How Neocons Got ISIS Wrong, Too

As Islamic State loses ground in Iraq and Syria, earlier demands from Official Washington’s neocons for a major reintroduction of U.S. troops appear to be just the latest misjudgment of these war hawks, as ex-CIA analyst Paul R. Pillar explains.

By Paul R. Pillar

The so-called Islamic State or ISIS is on the decline, and its “caliphate” on the ground in Iraq and Syria is shrinking to extinction. In Syria, the group has lost about a quarter of the territory it used to control, including its access to the Turkish border, and recapture of its de facto capital in Raqqa is coming into sight. In Iraq, ISIS has lost half the territory it once had, and a coalition of forces is knocking on the door of the group’s biggest prize, the city of Mosul.

We should reflect on the arguments we were hearing not very long ago that more force than the Obama administration was using would be needed to defeat the ISIS menace. ISIS was the main focus of the “do more in Syria” cries before the cries shifted more to the Syrian regime and its warfighting methods

Journalist James Foley shortly before he was executed by an Islamic State operative.

Journalist James Foley shortly before he was executed by an Islamic State operative.

Typical was an op-ed by James Jeffrey of the Washington Institute for Near East Policy, written not quite one year ago, that called for sending U.S. ground troops into the fight against ISIS and declared, “It’s obvious that defeat of the Islamic State is not going to happen absent a first-class, mobile ground force being launched to mate with overwhelming air power.”

Well, ISIS is being defeated without such a U.S. ground force. In fact, the defeating is perhaps going too fast, in that the main question is not whether such defeat is happening but rather how unstable will be the situation left in the wake of an extinguished ISIS mini-state.

The smash-and-run approach that was being advocated by many of those who argued that the Obama administration was not applying enough military force to the problem (Jeffrey advertised his proposal as a “short, crisp” operation that would not be anything like a prolonged counterinsurgency) would be even less likely to yield a favorable answer to that question.

This is one of those occasions in which it is easy to forget the errors of policy recommendations that were never adopted, because without being put into effect the errors in analysis fortunately never get reflected in actual costs and fiascos. But the analysis can be just as bad as with ill-founded policy recommendations that are put into effect. We ought to take note of that, and to apply the relevant lessons in evaluating similar policy debates now and in the future.

On one hand, U.S. military escalation already is proving to be unnecessary to squeeze the ISIS mini-state out of existence. But on the other hand, even an escalated U.S. military effort would be insufficient to make ISIS-fomented armed resistance in Syria and Iraq go away, mini-state or no mini-state.

As Seth Jones explains in an analysis based on experience with prior resistance groups, an ISIS-led insurgency is likely to ensue. So much for short and crisp with any escalated U.S. military intervention. If “mission accomplished” is declared after Mosul and Raqqa fall, whoever is involved in the fight will be facing what U.S. troops faced earlier in Iraq after the fall of Saddam Hussein. Unlike what smash-and-run proponents might suggest, going after ISIS is not a game of capture-the-flag or checkmating a king.

Resisting Future Alarms

Another reality that will be faced after the mini-state is extinguished concerns international terrorism. Anti-Western terrorism associated with ISIS was another of the alarm buttons, along with ISIS’s rapid territorial gains in 2014, that was connected to the cries to do more with military force and to do it fast.

Islamic terrorists prepare to execute a wounded policeman after their attack on the offices of French magazine Charlie Hebdo on Jan. 7, 2015.

Islamic terrorists prepare to execute a wounded policeman after their attack on the offices of French magazine Charlie Hebdo on Jan. 7, 2015.

Jeffrey’s piece was again typical in beginning by stating that the “horrific Paris attacks” and the bombing of a Russian airliner over Egypt “demand an answer to this question: When will the United States realize that it urgently needs to use real military force to defeat the Islamic State threat?”

We should note first that despite such supposed urgency, in the ensuing year the West has not been assaulted with any paralyzing wave of ISIS-fomented terrorism, even though ISIS and its caliphate have not yet been extinguished.

Even after the caliphate is extinguished, however, there still will be terrorism in the West conducted in the name of ISIS, even if not paralyzing. For ISIS to look more and more like a loser rather than a winner will make it less of a lodestar for radicals in the West, but the terrorism that any such radicals conduct has never depended on control of a piece of real estate in the Middle East.

After Mosul and Raqqa have fallen and Western leaders can declare, with some good reason, that the ISIS caliphate is no more, some bombings and shooting sprees will still occur in the West and will be labeled, at least on the basis of a perpetrator’s claim, as “ISIS attacks.” How will Americans and American politicians react to that?

Based on experience, much of the reaction will consist of an urge to use military force, amid continuing insurgency in Iraq and Syria, to find and destroy a command center that is thought to organize and order such terrorism. But although some individual extremist leaders will be killed, no such center will be found.

It will assume a place in U.S. military history comparable to the “Bamboo Pentagon” that was assumed to exist somewhere in Cambodia and to control all of the Communist insurgency in South Vietnam. Military operations aimed at the chimerical terrorist command center identified with ISIS will have the counterproductive effect of stimulating more of the very kind of anti-Western terrorism that the operations were intended to prevent.

If we are fortunate, maybe instead a more accurate lesson will be drawn from the disjunction between a destroyed ISIS caliphate and continued international terrorism in ISIS’s name. The lesson would be that groups such as ISIS are less prime movers of terrorism and more a name and a cause to which radicals attach themselves to believe that they are acting on behalf of something larger than themselves and their own demons and grievances.

A corollary is that the likelihood of Americans becoming victims of this brand of terrorism has less to do with battle lines on a Middle Eastern map than with whether our own actions generate and sustain such grievances.

Paul R. Pillar, in his 28 years at the Central Intelligence Agency, rose to be one of the agency’s top analysts. He is author most recently of Why America Misunderstands the World. (This article first appeared as a blog post at The National Interest’s Web site. Reprinted with author’s permission.) 


20 comments for “How Neocons Got ISIS Wrong, Too

  1. November 5, 2016 at 10:37

    Most “terrorism” and Salafist movements since the 1950s have involved the alliance of a number of countries most important of which are USA, Saudi Arabia, Pakistan, Turkey, Israel, France and Britain and a mixture of gangsters and various intel in Europe. ISIS/ISIL is a creation of various countries in this group that sprung mysteriously (according to the propaganda organs) out of the desert one day. Most terror acts are either tolerated or induced by various intel groups associated with the above referenced countries. The goal is to institute a full-fledged Empire centered in Washington that encompasses “full-spectrum dominance.” This has been the ambition of the West since before Charlemagne. A new Rome is here today but this time one that encompasses the every square foot of the globe. Much of this is unconscious and it is driven by personal ambition of various players and increasingly transnational organizations. Those of us who resist this agenda need to understand the situation and actively resist. In order to do that we have to get our story straight and understand this tendency towards Empire is implicit in Western culture.

  2. GeorgyOrwell
    November 2, 2016 at 22:32

    Rudolf Giuliani whose reputation as a federal prosecutor is unquestioned
    You’re joking, Right?

  3. Zachary Smith
    November 2, 2016 at 22:20

    Jeffrey’s piece was again typical in beginning by stating that the “horrific Paris attacks” and the bombing of a Russian airliner over Egypt “demand an answer to this question: When will the United States realize that it urgently needs to use real military force to defeat the Islamic State threat?”

    I checked into this James Jeffrey fellow and concluded he is an efficient neoconservative nut who endlessly shills for Israel. If the dope truly did want to defeat ISIS, why hasn’t he been calling for using US airpower to assist Assad’s Syria? That’s because he is is reality indifferent to ISIS except for loving it as a way to take down Assad for Israel.

    The carnage in Syria isn’t about oil or pipelines or ISIS – it’s part of the huge program of using the US to smash all real and potential enemies of the murderous and thieving little shithole state of Israel.

    Jeffrey and his kind don’t care how many US soldiers die in the pretend effort against ISIS. All that matters to them is the establishment of Greater Israel. Otherwise they’d have advocated some realistic strategies to destroy ISIS. And way back in the beginning, to have prevented the creation and spread of the head-chopping vermin. Didn’t happen then, and it won’t happen now.

    • MA
      November 3, 2016 at 05:54

      And the groundwork for expansion is being done by the revisionists of Islamic history in the Middle East:

  4. Bill Bodden
    November 2, 2016 at 18:54

    The neocon talking heads and writers got everything else wrong so they are at least consistent spouting meretricious rubbish about ISIS.

    • Taras77
      November 2, 2016 at 20:43

      Agree that neo cons have not gotten anything right-they have not made a correct decision since the 1st Cold War. I am not certain about the neo con linkage here but I believe Team B was a neo con team which tried to upend all of the intelligence assessments about the Soviet Union under the Reagan admin in early to mid 1980’s. Their argument was that the Nat Intel Estimates were grossly underestimating the threat from the Soviet Union-of course, we have heard that before. Some few years later, of course, the Soviet Union collapsed.

      And as we well know, the neo cons are still happily hyping the threat, the war on terror, demanding regime change, interventions, etc ad nauseum. It probably is not hard to ascertain how they continually come forward with their bogus recommendations and assessments: that is they feed the military industrial intelligence beast-war is good, war is profitable, war is peace! Sickening!

      • November 5, 2016 at 02:21

        with all their military deferments i humbly might add .

  5. bluto
    November 2, 2016 at 17:19

    How the Israeli/Israeli Lobby ‘Clean Break Dream’ perished in Aleppo

    It’s all over the place – it’s the 2nd American Revolution – America free of the Israeli Lobby/Jewish Lobby/Neocons


    ‘The Israeli Civil War and 1P1V1S’

    WHEN: OCT 22, Saturday, 4:00 – 5:00 pm
    WHERE: Otay Branch San Diego Public Library,
    3003 Coronado Ave, San Diego, Ca 92154
    WHO: Dr Lance Dale


    ‘Israeli Apartheid and the 3rd Israeli Generals Revolt’
    The Commanders for Israeli Security (CIS)

    The Israel Civil War:
    ‘Hillary and the CIS vs Bibi, Adelson, and the Settlers’

    The UN Sec Council Resolution against Israel supported by the US

    1P1V1S (– One Person One Vote One State)
    Marwan Barghouti and 1P1V1S from the River to Shining Sea

    The 3 Existential Events (and seen as such by Israel itself) for Israeli Apartheid:
    The Iran Nuclear Deal, UN Sec Co Resolution against Israel, and the ICC

    ‘The Collapse of Israeli Apartheid and the Tsunami on American Politics’

    ‘The Successful 2nd American Revolution of 4-2-15 and the Iran Nuclear Deal’

    How the Israeli/Israeli Lobby ‘Clean Break Dream’ perished in Aleppo

    Q & A after the talk

  6. Stefan
    November 2, 2016 at 15:36

    Are we still playing the game of pretending that USA is not allied with Al Qaeda*** ?

    Thus, are we still pretending that it would not be a good thing if USA stopped giving training, weapons, drugs and political backings to “rebels” (the Al Qaeda branch that sterilizes the knives before it chops off heads of children)?

    Are we also still pretending that the goal has not always been chaos, destabilisation and balkanisation?

    There are some analysts that keep being published on here, that keep playing games of semantics.

    ***”ISIS” is but one branch of Al Qaeda, There are many other names of Al Qaeda as well, purposefully rebranded. Rebranding the terrorist mercenaries is good psychological business. New and upgraded terrorists are scarier than old dusty ones, and you can make up new stories with new and fresh terrorists – and they also serve as a good introduction to newer generations, without the baggage of the old ones, of who older generations can refer to as just the old US boogeyman, made by and for the Ziocons.

    • RR
      November 2, 2016 at 17:16

      Stop speaking the truth. You might scare some people.

  7. J'hon Doe II
    November 2, 2016 at 12:04

    Our Sick World

    The willingness of humanity to continue to accept the white world’s profitable investments in genocide will end in 25 years when world economic power shifts from Europeans, and their descendant nations, to the six sevenths of humanity they plundered. Realizing this, leaders of 1/10th of 1% who rule America have Trump demanding investment in the US instead of in the low wage 3rd World that China will soon lead.

    Russia and China, not using their veto power to prevent a UN authorized neocolonial powers murderous reconquest and destruction of a wealthy and prosperous independent socialist Libya [see Russians Calling Medvedev a “Traitor” for Not Vetoing UN NATO War on Libya in Larger Context] is only an extreme example of a general world wide ‘might makes right’ acquiescence to the colonial-neoclonial profitable genocide that has gone on for centuries, and will most probably continue to go on until world economic power shifts from Europeans and their descendant nations over to the more than six sevenths of humanity they have plundered.

    Russia, and China, have made no noise about an all Caucasian nations murderous fifteen year occupation of poor Afghanistan for fifteen years, and both adhere to a worldwide unwritten etiquette of diplomatic politeness not to identify the United States with its genocides in Korea, Laos, Vietnam, Cambodia, Iraq and elsewhere, not alerting the constantly targeted Third World that the US has either invaded or overthrown the government of every nation in Latin America. Indeed, most diplomates repeat blatant US lies about President Assad of Syria and play along with the farce that the US did not fund the creation of ISIS, as it did al Qaida earlier, to destroy America’s designated enemies.[1]

    No leader anywhere ever seems to call for prosecution of US invasions under the Nuremberg Principles of International Law. Even the very leaders of nations under illegal US NATO attack fail to even speak of laws broken. [see

  8. November 2, 2016 at 11:59

    The US suffers from ” Affluenza”. It was one of the few countries not totally destroyed in the Second World War and as a result of ” Lend Lease” and other scams got rich and as such had no restraints on it´s actions, legal and or illegal. Now that child of affluenza is facing constraints from nations not alligned with the idea that the US should be able to trample the earth unapposed, taking what it wants, changing governments at will , invading, and occupying countries just because it could, bombing countries back to the stone age and ordering obediance from all nations. Above all else it no longer is the very rich kid that could buy loyalty from less prosperous nations. Now even Europe…..Europe for God´s sake…… is by and large beginning to squirme out from under the US thumb by opposing sanctions on Russia, and the US plan to isolate China. In short there are other even richer players on the world stage and unlike that child of affluence, do not demand that others get down on their knees to do business with them.

    The US had a short window of opportunity when the Berlin Wall came down to really cement it´s position at the top of the world heap. This was squandered, just as a child that inherits great wealth squanders that wealth, and becomes more of a laughing stock in his country and gets no sympathy for his condition, everyone realizing that he got to his sorry state because of lack of discipline. It is becoming more apparent everyday, that the US has lost it´s pre eminent position in much of the world and is further losing even more of the world every day. Having not earned the wealth it squandered , it cannot understand why the world will no longer just not defer to it because of it´s previous wealth. Now they are learning the bitter lessons that you can´t buy and or bully nations into being your friends and supporters. When the money dissappears, so do the friends.. Of course there will be a lot of flailing around and borrowing money from friends and relatives to keep up appearances, but even that will dry up eventually and then the real grim reality will set in.

    • Dr. Ibrahim Soudy
      November 2, 2016 at 13:47

      I agree with every thing you said. My concern is “How much damage will the US do to the rest of humanity in the process of its decline?”……..Unfortunately, the EMPIRE can take the rest of the world down with it this time…………..

    • Joe B
      November 2, 2016 at 15:41

      I’ll suggest that the US is not nearly so innocent as the mere affluenza case. First, its legacy of isolation from continental wars and luck after WWII and the collapse of the USSR was not a financial opportunity to “cement it´s position at the top of the world heap” so much as to bring the benefits of democracy and technology to the developing world. It could readily have lifted half the world from poverty and reigned as a moral leader rather than a failed imperialist tyrant. It could have brought an American Century of progress rather than theft. The US went much further than the mere dissipated heir, and caused more than six million deaths in dozens of lunatic wars against socialism, spreading dictatorship and torture and fundamentalism rather than democracy, ruining both its security and reputation, making itself the natural enemy of humankind.

      It did this because of corruption of government by economic concentrations, akin to affluenza except that it is quite deliberate and immoral in every move. It will find no assistance in its decline. Thank our Repub heritage all the way, and thank their new Dem subsidiary.

      • Bob Van Noy
        November 2, 2016 at 21:33

        ”It could readily have lifted half the world from poverty and reigned as a moral leader rather than a failed imperialist tyrant. It could have brought an American Century of progress rather than theft.”

        Exactly Joe. That was the message that President Kennedy was trying to deliver in his American University Commencement Address on June 10,1963 and that is what is so heartbreaking in retrospect, about his killing. I will post a link for those who may not have been aware of it…

  9. Joe B
    November 2, 2016 at 10:54

    The call for militarism in the ME is never anything but zionist propaganda. The US and NATO have absolutely no goals there whatsoever; we can buy oil and gas from whomever has it. No alliances there make any sense at all. Those who call for wars there are foreign agents and traitors, and should be removed from office and prosecuted.

    • RR
      November 2, 2016 at 17:14

      This is the inconvenient truth.

      Also don’t forget that the US is the one that creates and backs these terror groups in order to have a boogy man to justify the military industrial complex.

      • Joe B
        November 2, 2016 at 18:20

        Yes, the MIC always needs a war, and so does the right wing. The tyrants over democracy against whom Aristotle warned, must create foreign enemies to pose falsely as protectors and accuse their moral superiors of disloyalty.

        The last thing this country needs is a Hillary, starting wars to get campaign bribes from Israel, ever so happy to give those boys with the medals a few more trillions to kill a few more millions, life is so easy when you just connect the bucks with the murderers and blame it all on the innocent. Hey, that’s the life for the oligarchy, may they all be Ghaddafi’d in the end.

    • Luke
      November 2, 2016 at 21:20

      Nothing to do with ‘Zionists’ everything to do with expanding territorial control over the middle-east (arab countries) and encroaching on North Africa.

      This is a continuation of a strangle-hold that has been maintained on russia and China since the end of WW2.

      Not that Israel isn’t a significant player in this game. It’s an anchor, much like a rook in chess.

      • Joe B
        November 3, 2016 at 09:03

        I don’t see any motive for that. There is nothing in the middle east or Africa that money can’t buy at the same price regardless of the form of government. Imperialists once fought for control of regions, but no longer monopolize mining and agriculture through national companies like the East India Company. They can form local branches anywhere and purchase resources anywhere.

        Oil is one of the few resources whose local cost is a large fraction of the sales price, where a monopoly might be advantageous. And we get that wherever we want anyway.

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