Risks in Rush to Crush ISIS

President Trump’s vow to crush the Islamic State quickly may lead to hasty actions that could compound the problem rather than solve it, notes ex-CIA analyst Paul R. Pillar.

By Paul R. Pillar

A couple of tendencies that are all too common in policymaking and policy debate tend to make for unwise foreign commitments or overextended foreign expeditions. One is to treat a goal that is at most an intermediate objective as if it were an end in itself. Doing so obfuscates clear analysis of means and ends, overlooks other ways to achieve the same ends, and distorts perception of the costs and benefits associated with achieving the immediate objective.

U.S. Army forces operating in southern Iraq during Operation Iraqi Freedom, Apr. 2, 2003 (U.S. Navy photo)

The other tendency is to give insufficient attention to what comes after achieving the immediate objective. One only has to recall the example of insufficient attention given to what would come after the objective of overthrowing Saddam Hussein to appreciate the problems involved.

One could add a third phenomenon, which is less common but sometimes arises, which is to try to fulfill a campaign promise for the sake of fulfilling a campaign promise.

All three factors appear to be present now with the issue of next steps for the U.S. military in Syria in going after ISIS. The head of U.S. Central Command is saying, “It could be that we take on a larger burden ourselves.” His comment comes amid the Department of Defense coming up with a plan requested by President Trump, who promised during the campaign to hasten the defeat of ISIS.

Of course ISIS is a horrible group, and everyone not in it agrees that the world will be better off without it. But before U.S. forces take up any larger share of the burden of fighting it, three realities ought to be carefully considered.

One is that the ISIS mini-state in Syria and Iraq already is well on the way to being extinguished, at the hands of the forces already engaging it. This should not be surprising, given the group’s lack of external support and the way its brutal methods lose it any support among the populations with which it has come into contact. The issue involved in considering any escalation with U.S. forces is not whether the mini-state will be killed off, but only how quickly it will be.

Second, if our main concern is with how ISIS could endanger American lives through acts of terrorism, we should realize that the connection between that danger and the fate of the mini-state in Syria and Iraq has always been tenuous at best, and less than is commonly supposed. There has been more of a tension than a direct connection between ISIS fomenting terrorism in the West on one hand, and on the other hand the group using its available resources to defend and shore up the mini-state. To the extent the overseas terrorist threat has materialized, it has been far more a matter of inspiration and ideology than of organizational dependence on a piece of real estate in the Middle East.

Third, the ISIS problem will not go away when the mini-state is extinguished. The problem will continue in the form of the ideology and the inspiration, and probably also in the form of insurgency in the lands in which the mini-state has existed.

This last point leads to the further observation that as far as not only anti-Western terrorism but also instability in the Middle East are concerned, what matters most is not how hastily the ISIS mini-state is crushed but rather what arrangements are left on the ground after the crushing.

Fertile Climate

The more that chaos, disputes, and uncertainty prevail there, the more that ground will remain fertile for violent extremism, whether under the ISIS label or some other brand. The rest of the political, diplomatic, and military story of conflict in Syria still has a good way to go before providing a more promising and stable alternative for what comes after ISIS. It would not be advantageous for the anti-ISIS military campaign to get ahead of that story. Speed in this case is not necessarily good.

Army Gen. H.R. McMaster, national security adviser to President Trump.

All of this is in addition to one of the biggest downsides of U.S. forces assuming more of a military role: playing into the ideology and propaganda of ISIS and similar extremists, who appeal for support with a message about how the United States uses its armed might to intervene in Muslim lands and to kill Muslims.

This set of issues will be an early test for new national security adviser H. R. McMaster. He is a highly regarded military officer whose professional focus, from study of war in Vietnam to the practice of war in Iraq, has been on what use of force and how much force are needed to achieve an objective of military victory. His natural inclination, as much as of others, may be to take the swift extinguishing of the ISIS mini-state as such an objective and to treat it more as an end than a means. A more thorough and careful performance as national security adviser would instead broaden the policy question and take into account the considerations mentioned above.

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.) 

17 comments for “Risks in Rush to Crush ISIS

  1. Brian
    February 27, 2017 at 14:50

    One must also remember that it is possible that the Pentagon wants to get involved now, before ISIS can be defeated and US covert involvement can be exposed. That is the reason why bin Laden, Muammar Qaddafi, and countless al Qaeda leaders had to die rather than be arrested and put on trial. The covert actions of the CIA and US Special Forces and the roles of the presidents who sent them must remain hidden. The funding, flood of arms, and the Saudi Arabian, Qatari, and Israeli connections cannot be exposed.

  2. February 27, 2017 at 14:08

    Interesting article at link below:
    February 27, 2017
    Al-Qaeda Gets An Oscar

  3. Exiled off mainstreet
    February 27, 2017 at 11:39

    Hollywood has revealed its own affinity to el qaeda elements by awarding an academy award to a phony apologetic documentary extolling the “white helmets” who are jihadi thugs dressed up in propaganda falsehoods. The deep state and its acolytes have totally jumped the shark, eschewing civilization for confrontation. They are enemies of decency and the public interest.

    • Rob Roy
      February 28, 2017 at 13:10

      Exiles off mainstreet: You are so right about the ‘white helmets.’
      Did George Clooney lose his mind? I thought he was smarter than to fall for that farce.

  4. Herman
    February 27, 2017 at 10:30

    Good article. Since the US has a history of encouraging extremists on Russia’s borders and since extremists in Syria and the United States seem to have the same goal of overthrowing the Syrian Government, the United States has to change its policy regarding the fragmentation of states on our enemies list. Not extremists but an example of its fragmentation policy was the no-fly zone over the Turkish region of Iraq.

    It is to be hoped that the United States and its allies come to recognize that stabilizing borders and supporting or at least not undermining the Syrian and Iraqi governments must be a first step in achieving some sense of normality and stability. This means confronting the Israelis and Saudis whose aims are opposed to such an approach.

    If we are unwilling to do that, which is our likely course, the chaos and suffering will continue.

  5. Realist
    February 27, 2017 at 01:53

    Risks in rush to crush ISIS? One reads so many contradictory statements about ISIS, one cannot be certain of who they are exactly. According to the latest from Veterans Today (if one can trust that blog)

    [ http://www.veteranstoday.com/2017/02/24/us-turkey-commit-deception-subterfuge-and-betrayal-in-syria/ ]

    they are basically units from the Turkish army who fight against Assad’s army in Syria and Iraq’s army in Mosul. Now that they are being driven out of Mosul they are supposedly regrouping in Turkey. So, if Turkey is a NATO ally, American fighter jets will not be attacking them… as the old story goes.

    I had previously read in many sources that ISIS fighters were Islamic mercenaries from all over the world (even the US and Western Europe) recruited, outfitted and paid by America via the Saudi’s. Now we are told they are Turkish troops (above and beyond the Turkish troops inside Syria confronting the Kurds, and the Turkish troops in Northern Iraq which refuse to leave). Even with Aleppo reclaimed, I don’t see a prayer for Assad, even with Russia and Iran as allies, if VT is correct and this escalates into a war with Turkey. (So much for Putin’s rapprochement with Erdogan???) Moreover, Israel is strafing Syrian Army positions around Homs and Russian special ops guys are getting killed. The only way Assad can win is to completely extirpate ISIS and seal his borders, because the money, man power and equipment that the Turks, Saudis, US, and NATO can throw at him is endless. Dispatching ISIS ASAP may be impossible but seems to me to be the best thing to try, since Syria has only so many draft-eligible young men. Russia is never going to send ground troops (that is America’s planned trap for them). And, Iran will probably decide to cut its losses at some point, especially if the American Deep State (is Trump still in the loop?) swings a deal not to attack them and to keep Israel on a lease. They’ll renege on any deal with Iran later, after they effect regime change in Syria. It’s how they roll.

    Ever since Trump said he’d like to give Russia a free hand in eliminating ISIS, it’s been completely FUBAR over there. Bigger players than him apparently disagree about that.

    But, without ANY American journalists whatsoever in that theatre, perhaps the American public is getting nothing but bullshit in lieu of news on the matter.

  6. Zachary Smith
    February 26, 2017 at 23:59

    The head of U.S. Central Command is saying, “It could be that we take on a larger burden ourselves.”

    Sending US troops to Syria to pretend to fight ISIS would be about the stupidest thing I can imagine. Surely The Trump Administration won’t do that.

    The rest of the essay was problematical with me. Crushing ISIS is, in my opinion, a worthy goal in itself.

    The problem will continue in the form of the ideology and the inspiration, and probably also in the form of insurgency in the lands in which the mini-state has existed.

    If Mr. Pillar feels the “ideology and the inspiration” is going to be a continuing issue, then it’s time to crack down on Saudi Arabia’s missionary exports of fanaticism. But then, that nation never had to face the music for the 2001 terror attacks in New York, so I’m probably into wishful thinking here.

    Ditto for continuing terrorism. Blame for that will have to be shared by Israel too, and most likely also by the hanger-ons of the Obama & Hillary factions lurking in the CIA and State Department.

    All of the above still seek the destruction and dismemberment of Syria.

  7. February 26, 2017 at 21:22

    Millions are dead, millions are refugees, their countries invaded and destroyed, because of an evil plot by people in positions of power. [1]…

    “While, undeniably, the Islamic State has shown itself beyond the pale with its beheading of innocents and its massacres of soldiers who have surrendered, let us not forget that our allies abetted these monsters,…” -Patrick J. Buchanan, September 26, 2014…
    [read more at link below]

  8. February 26, 2017 at 21:09

    The info below is interesting. Are our “allies” in bed with “Jihadis” in Syria?
    “Last year the chiefs of staff of the US, Britain, France, Canada, Saudi Arabia, Qatar and Turkey met in Jordan; and a report by UAE’s newspaper… also mentions the existence of a secret command center in Jordan which is staffed by military officials from 14 Western and Arab countries including Israel. This command center coordinates the operations of the rebels (jihadis) in southern Syria; while the operations of the jihadis in northern Syria are coordinated by similar command centers and bases in Turkey….” Nauman Sadiq, Asia Times Sep. 22, 2014.

  9. Gregory Herr
    February 26, 2017 at 20:31

    The “fertile climate” for “violent extremism” is a creation and tool of the policy which set forth to destroy the independent secular governments of Iraq, Libya, Syria, and beyond. The responsibility for the development of IS in Iraq and its subsequent infiltration of Syria is something that needs more consideration.
    So we help create a monster, now we have to look like we’re killing the monster, but not too fast cause we still need the monster while facts on the ground are being arranged. How about we respect Syrian sovereignty and concentrate on just being helpful, if we can,

  10. Joe B
    February 26, 2017 at 20:05

    Ending the holding of territory by ISIS and AlQaeda does very little. We have known all along that this was a quagmire for Russia and Iran that would become a dirty and widespread insurgency at some point. So it certainly a quagmire for the US.

    The USSR did not win in Afghanistan and the US did not win in Vietnam: there seems to be little reason to think that either will win in Iraq or Syria without power sharing. But the US killed Diem rather than negotiate with NV, and Iraq refused to grant some independence to its Sunnis in Anbar. So likely there will be an endless war in both Syria and Iraq until the intransigents are elderly.

    Now if Iraq granted a semi-autonomous status to Sunni Anbar et al, and Syria granted a more representative government to its majority of Sunnis, this would not have happened, and perhaps could even now be resolved. I hear nothing of any such sensible strategy. The USG seems unable to do more than shop for allies and kill everyone else, so its only constructive role in foreign policy is to stay home and flip burgers until it expires.

    • Rob Roy
      February 28, 2017 at 12:24

      The US didn’t go into Syria because Iraq didn’t grant “a semi-autonomous status to Sunni Anbar et al, and Syria granted a more representative government to its majority of Sunnis.” It went in because Iraq and Syria were two of the seven middle east countries on the US hit list that had been designated for attack by the US for many years. Nothing either country could have done would have avoided these disasters. By the way, Assad presides over a secular country. Sunnis and all other sects and religions already have equal rights and are free to practice their beliefs. At least they were until our aggression interfered.
      The US and Israel are the most feared countries in the world and they are not going to stop their reign of terror until the entire international community stops them. First off, the US should be banned from the Security Council and Israel completely isolated from doing business with the rest of the world.

  11. John
    February 26, 2017 at 20:01

    Questions you could ask a fifth grader concerning ISIS for the daily double Alex…….You people in the USA are beyond lazy… Your negligence for understanding your responsibility in the world’s future is staggering……

  12. evelync
    February 26, 2017 at 18:20

    Thanks, Mr. Pillar for this incredibly thoughtful article!

    Andrew Bacevich ppointed out to a questioner terrified of ISIS that – yes they are horrifically brutal but far from all powerful – he said – they have no Air Force, no Navy, no weapons except what they steal from us and no replacement parts – they may steal a tank from us but tanks can’t go more than a few miles before breaking down and needing parts.
    This comes up during the Q&A after his talk linked to here:

  13. February 26, 2017 at 15:51

    Listen to this at link below:

    “Congresswoman Tulsi Gabbard says US gov funding ISIS and al Qaeda”

  14. Tom Welsh
    February 26, 2017 at 15:35

    “One only has to recall the example of insufficient attention given to what would come after the objective of overthrowing Saddam Hussein to appreciate the problems involved”.

    It is unbelievable – literally – that the top brass of “the world’s most powerful armed forces”, as well as those who are laughingly considered their “political masters” did not understand one of the fundamental axioms of war. Namely, that military action is always and only another means of accomplishing political ends.

    Yet we are expected to believe that Washington set off gaily to invade Iraq (flagrantly breaking all international laws) just for the fun of it.

    What rubbish. There most certainly was a political motive, whether it was the conquest of Iraqi oil, the destruction of a potential rival to Israel, or the snuffing out of an attempt to do without the almighty dollar “pour encourager les autres”.

    • Peter Loeb
      February 28, 2017 at 08:42


      “…Yet we are expected to believe that Washington set off gaily to invade
      Iraq (flagrantly breaking all international laws) just for the fun of it….”
      (Tom Welsh, above comment)

      It is incredible that the US (both Obama and Trump Administrations) should
      consider financing aggression into other sovereign nations. The cases
      here are Iraq and now Syria. It is not only against”international law”
      (see UN Charter etc.) but considered the “supreme war crime” (Nurenberg).

      And yet the US and some of its allies presume that they–and they alone–
      have an inalienable right engage in aggression when it suits .

      It should, of course, be duly noted that the US was invited to become an
      integral part of the sovereign Government of Syria’s coalition in exercising
      its right of self defense. This offer —in support of the Syrian Government—
      was rejected by Washington immediately.

      Are we then to conclude that Washington’s objective is NOT to defeat
      ISIS at all but to defeat Syria? (This is already the policies of Israel
      and Saudi Arabia and their cohorts, policies which the US has “supported”
      with massive arms deals.

      (For information of “White Helmuts” see Rick Sterling’s article in
      yesterday’s Consortiumnews.

      —-Peter Loeb, Boston, MA, USA

Comments are closed.