Should US policy toward ISIL be Containment?

By Juan Cole

The US launched air strikes on Tuesday on ISIL targets, south of Baghdad and also in the north. The ones south of Baghdad were in support of the Iraqi Army, for the first time since the ISIL crisis broke in early June.

US close air support to the Iraqi army and the Kurdistan Peshmerga shouldn’t be necessary. The Iraqi military should be able to deploy helicopter gunships for its own defense. For reasons that are unclear, it apparently cannot, leaving Baghdad open to attack by ISIL. But the most effective campaigns in which the US air force has been involved have been more or less defensive. It helped the Kurds take back territory west of Erbil and around the Mosul Dam. It helped break the ISIL siege of the Shiite Turkmen town of Amerli, averting a massacre of thousands.

The problem is in going beyond stiffening Iraqi government and Kurdish resistance to the ISIL onslaught. For that, in Iraq, the US either needs to enable the invasion of Sunni Arab cities by largely Shiite and non-Arab (Kurdish) forces, or needs to stand up Sunni Arab national guards in the three major Sunni Arab provinces, and support them against ISIL. This latter task is complicated by the feelings of betrayal still suffered by Sunni Arab fighters who fought al-Qaeda in 2007 but were not rewarded with a government job, and whose lives were in danger after the US campaign wound down (al-Qaeda minds when you target them).

President Obama’s speech last Wednesday was a strange mixture of counter-terrorism and warmaking. Counter-Terrorism involves things like strategic precision strikes to foil terrorist groups. A war, in contrast, is a set of campaigns aimed at conquering and holding territory.

Obama even adverted to a bombing campaign against ISIL on the Syrian side of the border. This widening of the war, however, is not necessary, and in my view it is probably illegal in international law. It will be coupled with a $500 million training program for “vetted” “moderate” rebels in camps in Saudi Arabia. This latter program is too small to do much good; insofar as there will be heavy Saudi influence on it, it could do a great deal of bad.

A minimalist, defensible position for the US could have been to say that the US will intervene aerially to ensure that Erbil and Baghdad don’t fall, but that recovering the Sunni Arab areas that Nouri al-Maliki had alienated was up to Iraqi politicans and forces. And a minimalist strategy could have simply ignored the Syrian side of the border. It is true that ISIL has a big base in Raqqah and uses its Syrian assets to support its operations in Iraq. But ISIL successes in Iraq were in any case not mainly military but rather political.

Since this is so, the military position of ISIL in Syria isn’t really so central to its taking of Mosul, Tikrit, etc. Nor would holding Raqqah help it to hold Mosul if Mosul turned against it.

The US was very good in the Cold War at containing Stalinism but very bad at defeating a guerrilla group like the Vietcong. It was the former that mattered in the end.

Unfortunately, the logic in Washington usually ratchets toward the macho and the simplistic. Obama at first admitted that the US could only degrade ISIL, not destroy it. But then on Wednesday the chorus of critics pushed him to say that his goal is eradication of the organization. But the tools he announced for his effort, including Yemen-style drone and fighter-jet attacks, were not sufficient to the task of eradication. Containment is doable. It isn’t clear that an air war is.


Euronews: “US general says ground troops an option in Iraq”

11 Responses

  1. Excellent article, and exactly my thinking. I wish that your moderator would not delete my remarks on this, which have been quite moderate for such an extreme situation.

    I would add that the rhetoric in DC “ratchets toward the macho and the simplistic” largely because, as Aristotle described them, right wing demagogues invent wars to recruit the bully class and threaten their moral superiors with the taint of treason. The US has never succeeded in eradicating insurgency by military attack, because that does not address the underlying motives and ideas. Containment prevents a wider regional conflict and forces IS to focus on issues of government rather than militarism. It disempowers their right wing, allowing moderates to govern eventually. Prolonged attack, as in N Korea and Vietnam, only protracts and intensifies a war that cannot be won, and institutionalizes the right wing ideology of hate, both there and in the US.

  2. Seems as if IS landed in our earthbound “Sea of Tranquility”. Imagine a strange violent quasi state appearing within two peaceful, altruistic, law abiding states, Iraq and Syria. The contrast is shocking. Were that true, a war to destroy IS may be justified.

    In the long term is there any expectation that Iraq and Syria will be of better quality, by Western standards, than they are today, and much preferable to a Saudi-like IS?

    Speaking of Saudi, how would our well connected emotional public react if videos of a bunch of Saudi beheadings went viral on YouTube.

  3. ISIL might not give up Mosul so easily, considering the symbolic and historic announcement of the self-proclaimed caliph there. Their active cult recruitment of local young Sunni residents as time goes by, might subdue the motivation to drive out the militants, even those left behind but disgusted by them who’ve witnessed their brutality – they would need serious incentive or evidenced backing to even consider any resistance. A good number of Sunni residents also fled. Its unknown whether they’d be willing to return and fight back too.

    Would like where the different Sunni Arab armed groups stand. Below is a NY Times infographic article, and mentions different Sunni Iraqi groups as of July 12th and their relationship with ISIL. 8 groups named in all, half of whom were in conflict with ISIL, half of whom were in peace with ISIL.

    link to

  4. Unfortunately, the logic in Washington usually ratchets toward the macho and the simplistic. Obama at first admitted that the US could only degrade ISIL, not destroy it.

    Didn’t Obama at one time declare al-Qa’eda had been eliminated? Perhaps he has learned these jihadists are a tougher problem than simplistic nostrums would have us believe.

    Peter Lee of China Matters has a couple of interesting comments on the IS-Syria crisis du jour: “ISIS gives US its ‘Suez Crisis’ moment” by Peter Lee – link to and link to

    • Another interesting Peter Lee comment: “The caliphate is a big deal, in my opinion, a big bad transnational deal with significant consequences throughout Asia, and something should be done.”

  5. Bill notes that, “…..simplistic notions would have us believe.”

    “…..Washington usually ratchets toward the macho and the simplistic.

    And where do these conceptual absurdities arise? In the unspoken and therefore untested assumption

  6. …and the CinC/Emperor was down here at MacDill Joint Base today, just a quick turnaround visit, here at the home of SOCOM and where all the really cool SpecOps stuff gets run out of. He was “rallying the Troops,” who gave in that air-conditioned huge hangar a thunderous response to Obama’s promise that “we have the tools, we have the talent, It’s Killer time!” and how there is no place for any of them ISISILIQ Terrarists to hide from the Righteous Wrath of the Great iAmerica!

    Has that dude ever been over the terrain, even looked at it from Google Earthspace, tried to understand how 4th Gen works and does definitely NOT for idiot Empires using vastly expensive weapons at the end of a huge, corrupt procurement/deployment/logistics pipelines to try to swat mosquitoes or little swarms of annoying rats? especially where the Empire’s provisioners and spies are also handing out the weapons and training for asymmetric conflict (ooooh, ssshh, don’t call it *war,* that might wake the idiot public that’s paying for it) to “moderates” that only exist as either lesser gunmen who can’t even hold on to their weapons, lose them or abandon them to REAL GUNMEN who know urban combat and are feeling damn successful at running their extortion and kidnapping and execution racket, or are adept at posing with a__holes like McCain, who appears to have taken on a hatred of the nation and military that failed to rescue or ransom his lily-white a__ when he managed to get himself shot down and captured all those years ago. When they put away their black flags and unwind those head covers, how you gonna even figure out who is who? or is it another Phoenix Program screw-up?

    And the Troops here in SOCOM City cheered at the smug lie that there won’t be any US GI boots on the ground, whatever that now means — maybe, undoubtedly, some of them will very shortly learn that “boots on the ground” WILL happen, and then that double meaning comes into play, like this: link to

    Wrong tools, wrong mission, wrong tasks. You don’t “defeat” or “degrade” or “destroy” a Flexible Horde like ISISILIQ with either dumb-_ss GIs kicking in doors, shooting up the landscape, Hellfire-ing to the Gates of Hell, or “surgical bombing,” or propping up pseudo-democratic “leaders. And what is the image the Emperor has in his head of what the ME, and also the future of the planet, are supposed to look like? And what’s in the secret warped heads of his advisers and general-grade officers and “diplomats” and spooks? Anything that us ordinary people would like to be living through, or under? Paying for, and ultimately dying for, like the “all of the above energy policy” and the Trans-Pacific Partnership agreement, remember that? and now Wall Street has run up some $2 quadrillion in derivative bets, and their markers are all still payable by you, me, US, not them?

    Professor Cole probably has some very good notions of what actually OUGHT to be done. We can hope somebody will listen to him and other intelligent voices.

    So many slings, spears and arrows aimed at the hearts and guts of the ordinary people. So hard to even try to keep track of them all.

  7. Regarding one particularly urgent issue that is noble to do in addressing the atrocities of ISIL, Matthew Barber provides an excellent suggestion of freeing the thousands of enslaved Yazidi women and says it can be done in just one day if there is sufficient will in US decision makers to do so.

    link to

  8. Containment allows moderates to gain power over the right wing only with a DMZ and complete absence of external threats. But the US never ceases to hold threatening exercises near N Korea to rile them up. In fact the US right wing always makes provocations to reinforce the right wing of opposing states, which provides the rationale for its military budget.

  9. l’Espresso: “…because Isis fanatics are the perfect demonstration that our democracies are in mortal danger?”

    Julian Assange: “Our democracies are in mortal danger as a result of mass surveillance-enabled totalitarian government: one dominant power faction seizing nearly every significant form of economic and social interaction.” link to

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