Magazine | November 25, 2019, Issue

Inside the Rise and Fall of ISIS’s Caliphate

From the cover of They Will Have to Die Now (W. W. Norton)
They Will Have to Die Now: Mosul and the Fall of the Caliphate, by James Verini (W. W. Norton, 304 pp., $27.95)

There was a time, not that long ago, when ISIS was the biggest news story in the world. Its blitzkrieg across northern Syria and much of Iraq, its grotesque public atrocities, and then the wave of ISIS-inspired terror attacks in the great cities of the West transfixed the globe. A nation weary of “endless wars” demanded action against ISIS, and an American administration that had campaigned on a platform of withdrawal from Iraq found itself not just intervening once again but putting boots on the ground in both Iraq and Syria.

Then, ISIS disappeared. No, not from Iraq or Syria. But from public awareness. Not even the daring raid that killed ISIS leader Abu Bakr al-Baghdadi could capture more than a day or two of the American news cycle. It seemed that the instant the ISIS advance stopped, and the domestic and international terror threat eased, the attention of the world turned. There was nothing to see — nothing, that is, except the most intense urban combat of the last 50 years. Nothing, that is, except for human suffering on a vast scale.

The story of the war against ISIS, of the slow, grinding offensive that reduced entire cities to rubble, is one of the most important — though least told — stories of the new century. Americans simply don’t know about the battles in Fallujah, Ramadi, Mosul, and Raqqa that ultimately destroyed the ISIS caliphate. It’s of a piece with our modern attitude toward American wars. If we don’t bleed, the story doesn’t lead. And, with the exception of a relative handful of tragic deaths, few Americans bled in the battles that defeated the world’s largest jihadist army. Our allies bled. They bled oceans of blood, and they are still bleeding today.

James Verini’s new book, They Will Have to Die Now: Mosul and the Fall of the Caliphate, is a painful, moving, and necessary read. It tells the story of the climactic battle in the fight against ISIS in Iraq, yet it also tells another story, one that I know well — about the birth and growth of the Islamic State. During the Surge, I was present in Diyala Province, Iraq, at the time of the formal creation of the first iteration of the Islamic State. We knew it in our headquarters as the Islamic State in Iraq (ISI), and when I landed in Forward Operating Base Caldwell, near the town of Balad Ruz, in November 2007, it ruled entire sections of the Diyala countryside.

There are two things you have to know about Verini and his book. First, Verini is almost recklessly brave. He embedded himself, whenever he could, with virtually every kind of allied unit fighting ISIS, and he found himself in the middle of the action, constantly. He was present when the snipers opened up, when the car bombs came, and when the mortars fell.

Second, because he was so brave — because he spent days, weeks, and months with the men who fought — he was able to capture the truth of war in Iraq (and of Iraq itself) in a way that precious few writers have. In fact, he helped me to make more sense, over a decade later, of my own deployment.

The basic arc of recent history is deceptively simple and broadly understood by those who’ve followed the course of the Iraq War and the Syrian Civil War. We know that the United States military invaded Iraq in 2003 with enough force to destroy Saddam Hussein’s regime but without enough strength to fully pacify (much less adequately govern) a divided and fractious nation. We know that al-Qaeda in Iraq morphed into its own independent and brutally apocalyptic entity — the terrorist army we now call ISIS.

We know that the Iraqi government squandered the military success of the Surge and hollowed out its own military with corruption and venality. And we know that once ISIS made the choice to become a caliphate rather than an insurgency — and to take on allied forces in a toe-to-toe fight on the ground — it was bound to lose. It would fall, and fall it did.

But the beauty of Verini’s book is that it explains the “how” and the “why” better than any other single volume I’ve read. Let’s start with his treatment of allied Iraqi forces. He conveys in painstaking detail all the paradoxes of our Iraqi alliance. Oh, how I remember from my own deployment the combination of frustration with and affection for even our best allies. Finding a unit that would actually fight would sometimes seem like an impossible task. People who at times seemed almost preternaturally indifferent to the probability of death would at other times revert to outright panic at the blast of an IED.

Verini gets the little touches right, including his description of the kaleidoscope of “uniforms” worn by Iraqi militias and the distinct appearances and attitudes of the competing Iraqi forces. There were times when I’d see the contrast between the elite counterterror forces, the Iraqi police with their mishmash of uniforms, the “come as you are” militia, and an Iraqi Army caught between its Soviet-era gear and its American modernization and think that we were marching into war alongside patrons of the Mos Eisley cantina.

Most important, however, he gets the complexity right. He understands the paradoxes. Just when you think that the key to a conflict is an ancient grudge, you’ll see the most bitter of enemies reconcile. Just when you think you’ve decided that Iraqi forces won’t fight, you’ll witness almost suicidal courage. Then, the moment you think that civil society is lost and the culture is irredeemably brutal, you’ll watch a town revive. You’ll see a family move into a ruin of a home and restart their lives.

Through it all, Verini helps you understand. Why would so many people in the city of Mosul initially welcome ISIS? Why did ISIS stand and fight, even when the fights became obviously hopeless? And he does something that too few Western journalists do — he reads and believes what jihadists say about themselves. Verini explains that “the difference between Baghdadi and the ancient holy warriors whose violence he carried on is that, for Baghdadi, the world was not a creatio continua. It will end. It must end. Why must it end? Because it is bad.”

Verini accurately sees in the apocalyptic literature of the Islamic State the seeds of its own destruction, how the group’s theology led it to defy generations of hard-earned knowledge about effective counterinsurgency warfare,  directly and intentionally provoking exactly the kind of conventional war it fought. By the end of the battle for Mosul, “it was obvious to anyone who looked around that their aim now was to destroy as much of the city and kill as many as they could, to close the door of history, as Goebbels had put it, with a slam.”

Don’t read the book expecting a tale of American valor and American arms. Yes, there are Americans, but they mostly hover offstage. Verini hears their voices on the radio, flying high above. He sees them ride in on helicopters after night missions, and he sees their vehicles on occasion — equipment so technically sophisticated and potent compared with what the Iraqis have that it’s as if it had come from another world. It’s not that Verini minimizes the American role. Not at all. But taking back Mosul required more than air strikes. It required more than artillery bombardments. It required thousands upon thousands of young men to go block to block, house to house. That’s where Verini was. That’s the reality he portrays.

It’s hard to read Verini and not think about current events. It’s hard not to think about President Trump’s withdrawal from Syria and the effect on our allies there. It’s especially hard when Verini makes the sheer horror of the fight they endured so real. It’s as if he’s shouting to the American people, “This is what it was like! This is what they did!” They are not expendable. Their lives are precious.

There are politics in the book. Verini does share his thoughts about the decision to launch the Iraq War, for example, but this is no political tome. In the writer’s phrase, he shows; he doesn’t tell. He lets Iraqis speak, and we hear in their own voices why their sons joined the jihad. We hear from men who’ve been caught in conflict for the better part of 40 years. We see how an insurgency can dominate a town and a community even before the jihadist army arrives.

One final thought. Goodness knows there have been media failures in our age. Journalists have sadly earned much of the skepticism they receive. But there is still a desperate need for men and women to tell the story of our times. Verini went where few people would dare to tread. He ran toward the danger time and time again to write a first draft of history. As I said before, he is a brave man, and we have benefited from his bravery.

There was a time, not long ago, when millions of Americans would read anything they could find to help them understand the rise of the caliphate. We must not be indifferent to its fall. Ignorance can have dreadful consequences, and Verini’s book is an antidote to ignorance. It’s an indispensable account of a fight that no American should forget.

This article appears as “How the Caliphate Crumbled” in the November 25, 2019, print edition of National Review.

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