May 28, 2015

CNAS Press Note: To Beat ISIS, Bypass Baghdad

In response to vigorous debate over U.S. strategy in Iraq following ISIS’ conquest of Ramadi, CNAS Executive Vice President and Director of Studies Shawn Brimley has written a new Press Note arguing that we need to bypass the central government in Baghdad in order to defeat ISIS.

The full Press Note is below:

The United States ought to become more aggressive in supporting actors in Iraq who have the will to fight the scourge of ISIS.

Recent comments by Secretary of Defense Ashton Carter and Chairman of the Joint Chiefs of Staff General Martin Dempsey that Iraqi Security Forces (ISF) vastly outnumbered ISIS in and around Ramadi yet chose to turn and run are, in a word, devastating. Such comments are not made lightly and likely reflect the reality of what happened. Such a rapid retreat makes a mockery of the billions upon billions of dollars the United States has spent in training and equipping the ISF. We must consider what the deeper and more obvious truth might be – that Baghdad has neither the inclination nor the will to help the Sunni population of Iraq fight off ISIS.

If this is true, then reinforcing a failing strategy that depends on Baghdad doing the right thing might not only be misguided but counterproductive. A better approach might be to surge resources to those actors in Iraq who we judge would actually take on ISIS on the battlefield.

There are actors – the Kurdish peshmerga and several Sunni tribes – that would benefit from more direct support from the United States and its allies. It may be possible to deploy special operations forces and other capabilities more directly proximate and responsive to these actors. Baghdad is obviously a central player, and a component of the U.S. strategy ought to be advising the ISF and helping them become more effective on the battlefield.

Given the dynamics on the ground in Iraq, we must develop a strategy that doesn’t depend entirely on Baghdad and the Shiite-dominated ISF doing what they’ve proved by their actions they won’t do, at least anytime soon. It’s time for more action, yes. But also more realism.

Mr. Brimley is available for interviews. To arrange an interview, please contact Neal Urwitz at, or call 202-457-9409.


  • Shawn Brimley

    Former Executive Vice President and Director of Studies

    Shawn Brimley was the Executive Vice President and Director of Studies at the Center for a New American Security (CNAS), where he managed the center’s research agenda and staf...