The US Fight Against Islamic State: Avoiding “Mission Creep”

by Wayne White

Hyping the Islamic State (ISIS or IS) threat risks generating flawed policies. The White House probably is a source of frustration, as its critics claim, but others seem too eager to commit US combat troops. Meanwhile, the administration, under constant pressure regarding the US effort, has not done enough to energize the anti-IS coalition that President Obama worked so hard to assemble. This inclines allies to believe Washington will do the heavy lifting for them.  Although addressing IS full-bore (and unilaterally) might seem appealing to some, this urge undermines the patience needed for more sensible courses of action.

The Hagel Affair

The resignation of Defense Secretary Chuck Hagel last month resulted in criticism that the White House is unreceptive to outside views, such as expanding the US military effort against IS. Excessive micromanagement of military related issues by the White House (including the phone line to commanders in Afghanistan that bypassed Hagel) has also been cited.

Past Presidents have done likewise. In overseas crises, many presidents created their own channels, giving White House officials more power than cabinet secretaries. Franklin Roosevelt often relied on Harry Hopkins over Secretary of State Cordell Hull, Richard Nixon used Henry Kissinger in lieu of William Rogers, and Colin Powell found himself outside the Bush administration’s inner circle. Perhaps the most extreme example of presidential micromanagement was Lyndon Johnson’s handling of the Vietnam War.

The Obama White House has long had dicey relations with the Pentagon. This has been, according to the Pentagon’s side of the argument, the source of delays and confusing policy directions on several issues, with the White House accused of falling into “group think.”  For his part, Hagel had complained in the early fall to National Security Advisor Susan Rice in a memo about a lack of cohesion in US policy toward IS.

Nonetheless, White House micromanagement or Pentagon-White House difficulties aside, Obama’s reluctance to ramp up the US military effort against IS excessively seems well founded. Of course, Hagel’s position is not entirely clear, but escalation had been advocated by Hagel’s two predecessors: Robert Gates and Leon Panetta.

Costs of US Escalation

IS appears ready to endure lopsided casualties to inflict some on American combat troops. And IS could follow through on this hope. Not only are its combatants fanatics, the radical Sunni militia also employs deadly suicide bombings against foes in close-up urban combat (as we’ve seen in Kobani). Additionally, IS likely hopes to get a hold of at least a few US military prisoners for filmed beheadings. So why hand IS exactly what it wants?

With large urban areas to be cleared just in Iraq—from Fallujah to Mosul—US combat troops would also likely incur casualties in excess of those suffered in 2003-08 against somewhat less fanatical Sunni Arab insurgents and Shi’a militias during the war.

American military difficulties could be further magnified by reduced interest on the part of Iraq’s Shi’a-dominated government in making the political concessions needed to split Sunni Arab tribes and other secular elements away from IS and marshal its own forces more swiftly. After all, why should Baghdad go the extra mile if the US seems willing to take care of Baghdad’s IS problem militarily?

Recently, despite lost ground in and around Ramadi west of Baghdad, Iraqi and Kurdish forces have made gains between Baghdad and Kurdish Regional Government (KRG) territory to the north. Moving up Iraq’s central line of communications, Iraqi forces have driven IS from some important territory. The siege of the vital Baiji refinery complex has been lifted, and gains have been made in the demographically mixed Diyala Governate northeast of Baghdad.

Meanwhile, Iraqi Kurds continue to push IS slowly westward. Baghdad and the KRG reached a temporary oil agreement yesterday that should clear the way for greater cooperation elsewhere, like battling IS.  Bitter quarrelling under former Prime Minister Nouri al-Maliki left Iraqi-KRG relations in shambles.

Struggling to rebound from severe reverses last summer, however, the Iraqi Army is in no position to mount a major offensive deep into IS holdings. However, successful Iraqi and Kurdish attacks demonstrate the vulnerability of IS’s vast perimeter. Strong IS forces cannot be everywhere at once to repel various challenges and adequately support ongoing attacks (such as its effort against Kobani).

In terms of a military threat, IS has been largely contained. It cannot advance northward against Turkey; isolated pro-IS sympathies exist in Jordan, but the highly professional Jordanian Army would be a tough nut to crack; and in Iraq, most all Shi’a and Kurdish areas lie outside IS control and are fighting hard to maintain this status. In Syria, IS could advance against weaker rebel forces like the Free Syrian Army, but it seems obsessed with seizing Kobani despite heavy losses.

Coalition and US Escalation

The anti-IS coalition the White House assembled is contributing relatively little to the overall military effort, despite Secretary of State John Kerry’s glowing rhetoric at today’s coalition conclave in Brussels. The air campaign is mainly an American show. Committing more US assets would make it easier for others already foot-dragging over contributions to continue dithering. Now is not the time to ramp up US military efforts, but rather to pressure allies to increase their own contributions.

The bulk of IS’s reinforcements in the form of foreign fighters flow through NATO ally Turkey. The CIA in September and the UN more recently sharply increased their estimate of the number of foreign fighters reaching the Islamic State. To date, Turkey has been more helpful to IS than the coalition because of its passivity. If it cannot be pressured to vigorously interdict incoming fighters, IS would be able to replace many lost fighters—although with less experienced cadres.

The White House (and other allies) must press Turkey harder. President Obama delayed air support for beleaguered Syrian Kurds for two weeks in deference to Turkish concerns (allowing IS to gain a foothold inside Kobani). Even today’s 60-nation gathering seems short on clear goals, let alone a robust military agenda on contributions.

Admittedly, although the Administration has done too little diplomatic spadework, its leverage overseas probably has been undermined by American politicians, pundits, and many in the media demanding an expanded US effort. 

Bottom Line

IS remains a daunting foe, so it will not be defeated easily, soon, or completely. To Americans pressing urgently for quick solutions, this is difficult to accept. But comments like one yesterday by Congresswoman Ileana Ros-Lehtinen, Chair of the House Foreign Relations Middle East and North Africa Sub-Committee, suggesting IS could damage everyone’s way of life are typical of exaggerations impeding objective policymaking.

Yet those claiming the air campaign has been ineffective are also naïve. IS has mostly ground to a halt. In some places, like Kobani, IS is hemorrhaging combat casualties. Meanwhile IS’s infrastructure, leadership, training camps, heavy weapons, oil refineries, and lines of communication have been hammered by the ongoing aerial bombardment. This week, assets in IS’s “capital” of Raqqa, Syria were also subjected to a wave of airstrikes.

Many want IS crushed quickly out of fear of IS attacks against the American homeland. Yet, as we saw in Afghanistan in 2001-02 with al-Qaeda, the combatants would not be completely rounded up should substantial US forces be sent in. Many hundreds at the very least would escape to find refuge elsewhere. In that scenario, IS would likely shift toward an international terrorist mode, posing an even greater threat to the United States. Therefore, a more collective effort—forcing IS to truly understand that it faces dozens of foes and not just a few—would be a wiser way forward. It is meanwhile imperative to strip IS of as many of its non-extremist Sunni Arab allies as possible, so they do not have to be dealt with militarily.

Photo: President Obama addresses reporters during a meeting with th anti-IS coalition on the sidelines of the UN General Assembly on Sept. 24, 2014

Wayne White

Wayne White is a former Deputy Director of the State Department's Middle East/South Asia Intelligence Office (INR/NESA). Earlier in the Foreign Service and later in the INR he served in Niger, Israel, Egypt, the Sinai and Iraq as an intelligence briefer to senior officials of many Middle East countries and as the State Department's representative to NATO Middle East Working Groups in Brussels. Now a Scholar with the Middle East Institute, Mr. White has written numerous articles, been cited in scores of publications, and made numerous TV and radio appearances.



  1. The “Hagel Affair” was straightforward. The president, being the self-appointed National Decider, determined that ISIS, not a threat to the US, had to be defeated. The Pentagon, being military experts, responded with a plan for boots on the ground, which is the only logical way to attempt (usually it has failed) to defeat an organized armed military force. But the president, being illogical, decided that the bearer of those tidings was wrong and had to go.

    Now the president is stuck with his new stupid war, on top of the other four or five. Who can keep track any longer?

  2. This whole business in the M.E.N.A. has all the earmarks of the biggest scam the world has seen in a long time. The Powell doctrine, break it, you own it. What about that? Just who does the Congress/Administration really work for? And Turkey, a member of N.A.T.O. why hasn’t it been slapped for allowing IS to cross its border, as well as giving aid and comfort? And let’s not forget Israeli help in the so-called humanitarian arena, with the cross border IS & other so-called rebels, wounded or otherwise. Naive, amateur, incompetent leadership from the top down. The U.S. should never have gotten itself into this mess to begin with.

  3. The Powell Doctrine states that a list of questions all have to be answered affirmatively before military action is taken by the United States:
    Is a vital national security interest threatened?
    Do we have a clear attainable objective?
    Have the risks and costs been fully and frankly analyzed?
    Have all other non-violent policy means been fully exhausted?
    Is there a plausible exit strategy to avoid endless entanglement?
    Have the consequences of our action been fully considered?
    Is the action supported by the American people?
    Do we have genuine broad international support?

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