Shadow Government

The Long Fuse of Obama’s Anti-ISIS Strategy

To date, the Obama administration’s claims of progress in the campaign against the Islamic State (IS) have been accompanied by qualifications and caveats. In January, the Pentagon claimed to have killed 6,000 IS fighters since the September start of “Operation Inherent Resolve,” a statistic that became less impressive when later that month it was reported ...


To date, the Obama administration’s claims of progress in the campaign against the Islamic State (IS) have been accompanied by qualifications and caveats. In January, the Pentagon claimed to have killed 6,000 IS fighters since the September start of “Operation Inherent Resolve,” a statistic that became less impressive when later that month it was reported that roughly 5,000 foreign fighters had joined IS since October. At the Munich Security Conference in February, Secretary of State John Kerry claimed the anti-IS coalition had “taken out half” of the terrorist pseudo-state’s senior leadership, a boast that was subsequently discredited as inexact at best. In early April — a month before the Islamic State captured Ramadi — Vice President Joe Biden declared: “ISIL’s momentum in Iraq has halted, and in many places, has been flat-out reversed. Thousands of ISIL fighters have been removed from the battlefield. Their ability to mass and maneuver has been greatly degraded. Leaders have been eliminated.” Add to this the analytical disputes over the Pentagon’s claim that the Islamic State has lost 25 percent of its territory since the start of Operation Inherent Resolve, and it is easy to see why skeptics believe the current strategy is insufficient to achieve the president’s stated goals of degrading and defeating the terrorist proto-state.

Prior to Ramadi’s capture, however, news coming out of Syria and Iraq had been filled with accounts of dissension, near misses, and tantalizing possibilities.

  • In February and March, the Associated Press, the Washington Post, and The Economist were among the news outlets reporting developments suggesting IS is fraying from within, including increasing defections by, and executions of, disillusioned foreign fighters and growing disenchantment by the local populations under IS’s rule due to the group’s brutal model of administration and failure to provide basic goods and services;
  • The Guardian recently reported IS leader Abu Bakr al-Baghdadi was severely wounded in a March 18 airstrike in Nineveh province near the Syria-Iraq border. Although defense officials told The Daily Beast that the air strike was not aimed at a high-value target and that they “have no reason to believe it was Baghdadi” — and putting aside the Iranian news agency FARS’s claim that al-Baghdadi died while receiving treatment in an Israeli hospital — Newsweek reported al-Baghdadi’s condition was critical enough to prompt frantic meetings by senior IS officials and the appointment of a stand-in leader while al-Baghdadi is incapacitated;
  • At the beginning of May several news outlets and analysts speculated that the captures of the provincial capital Idlib and the Nasib border crossing by Syrian rebels, increased dissent within the inner regime, and declining support amongst Syria’s non-Sunni minorities suggest the Assad regime’s days are be numbered.

As far-fetched as some of these scenarios may seem in the wake of Ramadi’s fall and the release of a new audiotape by al-Baghdadi, it is worth considering their implications for U.S. strategic interests in the region. For regardless of whether they occur in the next month or the next decade, the Obama administration (or its successor) will need to address the following consequences of the current campaign if it hopes to translate operational success against IS into strategic victory and avoid a “catastrophic success”.

Iran in Iraq

IS’s resurgence in Iraq is partly due to former Prime Minister Nouri al-Maliki’s disastrously sectarian policies towards Iraq’s in the wake of the withdrawal of U.S. forces in 2011. This sectarianism was exacerbated in the wake of the Islamic State’s blitzkrieg across northern and western Iraq last June, as the collapse of the Iraqi army left Iranian-dominated Shiite militias as the strongest armed force in the country. Iranian proxies have subsequently gained increasing control of Iraq’s security sector in the past year, and together — under the direction of Iranian commanders — these forces have conducted brutal ethnic cleansing operations in areas they have retaken from IS. These mass killings fuel the Islamic State’s recruiting in Iraq, as many Sunnis would rather acquiesce to IS’s draconian Salafist rule than face persecution by violent pro-Iranian militias. Consequently, a military campaign that successfully pushes IS out of Iraq while leaving Iranian proxies in control would be a pyrrhic victory. Tehran would enjoy de facto control over Baghdad similar to the decisive influence it exerts in Lebanon through Hezbollah, and Iraq’s Sunnis would remain susceptible to radicalization and willing to assist Salafist groups in exchange for protection.

Al Qaeda Ascending

If either IS or the Assad regime were to suddenly collapse, the most likely beneficiary would be al Qaeda’s affiliate in Syria, the al-Nusra Front, which leads the most powerful coalition of anti-Assad rebels — the “Army of Conquest.” Whereas IS has focused on targeting local Arab regimes and civilian populations it considers apostates — i.e., Shiite, Yazidis, and Christians — the al-Nusra Front maintains al Qaeda’s original aim of attacking Western targets. Last September the Obama administration justified airstrikes on an al Qaeda cell in Syria citing intelligence reports that the group “was in the final stages of plans to execute major attacks against Western targets and potentially the U.S. homeland.” Last month an Ohio man, Abdirahman Sheik Mohamud, was arrested after being sent back to the United States by the al-Nusra Front to conduct terror attacks against either military or police targets. Moreover, given IS’s barbarism, the al-Nusra Front almost appears as reasonable and may eventually be seen as an acceptable proxy by Sunni governments impatient with the Obama administration’s halting efforts to train and arm moderate Syrian rebels. Consequently, we may actually be worse off if the IS is defeated or the Assad regime collapses if al Qaeda’s affiliate is left as the strongest actor standing in Syria.

Baghdadi’s Successor

IS’s evolution through a leadership change could pose an equal or greater threat than its present incarnation. Although al-Baghdadi’s unique qualifications to be Caliph allows IS to claim to be the resurrection of the Islamic caliphate, and thereby galvanize the zealots and recruits that provide its combat power, his claim to be the exclusive leader of the global Muslim ummah also precludes the possibility of cooperation with al Qaeda. Newsweek, citing an Iraqi government adviser, reports that Abu Alaa Afri has been installed as the stand-in leader of the terror group in al-Baghdadi’s absence, and as IS’s permanent leader if al-Baghdadi dies. (On Wednesday the Iraqi Ministry of Defense claimed that Afri was killed in an airstrike on a mosque in Tal Afar. However, the Interior Ministry said it was not clear if Afri was even wounded, and the Pentagon could not confirm that Afri had been targeted while CENTCOM specifically denied that coalition aircraft had struck a mosque). Afri was reportedly bin Laden’s preferred candidate to become emir of al Qaeda in Iraq when Abu Omar al-Baghdadi and Abu Ayyub al-Masri were killed in April 2010, and purportedly favors reconciliation with “Core” al Qaeda and al-Nusra. By putting IS’s vicious foreign fighters at the service of a network committed to attacking the West, this would represent the worst of both worlds. Even absent such reconciliation, Afri is reportedly a follower of Abu Musab al-Suri, a prominent al Qaeda strategist who is the preeminent theorist of “leaderless jihad” in which Muslims would establish decentralized cells that would acquire the tactical knowledge necessary to conduct attacks via the internet. IS has already proved it is spectacularly adept at spreading its message using Western-based social-media sites such as Twitter, Facebook, Tumblr, YouTube, Instagram, and SoundCloud. If this social media skill was used to orchestrate a strategic campaign of low-tech, decentralized attacks against Western targets — i.e., the 2008 Mumbai attack or the 2013 Westgate Mall attack in Nairobi — this would exponentially increase the danger posed by “Lone Wolves” such as the Tsarnaev brothers.

Return of the Foreign Fighters

In February, U.S. intelligence officials estimated that 20,000 foreign fighters from 90 countries have travelled to Syria and Iraq to join IS or other extremist groups. Europol believes some 5,000 European nationals have now joined IS, including one thousand each from Britain and France. If previous studies are correct that approximately one-in-nine returning foreign fighters from previous generations eventually take up terrorism upon returning to their homelands, this means over 2,000 terrorists will be released into the ecosystem if IS implodes. Yet European intelligence agencies are already overloaded with too many counterterrorism leads to follow. Thus, brothers Said and Cherif Kouachi were able to perpetrate the Charlie Hebdo massacre in January despite already being on French intelligence’s radar for having received jihadist training in Yemen in 2011. If IS collapses without a plan to track, detain, and vet or prosecute and incarcerate all these returning jihadists, an already dangerous situation could become dramatically worse.

To be clear, IS must eventually be defeated. It has already brutally murdered Americans abroad, it threatens attacks against the U.S. homeland, its rise is radicalizing the populations of U.S. allies in the region and making an unstable region more dangerous by fomenting violent sectarianism. Furthermore, it revels in barbaric acts to include mass executions, public beheadings, rape, and symbolic crucifixion that reveal it as a uniquely evil entity.

But IS is also a symptom of broader disorders in the region. Defeating IS or causing its collapse is necessary but not sufficient to protect U.S. security interests. As with a proper baseball or golf swing, a successful foreign policy requires follow through lest operational gains fail to translate into strategic success. Similarly, whether one favors crushing IS immediately or containing it until it collapses under combined weight of its own misrule and its regional enemies, any anti-IS strategy must address the potential second-order effects noted above, and our operations and diplomacy must be conducted to positively shape the post-campaign environment. No anti-IS policy will be successful unless the root causes of Sunni discontent and support for IS and other Salafist jihadist groups are addressed. In other words, halting Iranian encroachment in Iraq and the Assad regime’s deprivations against its own population must be part of the campaign to defeat IS. Otherwise, Sunni support will simply shift to al Qaeda’s affiliate, thereby increasing the danger to the United States and its allies.

Unfortunately, despite being comprised of officials who bemoaned the inadequacies of post-war planning for Operation Iraqi Freedom, it is not clear that the Obama administration grasps this broader strategic problem. Although the administration’s anti-IS coalition has correctly incorporated non-military lines of effort (i.e., countering IS’s finances and propaganda), this still seems to be a strategy designed to avoid a near-term defeat rather than address the broader causes and long-term strategic consequences involved in defeating IS. Administration officials have spoken about the fight against IS as a long-term effort. CIA Director John Brennan has said IS will prompt a hard fight over the next decade, and General John Allen, President Obama’s “special envoy” to the anti-IS coalition has said the war against IS will go on long after he returns to private life. While likely true, given the Obama administration’s history of failing to consider the second-order effects of its initiatives, these statements come off more as efforts at expectation management than indicators of a comprehensive strategy. The administration successfully toppled Libyan dictator Muammar al-Qaddafi, but failed to secure or rebuild the nation post-conflict so that it is now a terrorist haven that potentially threatens Europe. The administration fulfilled its campaign pledge to withdraw all U.S. forces from Iraq, but failed to maintain the influence necessary to prevent it from descending into sectarian conflict and incubating a greater threat to U.S. security. And the administration pushed for Israeli-Palestinian negotiations that neither side requested without thought to the consequences if they ended unsuccessfully.

Indeed, President Obama explicitly told The New Yorker’s David Remnick last year that he hopes Iran will be part of “a new geopolitical equilibrium” in the Middle East. And in his recent interview with Thomas Friedman, he once again derided those calling for American leadership on the strategic threats noted above as those who simply want “the United States to get in there and do something.”

Unfortunately, at the moment it is the president who appears merely to be “doing something” for short-term effect without proper consideration of his strategy’s broader consequences.


Benjamin Runkle, PhD, has served as in the Defense Department, as a Director on the National Security Council, and as a Professional Staff Member on the House Armed Services Committee.

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