Winning the Campaign Against the Islamic State: Key Strategic and Tactical Challenges /  By Anthony H. Cordesman

3-9-2014 – The United States does not have good or quick options in dealing with the Islamic State, in part because it faces serious challenges in Iraq and Syria that cannot be separated from any efforts to weaken and destroy the Islamic State. This, however, is not a reason to stand and wait for better options that do not exist. The situation will not get better because the United States continues to dither.

The United States already has the elements of the strategy it needs and has begun to act in important ways, and if this action is taken more decisively, in an integrated form, and over enough time to be effective it may well be capable of both imploding the Islamic State and serving U.S. interests in both Iraq and Syria.These elements are outlined both in this briefing and in a PowerPoint that describes a suitable strategy in far more detail and helps put the dynamics of the conflict in perspective. This PowerPoint presentation is available on the CSIS web site at

Shaping and Implementing an Effective United Strategy for Defeating the Islamic State

The United States needs to act in ways that recognize the grand strategic conditions it faces. It needs to act in ways that conserve its resources and recognize that it faces a wide range of competing strategic challenges both in the region and the world – as well as its domestic political realities:

  • Secular, “Christian” United States with poor track record in Iraq and ties to Israel; lack of allied confidence in U.S. in Arab world and Turkey; No allied unity.
  • Islamic State is only one of many regional and “Islamist” challenges: Morocco to Philippines: Libya, Tunisia, Egypt, Lebanon, Syria, Iran, Yemen, Pakistan, Central Asia, Myanmar, Thailand.
  • Islamic State is only one of many Jihadist movements and threats even within Syria and Iraq: 70+ in Syria alone.
  • Defeating Islamic State will still leave Jihadist movements, continuing threat.
  • Caught between two increasingly sectarian civil wars with failed regimes in Syria (Allawites, Hezbollah, Iran-IRGC) and Iraq (Shi’ite militias, IRGC, Kurds).
  • No chance of meaningful victory even in Iraq without Iraqi political unity. No clear good alternative in Syria.
  • Many competing strategic priorities: Afghanistan, Ukraine, Asia, U.S. domestic issues and budget.
  • Uncertain Congressional and public support; none for major ground presence.

Reality One: Defeating the Islamic State Must Be Far More Than a Military or Tactical Struggle

Given these conditions, the Administration, the Congress, and the American people also need to accept the fact that a successful strategy must deal with three basic realities.

The first such reality is that any effort to defeat the Islamic state must be far more than a military or a tactical struggle. It is a political and ideological struggle as well, and the United States must mobilize itself and its allies to use every possible tool to weaken the Islamic State and do so in the context of two ongoing civil wars in Iraq and Syria.

In practice, this means a successful U.S. campaign must meet the following conditions:

  • Clear strategic commitment to what will be a long-term effort dependent on Iraqi political reform and support by regional allies.
  • Effective civil-military unity of effort focused on defeating Islamic State by creating Iraqi unity, allied unity of effort in dealing with Syria. Defeat it by exploiting its extremism, economic weaknesses, and internal political tensions.
  • Major and lasting commitment to rebuilding Iraqi forces; supporting efforts to find some effective answer to creating rebel forces in Syria.
  • Integrate air-land-intelligence operations in Iraq and Syria to defeat the Islamic state. Sustain and resource on a condition-based level rather than set time and force limits.
  • Make it clear to all Iraqis and regional allies that United States operations, aid, and training will not be used to take sides in Iraqi sectarian and ethnic tensions and conflicts even if this means shift to containing the Islamic state rather than defeating it.
  • Fully understand the ideological and religious character of the war and work with Iraqis, Syrians, and regional allies so they fight on this level.
  • Anticipate the problem of dealing with an enemy with the ideological and religious advantage, anticipate the use of human shields, efforts to limit air strikes.

The Ideological, Political, and Economic Aspects of the Campaign

Military power is critical and must be committed and sustained for as long as it necessary – not for some time period dictated by an effort predict the unpredictable or avoid going to Congress and the American people.

The United States needs to use airpower, weapons transfer, forward military advisors, its full range of intelligence and targeting assets, and the careful allocation of special forces and covert operations to attack the key networks, centers, foreign volunteers, and physical assets of the Islamic state with sufficient precision to avoid striking at the Sunnis who must rejoin the Iraqi government and turn against the Islamic State.

But, the ideological, political, and economic aspects of the campaign are at least as critical.  The United States must work with the Iraqi government and with its Arab allies to create the political and economic conditions that will bring Iraq’s Sunnis and Kurds back into an effective government and give then real incentives to turn on the Islamic State.

The Critical Role of Outside support in the Ideological and Political Battle

The United States cannot play more than a marginal role in strategic communications. Iraqi clerics and Arab clerics must take the lead in showing that it is the Islamic State that is a fundamental violation of Islamic values. It is Iraqi, Arab, and Turkish media that must focus regional attention on the cruelty and extreme abuses of the Islamic State and its inability to deal with realities of creating an effective government, social order and economy. 

The US must persuade its allies that it is their active support as Arab and Muslims that must help win both Iraqi and Syrian Sunni support for the overthrow of the Islamic state, and participation by their air forces, advisors, and Special Forces that will make it clear that this is an Arab and not an American cause. Such a combined strategic message should:

  • Minimize civilian casualties and collateral damage. SOF role in targeting, limiting Iraqi forces secular and ethnic clashes.
  • Show humanitarian concern at all levels, protect minorities, civilians,
  • Real time justification of air and UCAV strikes. Don’t let IS capture the initiative.
  • Real time explanation in depth of United States role in operations within security limits: Make the case in depth.
  • Highlight all Iraqi and allied progress and success.
  • Show SOF and United States role in encouraging effective governance, security for population.
  • Making Sunnis and Kurds into allies is critical in messaging as well as fighting.
  • No cases where United States forces become associated with security abuses, killings of civilians, ties to militias and Iraqi forces abusing other factions, POWs.

A combination of U.S., EU, Turkish, and Arab efforts should make it as difficult as possible for the Islamic State to keep up the inflow and outflow of foreign volunteers, cut if off from smuggling and trade, attack its ability to use finance, attack the flow of other money from the outside. 

“Imploding” the Islamic State

The United States must also take the lead in creating the kind of alliance that can address key problems in governance and economics as well as military efforts and strategic communications.

It is a fusion of military and civil efforts, extended over the time it will take to properly organize such efforts on an alliance basis, and use resources carefully and effectively, which has the highest probability of exploiting the internal tensions and weaknesses of the Islamic State.

Its mix of violent military action, terrorism, and extremism may be an asset in the short term, but the Islamic State is so extreme and fundamentally dysfunctional in political, economic, and social terms that it is effectively built on sand. If the Islamic State comes under the right, consistent mix of pressures it may well implode – at least in Iraq:

  • The key is fusion of Iraqi, U.S., and allied efforts with expansion to include Syrian moderate rebel factions.
  • Use combination of military and civil action to exploit extremism, weakness as a protostate.
  • Fully analyze and constantly monitor ideological/religious, political, governance, and economic fault lines. Focus Arab and Iraqi strategic communications.
  • Get Sunni Islamic support to counter IS from Arab Sunni clerics; joint Sunni and Shi’ite messages of unity within Iraq.
  • Get Iraqi, Syrian rebel, Arab, Turkish media to constantly publicize IS extremism, abuses, atrocities.
  • Target key and mid-level IS political, military, religious figures – include local leaders that provide key support.
  • Use sanctions, financial warfare, strategic bombing, sealing of border to deny economic viability, military financing.
  • Offer Iraqis meaningful federalism, provincial power.
  • Create strong financial incentive programs to bring Sunnis back to supporting government; create stable financing and oil revenue sharing arrangements with Sunnis and Kurds. Pass petroleum laws.
  • Restructure and clean up Iraqi forces to make them national and professional; end de-Baathifcation abuses of Sunni officers.
  • Include Pesh Merga in aid to Iraq forces, support Sunni fighters on government side.
  • Create strong neutral Ministries of Defense and Interior.
  • Restructure key police elements to give then national paramilitary capability.
  • Publically suppress any sectarian or ethnic violence, especially by Shi’ite and Sunni militias.
  • Attack stream of foreign volunteers by preventing entry, giving targeting priority and killing, arresting on exit.

Reality Two: The Iraqi and Syrian Governments Are Still Additional Threats and aid to the Islamic State, Although the New Abadi Government Now Offers Hope in Iraq

The second such reality is that the Islamic State is only one of three threats the US must deal with. U.S. strategy cannot succeed by focusing on the Islamic state alone. It must deal with the fact that the governments of Iraq and Syria are still deeply involved in civil conflicts, with the problem of Iran, and with the current limits to its partnerships with the Arab states and Turkey.

The Iraqi Government Threat to Iraq and the Region

The Iraqi government is not yet a meaningful ally, and it is unclear that it can or will become one. The Maliki government was extraordinarily corrupt, failed to share Iraq’s oil wealth effectively or use it to move the country towards development, and concentrated power around the Prime Minister at the expense of either effective security forces or civil government.

Worst of all, Maliki and those around him created a new civil war with Iraq’s Sunnis during 2012-2013 that allowed the Islamic State to suddenly explode into Western Iraq and then seize Mosul and much of the north. At the same time, it failed to move towards either a meaningful compromise with the Kurds or act on plans that would have made the Pesh Merga and effective part of the Iraqi security forces.

As UN, World Bank, and US State Department Human Rights reporting show all too clearly, the Maliki regime was only marginally better than the Saddam Hussein regime in character, and it has left a heritage of corrupt, weak, abuse, and Shiite-dominated security forces that cannot be trusted.

The United States will need to insist that the new Abadi government end the sectarian abuse that led to civil war and the military power vacuum that enable the creation of an Islamic state in Iraq. It will need to help Iraqi government reform and rebuild the Iraqi security forces on a national level, and find some way of controlling the militias and armed factions that can undermine any government effort to create national – rather than Arab Shi’ite, Arab Sunni, and Kurdish forces.

If the Iraq government stays a Shi’ite factional, authoritarian and abusive and corrupt mess, the most the United States can do is weaken the Islamic state and contain it. The United States will then have to limit every military action it takes to ensure focuses solely on the Islamic State and does not risk taking the Iraqi government’s side in a continuing civil war.

In practice, this would probably have eliminated any near term option for deploying significant numbers of U.S. combat troops even if this was politically possible in the US: US forces would constantly have been caught up in the dilemma of having to take the Shi’ite side in a civil war or of standing aside while more Sunni and Shi’ite infighting took place. If they were perceived as being pro-Shi’ite Arab, this would have made US forces a target for Iraqi Sunnis and created major problems for the US with its other Arab allies.

The US must also, however, work with the Abadi government to help it create some meaningful form of federalism to unify and heal the nation. This must not be a repeat of the wasteful disaster created by USAID, the State Department, and Defense Department CERP programs. The US has shown in both Afghanistan and Iraq that it lacks the core competence top shape such programs.

The US should encourage Iraq to seek a strong, in country World Bank team with links to UNNAMI, other elements of the UN, and IMF. The focus should be on an international and expert effort to help Iraq do it in Iraq’s way, and create the revenue sharing, patterns of governance, reforms in the rule of law and justice systems, and job-oriented economic development programs Iraq actually needs. It should be a focus on key areas like education, medicine, and infrastructure in ways Iraq can sustain and management, and on creating petroleum development plans based on reality rather than optimism.  The immediate priority may be security, but the nation cannot be unified by security efforts alone,

The Syrian Government Threat to Syria and the Region

The United States cannot expect such changes in the Assad regime in Syria, and it must have no illusions about just how bad the Assad regime has become. At the current recent UN reporting in the briefing at “” shows — the Assad regime has created far more casualties, refugees, human suffering, and human rights abuses than the Islamic State.

The Assad regime’s tolerance of the rise of the Islamic State as it fought other rebel movements and because a foil that Assad could use to claim all rebels were terrorists did even more to originally empower the rise of the Islamic State than Maliki did.

Like the abuses Maliki committed in Iraq, Assad’s continuing abuses are a core aspect of the Islamic State’s ongoing success in Syria now that Assad finally seems to have realized how dangerous it really is. This means that the United States needs act immediately to do far more to make good on the years of partly met pledges to aid the moderate Syrian rebel factions.

It may be too late to create true moderates, and there is a very real risk that the defeat of the Islamic State in Syria will leave a ruthlessly authoritarian Assad regime in control in western Syria and create a mix of divided Islamist and other faction in the East that is little more than another Libya.

In any case, the key will not be simply having the US do more to back the Syrian rebels. The key will be to develop a coordinated approach with key Arab allies like Saudi Arabia and the UAE. It will be to both create more effective joint efforts to aid the rebels and to create a combined set of political pressures, economic pressures, and strategic communications to attack both the Assad and Islamic State regimes. This will be a politico-military war of attrition at best, but is the key to at least isolating and pressuring Assad as much as possible while attacking the Islamic State.

At the same time, the United States will need to stop overreacting to the risk that Assad might use his air force and surface-to-air missiles if the United States uses airpower to attack Islamic State targets in Syria. Really? Worry about the Syrian air force that has now suffered from three years of and attrition, and whose physical and electronic order of battle is falling apart? Worry about the Syrian air force that has not dared to challenge Israeli overflights and strikes since 1982? Worry about the Syria that now desperately needs help in dealing with the Islamic State and desperately needs to avoid giving the US any excuse to broaden its range of air, cruise missile, and UCAV strikes.

No one should underestimate Assad’s ability to make mistakes, but using force to reply to U.S.-led strikes on the Islamic State is a form of escalation he can only lose, and treating the Syrian forces as a major, coherent threat is little more than a practical joke. Accordingly, as should be the case in Iraq, the United States should take full advantage of all its air, missile, intelligence, targeting Special Forces and CIA assets to create a sustained strike campaign that can hit key Islamic State assets in both Iraq and Syria on a sustained basis, and with maximum restraint in hitting other Sunni targets, all civilians, and collateral damage.

Time, persistence, precision, and careful attention to civilian casualties will be the key to success — particularly since the Islamic State will steadily adapt to make more use of human shields and concealment, exploit and grossly exaggerate all civilian casualties and collateral damage, and bring other Sunni elements into key target points.

The Iranian Threat (?)

Iran has so far exercises considerable caution in posing any challenge to the growing U.S. role in Iraq. There are good reasons for such restraint. Iran benefits directly from every attack on the Islamic State, knows the United States will eventually withdraw and cease the attacks, and it has not lost influence on Iraq to date. Iran can play a waiting game and benefit from United States action.

The United States has no magic counter to such an Iran strategy, but the stronger and more unified Iraq becomes, the more Iraq will create a natural internal limit to Iranian influence and do so without threatening or provoking Iran. The United States and its Arab allies are certain to continue to compete with Iran for influence in Iraq, but a quite low level dialogue might lead both to agree to avoid any interference or challenge to each other.

It is unrealistic to underestimate the risk from the IRGC and Iraqi Shi’ite militias, but one does not have to make allies to create a modus vivendi, and there seem to be as many prospects for the kind of cooperation the United States and Iran had early in Afghanistan as for tension and conflict.

Turkey and the Arab States

The United States is already working with Jordan, Saudi Arabia, and the UAE in many aspects of counterterrorism and in Syria. It should do everything possible to mobilize its Arab allies to expand this cooperation, to consider joining it in air strikes in Iraq, to take the lead in key aspects of strategic communications like Islamic legitimacy, and to cut off trade, private donations, and any follow of volunteers.

Turkey, Qatar, and Kuwait have been more problematic. The United States may get a far stronger response, however, if it shows it has a strategy, is actually willing to act decisively, and is working with the EU and key allies like France and the United Kingdom to create a coherent approach to economic warfare against the Islamic State.

The time has also come where the United States and EU should consider naming and sanctioning private donors to the Islamic State and other Islamist extremist groups, as well as their families, businesses, and business associates and institutions which handle their capital and resources. 

Reality Three: Avoid Another Instance Where the U.S.  Acts as a Threat to the United States

The third and last aspect of a successful U.S. strategy is to build on the political base the United States has already built in helping to push out Maliki, and use the mix of advisors and U.S. presence in now in Iraq with its air power to implement the strategy just outlined.

As noted earlier, this means avoiding anything approaching another waste US effort to transform Iraq. It means adequate US plans, controls over spending, and measures of effectiveness. It means tightly limiting US spending to what is actually needed, and relying on Iraq’s oil wealth fund the necessary changers and reforms. It means focusing on helping Iraq and the other states in the region help themselves rather than transform themselves.

It also, however, should mean providing enough military and aid resources to matter, spending what is necessary, and staying for the time it takes on a conditions-based level.

The Past American Threat to the United States

This means honestly addressing the mistakes of Vietnam, Afghanistan, and the previous US intervention in Iraq. The Bush Administration, the Obama Administration, the United States Military, and the State Department and USAID have made enough mistakes in the past for the United States to be a serious threat to the United States.

This is all too clear from a list of some of the major errors that this Administration is making now in Afghanistan and the Middle East:


  • Lack of clear and consistent commitment by Administration, uncertain resources. Confusion of rhetoric with reality. Failure to use force on a condition-based level Critical issue of willingness to act in both Syria and Iraq, sustain action long enough to succeed.
  • Military focuses on tactical goals to the exclusion of political and economic realities and need to defeat insurgents at the political, governance, and economic levels.
  • Uncertain fusion of military and CIA intelligence and targeting efforts – tensions exposed in dealing with Afghanistan.
  • Focus on having host country forced to do it “our way” rather than helping them improve by doing it “their way.”
  • High rates of civil and military rotation for short tours, lack of focus on proven area expertise
  • Can’t be ruthlessly objective about problems in host country security forces and partners, effectiveness measures.
  • Civil side usually too weak to press for effective reform and change; understates civil problems, fails to use aid effectively.

Actually Lead and Seek Congressional Support for An Adequate and Sustained Effort

The first step in correcting these errors is to recognize the need to properly resource and sustain the necessary effort. But also accept the need for limits on the U.S. effort and to make the maximum possible use of regional and outside powers, The United States has already demonstrated that U.S. strategy should involve the following use of air, UCAV, and missile power:

  • Expand strikes to include Islamic State targets in Syria.
  • Commit to a long campaign at the needed level of intensity and do not give the Islamic State freedom of action when it is not attacking.
  • Use Special Forces, CIA, and local assets to develop targeting that can reliably attack Islamic State and its support with minimal civilian casualties and collateral damage.
  • Make U.S. strike action and support for the IAF conditional on Iraqi restraint in avoiding Sunni and Kurdish targets, actions prolonging civil war.
  • Use Special Forces and locals to create targeting that shows Sunnis that oppose Islamic State that they will have direct strike support.
  • Develop a strategic targeting plan to cripple Islamic State in key areas like oil exports, trade, power, communications in ways that minimize impact on civilians.
  • Bring Saudi and UAE air forces into strike action.
  • Explain and re-explain that such strike action produces far less civilian suffering than alternative forms of military action.

The United States should also make limited use of ground forces and CIA personnel under the following conditions:

  • Accept the fact that no major U.S. ground combat units can be committed for the foreseeable future, but,
  • Commit an adequate mix of Special Forces, U.S. military Advisors, Agency experts, and area experts if the Iraqi government makes suitable reform and progress.
  • Put Special Forces and military/CIA advisors into forward combat units and key police elements to target, advise, create bridges between Iraqi government, Sunni, and Kurdish forces.
  • Put Special Forces and military/CIA advisors to Sunni tribal forces if this becomes possible.o Reexamine past contingency plans to provide a limited forward presence and advisory role with moderate Syrian rebel forces.
  • Do not plan for short commitments like  “30 days.” Adopt an intelligent, phased rotation policy rewarding longer deployments.

  Focusing on Creating Iraqi Combat Capability, Not Simply Generating Forces

U.S. success will depend heavily on finally making good on U.S. statements about the need to step aid for the Syrian rebels and – above all – salvaging the Iraqi security forces and making them an effective national force.

In practice, this requires U.S. pressure to ensure that the new Iraqi government makes major effort to create truly national forces, has a real Minister of Defense and Minister of Interior, and restructures forces and command positions to eliminate the units and leaders that were guilty of the abuses that made so many Sunnis hostile to the government and willing to support the Islamic State.
It also means putting adequate numbers of United States combat-oriented advisors and trainers into the field, with a special emphasis on the kind of Special Forces and other U.S. advisors that can move into the field, and reach out into Sunni areas to help create local forces if this becomes possible. 

These aspects of a successful U.S. strategy require that the US:

  • Focus on current order of battle, immediate SOF and other advisory efforts to aid and strengthen good and more effective units.
  • Aid the Iraqis and Syrian rebels in doing it their way; not our way.
  • Insert SOF or similar elements into Sunni forces if they develop; find mechanism for SOF and intelligence monitoring of any Shi’ite militias that are active and linked to government,
  • Work with new Iraqi government to withdraw and rebuild worst units that have committed sectarian abuses, or have gone sour.
  • Use a limited SOF similar presence or role in stepping up transfers for sensitive weapons like MANPADs, SHORADS, and ATGMs.
  • Use SOF or similar embeds in forward positions to aid in targeting air/missile strikes, provide focused intelligence in ways that have tactical value.
  • Use of SOF or similar embeds to identify areas where action risks creating conflicts with Sunnis and Kurds. Forward “civil-military observers.”

Fusion Effort with Regional Partners

As has been touched upon throughout this analysis, the United States needs to make this a real strategic partnership that takes place within the following context:

  • Syrian rebels are treated as important as Iraq: Need to strengthen U.S.-Jordanian-Saudi-UAE support of moderate rebel factions in Syria as much as possible.
  • Jordanian-Saudi-UAE support of new Iraqi government if it truly becomes national, and funds and arms to push it towards unity with Sunnis and Kurds.
  • Turkey plays key political and economic role in sealing off Islamic State access to the North.
  • Every possible U.S. effort to get Arab and European support to sanction Islamic state in terms of money and trade. Shut off volunteers and financing.
  • Arab and Turkish ideological support of U.S. role and British role; efforts to bring Sunnis and Shi’ites together, counter Islamic State religious arguments and indoctrination.
  • True U.S. civil-military coordination effort with detailed plans, budgets, financial controls, and measures of effectiveness. From top policy levels to Special Forces and operators in the field.

The Final Component: No One Follows Where No One Leads

The last key element in shaping a strategy that makes the best use of the resources that are credibly available is that the President must actively lead and do so in spite of the political risks involved.

The US has no risk or cost free options. There is nothing to be gained by waiting indefinitely, taking half measures, in hoping speeches and concepts will substitute for action, there is no excuse in saying no one is ready to act effectively at this moment in time or blaming the Congress, the American people, and/or our allies.

Shaping a successful strategy requires the President to follow a very simple principle: No one follows where no one leads.

Anthony H. Cordesman holds the Arleigh A. Burke Chair in Strategy at the Center for Strategic and International Studies in Washington, D.C.

Commentary is produced by the Center for Strategic and International Studies (CSIS), a private, tax-exempt institution focusing on international public policy issues. Its research is nonpartisan and nonproprietary. CSIS does not take specific policy positions. Accordingly, all views, positions, and conclusions expressed in this publication should be understood to be solely those of the author(s).© 2014 by the Center for Strategic and International Studies. All rights reserved.