation for assaulting the stronghold of ISIS leader Abu Bakr al-Baghdadi and, just as important, to protect publics in Europe and the United States by interrupting the flow of terrorist operatives from Syria through Turkey to the West.
After our meeting, I walked Obama to his motorcade. Before he got in his car, he turned to me and said, “Let’s get this done.” After months of defensiveness in Washington—about the failed train and equip program, or the pace of the campaign, or our perceived lack of strategy—it was time to go on the offensive.
The offensive would be stillborn, though, unless we reached a political understanding with Iraqi Prime Minister Haider al-Abadi and Kurdish leader Masoud Barzani, despite their longstanding political dispute over Iraqi Kurdish autonomy
My pitch to both men was simple: ISIS was a threat to each. Its defeat required steps they might not ordinarily support, but these were not ordinary times. Each would receive equipment, training, funding, and support to help defeat a common enemy. But Mosul could not be a battleground for Iraq’s internal rivalries. It could not become an extension of Kurdish authority nor of Shiite militias’ political power. I told them that they would not get to keep what they took. This was what defeating ISIS would take. They agreed. Each had the wisdom to do what was necessary—something that could not be said for many others in Iraqi politics.
In a late summer conversation, Barzani once again expressed his concerns with Iraqi troops in the Kurdish region—the memory of Saddam’s forces coming north to kill Kurds was still fresh, and Barzani asked how he could be certain the ISF would depart his territory as promised. I was not asking, I told Barzani, for him to trust Baghdad. “I’m asking you to trust us.” That, apparently, was good enough, and the Mosul plan moved forward.
In Syria, the fight for Manbij was long and difficult; SDF units suffered heavy casualties as they moved, block by block and house by house, to eject ISIS. As they did, they captured dozens of safe houses and other facilities ISIS had used to govern the area and run its operations. The intelligence we gleaned from these locations was highly valuable—especially in halting ISIS terror attacks in Europe and the United States. We continued throughout 2016 to launch strikes against ISIS leadership figures, and as a result, ISIS’s battlefield leadership and coordination noticeably suffered. By the time I left the Pentagon, almost none of ISIS’s senior leaders, save Baghdadi, survived.
No plan is perfect, and no campaign goes perfectly according to plan. Russia’s counterproductive presence in Syria is just one example. But in the year between approval of the campaign plan and the end of the Obama administration, the plays unfolded on the battlefield largely as we had envisioned them—and continued to unfold along the lines we had planned as the Trump administration took over, with the recapture of Mosul and the liberation of Raqqa at the end of those two red arrows. To its credit, the Trump administration followed the plan and, like us, looked for ways to accelerate ISIS’s defeat.
Campaign plans do not execute themselves. People like Joe Votel at CENTCOM, Sean MacFarland, and later Steve Townsend in Baghdad, and thousands of men and women under their command did the real work. Largely classified, but immensely important, was the work of U.S. special operators. It was incredibly risky work to go into a place like Syria, with its impossible maze of competing rebel factions. On at least three occasions, in Iraq or back in the United States, I met with special operators who had gone into Syria—young men who could have made a killing on Wall Street or in Silicon Valley, but were instead stitching together a powerful fighting force to defeat ISIS. At one such meeting, I ran into an operator just back from Syria who had been a student of mine at Harvard years before. That was a proud moment for a one-time professor. Troops like that were our eyes and ears in Syria, looking rebel fighters in the eye and determining who we could work with, distinguishing friend from foe from mere opportunist. Most of all, the march to defeat ISIS was led, and continues to be led, by men and women of bravery and skill willing to place their lives on the line to protect ours: Iraqi security forces, Kurdish peshmerga, Syrian Arab and Kurd fighters, coalition partners, and of course the incomparable troops of the United States military. Nothing we could do from conference rooms in Washington or Brussels or Baghdad could substitute for their competence and courage. America is safer thanks to them.
“My principal concern at this juncture is that the international community’s stabilization and governance efforts will lag behind the military campaign,” I said in a speech at the Manama Dialogue just before leaving office. That remains my greatest concern today. The military campaign has set the stage for a defeat of ISIS. But for the defeat to last, ISIS’s rule of terror must be replaced by stable, effective, legitimate governance. This responsibility falls first on the people and governments of the region, and it will require sustained diplomatic, economic, and political support from the United States and the rest of the international community.
The critical challenge now is not to let regional political divisions undermine our hard-won victory. September’s referendum for Kurdish independence is especially troubling. Kurdish leader Barzani is a reasonable man, but the path to secession could sabotage the homeland he worked so hard to defend. Now, in the wake of his resignation this week, his successor must be prepared to compromise. He surely understands that the path to secession spells disaster for the homeland he has worked so hard to defend. Prime Minister Abadi has rightly worked to prevent internal discord from dissolving the Iraqi unity that was essential to beating ISIS. Leaders in Baghdad and Erbil have proved they can put differences aside for the greater good. They must do so again, and the United States should be prepared to help them reach that common ground.
The Gulf States, meanwhile, must step up. They contributed relatively little to the fight beyond talk. In meeting after meeting, I poked and prodded Gulf state leaders to commit. But there was always one more set of excuses why now was not the time. The counter-ISIS campaign showed the Gulf states that Americans did not need to be the tip of the spear to achieve military success in Iraq and Syria, even amid intense ground combat. But we can’t secure a lasting defeat while regional powers sit on the sidelines. Middle Eastern nations must put sectarian differences aside to prevent the next extremist threat from emerging.
This essay is adapted from a Belfer Center special report, “A Lasting Defeat—The Campaign to Destroy ISIS.”