Combating the Islamic State Group: US Officials Not On Same Page

February 3, 2015 Updated: April 23, 2016

Since the Islamic State group’s epic split with al-Qaeda and their incursion into Iraq, analysts, commentators and most importantly, US officials have offered recommendations on how to defeat them. The current US strategy for combating the Islamic State group has faced criticism for its meandering and often times obfuscation of certain realities. The president has been waging an offensive against the group to “degrade and ultimately destroy” them notwithstanding overt authorization from Congress. US officials must get on the same page in order to project clarity and resolve to the rest of the country and the world.

Examining the president’s current aforementioned goal, he described his approach for execution akin to counterterrorism (CT) efforts in Yemen and Somalia, or targeted air strikes against certain positions to weaken the group’s resolve, military capabilities and deter future operations. It is also important to note, there is a messaging component to this as the president has maintained several times that there is not a military solution to defeat the Islamic State group. The president has also turned to the United Nations to garner support to curb foreign fighters and combat extremist propaganda and messaging online.

While CT efforts against smaller terrorist and insurgent groups have had marginal effects, the Islamic State group enjoys larger safe havens, a plethora of militants, and a deep global bench of online supporters and foreign fighters willing to travel to the self-proclaimed caliphate. It is worth pointing out, as the Washington Post did recently, that the US has never fully destroyed a terrorist organization it set its sights on – even during a full scale ground war.

Concerning ground troops, the president has maintained that he does not want to introduce US soldiers into battle, especially since he campaigned to end two wars and did. However, in order to achieve his orated goal, ground troops are necessary, though, not necessarily American troops. But, due to a complex and bureaucratic vetting process for training and equipping Syrian rebels and Iraqi Kurds, such programs have moved at a glacial pace – or not at all.  Meanwhile, several regional nations are reluctant to introduce their own ground troops.

Several military experts have criticized the prohibition on US ground troops as a limiting measure. For instance, Max Boot, Jeane J. Kirkpatrick Senior Fellow for National Security Studies at the Council on Foreign Relations, compares the operation that ousted the Taliban to the current effort. Specifically, he recommends intensifying air strikes comparing 632 sorties in 75 days in Iraq and Syria in 2014 to the 6,500 strike sorties launched in Afghanistan in a 76 day period. Also, he believes that the US should embed special operators within the Free Syrian Army as a means for better battlefield intelligence. If the president is serious about his strategy to degrade and ultimately destroy the Islamic State group, US ground troops will be necessary (this can also be said elsewhere in the world such as Ukraine to combat Russian separatists where members of Congress have expressed the need to provide lethal aid to Ukrainians, or Nigeria to quell the Boko Haram insurgency, where US trainers have been deployed for training missions though Nigeria’s human rights record inhibits more cooperation. Both issues are better served expounded upon in a separate post).

Furthermore, both Secretary of State John Kerry and Chairman of the Joint Chiefs of Staff Army Gen. Martin Dempsey have rejected limiting operations against the Islamic State group to a particular geographic region. “I think in the crafting of the [authorization], all options should be on the table, and then we can debate whether we want to use them,” Dempsey stated. “In particular, it shouldn’t constrain activities geographically, because ISIL knows no boundaries [and] doesn’t recognize any boundaries — in fact it’s their intention to erase all boundaries to their benefit,” using a different acronym for the Islamic State group.  Many members of Congress do not feel the same way, especially concerning the “global War on Terror” in which drone strikes are conducted in several nations.

Senator Tim Kaine (D-VA), who has been an ardent advocate for Congress authorizing force as is constitutionally mandated, has orated on several occasions that those in the region should eradicate the extremist militants, not US soldiers. At an event last fall, Senator Kaine stated how struck he was by what Chairman Dempsey said at a congressional hearing – that the US cannot defeat the Islamic State group if it’s the US versus the Islamic State group. Kaine followed up by saying if the US has to use its own soldiers, it means the region is not fighting for their own interests and no amount of US troops can win the fight for the region.

As I and many others have written previously, the president’s metrics do not match up with his stated goals against the Islamic State group.  If the president wants to maintain his current strategy of degrading and destroying the organization, efforts must be altered and intensified.  If, however, he wants to continue using a CT approach as he analogized previously, partner nations must step their efforts up and the president will have to walk back his rhetoric and stated goals – a somewhat embarrassing undertaking for the president and thus unlikely.

It would be a step in the direction of clarity if the administration sent draft language of an authorization of force to Congress rather than continuing to say they will work with members.  If the administration asserts they possess the necessary legal cover already – a highly disputed claim – why fight Congress on an authorization? On the other hand, Congress should stop waiting and blaming the administration and pass an authorization. Eight proposals were introduced in the last Congress and only one was voted on by a single committee. One proposal has been introduced in the new Congress and there has not been any action yet despite House Speaker John Boehner (R-OH) and Senate Majority Leader Mitch McConnell (R-KY) saying on CBS’s 60 Minutes that Congress will vote on an authorization.

Military leaders are frequently asked for their counsel given their battlefield and strategic expertise and most always never request being limited in any way. The president has been cagey in his administration’s approach against the Islamic State group. Congress has yet to authorize force for the president’s operations never mind debate the issue between its 535 members. Members of the government like to speak of the “whole of government approach” when it comes to combating the efforts of the Islamic State group. However, many members of the government are on different pages, which confounds their efforts and their resolve in the global coalition that they put together.


Correction: This article previously misstated the number of AUMF proposals in the 113th and the total number of congressional members.