Here Come the Kagans—Their War Plan to Defeat the Islamic State

KAGAN-PNAC-FAMILY1By Stephen J. Sniegoski

Before discussing the recently- released Kagan war plan, let’s begin this essay by acknowledging the serious faults in President Obama’s 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.) It would seem that the Obama Plan is not 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 US. But it is quite likely that this fear is emotional rather than the result of a real danger, not unlike how the American public felt in the aftermath of 9/11. Paul Pillar, a former deputy director of the CIA’s Counter-terrorism Center, stated: “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 maintained 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 opined 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 apparent 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 this 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, Obama has not made such a claim. “While we have not yet detected specific plotting against our homeland,” Obama maintains, “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 US pre-emptive attack on those countries. And in contrast to Obama, Pillar maintains that if the US 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 and this would 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 supposedly has the best intelligence system in the world regarding the Middle East, why are they staying aloof whereas the United States’ 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 back the Sunnis from their forward positions with the aforementioned groups moving in to retake these areas. But it is not apparent as to 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 this venture are not up to the task. It is not apparent that the coalition intends to send any significant number of troops. Maybe Saudi Arabia and Qatar might stop their citizens from providing support to the Islamic State. And maybe Turkey will close its border and stop serving as a Jihadist transit way to Syria and Iraq. But even this type of help is not certain.

It is 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 US would even want this to happen since it does not want to antagonize 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 the United States 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 five percent of Syrian territory.[5] In June 2014, when plans were being broached to equip and train the Free Syrian forces, Obama belittled the fighting quality of these 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 that 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 (not related to Syrian President Bashar al-Assad), the leader of the US-backed FSA, even announced that his group would not join the anti-Islamic State coalition or engage in combat against the Islamic State.[8] This is quite understandable since the raison d’être of this group is to try to bring down the regime of President Assad, not fight one of his enemies, whose defeat would tend to benefit the Syrian ruler. [9] That this group would really want to be a proxy for the US and thus divert itself from combating the Assad regime would seem to be a pure pipe dream.

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Obama’s war plan based on largely illusory armies comes close to 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 thing positive that can be said about Obama’s war plan is that it is not as disastrous as the Kagan alternative.

Let’s first provide a brief discussion of the Kagan family. 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 US tactic was to strengthen local Sunni tribal leaders to fight al Qaeda insurgents, which consisted of providing them training and arms. The tribal leaders effectively fought al Qaeda but, in the process, set up their own little fiefdoms independent of central government control, which did not want to relinquish power to the central government. And it was these 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 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 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). With Bill Kristol in 2009, he established the Foreign Policy Initiative (FPI), a neocon organization that is considered a successor to PNAC. In recent years he has begun to associate with mainstream liberals and is a senior fellow of the Brookings Institution and has served on both Secretary of State Hillary Clinton’s and 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 role 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 (ISW) and partly rectifies the phantom-troops problem in Obama’s plan. (As noted above, it is co-authored by Jessica D. Lewis, 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 only outlines in detail the first phase of the strategy. This 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 US-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 this assumption 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 that the Sunni

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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 would actually seem that the Kagan plan is unlike not only the ‘cake walk’ scenario but also most military strategies, where those who devise the strategies will normally claim that these will lead to victory.

However, the authors state that the US should adopt this strategy despite the 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.”[16] In short, the Kagans’ plan holds that the danger posed by the Islamic State to the US is so great that there are no real alternatives to a military effort to destroy it. Moreover, the authors seem to assume this with total certitude in contrast to their uncertainty about the outcome of their proposed war strategy. But as was pointed out earlier in a critique of Obama’s “no boots on the ground” strategy, there is no such certitude among experts.

But 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 they just be pulled out? That would be easier said than done. War hawks would say it was cutting and running, which would make it difficult for America’s political and military leaders to risk their reputations with such a retreat. And what about the harm this would allegedly do to American prestige? Not only the war hawks, but many mainstream foreign policy experts and political pundits would likely claim that should America just pull out of this military venture, its global adversaries would interpret it as weakness and try to exploit it while its friends would be less willing to join with the United States for any undertaking. Furthermore, a significant segment of the American people abhors losing, so public opinion would act to militate against any early withdrawal. It would be likely that the US would stay there for some time, and take casualties, before coming to the conclusion that there were insufficient Sunni or Syrian forces to provide help. A likely scenario would be 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 authors 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 will depend not only on “re-building effective security forces in Iraq and developing forces in Syria capable of doing the job” but will require the “knitting [of] the local and tribal forces into the formal state security forces” which “cannot be subject to the command and control of Shi’a militia elements that they do not trust.”[17] Since it is not apparent that Shiites and Sunnis have ever come together without the existence of authoritarian force—e.g., Saddam Hussein—it is hard to believe that they can be nicely knitted together in the military without one side attempting to dominate the other.

A harmonious military is not enough, however. “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 U.S. vital 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.”[18] 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: “[t]he 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.”[19]

Lebanon and Jordan also get limited attention in the report. For Lebanon, Hezbollah, which is 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.”[20]

The Jordanian government doesn’t need any changes, according to the study, but the US 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 US 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.”[21]


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. Cooperating with them even at this level would legitimate “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.”[22] 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 US, this would not seem to be obvious. 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 the US 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 US interests, it would fit in with the position of Israel. Israeli Ambassador to the United States Ron Dermer warned the US 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.”[23]

It would seem that this gigantic military and nation-building scheme, with the chances of success being negligible, would likely go on forever. For it would not be possible to achieve a military success alone without transforming key governments of the region because, as the plan has laid 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 been bandied about, the US has yet to demonstrate that it can be successful in this type of undertaking. Thus, based on past experience, what would likely 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 as harmful to American security, and, in reality, the United States would likely 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 would be battling what are the Jewish state’s external enemies, who would also be fighting among themselves, Israel could treat the Palestinians as it sees fit. And to deal with all these difficulties, it is likely that the Kagans will come up with more war plans for the United States.

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

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

[3] Peter Beinert, “War fever: Overselling the war against Islamic State?,” Ha’aretz, September 14, 2014.

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

[5] Joshua Landis, “Why Syria is the Gordian knot of Obama’s anti-ISIL campaign,” September 15, 2014.

[6] Frederic C. Hof, “Syria: Farmers, Teachers, Pharmacists, and Dentists,” June 20, 2014,

[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,

[8] Jason Ditz, “Free Syrian Army Won’t Join US Anti-ISIS Coalition,”, September 16, 2014,

[9] Alessandria Masi, “US-Backed Moderate Group In Syria Signs Truce With ISIS,” International Business Times, September 12, 2014,

[10] “74% of U.S. Afghan Casualties Came After Obama Ordered Troops Increased,”

January 9, 2014,; Tom Engelhardt, “The Nine Surges of Obama’s War: How to Escalate in Afghanistan,” December 10, 2009,

[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.

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

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

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

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

[16] A Strategy to Defeat the Islamic State, p. 8.

[17] A Strategy to Defeat the Islamic State, p. 24.

[18] “A Strategy to Defeat the Islamic State,” p. 24.

[19] A Strategy to Defeat the Islamic State, p. 25.

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

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

[22] A Strategy to Defeat the Islamic State, p. 26.

[23] Jason Ditz, “Israeli Envoy: Nuclear Iran Would Be a Thousand Times Worse than ISIS,”, September 18, 2014,