Paul Pillar

Smart Targeting of ISIS

Eric Schmitt reports in the New York Times that the U.S. military is refraining from attacking some sites it knows are ISIS facilities, including at the group's principal headquarters in Raqqa, Syria, to avoid the significant civilian casualties that such attacks would certainly entail. It seems the group has located some of its facilities, probably intentionally, immediately next to civilian concentrations or jails where it holds some of its innocent captives. This is the sort of restraint by the United States that is likely to spin up further the domestic opponents of the Obama administration who charge that the administration has been too timid in going after ISIS—or in diving into many other foreign conflicts, for that matter. Senator John McCain says we should be setting our hair on fire because of recent gains by ISIS. The syllogism underlying such alarmism seems to be: (1) ISIS is a despicable, brutal organization (which is true); (2) the United States military has the physical capability to inflict substantial damage on ISIS (also true); therefore the United States should use that capability more fully than it has so far (which does not necessarily follow).

The burning-hair approach has characterized much of the popular and political American attitude toward ISIS ever since the group scored dramatic territorial gains in Western Iraq last year and flaunted its stomach-turning brutality with beheadings of captives. The prevailing attitude focuses narrowly on the here-and-now of territorial gains and losses and on how military force could be applied to influence the tactical situation on the ground. But such a focus is not to be equated with what is in the best overall interests of the United States, especially in a conflict as complex as the one in Syria.

In one respect the territorial ebb and flow is indeed important for those interests: visible gains by ISIS have been an important factor in heightening the attractiveness of the ISIS brand in the eyes of radical individuals, including ones from the West, who have flocked to its banner. It is power and success more than ideology that have served as the group's main drawing card. But that observation begs the question of what such radicals would be doing anyway if they did not become factotums in ISIS's ministate or cannon fodder in the Syrian and Iraqi civil wars. The observation also ignores all the other respects, besides this one facet of recruitment, in which the ISIS problem does or does not bear on U.S. interests.

The restraint being shown by the U.S. military in the interest of avoiding collateral casualties is sound targeting policy on a couple of levels. One is the repeatedly demonstrated dynamic of how attacks that harm significant numbers of innocent civilians tend to anger and radicalize populations in a way that works to the advantage of extremist groups, is one of the most effective recruiting tools for such groups, and more than offsets the damage that the attacks directly inflict on the groups. This dynamic has long been in evidence with other groups even before ISIS became the main concern. None other than Donald Rumsfeld ruminated, with reference to other U.S. military action, whether we were creating more terrorists than we were killing.

The other level concerns how U.S. interests specifically are or are not involved, and how those interests differ from those of putative allies or clients. The fight against ISIS is, in multiple respects, not America's fight. The United States is not the principal original target of the group, and certainly not in the way that it served as the “far enemy” that Al-Qaeda wanted to attack as part of its strategy for getting at the near enemy. The fight is not one the United States can win; winning ultimately will depend on local will of the sort that, as the U.S. secretary of defense observed in his recent awkward but truthful comment, was lacking in the recent combat at Ramadi. Not least important, it is the United States that incurs the danger of additional radical responses to additional use of U.S. military force. Calls by supposed allies for more use of such force constitute cheap talk when it is the United States and not them that would carry the added risk of radical reprisal. The United States was not the original target of ISIS, but it makes itself a target (either for ISIS itself or for other like-minded radicals) the more it becomes directly involved in ISIS's conflict.

There are multiple wrong reasons for such involvement. One is the emotion and urge to strike back that stems from a group's dramatic gains or atrocities. Another is the general American tendency to think that if there is a problem somewhere in the world worth solving, then the United States can and should solve it. Yet another, applicable to the Iraqi side of the theater, is the relieving of cognitive dissonance for those who promoted or supported the launching of the Iraq War and would like to think, and would like the rest of us to think, that the turmoil that the invasion set off is instead due to later mismanagement of U.S. power.

Tom Friedman has it right when he observes, with specific reference to the fight against ISIS, “We cannot effectively intervene in a region where so few share our goals.”