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.

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What Threats or Conflicts Will Emerge or Escalate in 2015?

by Micah Zenko
Smoke rises after an U.S.-led air strike in the Syrian town of Kobani on Ocotber 8, 2014. (Bektas/Courtesy Reuters) Smoke rises after an U.S.-led air strike in the Syrian town of Kobani on Ocotber 8, 2014. (Bektas/Courtesy Reuters)

In March, Secretary of Defense Chuck Hagel stated, “Our military’s first responsibility is to prevent and de-escalate conflict.” However, when it comes to the United States’ ability to anticipate and predict conflict or instability, there is room for improvement.  Former Secretary of Defense Robert Gates recently repeated what many military officials acknowledge, “In the last forty years, our record in predicting where we would use military force next, even six months out, is perfect. We’ve never once gotten it right.” Just a year ago, the United States did not anticipate that it would again be deeply engaged in military action in Iraq, let alone in Syria, against the Islamic State of Iraq and Syria before the end of 2014. Read more »

Obama Should Change his Counter-ISIS Strategy

by Micah Zenko

Last month, I wrote about how President Obama’s announced end state to “degrade, and ultimately destroy ISIL” would not be achieved, just as previous promises by Bush and Obama administration officials to “destroy” and “eliminate” Al Qaeda and the Taliban were not. I also noted how U.S. officials have offered contradictory end states since then, a practice that continues. For example, on September 22, chairman of the joint chiefs of staff Gen. Martin Dempsey declared: “We want them to wake up every day realizing that they are being squeezed from multiple directions. If we can get [ISIS] looking in about five different directions, that’s the desired end state.” That is a plausible strategic objective given the relatively limited military and non-military resources that have been committed by the United States and coalition members. However, it is nowhere near as difficult as “destroy.” Read more »

You Might Have Missed: Kissinger Attack on Cuba, ISIS, Civilians in Iraq

by Micah Zenko
A general view is seen of Bajed Kadal refugee camp southwest of Dohuk September 15, 2014. The camp is for the minority Yazidi sect, who fled violence in the Iraqi town of Sinjar. (Jadallah/Courtesy Reuters) A general view is seen of Bajed Kadal refugee camp southwest of Dohuk September 15, 2014. The camp is for the minority Yazidi sect, who fled violence in the Iraqi town of Sinjar. (Jadallah/Courtesy Reuters)

Public Law 113-164, 113th Congress, September 19, 2014.

SEC. 149. (a) The Secretary of Defense is authorized, in coordination with the Secretary of State, to provide assistance, including training, equipment, supplies, and sustainment, to appropriately vetted elements of the Syrian opposition and other appropriately vetted Syrian groups and individuals for the following purposes: Read more »

You Might Have Missed: ISIS, Khorasan, and Psychology of Terrorism

by Micah Zenko
A map showing Islamic State ambition is displayed as U.S. Secretary of Defense Chuck Hagel and Chairman of the Joint Chiefs of Staff Gen. Martin Dempsey testify on the threat posed by the Islamic State on September 16, 2014. (Lamarque/Courtesy Reuters) A map showing Islamic State ambition is displayed as U.S. Secretary of Defense Chuck Hagel and Chairman of the Joint Chiefs of Staff Gen. Martin Dempsey testify on the threat posed by the Islamic State on September 16, 2014. (Lamarque/Courtesy Reuters)

Hearing on U.S. Policy Towards Iraq and Syria, U.S. Senate Committee on Armed Services, September 16, 2014.

SEN. JOHN MCCAIN (R-AZ): I take it from your answer that we are now recruiting these young men to go and fight in Syria against ISIL, but if they’re attacked by Bashar Assad, we’re not gonna help them? Read more »

Why the United States Will Never Defeat ISIS

by Micah Zenko
Paul Bremer, the U.S. administrator for Iraq listens to U.S. Commander Maj. Gen. David Petraeus upon his arrival at Mosul airport in northern Iraq before a short helicopter tour of the city on May 18, 2003.
(Schmidt/Courtesy Reuters) Paul Bremer, the U.S. administrator for Iraq listens to U.S. Commander Maj. Gen. David Petraeus upon his arrival at Mosul airport in northern Iraq before a short helicopter tour of the city on May 18, 2003. (Schmidt/Courtesy Reuters)

On the eve of the Iraq War in 2003, while commanding the 101st Airborne Division, then-Maj. Gen. David Petraeus repeatedly asked Rick Atkinson the rhetorical question: “Tell me how this ends.” What began as a private joke between a military commander and an embedded journalist has become a warning for the need to define clear objectives and be cognizant of unexpected outcomes before going to war.  Last week, President Barack Obama attempted to provide clear strategic guidance for the U.S.-led war against the Islamic State of Iraq and Syria (ISIS or ISIL), declaring: “Our objective is clear: We will degrade, and ultimately destroy, ISIL.” Read more »

U.S. Transparency and the Truth of Targeted Killings

by Micah Zenko

This morning, the White House released an unusual statement: “The Department of Defense confirmed that Ahmed Godane, the leader of al-Shabaab, is dead as a result of a U.S. military targeted airstrike in Somalia undertaken over the weekend.” What was particularly unique about the statement is that, previously, the Pentagon has purposely refused to confirm the deaths of terrorist leaders killed with legal counterterrorism strikes. On June 5, 2012, when Pentagon spokesperson then-Capt. John Kirby was asked about the reported death of al Qaeda’s no. 2 official, Abu Yahya al-Libi, Kirby replied: “We don’t discuss the specifics of counterterrorism operations.  So I’m not going to speak to specifics of operations.” Read more »

You Might Have Missed: Defense Contractors, ISIS, Syria, and Cyber Threats

by Micah Zenko
A U.S. F-18 fighter jet refuels from a U.S. Air Force KC-135 Stratotanker aircraft over northern Iraq on Aug. 21, 2014. (Staff Sgt. Shawn Nickel/Courtesy U.S. Air Force) A U.S. F-18 fighter jet refuels from a U.S. Air Force KC-135 Stratotanker aircraft over northern Iraq on Aug. 21, 2014. (Staff Sgt. Shawn Nickel/Courtesy U.S. Air Force)

Ten What’s With…Sarah Kreps

by Micah Zenko
Drone Warfare by Sarah Kreps and John Kaag. Drone Warfare by Sarah Kreps and John Kaag.

Sarah Kreps is a Stanton Nuclear Security Fellow at the Council on Foreign Relations, and an associate professor of government at Cornell University.  She is the author of Coalitions of Convenience: Military Interventions after the Cold War and the co-author of Drone Warfare. Additionally, I was fortunate to coauthor a recent CFR report, Limiting Armed Drone Proliferation, with Sarah. Read more »

What is Iraq Doing With U.S. Missiles and Intelligence?

by Micah Zenko

As I have highlighted previously, the United States’ recent increased security cooperation with the government of Iraq to confront the Islamic State in Iraq and Syria (ISIS) has been characterized by an astounding lack of clarity. Yesterday, there was another troubling example of contradictory statements about the missions and objectives of U.S. forces in Iraq. Pentagon spokesperson Adm. John Kirby was asked if the United States was supporting airstrikes from Iraq against ISIS in support of the Kurds. Kirby replied unequivocally: “We’re not coordinating air attacks in Iraq. We’re not.” Read more »