This article is © 2014 by Stephen J. Sniegoski. All rights reserved by author.
This version was posted at The Last Ditch on September 25, 2014 by WTM Enterprises.


Here come the Kagans

Their war plan to defeat the Islamic State


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The Kagan clan of heavyweight neocons has now advanced a scheme for vanquishing the latest Muslim monster in the Middle East. To put their plan in proper context, we must begin by acknowledging the serious faults in President Obama's own plan to rid the world of the Islamic State, or as he calls the group, ISIL, aka ISIS. (For a change of pace, it will be called the Islamic State in this essay, which apparently is what the group wants to be called and what much of the media is now calling it.) The Obama Plan seems not to be predicated on any extensive geostrategic analysis but is rather a political ploy quickly conjured up to satisfy the establishment media and a public aroused into a war frenzy by beheadings and Islamic State threats to attack the U.S. homeland. But it is quite likely that the fear is irrational and not based on a careful assessment of a real danger.

Paul Pillar, a former deputy director of the CIA's Counter-terrorism Center, states: "The American public has come to equate advances in the Middle East by this one group, ISIS, with the danger of another 9/11." He maintains that "[f]or them [ISIS] to seize and maintain territory is a major digression from terrorist operations in the West, rather than a facilitation of such operations." However, Pillar opines that, if the forces of the Islamic State are repeatedly attacked by the United States, they might retaliate against the American homeland, stating that "there will be a revenge factor." [1]

It is actually not obvious that the Islamic State is the greatest terrorist danger at this time. Nicholas Rasmussen, deputy director of the National Counterterrorism Center, told the Senate Committee on Homeland Security and Governmental Affairs on September 10 that the Islamic State's "ability to carry out complex, large-scale attacks in the West is currently limited," though it would likely increase in the future. In contrast, he said, the Yemen-based al Qaeda in the Arabian Peninsula (AQAP) "remains the al-Qaeda affiliate most likely to attempt transnational attacks against the United States." [2] If that is the primary danger at the present for terrorist attacks on the American homeland, why isn't it the priority?

Although many in the mainstream media and Congress claim that the Islamic State currently threatens to attack the American homeland, President Obama has not made such a claim. "While we have not yet detected specific plotting against our homeland," he declares, "ISIL leaders have threatened America and our allies. Our intelligence community believes that thousands of foreigners — including Europeans and some Americans — have joined them in Syria and Iraq. Trained and battle-hardened, these fighters could try to return to their home countries and carry out deadly attacks." [3]

The fact of the matter is that many things could happen. Russia and China could rain nuclear-armed missiles on the United States. That they could conceivably do this does not mean that it is likely and would hardly justify a U.S. pre-emptive attack on those countries. And in contrast to Obama, Pillar maintains that if the United States does militarily attack the Islamic State, there will be — not simply could be — blowback.

Moreover, if the Islamic State were such an obviously grave danger, it is strange why its neighboring countries are not interested in combating it; those neighbors include Turkey and Israel, both of which have strong militaries. If the local countries are correct in their assessment of the Islamic State — and Israel is supposed to have the best intelligence system in the world regarding the Middle East — why are they staying aloof, whereas the U.S. attacks on the Islamic State are essentially baiting it to retaliate?

Undoubtedly, American airpower can prevent the Islamic State from gaining any more ground in the territory now occupied by Kurdish forces and the largely Shiite Iraqi army. And it is likely that American airpower can push the Sunnis back from their forward positions, with the aforementioned groups moving in to retake those areas. But it is not apparent what forces are going to reconquer the large swath of land now controlled by the Islamic State in the Sunni heartland of Iraq and Syria. The Middle East coalition of countries, Free Syrian Army, and Sunni Iraqi Army that are supposed to provide the ground troops for that venture are not up to the task. It is not apparent, either, that the coalition intends to send any significant number of troops. Saudi Arabia and Qatar might stop their citizens from providing support to the Islamic State; and Turkey, perhaps, will close its border and stop serving as a jihadist transit route to Syria and Iraq. But even that type of help is not ensured.

It is also not clear how a Sunni army could be created in areas occupied by the Islamic State. And it is not clear that the largely Shiite Iraqi army would be willing to attack far into Sunni areas, or that the United States would even want that to happen since it wants to avoid antagonizing the Sunnis, in order to bring about an inclusive government in Baghdad.

The Free Syrian Army (FSA), which is a loose conglomeration of opposition fighters that has been designated as "moderate," has not yet demonstrated any prowess as a fighting force, though Washington has already covertly provided some of its members with arms. [4] Moreover, there are not many moderate fighters in Syria, and they control less than 5 percent of Syrian territory. [5] As recently as June 2014, when plans were being broached to equip and train the Free Syrian forces, Obama belittled the fighting quality of the troops as "former farmers or teachers or pharmacists" who, even with American military aid, would be unable to effectively fight against their battle-hardened foe. [6]

Furthermore, it highly questionable whether the "moderate" groups are really that moderate. The moderates have sought support and weapons from jihadists and often fought alongside such extreme Islamist groups as the al-Nusra Front, al Qaeda's affiliate in Syria. Aron Lund, a Syria analyst who edits the Syria in Crisis blog for the Carnegie Endowment for International Peace, describes the situation: "You are not going to find this neat, clean, secular rebel group that respects human rights and that is waiting and ready because they don't exist. It is a very dirty war and you have to deal with what is on offer." [7]

Colonel Riad Assad, the leader of the U.S.-backed FSA, even announced that his group would not join the anti-Islamic State coalition or engage in combat against the Islamic State. [8] That is quite understandable since the raison d'être of his group is to try to bring down Syrian President Bashar al-Assad, not fight one of the Syrian ruler's enemies, whose defeat would tend to benefit President Assad. [9] That this group would really want to be a proxy for the United States and thus divert itself from combating President Assad seems to be a pure pipe dream.

Obama's war plan, based on largely illusory armies, must remind us of the old joke about the hungry hobos talking about what they could have to eat — "If we had some ham, we could make a ham sandwich, if we had some bread." The only positive thing that can be said about Obama's plan is that it is not as disastrous as the Kagan alternative.

A brief overview of the Kagan family is in order. The Kagans have now become the first family of neocondom (surpassing the once-supreme Kristols and Podhoretzes). The married couple of Frederick (Fred) and Kimberly (Kim) Kagan comprises two of the three authors of the war plan against the Islamic State, the other author being Jessica D. Lewis.

Fred, a staff member of the American Enterprise Institute, is noted as an architect of the surge strategy, which was adopted by President George W. Bush in December 2006 and is much touted by war hawks as having achieved a great success in putting down the al Qaeda violence in Sunni areas. However, that surge in fact militated against national unity, which was America's ultimate goal, because a fundamental U.S. tactic was to strengthen local Sunni tribal leaders to fight al Qaeda insurgents by providing them training and arms. The tribal leaders fought al Qaeda effectively but, in the process, set up their own little fiefdoms independent of central government control, and those fiefdoms did not want to relinquish power to the central government. It was those Sunnis who flocked to the side of the Islamic State fighters when they entered Iraq.

With his wife Kim, the founder and president of the Institute for the Study of War (ISW), Fred shaped General David Petraeus's military policy from the summer of 2010 to the summer of 2011 when the latter was commander of U.S. troops in Afghanistan. The Kagans lobbied for and supported President Obama's decision to order multiple troop surges in Afghanistan, beginning on February 17, 2009, which could be classified as a total failure, and they argued against his later drawdown of troops from that beleaguered country. [10]

Fred's brother, Robert Kagan, was a contributing editor of the Weekly Standard, the leading neocon publication, and the original director of the notorious (in anti-war circles) Project for a New American Century (PNAC). In 2009, with Bill Kristol, he established the Foreign Policy Initiative (FPI), a neocon organization that is considered a successor to PNAC. In recent years Robert has begun to associate with mainstream liberals; he is now a senior fellow of the Brookings Institution, and he has served on both Secretary of State Hillary Clinton's and Secretary John Kerry's Foreign Affairs Policy Board. Illustrating his liberal bona fides, he also writes a monthly column on world affairs for the Washington Post and is a contributing editor at the New Republic.

Robert is married to State Department career diplomat Victoria Nuland, who served as a foreign-policy advisor to Dick Cheney during the George W. Bush administration and is currently serving as assistant secretary of European and Eurasian Affairs in the Obama administration. Her open support for the Ukrainian rebels who overthrew the elected government of President Yanukovych played a significant part in triggering the current crisis in Ukraine with Russia.

The Kagan family elder, Donald Kagan, was a prominent historian of ancient Greece who taught at Cornell and Yale; one of the original neoconservatives, he was a signatory of PNAC and a trustee of the neocon Hudson Institute.

The Kagans' war plan, "A Strategy to Defeat the Islamic State," is a report of the Institute for the Study of War. It partly rectifies the phantom-troops problem in Obama's plan. (As noted above, it is co-authored by Jessica D. Lewis; she is research director at ISW.) The authors claim that

[t]he activities recommended in this paper will likely require the deployment of not more than 25,000 ground forces supported by numerous air and naval assets. The bulk of those forces will likely be comprised of various kinds of units supporting a much more limited number of Special Forces and other assets deployed in small groups with tribes, opposition forces, and Iraqi Security Forces. This plan does not envisage U.S. combat units conducting unilateral operations (apart from targeted attacks against individual enemy leaders and small groups) or leading clearing operations. It requires some combat units in the support and quick reaction force (QRF) roles. [11]
The current plan outlines in detail only the first phase of the strategy. That is because the whole plan hinges on the assumption that the Sunnis in Iraq and Syria will rally to fight the Islamic State alongside the U.S.-led coalition and provide the overwhelming bulk of the ground troops.

The authors write: "The Sunni Arabs in Iraq and Syria are the only local partners who can be decisive in the fight against ISIS and JN [the jihadist group, Jabhat al-Nusra or al-Nusra Front]. Our strategy must focus on making direct contact with them, coordinating our efforts with them, building their strength against ISIS, and finding out the terms on which they would be willing to reintegrate into reformed states in Iraq and Syria. They are the pivot of the entire effort and must be at the heart of every phase of our strategy." [12]

The following phases of the war strategy would depend upon how well that requirement actually is realized. The study states that the later phases "will also depend on the speed with which the ISF [Iraqi Security Forces] can be rebuilt and reformed into a non-sectarian and effective security force. The first phase itself will take months. Subsequent phases will take longer. Adopting this strategy entails signing up for a prolonged deployment of military forces, including ground forces." [13]

Unlike the ultra-optimistic "cake walk" predictions made by the neocons in the run-up to the attack on Iraq in 2003, the authors acknowledge that the "strategy suffers from the high risk of failure and the near-certainty that the U.S. will suffer casualties," and even "that the Sunni Arabs cannot or will not fight with us ... and that the overall strategy proposed here is infeasible. In that case, it will be necessary to abandon this strategy and reconsider our options." [14]

Elsewhere, the authors state: "The existence of such potential partners and their sufficiency to the tasks are unproven hypotheses. If these hypotheses are false, then this course of action is invalid. It is not possible to validate or invalidate these hypotheses without directly engaging on the ground." [15] It actually seems that the Kagan plan differs not just from the "cake walk" scenario but from most military strategies, which their designers normally claim will lead to victory. [16]

However, the authors say that the United States should adopt their strategy despite its risks because "[t]he consequences of inaction or inadequate action are evident: ISIS will retain control of much of the territory it holds, sectarian war will escalate, more foreign fighters including Americans and Europeans will cycle through the battlefield and get both trained and further radicalized, and al-Qaeda will benefit from the largest and richest safe haven it has ever known." [17] In short, the Kagans' plan holds that the danger posed by the Islamic State to the United States is so great that there are no real alternatives to a military effort to destroy it. Moreover, the authors seem to assume that with total certitude, in contrast to their uncertainty about the outcome of their proposed war strategy. But as pointed out earlier in the critique of Obama's "no boots on the ground" strategy, there is no such certitude among experts.

If American troops arrive in Iraq and Syria and do not find a sufficient combat force that would fight with them, which the study acknowledges is a possibility, would Washington just pull them out? That would be easier said than done. War hawks would denounce it as cutting and running, making such a retreat difficult for America's political and military leaders, who would be risking their reputations. And what about the harm it would be seen as inflicting on American prestige? Not only the war hawks but also many mainstream foreign-policy experts and political pundits would no doubt claim that if America just pulled out of this military venture, its global adversaries would interpret that as weakness and try to exploit it, while its friends would be less willing to join with the United States for any future undertaking. A significant segment of the American people abhors losing, so public opinion would also act to militate against any early withdrawal. It is likely that the U.S. forces would stay in the field for some time, taking casualties, before Washington concluded that there were insufficient Sunni or Syrian forces to provide help.

A probable scenario is that the United States would pour in more and more troops, which could achieve a battlefield victory — perhaps allowing American troops to leave with honor — but with the forces of the Islamic State remaining, though temporarily going underground, and with no solution to the underlying ethno-sectarian and political fissures that would erupt again after the troop departure.

Things could get even worse, however, if Syrian and Sunni armies did exist. For even if the Sunni tribes were willing to fight the Islamic State, the Kagans and Lewis write: "It is extremely unlikely that tribal forces will be able to take urban centers back from ISIS or serve as the 'hold' force even in rural areas." Success would not only depend on "re-building effective security forces in Iraq and developing forces in Syria capable of doing the job" but would also require the "knitting [of] the local and tribal forces into the formal state security forces" that "cannot be subject to the command and control of Shi'a militia elements that they do not trust." [18] Since it is doubtful that Shiites and Sunnis have ever come together without the exertion of authoritarian force — e.g., by Saddam Hussein — it is hard to believe that they could be neatly knitted together in the military without one side attempting to dominate the other.

A harmonious military is still not enough. "Success against ISIS requires more than effective military operations," the report asserts. "Political accord in Baghdad and the emergence of meaningful inclusive politics in Syria are necessary but not sufficient conditions for securing vital U.S. national security interests in the region. The U.S. must use the expanding leverage increased military support will give it in Baghdad to continue to shape the emerging Iraqi government to be as inclusive and non-sectarian as possible." [19] In short, the United States has to engage in nation-building in Iraq, and it has to do likewise in Syria, regarding which the report states: "The U.S. must also engage much more vigorously in efforts to develop an inclusive government-in-waiting in Syria than it has hitherto. Bringing what is left of the moderate opposition together is only a start, albeit an essential next step. The U.S. and its international partners ... must also reach out to the Alawite community and to Syria's other minority groups in search of potential leaders who could join forces with moderate Sunni leaders to oppose extremists on all sides." [20]

Lebanon and Jordan also get limited attention in the report. For Lebanon, Hezbollah, a major enemy of Israel, seems a special concern. The authors observe that "Sunni extremist operations and attacks in Lebanon ... have rallied support around Hezbollah once again." Thus it is maintained that "[s]trengthening the Lebanese government and armed forces independent of Hezbollah ... could threaten the organization's control sufficiently to distract it from Syria somewhat." Furthermore, "[t]he chances of Lebanon surviving the current conflict intact would improve dramatically if it ceased to be a major base for a principal combatant [Hezbollah] in the fight. The U.S. should work with regional and global partners to explore what can be done to change this condition." [21]

The Jordanian government doesn't need any changes, according to the study, but the United States ought to provide "financial and material support" so that it will be able to deal with the influx of refugees from the war zones; in addition, the United States should "work closely with the Jordanian military to strengthen its ability to secure itself against extremist attacks and also to project force in support of our common objectives in Iraq and Syria." [22]

Of course, all those efforts to defeat the Islamic State and alter the governments of key countries in the Middle East will exclude the influence of the Islamic Republic of Iran. "U.S. forces must not coordinate with Iranians on the ground in Iraq, even at the tactical level," the authors emphasize. Any such coordination, they write, would have the effect of "legitimiz[ing] the presence of Iranian troops in Iraq, a principle to which the U.S. cannot accede." And Washington must impose that position on the Iraqi government: "The best mitigation strategy for these risks is to make clear to the Iraqis that any given unit can have only one set of advisers at a time — either Americans (and our partners) or Iranians. Since American forces bring a great deal more capability that the Iraqis desperately need, it should be possible to win most of those arguments." [23] So the only country in the region that currently is willing and able to combat the Islamic State is to be shut out of the picture.

While the authors believe that the Iraqis would forswear Iranian support in order to receive superior aid from the United States, that is by no means certain. The Iraqi Shiites, like any group of people, might not like to be bossed around by outsiders. They might in some cases opt for Iranian support. Now, since the rationale for intervention hinges on the argument that defeat of the Islamic State is essential to protect the American homeland and that victory over the Islamic State is not guaranteed, then one would think that Washington would be willing to accept help from any quarter — just as the United States collaborated with Stalinist Russia against Nazi Germany.

The Iraqi government has been pro-Iran, so one might conjecture that a purpose of the Kagans' war plan is to eliminate, or at least greatly reduce, Iranian influence over Iraq. And while that might inhibit protecting U.S. interests, it would fit in with the position of Israel. Ron Dermer, Israel's ambassador to Washington, warned the United States to eschew any cooperation with Iran in the war against the Islamic State, insisting "they will never be a partner." The ambassador went on: "Iran as a nuclear power is a thousand times more dangerous than ISIS." [24]

It is likely that this gigantic military and nation-building scheme, with a negligible chance of ever succeeding, would grind on interminably. It would not be possible to achieve a military success alone without transforming key governments of the region, because, as the plan lays out, the military and political aspects are integrally related. Success for the military aspects critically depends upon all the political transformations. And though nation-building has, in effect, been proposed, the United States has yet to demonstrate that it can succeed in that type of undertaking. On the basis of past experience, we must suspect that what would result from this combination of military intervention and interference in the internal affairs of other countries is that more people than ever in the Middle East would be inflamed against America.

Thus, the threats to those states that have been friendly to the United States would be intensified, and the United States would become militarily ensnared in the region. Undoubtedly, any call to withdraw American forces would be condemned as defeatist and harmful to American security; and, in reality, the United States would probably be far more endangered than it is today. The United States would become just as hated as Israel is in the region, if not more so. And unlike Israel, the United States would be doing the fighting. Israel, on the other hand, would have something of a respite, for while the United States was battling the Jewish state's external enemies, which would also be fighting among themselves, Israel could be dealing with the Palestinians as it saw fit. And to deal with all those difficulties, it is likely that the Kagans would come up with more war plans for the United States.  Ω

September 25, 2014

Published in 2014 by WTM Enterprises.
© 2014 by Stephen J. Sniegoski. All rights reserved by author.

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1. Greg Miller and Juliet Eilperin, "U.S. intelligence agencies remain uncertain about danger posed by Islamic State," Washington Post, September 13, 2014.

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2. Rasmussen transcript (PDF).

Greg Miller and Juliet Eilperin, "U.S. intelligence agencies remain uncertain about danger posed by Islamic State," Washington Post, September 13, 2014.

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3. Peter Beinert, "War fever: Overselling the war against Islamic State?," Ha'aretz, September 14, 2014.

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4. Ellen Knickmeyer, Maria Abi-Habib, and Adam Entous, "Advanced U.S. Weapons Flow to Syrian Rebels," Wall Street Journal, April 18, 2014.

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5. Joshua Landis, "Why Syria is the Gordian knot of Obama's anti-ISIL campaign," Aljazeera America, September 15, 2014.

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6. Frederic C. Hof, "Syria: Farmers, Teachers, Pharmacists, and Dentists," Atlantic Council, June 20, 2014.

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7. Ben Hubbard, Eric Schmitt, and Mark Mazzetti, "U.S. Pins Hope on Syrian Rebels with Loyalties All Over the Map," New York Times, September 11, 2014.

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8. Jason Ditz, "Free Syrian Army Won't Join U.S. Anti-ISIS Coalition," Antiwar.com, September 16, 2014.

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9. Alessandria Masi, "U.S.-Backed Moderate Group In Syria Signs Truce with ISIS," International Business Times, September 12, 2014.

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10. Ali Meyer, "74% of U.S. Afghan Casualties Came after Obama Ordered Troops Increased," CNS.com, January 9, 2014; Tom Engelhardt, "The Nine Surges of Obama's War: How to Escalate in Afghanistan," TomDispatch.com, December 10, 2009.

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11. Kimberly Kagan, Frederick W. Kagan, and Jessica D. Lewis, "A Strategy to Defeat the Islamic State," Middle East Security Report 23 (Washington: Institute for the Study of War, 2014), p. 26.

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12. "A Strategy to Defeat the Islamic State," p. 20.

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13. "A Strategy to Defeat the Islamic State," p. 8.

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14. "A Strategy to Defeat the Islamic State," p. 8.

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15. "A Strategy to Defeat the Islamic State," p. 22.

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16. Japanese Admiral Isoroku Yamamoto, who masterminded the Japanese attack on Pearl Harbor, might be cited as an exception since he had little faith in an ultimate Japanese victory. But Yamamoto was an opponent of war with the United States and had also opposed the invasion of China. However, carrying out his orders, he developed what he considered the only possible way of defeating the United States, which he believed would beat Japan in any war that lasted longer than one year.

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17. "A Strategy to Defeat the Islamic State," p. 8.

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18. "A Strategy to Defeat the Islamic State," p. 24.

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19. "A Strategy to Defeat the Islamic State," p. 24.

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20. "A Strategy to Defeat the Islamic State," p. 25.

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21. "A Strategy to Defeat the Islamic State," p. 25.

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22. "A Strategy to Defeat the Islamic State," p. 25.

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23. "A Strategy to Defeat the Islamic State," p. 26.

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24. Jason Ditz, "Israeli Envoy: Nuclear Iran Would Be a Thousand Times Worse than ISIS," Antiwar.com, September 18, 2014.

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