Is War on ISIS America’s Fight?

The Sunni resistance to the U.S. invasion of Iraq in 2003 led to what is now ISIS or the Islamic State, and many U.S. hawks now want President Obama to “surge” troops back into Iraq to fight this brutal force. But what is the right calibration for U.S. involvement, asks ex-CIA analyst Paul R. Pillar.

By Paul R. Pillar

Eric Schmitt reports in the New York Times that the U.S. military is refraining from attacking some sites it knows are ISIS facilities, including at the group’s principal headquarters in Raqqa, Syria, to avoid the significant civilian casualties that such attacks would certainly entail.

It seems the group has located some of its facilities, probably intentionally, immediately next to civilian concentrations or jails where it holds some of its innocent captives. This is the sort of restraint by the United States that is likely to spin up further the domestic opponents of the Obama administration who charge that the administration has been too timid in going after ISIS, or in diving into many other foreign conflicts, for that matter.

President Barack Obama in his weekly address on Sept. 13, 2014, vowing to degrade and ultimately defeat the Islamic State of Iraq and Syria. (White House Photo)

President Barack Obama in his weekly address on Sept. 13, 2014, vowing to degrade and ultimately defeat the Islamic State of Iraq and Syria. (White House Photo)

Sen. John McCain says we should be setting our hair on fire because of recent gains by ISIS. The syllogism underlying such alarmism seems to be: (1) ISIS is a despicable, brutal organization (which is true); (2) the United States military has the physical capability to inflict substantial damage on ISIS (also true); therefore the United States should use that capability more fully than it has so far (which does not necessarily follow).

The burning-hair approach has characterized much of the popular and political American attitude toward ISIS ever since the group scored dramatic territorial gains in Western Iraq last year and flaunted its stomach-turning brutality with beheadings of captives.

The prevailing attitude focuses narrowly on the here-and-now of territorial gains and losses and on how military force could be applied to influence the tactical situation on the ground. But such a focus is not to be equated with what is in the best overall interests of the United States, especially in a conflict as complex as the one in Syria.

In one respect the territorial ebb and flow is indeed important for those interests: visible gains by ISIS have been an important factor in heightening the attractiveness of the ISIS brand in the eyes of radical individuals, including ones from the West, who have flocked to its banner. It is power and success more than ideology that have served as the group’s main drawing card.

But that observation begs the question of what such radicals would be doing anyway if they did not become factotums in ISIS’s ministate or cannon fodder in the Syrian and Iraqi civil wars. The observation also ignores all the other respects, besides this one facet of recruitment, in which the ISIS problem does or does not bear on U.S. interests.

The restraint being shown by the U.S. military in the interest of avoiding collateral casualties is sound targeting policy on a couple of levels. One is the repeatedly demonstrated dynamic of how attacks that harm significant numbers of innocent civilians tend to anger and radicalize populations in a way that works to the advantage of extremist groups, is one of the most effective recruiting tools for such groups, and more than offsets the damage that the attacks directly inflict on the groups.

This dynamic has long been in evidence with other groups even before ISIS became the main concern. None other than Donald Rumsfeld ruminated, with reference to other U.S. military action, whether we were creating more terrorists than we were killing.

The other level concerns how U.S. interests specifically are or are not involved, and how those interests differ from those of putative allies or clients. The fight against ISIS is, in multiple respects, not America’s fight. The United States is not the principal original target of the group, and certainly not in the way that it served as the “far enemy” that Al-Qaeda wanted to attack as part of its strategy for getting at the near enemy.

The fight is not one the United States can win; winning ultimately will depend on local will of the sort that, as U.S. Secretary of Defense Ashton Carter observed in his recent awkward but truthful comment, was lacking in the recent combat at Ramadi.

Not least important, it is the United States that incurs the danger of additional radical responses to additional use of U.S. military force. Calls by supposed allies for more use of such force constitute cheap talk when it is the United States and not them that would carry the added risk of radical reprisal. The United States was not the original target of ISIS, but it makes itself a target (either for ISIS itself or for other like-minded radicals) the more it becomes directly involved in ISIS’s conflict.

There are multiple wrong reasons for such involvement. One is the emotion and urge to strike back that stems from a group’s dramatic gains or atrocities. Another is the general American tendency to think that if there is a problem somewhere in the world worth solving, then the United States can and should solve it.

Yet another, applicable to the Iraqi side of the theater, is the relieving of cognitive dissonance for those who promoted or supported the launching of the Iraq War and would like to think, and would like the rest of us to think, that the turmoil that the invasion set off is instead due to later mismanagement of U.S. power.

Tom Friedman has it right when he observes, with specific reference to the fight against ISIS, “We cannot effectively intervene in a region where so few share our goals.”

Paul R. Pillar, in his 28 years at the Central Intelligence Agency, rose to be one of the agency’s top analysts. He is now a visiting professor at Georgetown University for security studies. (This article first appeared as a blog post at The National Interest’s Web site. Reprinted with author’s permission.)

20 comments for “Is War on ISIS America’s Fight?

  1. Zachary Smith
    June 1, 2015 at 13:13

    UPDATE: CENTCOM watched 30 ISIS truck bombs roll on Ramadi and did nothing. May 14th? A bloodbath

    Not one attack plane was flighted out of the U.S. run Al Asad air base to attack the ISIS truck bomb force.

    Not one JDAM was dropped to stop them coming in or to cut off the attack.

    Not a single U.S. bullet was fired.

    Not one missile was fired off a drone. Despite that multiple U.S. drones fly over Al Anbar continuously, 24/7/365.

    Nothing was done despite the duty assignment. Despite standing Orders of the Day postings.

    Then a cover story was created blaming the Iraqi soldiers for losing Ramadi. American politicians and media people lined up to sell the story. Iraqis are cowards.

    But today an analysis of the May 14th and May 15th actions showed that the ISF soldiers fought just like U.S. Marines in 2006 and 2008 up against similar forces. They held ground until truck bombs took them out. Iraqis and Marines equally.

    The ISF units at Ramadi that were recalled to their bases went there as fast as they could. It takes a twisted belief in lying to turn that into cowardly retreats.

    Losing Ramadi required a cover story. It worked. So far it has worked.

    If this is true, it’s more evidence that the folks who control US foreign policy want ISIS to win. I’m inclined to believe it’s true.

    • Abe
      June 2, 2015 at 22:38

      US wants Iraq and Syria broken into pieces.

      IS is the hammer du jour.

    • Peter Loeb
      June 4, 2015 at 05:49


      To Zachary Smith:

      The “Daily Kos” may be helpful at times. I would
      warn against using it as a reliable source by
      itself. This citation is filled with expletives. The
      “Daily Kos” has too frequently functioned as
      a mouthpiece for the Democratic Party or
      a portion of it. Can you provide other
      sources for the same information??

      —-Peter Loeb, Boston, MA, USA

  2. jer
    May 30, 2015 at 18:25

    War on ISIS, America’s fight ? No, no, no ! America and ISIS are actually the one and same (but very bitter and constantly quareling) couple which is right now fully responsibly for menacing world peace and world happiness. Besides spilling huge rivers of human blood.

    Proof is in that America’s Pentagon and CIA have been very busily colluding with Turkey’s Erdogan to ship weapons to ISIS in Syria. The latest report about this evil shenanigan is detailed in

  3. Joe Tedesky
    May 30, 2015 at 13:29

    “Is War with ISIS, America’s Fight”? That would probably depend on who’s interest America is fighting for. There is news out there about a fellow by the name of Sidney Blumenthal, who worked for the Clinton Foundation. You may read this article;

    Apparently, Hillary Clinton took Sidney’s advise very seriously when it came to matters concerning Libya. Blumenthal was getting all excited over how much ‘aid money’ was to be made after Libya’s fall into chaos. This US aid money is the same taxpayer money which is robbed from the American public to further enrich the warmongers who thrive off of these wars. One may take from that, that there isn’t as much profit to be made by working on crumbling infrastructure projects, or enough to replace the money stolen from the Social Security program. To bad for the American public, for this is the way the cookie crumbles, along with everything else.

    So to answer the question, whether war with ISIS is America’s fight, the short answer is NO! The real question should be, who all profits from these adventures? Really, is there an investigative reporter out there who could compile the numbers and names of who all gets rich from fighting these senseless battles. If you ever notice, it’s not like we fight these wars to win. Instead, we always seem to get bogged down. “Bogged Down” makes some people rich. These war profiteers look upon the Vietnam days, as the “Good Ole Days”. What is bringing down America isn’t a religion, nor is it any ideology, it’s the money. Can you say, ‘Citizens United’? How about, ‘No Bid Contracts’?

  4. Mark
    May 30, 2015 at 02:33

    Will Israel’s real puppet regime admit to being their puppet? US politicians don’t have the balls to stand up to Israel’s demands as they cower from AIPAC’s threats to fund their political opponents — while in fact collectively US politicians fall all over each other like a bunch of 1950’s school girls trying to get noticed at an Elvis Presley concert for being the most supportive of Israel’s cynical policies to be carried out by those same school girls at the expense of American taxpayers and our enlisted military personell.

    The 2003 Iraq invasion and now Syria and Iran are all part of Israel’s 1996 PNAC plan ‘New Strategy for Securing the Realm’ in conjunction with their diabolical Yinon Plan to keep the neighbors fighting amongst themselves so Israel can pick up the broken pieces. Some Israelis are openly speaking of Ersatz Yisrael stretching from Bagdad to the Mediteranian and from parts of Syria to parts of Egypt.

    Who says Israel doesn’t have enough psychopathy to play their US puppets for the fools they’ve proven to be — at the expense of the fools themselves and everyone else on the planet that’s affected by the turmoil in the ME, along with those who have a stake in the targeted area?

    Since 9/11 US Middle East policy has been tailored to suit Israel more that anyone else including the US. Anyone who can’t see it is ill-informed, or in denial or simply unable to add 2+2 and maybe all of the above.

    US politicians have sold the country and citizens out in numerous ways especially since WWII. Any objective look at our relationship with Zionism before and since 1948 supplies indisputable proof as to all we’ve sacrificed for Israel. And what has the US gotten out of the relationship with Israel other than being attacked on 9/11 for being Israel’s prime enabler over the decades? And to think we’ve done nothing but continue with more of the same since 9/11. Some people never learn — disgraceful spineless politicians and uninformed Americans — what a combination. Call in the real marines and have them kick the right butts this time!

  5. Mark Tracy
    May 29, 2015 at 19:24

    Now that ISIS has no American hostages left to behead, the American public is not so obsessed with ISIS.

    • dahoit
      May 31, 2015 at 18:10

      IsUS,alnUSrA and AlCIAda.Do you need electroshock?
      How does one bomb someone there,and support them there?Does not compute.

  6. alexander
    May 29, 2015 at 17:08

    Dear Mr Pillar,

    Thank you for yet another excellent article.

    A realization came over me, after reading Peter Van Buren’s accounts of the massive fraud and waste going on during the “heroic” reconstruction of Iraq after our “heroic” annihilation of that country.
    It seems that most, if not all, of the (well-connected) contractors involved in the “nation building” of post-war Iraq, pocketed much, if not most, of the money ear marked for it ,and never really” reconstructed” Much…at all !
    Why not ?
    I couldn’t figure it out….Until one day, I imagined i was ……Benjamin Netanyahu…and then it all became clear !…..Very clear !
    Would I, if I were he, really want a vibrant, virile, gleaming new “democratic” Iraq? with a forceful bill of rights , certified elections,and a powerful, “state of the art” military?
    Would I ?
    No way !
    And why not ?
    Because the “overwhelming” majority of Iraqis(be they Sunni or Shia or whatever else) didn’t really “like” Israel….and they certainly didn’t like what Israel was doing to Palestine and the Palestinians…and whether Iraq was a “dictatorship’ or a “democracy”didn’t matter ..they all STILL felt the same way !
    So the idea came over me, that the point was, in fact, to “FAIL-STATE ” these people and their country….and “deliberately” leave it a ruined and smoldering husk !
    maybe that was HIS plan…all along !
    “Why rebuild that which still hates me?”
    The same “philosophy” would follow suit with ALL the nations we have attacked or destabilized, by proxy, over the past twelve years !
    Iraq , Afghanistan, Libya, Syria, Yemen,….and now maybe Lebanon and Iran….
    All of these countries might “dislike Israel” in varying degrees, but one thing is for sure.. None of them voted for the creation of the state of Israel in 1948, and the majority of them,or what is left of them, do not recognize Israel today !
    so the “slow cooking”. the calibrating” balancing” of destructive forces in Syria…to perpetuate the conflict into Syria’s pulverization…is part of the grand plan a work of art,
    and Mr Pillar…it has almost Nothing to do with “american interests”!
    Nothing !
    Reducing Syria … Iraq and perhaps eventually Lebanon and Iran into fractured and failed states with shattered nervous systems and ZERO command and control ,….a ruined ” Mad max” like landscape of bombed out buildings, “roving terrorist gangs, and eternal tribal infighting…is…not the failure but …. THE GOAL !
    However awful it might seem, there can be no debate, that the effective “striking” force of each of these collective nations is rendered Impotent by the process !
    And Israel can stand tall , strong, and unified amongst them for decades and decades to come !

  7. Stefan
    May 29, 2015 at 15:22

    Islamist terror groups in the Middle East is not a bug of US foreign policy, it is a well designed feature.

    A dismissal of the above, is a non starter in a debate on how to deal with the problem.

    • Mark Tracy
      May 29, 2015 at 19:35

      This is basically turning into a Sunni vs. Shiite civil war. It’s no accident that the towns that ISIS is able to hold and control have a Sunni majority, while those towns that ISIS is not able to hold are Shitte dominated.

      • Stefan
        May 30, 2015 at 08:29

        I don’t agree.

        It is turning into pro USA-Israel Wahhabi Sunnis (via terror proxies)
        Shia and Sunni refuting the USA-Israel regional orchestrated chaos and Regime Change

        Very different.

        I am aware that the distinction of the above is very hard to understand for americans, but I have lived in the region, I speak fluent arabic, what you hear in media, is just propaganda to garner public support and swing sentiment. Every day you have a new self proclaimed expert in the region, that in reality, most often, knows very very little – but is being presented as an authority and “expert”.

        Do you remember the “expert! O’Bagy working for the Institute of the Study of War (the Nuland – Kagan family uber Neocon Think Tank that promotes war and regime change, especially in Syria)

        When O’Bagy’s fake phd was exposed, she was fired, and then hired by Senator John McCain as his expert.

        • Mark Tracy
          May 30, 2015 at 19:08

          There is obviously a big Shitte vs. Sunni split, as much as many of those in the Arab world would like to deny it, and the religious fanatics are exploiting it to the hilt.

          • dahoit
            May 31, 2015 at 18:08

            This split is very modern in that violence is the norm,as before 1948 we heard of none of this,the ME was a historical backwater,and we didn’t give a damn about the inhabitants other than movie villains.Since 48,Israel and the CIA have made a hellhole of the region,and the violence and discord are driven by our policy and the Yinon Plan.An\y other explanation is poopie cockie,and the bloviation of neolibcons with bloody faces and free and empty consciences,evidence of their evil.

  8. Abe
    May 29, 2015 at 14:07

    ISIS is America’s War on Syria and Iraq, minus the major deployment of US troops on the ground (they’re mostly in the air).

  9. Zachary Smith
    May 29, 2015 at 13:32

    Eric Schmitt reports in the New York Times that the U.S. military is refraining from attacking some sites it knows are ISIS facilities, including at the group’s principal headquarters in Raqqa, Syria, to avoid the significant civilian casualties that such attacks would certainly entail.

    It’s my uninformed opinion that the New York Times is spouting nonsense. The US hasn’t been a bit worried about “significant civilian casualties” up till now, and it’s hard for me to believe that anything has changed regarding that policy. After all, the US Neocon-controlled US government is still making life in Syria total hell, and hasn’t shown the slightest concern for the Gaza Murder spree by the shitty little apartheid nation which controls our foreign policy.

    According to Moon of Alabama, this sudden humanitarian streak is a quickly contrived talking point to explain why Iraq is being abandoned to ISIS.

    Why were there so few U.S. air attacks on the Islamic State attackers when they took Ramadi?

    The first excuse put out by the U.S. military was “a sandstorm ate my lunch”. That excuse was placed as news in the NYT:

    Islamic State fighters used a sandstorm to help seize a critical military advantage in the early hours of the terrorist group’s attack on the provincial Iraqi capital of Ramadi last week, helping to set in motion an assault that forced Iraqi security forces to flee, current and former American officials said Monday.

    The stenographer writing the piece did not bother to ask eyewitnesses or to check with some weather service. The myth of the “sandstorm” was thus born and repeated again and again. But people looking at the videos and pictures from the fighting could only see a bright blue sky. The military, though not the NYT, had to retract:

    The US supplies ISIS with weapons and men indirectly. A pile of arms goes to “vetted” fighters who promptly turn it over to the true destination – ISIS. Witness the recent defection of “US-trained Tajikistan special forces chief Gulmurod Khalimov” to ISIS.

    IMO the Neocons want Shia Iraq destroyed. An ISIS government will become a running sore in the side of Iran rather than an ally as is the situation now. The destruction of Syria will allow ISIS to take over on Israel’s borders. At that time Israel will get to make another land and water grab because of the “intolerable” situation which it created.

    I may be wrong, but I do feel Mr. Pillar is barking up the wrong tree on this issue.

  10. May 29, 2015 at 11:47

    Excellent analysis! There is a reflexive response among the public and an manipulative, self-serving response among the elite that says – we should fix it. Fortunately, the public is fed up. That doesn’t matter to the war makers who will milk every last ounce out of any “threat” to feed their incomes.

    Also, you did the near impossible, found an instance where Friedman is absolutely correct. Even a broken clock is correct twice a day and this is one of Friedman’s moments. I’m sure it’s fleeting.

    If the war faction were serious, it would precisely identify sources of funding for ISIS, stop that in absolute terms, and that would be the end of it. The fact that this approach not featured shows what a fraud the whole policy is.

    Who funds ISIS? How? How do we stop it? We don’t have to lift a finger to do that and we’re not. Telling.

  11. dahoit
    May 29, 2015 at 11:41

    The same John McCain seen noodling with these same terrorists a while back?
    It’s kabuki theater to keep the brainwashed happy,and the unsure confused,as we further descend into the madness of regime change and its repercussions.

  12. Berry Friesen
    May 29, 2015 at 10:42

    So, if I have understood the sophistic Mr. Pillar correctly, the horror of the status quo is about the best we can hope for given the need to protect U.S. interests in the division of Iraq, in regime change in Syria, in regime change in Iran, in the stability of Saudi tyranny, in the profitability of U.S. corporate interests in Middle East oil, and in the mobilization of Sunni Salifist terrorism to destabilize the southern border regions of Russia.

    And you what? I think Mr. Pillar is right on the money. Living with Daesh is in the best interests of the U.S. empire.

    But not of you and me who love peace and crave justice, nor of the people of the Middle East. For all of us, the horror of the status quo is horrifying.

  13. Joe L.
    May 29, 2015 at 10:27

    My question sometimes is would there be an ISIS if it were not for the US overthrowing Hussein in Iraq? It just seems to me that every action that the west has taken to overthrow countries in the Middle East has only opened the door for Al Qaeda to spread and expand into them – where they grow larger and stronger. ISIS is an off-shoot of Al Qaeda from within Iraq where there was no Al Qaeda until after Hussein was overthrown.

    Sometimes I even find it confusing at who is the “bad guy”. Supposedly we are bombing ISIS in Iraq and Syria, they are the “bad guys” but then we are supporting the Saudis to bomb the Houthis in Yemen who are fighting against ISIS and Al Qaeda. Then I also find out that the US, Britain, and France were arming and training supposed “moderate” rebels in Jordan 2012 to fight in Syria against Assad but it also seems that many of them became the Al Nusra Front (related to Al Qaeda) and ISIS (I find this Orwellian since it was the US that armed and trained the Mujahideen in Afghanistan to fight against the Soviets which then became Al Qaeda and the Taliban).

    Overall, every action that we take in the Middle East only strengthens Al Qaeda, ISIS etc. and has allowed them to become larger and stronger.

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