Battling ISIS: Some Unanswered Questions

by James A. Russell

All wars, no matter how long or short they may be, draw on historical and political context that is germane to the application of force in pursuit of strategic objectives. The ongoing American-led bombing campaign to influence the outcome of the internal struggles for political power inside Syria and Iraq is no exception.

The United States once again finds itself drawn into an expeditionary imperial policing mission in the Middle East—a mission rife with political and strategic contradictions that are not easily reconciled. The contradictions are multifarious.

First, President Obama has clearly been pressured into acting due in part to the public outcry over the publicized beheadings of two American journalists. Yet we are also going to war partly to protect a regime in Riyadh that routinely beheads people as an instrument of its Sharia-based system of justice that is justifiably condemned by human rights groups around the world. According to Human Rights Watch, the Saudis beheaded 46 people in 2014. They have also reportedly beheaded convicted criminals who were afforded little or no due process. Is this a country we should be defending? Shouldn’t we be as outraged by Saudi behavior as we are by the behavior of a group that calls itself the Islamic State (ISIL or ISIS)?

Second, we are going back to war to protect regimes that helped create ISIS—regimes that dumped responsibility for “doing something” about ISIS into our laps (aided and abetted by neoconservative right-wing commentators in the US) all the while decrying the lack of American leadership.

Some reports have suggested that the al-Thanis in Qatar are a principle supporter of ISIS, funneling arms and money to the radical extremists. Yet the United States is protecting Qatar via the combined air operations center at al-Udied air base as well as through the heavy brigade-prepositioning site located nearby. Why should the US protect a regime that is working at cross-purposes with American and regional interests? The same calculus holds for the United Arab Emirates, Kuwait, and Saudi Arabia—all of whom have reportedly directly or indirectly aided Islamic extremist groups seeking to topple the Assad regime in Syria.

Third, all the Gulf States are directly and indirectly protected by the United States and have bought countless billions of dollars of the most advanced American military equipment in the world. All these militaries take part in a robust series of joint military exercises with the US. Why shouldn’t these states (in cooperation with Iraq) assume principal responsibility for taking military action against ISIS?

Fourth, the United States is again embracing its preferred policy instruments of airstrikes and inserting special forces to build indigenous forces despite a regional landscape littered with wreckage that speaks to the failure of this approach. The Iraqi army, built through the tireless efforts of thousands of American military personnel and paid for by US taxpayers—collapsed in short order when ISIS fighters appeared near Mosul.

In Afghanistan, the legacy of the airpower-special forces model led to an inconclusive 10-year commitment of thousands of military personnel that eventually embarked upon the (failed) most ambitious and expensive social and political engineering project ever attempted in the modern era. Why would we expect this model to be any more successful today after trying it out over the last 10 years without decisively favorable results?

Fifth, the decision to re-engage in Iraq is a product of the disintegration of strategy and strategic thought in the United States. This has lead to a series of haphazard and ill-advised missions dropped into the laps of our armed forces by political leaders. Military leaders have also aided and abetted these ill-informed decisions with bad advice and misplaced confidence in new technologies and clever tactics that sought to apply engineering concepts on the battlefield called “effects based operations.” No amount of clever tactics could rescue this country from its faulty strategic decisions in Iraq and Afghanistan over the last decade, and it’s not clear why they will be any more successful today in strikes against ISIS. The self-declared Islamic State is not principally a military problem—it’s a political problem created by the Syrian civil war and the disintegration of the inept American-installed Iraqi government in Baghdad.

An initial step in building any national strategy is to identify threats to the nation’s security and then decide which of these threats warrant attention and, in the worst cases, direct military action. Intelligence officials have admitted that ISIS poses no direct threat to the United States. So why are we attacking this group, which will almost certainly lead to violent reactions and attacks against the US?

Recent history is regrettably littered with America’s demonstrated eagerness to wildly inflate threats beyond any reasonable assessment during an era in which, by historical standards, the country has never been safer. The sensationalist and hysterical press reporting on ISIS might have been appropriate had General Heinz Guderian returned from the grave to lead a renewed panzer assault on humanity, but is hardly appropriate for a few thousand irregular militia brandishing RPG’s careening around the deserts of Iraq in their Toyota pickup trucks 8,000 miles and two continents away from America’s borders.

Past as Prologue

The historical and political context of America’s latest bombing campaign in the region contains many intertwined strands that stretch back to the 20th century history that resulted in American backing of the autocratic Sunni regimes of the Middle East.

The most recent US bombing mission in the Middle East recalls unsuccessful attempts by Britain and France in the post-World War I period to control regional politics by bombing restive locals—tactics embraced because they, like us, could not or would not commit ground troops as an instrument to maintain order. Britain turned over the administration of its post-WWI domains to the Royal Air Force (RAF), which routinely machine-gunned and bombed protesting locals from above during the interwar period. In a series of celebrated (and back to the future) engagements in the 1920s, the RAF repeatedly drove back Saudi Ikwhan raiders seeking loot and booty in southern Iraq in the 1920s. France employed similar tactics in Syria during its occupation there after WWI.

These familial and security-sector corporate elites in the Middle East and Persian Gulf comfortably folded themselves under the protective umbrella of American power in the second half of the 20th century, which gave them free reign to focus on building up their police-state security apparatuses to control their populations and political opponents at home. Whether we realized it or, the US was intervening in the domestic politics of these states, and ISIS is in no small measure one result of the battle for political power that is unfolding across the region and which may take several generations to conclude.

Another important historic strand in this story is the American strategy initially enunciated as the Eisenhower Doctrine in 1957 and subsequently endorsed by various succeeding Presidents that sought to build local security sector institutions through arms and training so as to minimize the need for the presence of large numbers of military personnel to protect and further American interests. The approach presented in the Eisenhower doctrine was repackaged in the regional approaches that occurred under the Nixon Doctrine. The latest iteration of these doctrines is the Obama administration’s focus on building up host-nation counter-terrorism capabilities—in places where the states are already focused on quashing internal political dissent.

The American approach to the fostering of these regional elites drew upon the French and British models of exercising imperial control based on the principle of divide and rule. Under this model, the imperial powers empowered elites based on sectarian, religious, and or tribal affiliation by integrating them into the security sector and public administration. These institutions, in turn, became instruments of the patronage networks established by the elites as well as powerful tools for the elites to maintain coercive power over their populations.

All of these strands helped deliver the United States to a regional approach emphasizing its regional alliances with the Sunni elites—elites that may at one time have shared our interests in keeping the region free from the godless communists. Today it is more difficult to see the glue that binds us together in these security partnerships.

The legacy of America’s strategic obtuseness can be traced back to the post-World War II era when the advent of nuclear weapons made the prospect of total war unthinkable. While a rich strategic theoretical literature developed nuclear strategy and deterrence, there was little corresponding attention devoted the problem of fighting limited wars for limited objectives short of all-out war.

The result was a series of haphazard decisions to fight in countries like Korea and Vietnam in which the objectives of using force became less and less clear to political and military leaders alike. The promulgation of the Weinberger and Powell doctrines in the 1980s, arguing that America should only fight wars where the stakes justified the commitment of overwhelming force, did little to clarify whether and when to engage in limited wars.

The creation of the volunteer force after Vietnam represented a partial answer to the conundrum that sought to divorce the armed services from society, improve its professionalism and performance in the field, and avoid the “stab in the back” to the military as the public soured on these wars. But the tactically proficient force did not solve the basic strategic conundrum of helping political and military leaders decide when and under what circumstances to fight limited wars.

Shoehorned into this dilemma came the end of the Cold War and then the 9/11 attacks, which paved the way for the substitution of slogans for anything remotely resembling sound strategic thinking. Terrorists were quickly substituted for the nuclear-armed red menace and became identified as a central threat to the republic. Strategy and strategic terms quickly devolved into language like “wars of necessity,” “wars of choice,” the “long war,” “coalitions of the willing,” and the “war on terror.” All of these terms simply obfuscated and further muddied the conceptual muddle that already surrounded strategy, which in turn fed the overreaction to the 9/11 attacks and the disastrous US invasion of Iraq.

The decision to bomb ISIS with a coalition of the willing represents only the latest in a string of decisions that reflect America’s inability to come to grips with the role that force should, and should not play as an instrument of national strategy. That strategic obtuseness has become combined with an outdated and increasingly contradictory strategic posture throughout the Middle East that has delivered the United States to yet another expeditionary imperial policing operation of questionable strategic relevance with ill-defined objectives.

James Russell

James A. Russell is an Associate Professor in the Department of National Security Affairs at the Naval Postgraduate School in Monterey, CA, where he is teaching courses on Middle East security affairs, nuclear proliferation, terrorism, and national security strategy. His articles and commentaries have appeared in a wide variety of media and scholarly outlets around the world. His latest book is titled Innovation, Transformation and War: US Counterinsurgency Operations in Anbar and Ninewa Provinces, Iraq, 2005-2007 (Palo Alto: Stanford University Press, 2011). He is currently working on a book about learning in irregular war, focusing on US military operations in Afghanistan. Prior to arriving at NPS from 1988-2001, Mr. Russell held a variety of positions in the Office of the Assistant Secretary Defense for International Security Affairs, Near East South Asia, Department of Defense. During this period he traveled extensively in the Persian Gulf and Middle East working on various aspects of US security policy. He holds a Masters in Public and International Affairs from the University of Pittsburgh and a Ph.D. in War Studies from the University of London. The views he expresses here are his own.



  1. It is not only the Sauds who created IS but also the US, Jordan and a number of other Gulf States who participated in the funding and training of the “opposition” forces in Syria.
    Does anyone remember the original rationale for intervening in Syria?
    Sure, the Assad regime was – and is – beastly – but they are not alone in this regard.
    Why does not the US intervene in all other parts of the world where there are beastly regimes?
    The only conclusion I can come to is that the US is the dogsbody fetching and carrying for the Zionists in aid of their Yinon Plan.
    The bought-and-paid-for US Congress (with US tax payers money, of course) provides fertile ground for the Zionist lobby, especially when combined with the US armaments industry.
    When US soldiers, sailors and aviators go to war nowadays it is not the USA they go to war for but for “Israel”, who now consider them to be Zionist mercenaries – which is how the Arab world views them too. And Americans wonder why the Arabs hate them so much?
    The other – largely silent – major player in all this IS debacle is Turkey. It has only been possible to funnel supplies and volunteers into Syria through their border with Syria.
    They have asset stripped huge amounts of capital equipment and ancient artefacts from Syria.
    The Turks are major thieves in this venture along with IS themselves.
    Turkey is the main source of revenue for IS from sales of stolen Iraqi oil.
    However, as so often before, all the “big” boys have caught yet another cold on this one.
    Much to their surprise, the IS leadership has turned the tables on them all.
    They have surprised them all by pursuing their own imperialist objectives.
    They did it with Saud money, Jordanian training, US weapons and Turkish complicity.
    The result: the creation of an out-of-control bunch of desperadoes who hold 49 Turks captive.
    IS are – for now – having the last laugh at everyone else’s expense – literally.
    The “new” Iraq government does not appear any more promising than the “old” one, does it?
    Another Afghanistan-style “success” for the US in the making?
    Let the local and regional powers sort this Iraq/Syria mess out.
    “Not our problem” should be the US stance from now on.
    The US should sit this one out and focus on sorting out Ukraine.
    They won’t, of course, because the Zionist lobby, US armaments industry and delusions of imperialistic grandeur will not let them. They will only stop once they start to experience horrendous and unsustainable losses in terms of finance and personnel.
    A $17 Trillion and rising level of debt indicates the former is coming into being; when the latter occurs will be down to some near future event where a massive toll in US lives takes place.

  2. This is an interesting piece. As we view the latest beheading[?] by IS or what ever name is being used, keep in mind, that they have a ready supply of captured individuals to use.

    I find it interesting that Mr Russel writes this, considering where he works. It seems at odds with the P.R. the American public are being subjected to. One might get the impression that sides are being taken by those here in the U.S. both pro and con.

    The Neocons roll out the old big guns, who say anything to earn the $bucks paid them in appearance money, much like the revival of the different “Rock Bands” of the past. Where are the ideas to rescue the U.S. from the continual defeats & humiliation, instead of more of the same? Fear & Loathing, the Boogieman in the shadow, that seems to be what we hear today.

    Unless the Government leadership as a whole, that also includes the Military too, has an Epiphany in reality, it’s hard to believe that this latest adventure will produce anything other then more debt for the U.S. economy, more hatred for the U.S., especially if/when the U.S. Military starts training more insurgents on Saudi Arabian soil. Just a matter of time before another incident like 9-11 is experienced somewhere in the U.S., only this time, with the big Nukes. Will it be more collateral damage, as in whole cities wiped out?

    Every aggressor down through history has ended up being destroyed by their own misguided belief of superiority, greed, corruption, delusional-denial that’s the forte of the present thinking in Washington D.C. The next question to ask, especially now, in this reelection season, just who are the real threats to the U.S., if not the ones who are driving the “War Machine”, aren’t they betraying the country for those bags of $$$$?

  3. Why does nobody ask the obvious: With $600B a year budget and counting, why can’t we easily defeat a rag-tag bunch of a few-thousand lightly armed guys in pickup trucks? Irrespective of whether you think it is a good or bad idea to attack, if the country makes the decision the military needs to able to provide the result, and at a fraction of that bill. The press is obtuse and the public oblivious.

    A simple example: A statement is often made by officials at all levels “we can’t arm the rebels since the arms may fall into the hands of ISIS”. If my iPhone falls into the wrong hands it doesn’t work. At the level of technology this country has it can easily (and cheaply) make a Humvee or M16 that only works in the hands it is placed. I’m in the high tech industry, this is an intern level project. How come nobody ever asks this obvious question? Or a better one, such as whether nuclear powered aircraft carriers are a cost-efficient platform for attacking such a force. (Hint: That would be a no).

    We don’t have the right targeting technology, weaponry and tactics for this fight and we should at a fraction of the cost we actually spend. Until the public becomes critical and applies half a brain to the media drivel we are fed look forward to Gulf War III IV and V and onwards.

  4. The latest situation on the Turkish/Syrian border is that the Turks are preventing Kurds now in Turkey from entering Syria in order to join their Kurd colleagues in defending Kurdish areas from attacks by IS armed forces. What does this tell us?
    That the Turks side with IS – who just released 49 Turkish detainees – and that if any weapons end up in that area they will inevitably end up with IS via one of their “moderate” fronts.
    Your government is not being straight with you.
    As for altering weapons systems so that they only work for specified individuals or forces – it will never happen because it would reduce the re-sale value of the weapons systems.
    Can you imagine the NRA’s reaction if you proposed such a thing in the US? !!!!

  5. On the other hand if you won’t ship them anything the arms makers get nothing. Or if you ship them something and it gets into the wrong hands but it stops working, you get to ship more. I think this can play both ways. My experience with these things is that if some real investigative reporting was done you would uncover 10 programs at defense contractors that got started but were shelved due to other priorities. Then when the “crisis” hits they say there is no option.

    It has been 13 years. People can keep claiming you “have to fight with the army you have, not the one you are planning” a la Rumsfeld. But we’ve had 13 years to plan for this exact scenario. Or much longer if anyone has been listening to all serious military strategists that said the threats are asymmetric since 1989. What I am suggesting above is just the trivial- there is a lot more that could have been done that was not. There have been 6 iPhone generations in half that time, yet we still seem to have “no good options”. Just think about it.

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