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.