Micah Zenko

Politics, Power, and Preventive Action

Zenko covers the U.S. national security debate and offers insight on developments in international security and conflict prevention.

Print Print Cite Cite
Style: MLA APA Chicago Close


Guest Post: The ISIS Video and Military Strategy in Iraq

by Guest Blogger for Micah Zenko
August 20, 2014

U.S. President Barack Obama delivers a statement on August 20, 2014, vowing that the United States will not be swayed from airstrikes against Islamic State after the group beheaded an American journalist, an act he said is proof that the militants stand for no religion. (Lamarque/Courtesy Reuters)


Col. Clint Hinote, U.S. Air Force, is a Military Fellow at the Council on Foreign Relations. He holds a PhD in military strategy, and he recently returned from Korea where he commanded a U.S. air base.  The conclusions and opinions expressed are his own and do not reflect the official position of the U.S. government.

I just finished watching the uncut video from the Islamic State (IS) titled “A Message to America.”  Judging from the President’s reaction today, it is an important development.  Here are some initial thoughts:

First, this is a group that is skilled at strategic messaging.  The video quality is professional with slick transitions and special effects designed to deliver the core message.  IS demands that President Obama stop the airstrikes against IS forces or more Americans will be killed, beginning with a second hostage shown at the end of the video.  The video stays on message and each image is chosen to build upon those that go before.  The penultimate image, where Foley’s severed head is perched upon his lifeless body and carefully placed to look into the camera, is designed to leave a lasting impression upon the viewer.  It does.

Second, a particular line spoken by the militant in the video caught my attention: “You [President Obama] are no longer fighting an insurgency; we are an Islamic Army and a state that has been accepted by a large number of Muslims worldwide.”  When combined with IS actions to take and hold territory across Syria and Iraq, I think we can be confident that IS leaders have made a key transition in their minds.  Similar to Mao’s writings about the phases of protracted war, IS leaders appear to believe that their organization is ready to make the transition from insurgency to conventional warfare, where they are strong enough to conquer territory and engage their enemies directly.  IS actions this summer show their commitment to this transition, but a counteroffensive of Kurdish and Iraqi forces combined with U.S. airpower has rolled back some of the IS gains in Iraq.

This brings us to a final observation; It is obvious that the bombing is having a significant and deleterious effect on the IS.  Otherwise, why would it go to such lengths to make this video and risk the backlash that is likely to result?  The video does not mention the other ways in which the United States is attacking the militants. It focuses on bombing by U.S. air forces, and it even shows in-cockpit video from a U.S. airstrike.  In my mind, this represents a positive measure of effectiveness for the recent air attacks on IS.

While this video is probably a tactical success that will play well to core constituencies within IS, I cannot help but wonder if it is another sign of strategic overreach on the part of IS leadership.  Just a few weeks ago, IS forces appeared to be the class of the region.  IS was making sizable gains in Syria and Iraq before they went too far into Kurdish-held territory and threatened to commit genocide against religious minorities in the region.  With U.S. citizens in danger and a humanitarian disaster appearing imminent, the President had little choice but to act forcefully with the best tool he had—U.S. airpower.  Now, it appears that the attacks against IS forces are working, and it is likely that the murder of James Foley will only serve to unite U.S. policymakers in opposition to this jihadist group.   I have to agree with Max Boot, who writes in Commentary: “Such desperate measures instead telegraph, well, desperation–and far from cowing anyone they are only likely to redouble the resolve of the civilized world to smash this group of genocidal jihadists.”

In this blog and elsewhere, Micah Zenko has written extensively about the tendency for limited interventions to grow over time.  In this case, he will be proven prescient.

Post a Comment 5 Comments

  • Posted by Phillip Bolster

    The US has to conclusively beat ISIS in Iraq or its military reputation will suffer yet another blow whether that be rational or not. The media including quasi media like this think tank blog will never truly understand the military complexities in fighting a group like ISIS in a country like Iraq but we can all agree the US COUKD DO IT – they just need TO do it.. Its a calculation of blood and treasure.

  • Posted by Abdulhamid D.

    Tactically, the Colonel’s suggestion of continued American air strikes against ISIS might work. Strategically, however, it will fail.

    Unfortunately, as it has been seen since the 1980s and beyond, Arabs and Muslims will continue to view American involvement with suspicision despite any good intentions. As a result, this has become a Muslim problem and more specifically a Sunni Muslim problem. The Shiite theocracy is another problem but is off point. There has been overwhelming condemnation of Mr. Foley’s murder coming from Muslim nations, from the Saudi’s Grand Mufti to as far away as Indonesia. This places the onus on Muslim nations, in particular the regional Sunni Muslim nations to act.

    Should the Syrian government lose it’s last foothold in Raqqa Province of Taqba Airbase, this could potentially provide a Casus Belli for the Turks. It is time for Turkey, especially as Mr Erdogan has solidified his authority in Turkish politics, to either ‘put up or shut up’ vis a vis Syria and it’s civil war, while at the same time flanking the ISIS. Political and military cover could be provided by NATO especially as more dove members like Germany become worried of an ISIS threat.

    The Kurds shift from a defensive posture which it has maintained since Gulf War 1 to an aggressive posture is extremely destabilizing to the region and risks inflaming Arab-Kurdish relations if not Turkish-Kurdish relations. The status quo in Iraq has been dismantled with Mr. Maliki’s departure and as a result the tribes in Anbar should disassociate itself from ISIS as long as the new government is inclusive and non-discramantory and as long as they see tangible results.

    Turkey’s involvement against ISIS could also relieve any direct implications or threats against the United States from Muslim extremists especially if Turkey (secular, overwhelmingly Sunni) had the support and/or involvement from the Arab Gulf (conservative, overwhelmingly Sunni).

    Conventional wisdom suggests that Mr. Obama’s air strikes are as far as he will commit the United States. As a result, regional countries should take the initiative against ISIS and confront this form of barbarity instead of arming proxies to do the dirty work for them.

  • Posted by Greg Granger

    P Bolster’s comments leave out a great deal. Certainly he’s not the first to argue in favor of a greatly enhanced military attack on IS. But…..What should we expect from the Iraqi government and military? The Kurds and regional players? There’s also the politics of it back home. I understand if Bolster and others want to wish away the influence of public opinion and presidential politics and confront this with a purely military approach, but that isn’t going to happen, now or ever.

  • Posted by Writt Woodson

    I respectfully disagree with Mr. Bolster because I do not think the military reputation of the US has or should suffer by what has happened in Iraq over the past 15 years. We have an extremely effective war machine. We have brave and honorable forces. —

    Our problems do not lie with military strategy or military competence but with foreign policy. Before commenting further on foreign policy I want to make additional points. To further support of the first point I want to point out that the US 2003 invasion of Iraq and the capture of Saddam Hussein were effective. The brutal attack on Fallujah was not a Joint Chiefs decision but was Rumsfeld’s decision. (Suits not uniforms) That is important because it was a horrible decision. Our troops performed honorably and effectively. Rumsfeld’s plan of attack was a crime against humanity and it worked against US interests. (Plus 22 veterans commit suicide every day.) Decision making has been horrible in one administration after the other.
    Lastly, between 2006 and mid-2010 the US killed every high profile leader of Al Qaeda in Iraq. That was an awesome accomplishment. However, the advancement of US interests in the ME will never entail a purely military solution.
    Obama is golfing. Part of Congress is focused on what Madame Clinton did or did not do in the days before the 2011 attack on our diplomatic effort in Benghazi. The press publishes news about Foley’s siblings saying that the US could have done more to save Foley. This is completely insane. The lives of Americans world wide are endangered by the IS. We should not panic. Yet we should be aware and vigilant. We need more then rhetoric.—-

    Obama’s ME policy is now nearly as inane as Rumsfeld’s policies. The Iraq/Syria border is gone. Why pay billions to reconstruct it? Sectarian division in the ME is a reality. We own the largest embassy in the world. It is in Baghdad. How smart is that? How secure is the Green Zone? Why are we there? Why resupply the Iraqi Army after they gave huge amounts of weapons to ISIS? —–

    We have big problems and they do not include military competence.

  • Posted by Proxies 5Th Grade Supply List For School 2014-2015

    My brother sugggested I would posdsibly like this blog.
    He used to bee entyirely right. This post truly
    made my day. You can not imagine just how
    much time I had spent for this information! Thank you!

Post a Comment

CFR seeks to foster civil and informed discussion of foreign policy issues. Opinions expressed on CFR blogs are solely those of the author or commenter, not of CFR, which takes no institutional positions. All comments must abide by CFR's guidelines and will be moderated prior to posting.

* Required