America’s Role in the ISIS Battle

Author: Zachary Goldberg, UMBC


The Islamic State started getting attention in Iraq around early June, gradually getting more and more coverage. The media’s attention to them climaxed with videos of the brutal execution of James Foley, an American journalist. A few weeks later, the Islamic State posted another video of a similar execution of Steven Sotloff, another American journalist. After admitting to having “no strategy” concerning the Islamic State, President Obama—in a seemingly-mad dash to sate the appetite of his critics— declared a strategy to “degrade and destroy” the Islamic State in Iraq and Syria. This will be the third time in 25 years that the United States has intervened in Iraq.

Obama announced that a broad coalition would be formed to handle the threat and that the US would not “put boots on the ground,” an increasingly common mantra in American military politics. Instead of infantry, targeted airstrikes are the primary weapon. This strategy comes with plenty of skepticism and not without reason. Al-Qaeda spent 10 years on the run from targeted airstrikes and even boots on the ground, yet it survived because of its ability to blend in and to hide. Like the Viet Cong, enemies like Al-Qaeda and the Islamic State operate using urban-guerilla tactics, coming out from the shadows, attacking, and then retreating back into hiding. They are brutal, without a doubt, but they are not stupid, and will not give the US the advantage of “shock and awe.”

Clay Hanna, who served in Iraq between 2003 and 2008, points out that “if you could destroy a terrorist organization from the air alone, Israel would have long ago annihilated Hamas.” Like Hamas, the Islamic State will no doubt hide within pockets of civilians in the cities they have taken. They will hunker down in cities like Mosul, an urban environment with plenty of camouflage. The US military has mentioned Mosul as a strategic position that needs to be retaken to defeat the Islamic state. But to airstrike Mosul, a city with a 1.8 million population, would risk hundreds if not thousands of civilian casualties and a loss of trust in America’s ability to handle the Islamic State.

Another example of airstrike limitations comes in the last few days, in the city of Kobani, on the border of Syria and Turkey. The Islamic State has systematically surrounded Kobani, and has carried out on- and- off guerilla attacks outside and within the city for the past week. Rear Adm. John Kirby says that air power is limited in stopping the Islamic State’s advance on the town and notes that there are no indigenous ground forces “willing, capable [or] effective” enough to defend the city.  As of Friday, October 10th, the Islamic State reportedly controlled 40% of Kobani, a number only likely to increase. So, we see Kobani, a city on the edge of occupation by the Islamic State, and Mosul, a city occupied by the Islamic state, and both situations cannot be remedied using air power alone.

Hanna goes on to discuss President Obama’s deceptive rhetoric by reassuring the public that there are “no boots on the ground.”  Instead, the US is sending advisors, says the military spokespeople. These men and women are on the ground, but are not actively involved in combat missions.  Unfortunately, this does not seem likely. Pulling from his own experiences in Iraq, Hanna explains that these “advisors” often accompany their advisees into battles, raids and missions. They put their lives on the line, they carry weapons, they take lives and they risk capture, torture and execution. He goes on to say that in addition to designated advisors, there are about 1,700 American military personnel on the ground in Iraq. Many of them remained there to guard facilities and manage logistics, but now, he argues, they are likely participating in this new war effort.  Hanna is extremely critical, and we should be too, of the President’s rhetoric here. According to President Obama, we have no combat forces on the ground. The reality to Hanna is this: “their lives will be at risk and they will be in the thick of the action, giving orders or even pulling the trigger on military targets—and will certainly be targets for the enemy.”

If airstrikes and advisors are the American strategy, then who will fight the Islamic State on the ground? President Obama plans to use “moderate” Syrian rebels as an extension of American military might. This announcement verges on complete ignorance of the history of the region. When the Soviet Union invaded Afghanistan in 1979, the American policy of containment took the form of financing and arming the mujahedeen. This group of Islamic militants fought against the Soviets, which was enough to earn them America’s trust.  The coming to power of the Taliban was unforeseen after the fall of the People’s Democratic Party of Afghanistan (the communist party in the country).  At least a portion of the Taliban and Al-Qaeda had been members of the mujahedeen and much of their early success was built with American money and weapons.  Both organizations came into conflict with the West and specifically the US, whose unwelcome culture pervaded the Middle East in the form of military occupation, imperialism and intervention.

Lesson learned, right? Wrong. Today we are not arming Islamic militants; we are arming Syrian “moderates,” but what does that mean?  The diction is revealing: we do not know who these people are, or what they are going to do when this is all over, but we’ll just label them moderate for politics’ sake.  Moderate relative to what?  In Afghanistan, Islamic militants certainly appeared moderate in contrast to the perception of the far-left ideology of Communism.  Then some of them peeled off, radicalized, and aspire to (or aspired to, in the case of Osama bin Laden) the terrorization and embarrassment of the west and the United States. In defense of CIA in the 80’s, they could not have predicted the development of anti-US jihad stemming from Afghanistan (the same CIA that was shocked to see the Iranian Shah get ousted by his own people in ‘79).  But this is why we take history classes, right?

With their unipolar moment all but spent, the United States has to grapple with their intentions and limitations throughout the world they pervade.  In the past few months, US-intervention in the Middle East has dominated this discussion. There is no question that the Islamic State is a twisted and corrupted form of religious militancy. They do not discriminate in terms of shelling out their brutality. The question is: what is the US’s part in this?  Does it remain its responsibility to save the world? Can it even accomplish this task?  Clay Hanna says it can, but only with the full might of the American military.  He writes, “without ‘boots on the ground’ and without an acknowledgement of what these really are, the president’s strategy amounts to nothing more than amorphous rhetoric and disingenuous platitudes.”




  1. Excellent analogy between the Islamic State and Hamas. Also, insightful comparison between supporting the mujahadeen and the “moderate” Syrian rebels. Great historical reflections-well conceived and well written!


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