ISIL: Does the US understand the kind of war it is fighting?

September 18, 2014

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Does the United States understand what kind of war it is getting into? Maybe not. When it comes to the type of war this is and the reasons America has for fighting it (and, for some, whether or not this constitutes a war) the administration’s confusing message bodes ominous consequences.

In his much-analyzed speech outlining his Administration’s strategy to destroy the Islamic State in Iraq and the Levant (ISIL), the President used the term “counterterrorism” four times. He did not mention “counterinsurgency” once. That’s a bigger problem than you might think. ISIL is a para-military organization that has seized portions of Syria and Iraq. It has subjugated the local population through traumatizing acts of violence like public executions of political officials, religious minorities as well as the mass murder of any opposition forces unlucky enough to be taken alive. ISIL funds its horrific misadventures though donations, extortion and black market oil sales from the rich oil fields it has seized. It has evolved from an underground, clandestine organization to one that can mass forces to seize and then hold and govern territory. This is not terrorism; this is textbook insurgency.

The President knows this. More so, the plan he has described is boiler-plate counter-insurgency. So why is he calling it counterterrorism? Because the President’s authority to attack ISIL is derived from a thirteen-year-old congressional authorization to use military force against the terrorists responsible for the September 11th attacks. This is why his speech overwhelmingly focused on the potential future threat posed by this group rather than the regional threat the group poses now to American interests. Unfortunately for President Obama, these are not, by any stretch of the imagination, the same people that directed the 9/11 attacks. And the argument that they one day could be as dangerous is fallacious because it describes anyone. That could be France one day. If having the potential means and opportunity to launch a major terrorist attack on the United States at some undefinable point in the future is casus belli, we need to steel ourselves for a lifetime of conflict. But the President knows this too and the real reason we are once again at war in the Middle East is because ISIL represents a direct threat to America’s partners and allies in the Middle East. It has destabilized Iraq and further complicated the conflagration that once was Syria. It also threatens other key regional allies like Jordan, which is already struggling with the influx of over 600,000 Syrian refugees.

A majority of Americans believe we need to confront ISIL with military force, especially in the wake of the executions of American journalists James Foley and Steven Sotloff. While the videos of those heinous acts are gut-wrenching, they do not lend ISIL the credentials of a terrorist threat like Al Qaeda, circa 2001. While Al Qaeda actively sought for years to attack American targets, ISIL has thrust its men and materiel into a broad insurgent campaign against the regimes in Damascus and Baghdad and competing rebel groups. It is a mistake to act on the consensus of a fearful and misinformed public. The President may be seeking to destroy ISIL for the right reasons, but he has claimed the authority to do so from Congress and the American people for the wrong ones. It is crucial that the administration do the hard work of making Americans understand what ISIL is and why we have chosen to destroy it. President George W. Bush also had broad popular support when he attacked Iraq, because many Americans wrongly believed that Saddam Hussein was responsible for the September 11th Attacks. Acting on the popular and specious presumption that ISIL is basically the same as Al Qaeda may be expedient for the President now, but when the reality and objective of this conflict becomes irreparably divorced from the popular perception of why we are fighting, it could severely constrain America’s ability to complete the mission. Terrorism is a real and persistent threat but its spirit should not be summoned to rally the support needed to address every threat to America’s global strategic interests. First and foremost, ISIL is an insurgency that threatens the region and our regional partners. This is why we must destroy it and to do so under any other pretense is a grave mistake.

Jonathan Lord is a private sector research analyst in security matters and a graduate of Vassar College and the Georgetown University Security Studies Program.

Image Credit: White House

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8 thoughts on “ISIL: Does the US understand the kind of war it is fighting?

  1. At what point does the United States say this isn’t our problem?
    Should Iraq and Syria ask for support from its neighbors like Saudi Arabia and Jordan to provide military aid if needed to fight these kinds of groups?

    Oh, right, we don’t want to hold them accountable because the Sunnis and Shittes do not want to cooperate with each other either even if it is to find extremists

  2. this goes back to the 1916 secret agreement to break up the Ottoman Empire to control the Middle East for trade purposes. Some people in the Middle East see that the emperor has no clothes, but Sunni/Shiite conflicts so far has worked in Western world interests. Watch out!!!

  3. First of all, you can’t destroy ISIL completely. All they need is 50 extremists hiding in the mountains and they are still in business. We will never “destroy” an ideology.

    Our mission should be to “degrade” their ability to fight and then let the Iraq’s and Syrians defeat them.
    –If they don’t have the nerve to destroy them,after our help, then we should let ISIL win. Then establish a government and then we deal with them. Now they have nothing to lose. But later if necessary we can bomb their governments infrastructure etc.

    Once these guys are rich and in power they’ll turn into every other despot in history. Their main goal will switch from idealism to keeping the money and power coming to them.


  4. Telling the folks in the ME that they are on their own to defeat and destroy ISIS is a non-starter. The only question is, “Do we kill them now or later?” That is what it all boils down to at this point. It is a problem that, whether we like it or not, we will have to deal with sooner rather than later. We just need to take the gloves off and go medieval on them. Their philosophy is from the medieval period and we should oblige them by responding in a manner that they will have no trouble understanding.

  5. “A majority of Americans believe we need to confront ISIL with military force, especially in the wake of the executions of American journalists James Foley and Steven Sotloff.”

    Not exactly, sir. A majority of Americans want ISIL to be given a good thrashing, visibly punished for their actions, nothing more.

    However, punishment expeditions have fallen out of favor even if we have such sterling examples as the actions of the British Malakand Field Force in the Mamund Valley.

    Thus we have the confused messaging of the current administration which has not yet quite squared the circle of what they want to do with what they must say they will do to keep up appearances.

  6. While I agree with most of the comments made here; Americas true involvement in this debacle is going to ultimately boil down to an attack by ISIL on American soil. They’ve threatened it and they have the capability to do it. The only way I see America actually committing to this “war” with actual numbers of troops and equipment is following an attack here. Obama just doesn’t have the fortitude (intestinal or otherwise) to put American troops back in harm’s way! Our air strikes are having a minimal effect on ISIL because the goons know when and where our attacks are coming! We need to stop talking and soundly defeat these creeps now before they become a regional power with strategic locations throughout the Middle East! Imagine where we will be if ISIL acquires nukes! It’s only a matter of time folks! Our military, with the support and blessing of Congress, must take the fight to ISIL now; beat them back to the stone age and let the rest of the Middle East deal with what’s left! The proverbial clock is ticking and we ALL know that ISIL wants to drive their point home to Obama by making a major statement on US soil! We can not allow another 911!

  7. 2 December,2014

    We are Glad that someone felt necessary to the Caliphate War in Syria /Iraq. In 1916 – following the 1/st w.w. the Ottoman Caliphate was struggling to dominate in toto the Entire Balkan Peninsula, what was inproperly termed ‘Palestine’ due to the Historic voice of Israel and Judah. The many are in league to hold self evident the truth that the Obama are NOT Prosecuting this War sucessfully nor properly. We see inasmuch that a “winnable conflict” cannot be handled in a ‘ politically correct’ or Globalist (U.N.) mindset. The concept of Full – blown advances in a lasting Destruction of the “Illegal ” Muslim Caliphate. Will rest in a Peace through superior Firepower. what the Contributor is stating that the Secretary of Defense, the Chairman of the J.C.S. an the Poor negotiating attempts by Secretary of state John Carey and the Obama Administration should, and must yield to the Arklite B — 52 around the clock Bombing as was used so effectively in the NIXON administration. This could simply be achieved by Gratuity rental of N.A.T.O Bases in the U.K., Germany and Greece.This would end this ” Conflict ” prior to the New year and the change of the Legislative Branch ! The Linebacker I & II philosophy brought the No. Vietnamese to the Peace Table QUICK . ( Under the Competent Influence of Dr. Henry Kissenger former Sect. of State ) This in the Majority opinion would settle this ISIL “Need” for an Illegal Caliphate .