Guest Book Review: “Hunting The Caliphate: America’s War on ISIS and the Dawn of the Strike Cell”

In today’s post I’m very pleased to present Adrienne Jackson’s review ofHunting The Caliphate: America’s War on ISIS and the Dawn of the Strike Cellby retired Army Major General Dana Pittard and retired Air Force Master Sergeant Wes J. Bryant.

As Lawfire® readers may recall, I recommended the book for summer reading in the post Your 2020 summer reading and listening list! (And it’s curated for those who may be new to the national security enterprise!) Here’s what I said then about it:

Read the inside story told by combat vets who have “been there and done it” for a perspective few others have.  I honestly don’t know of any other book that can give you a more timely and more accurate understanding of how U.S. and coalition airpower was employed in the fight against ISIS.

I guarantee you’ll be surprised at how much you’ll learn.  This book gives you unvarnished insight (and lessons learned) from actual combat operations conducted in an extraordinarily complex coalition and political environment – not to mention an invaluable perspective about the role of law (and lawyers!).

But what I really wanted to know is what would those without my background think about the book?  Fortunately, the perfect reviewer volunteered: a young law student who is extremely bright, articulate, and forthright – yet who is also a self-described “novice” with respect to military matters.  Adrienne’s effort did not disappoint as her assessment provides fascinating insights as to what struck her about the book.  You’ll enjoy her review:

“Hunting the Caliphate: America’s War on ISIS and the Dawn of the Strike Cell”

The Heroism Behind The Use of Strike Cells In The Fight Against ISIS

By Adrienne Jackson

Dana Pittard

In Hunting The Caliphate, Major General, U.S. Army, Dana J.H. Pittard (Retired) and Master Sergeant, U.S. Air Force, Wes J. Bryant (Retired), describe the development and successful use of strike cells in the fight against ISIS. The authors provide a thorough, and often shocking, account of how strike cells were used to mitigate the influence of ISIS.

Wes Bryant

Hunting The Caliphate is divided into eight parts, beginning with the “War on Terror” and the subsequent rise of ISIS, and concluding with the current state of the fight against ISIS. The authors use this easy-to-follow structure to successfully highlight the complexities of the “War on Terror” and the fight against ISIS.

While the book runs the risk of merely being an overly technical depiction of the fight against ISIS and the use of strike cells, lost in the jargon and experiences that only one fully immersed in the world of foreign affairs might understand, the authors transform the foreign world of the armed forces into an easy to understand narration that even the most novice individual (like me!) can understand.

The authors take the time to carefully explain the technical concepts that are fundamental to understanding their operation (they even provide a glossary to help the reader keep up with the jargon of the armed forces).

The authors also continually relate the descriptions of the operation and the fight against ISIS back to their personal memories and moments of personal growth. For instance, Master Sergeant Bryant recalls sitting at a café in the capital of Bahrain watching a group of young Muslim women take a selfie. The “blend of West and Middle East” forced Master Sergeant Bryant to recognize how much prejudice he had developed over the years as a result of his combat experience and that these people were not “the enemy.” As Master Sergeant Bryant describes this recognition of prejudice and his efforts to combat it, the reader is also provided an opportunity to question any prejudices he or she has also held toward the people of the Middle East.

As much as the book is a harrowing depiction of the men who carried out the attacks against ISIS, it also is a critique- and warning- of the effects that policy can have on the ability of the armed forces to effectively combat ISIS and other terrorist organizations from the perspective of those carrying out the mission.

In one instance, the authors point to the restrictive guidance established by the Obama administration. Under President Obama’s authorization, Major General Pittard was only authorized to protect Erbil (the Kurdish Capital). This narrow authorization prevented Major General Pittard and his men from taking out as many as three top ISIS leaders simply because they were mere meters from the authorized area for attacks.

Although much of the book criticizes the reluctance of the Obama administration to provide broader authorization to the armed forces to combat ISIS, Major General Pittard and Master Sergeant Bryant equally criticize the Trump administration’s “incredulous[]” plan to “broker a ‘peace deal’ with the Taliban.” The authors’ critiques successfully lead the reader to contemplate the broader forces that influence the U.S.’s military success abroad.

The military success of the U.S. abroad is defined not simply by men like Major General Pittard and Master Sergeant Bryant and their use of strike cells but by the decisions of the men and women thousands of miles away in Washington, D.C.

In critiquing both the Obama and Trump administration’s approach toward the Middle East, the authors lead the reader to believe that there is some preferred approach or policy for the administration to endorse. However, the authors fail to provide such an approach. Instead the author’s provide two unsatisfactory suggestions: (1) the U.S. military needs to maintain their presence in the Middle East; and (2) the U.S. military should establish a “semi-permanent base” in northeastern Syria.

These recommendations are not the conflict resolving objectives the reader desires or anticipates. However, they are, perhaps, indicative of the over-arching theme that Major General Pittard and Master Sergeant Bryant want the reader to understand: the war against ISIS and the conflicts in the Middle East are not conflicts that are won or lost by simple policy statements. Instead, success in mitigating the conflicts that plague the Middle East will be possible only through long-term involvement in the area and policies that extend beyond the scope that can be described in a single sentence or chapter.

Joint Terminal Attack Controller, or JTAC.

Above all, Hunting The Caliphate underscores the heroic acts of our armed forces. In one especially notable moment, Master Sergeant Bryant commented on the new psychological impact caused by the use of airstrikes. The known precision of the airstrikes and frequency of strikes that occurred caused a new kind of psychological impact for the armed forces who were responsible for carrying out the operations.

In addition, the authors conclude some chapters with a short obituary honoring the life of several hostages killed by ISIS, like James Foley, reminding the reader not only of the real costs of a failure to defeat ISIS but also, the need for our armed forces to continue to fight against ISIS.

Overall, Hunting The Caliphate is a great book for those who are unfamiliar with the fight against ISIS and the use of strike cells. Any individual who chooses to read this book will surely learn something about strike cells, foreign affairs, policy and even about themselves.

About the reviewer:

Adrienne Jackson is a rising 3L at Duke Law. Adrienne was born and raised in the Washington, D.C. suburbs, and graduated from Georgetown University with a major in Government and English. While at Duke Law, Adrienne has served as a board member for Duke’s Business Law Society as well as a board member for Duke’s If/When/How chapter.

The views expressed by guest authors do not necessarily reflect the views of the Center on Law, Ethics and National Security, or Duke University.

Remember what we like to say on Lawfire®: gather the facts, examine the law, evaluate the arguments – and then decide for yourself!


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