Why the Campaign against ISIS Must End: A Just War Analysis
The myriad atrocities committed by the organization known variously as the Islamic State, the Islamic State in Iraq and the Levant, or the Islamic State in Iraq and Syria (ISIS) have filled the news for over a year now. ISIS’ activities have prompted a military response by the United States, which has bombed ISIS forces in Iraq and Syria and sent troops back into Iraq in support of the Iraqi military. Earlier this year, the Obama administration sent a request to Congress for an explicit three-year authorization to use military force against ISIS.
Given ISIS’ brutality, American military intervention to stop them might seem justified. Current military operations might even appear inadequate and escalating the intervention might seem necessary. Nevertheless, for the United States to continue to use force or to escalate the use of force against ISIS would be a grave mistake. American military force is unlikely to ensure the peace and security that those currently menaced by ISIS need.
Opposing a military response to ISIS does not mean dismissing the group’s barbarity. The organization has gained worldwide notoriety for its publicly broadcast killings of people by beheading and immolation, and these are only the most infamous of ISIS’ activities. The group has reportedly carried out massacres and kidnapping and raped women as young as 11 years old. According to a recent United Nations report, ISIS assaults on the Yazidi religious minority in Iraq might even constitute genocide. ISIS has also attacked Iraqis’ cultural heritage by destroying priceless antiquities such as the ancient city of Nimrud. If a just reason or cause were all that were necessary to justify military action, the cause of protecting Iraqis, Syrians, and others from ISIS’ cruelty would eminently justify such action.
If we evaluate the current American military intervention—or any future, expanded one—according to the principles laid out in the school of ethics known as Just War Theory, however, more than a just cause is required. Just War Theory lays out numerous requirements for justifying military action, but one requirement is particularly worth considering in the case of a campaign against ISIS: a reasonable chance of success.
The requirement of a reasonable chance of success holds that if a war or military action is to be justified, it must have a reasonable chance of realizing its goal. Given the history of past American military interventions, success in a campaign against ISIS is dubious.
US military action might well have a reasonable chance of “succeeding” in a narrow sense—through bombing, ground troops, support for Iraqi or Syrian proxies, or some combination of all three, the United States might succeed in destroying ISIS as an effective fighting force. Because the goal that justifies military action is protecting the people threatened by ISIS, however, a broader understanding of success is needed. A military campaign must be likely to improve the well-being of Iraqis, Syrians, and other victims of ISIS if it is to be considered a success.
To judge how likely US military intervention is to improve the well-being of ISIS’ victims, we have ample historical precedents to consider. Three times within the last 14 years the United States has used military force against repressive and violent regimes, and the results in all three cases have been far from beneficial to the people threatened by those regimes:
The United States overthrew the Taliban’s rule in Afghanistan in 2001, in the aftermath of the September 11th attacks. Prior to their overthrow, the Taliban was a kind of outlaw regime, recognized by only a handful of other nations, and notorious for their treatment of women, whom they segregated from men, forced to wear burkas, and otherwise repressed and marginalized. The Taliban also carried out massacres of ethnic minorities and meted out various draconian punishments: adultery and same-sex relationships were punished with death by stoning; theft with the loss of a hand. They even foreshadowed ISIS’ attacks on cultural heritage with their destruction of ancient carvings of Buddha. Despite the just cause of protecting Afghans from the Taliban—and preventing future terrorist attacks against the United States—however, intervention in Afghanistan has not greatly improved the Afghans’ condition. After almost 14 years and over 2,000 American lives spent, Afghanistan remains a chaotic, violent place with an uncertain future once US forces finally leave.
The United States overthrew Saddam Hussein’s regime in 2003. Hussein’s regime was an extremely brutal one, guilty of using poison gas against Iraqi Kurds, of torture and mass executions, and of the very ISIS-like punishment of public beheadings. Nevertheless, the just cause of liberating Iraqis from Hussein did not translate into a better life for that oppressed people. Intervention led to near civil war in Iraq, with a great cost in Iraqi and American lives—over 4,000 US troops were killed in Iraq—and left Iraq a greatly weakened country that soon fell prey to ISIS.
The United States overthrew Moammar Qaddafi’s regime in Libya in 2011. The campaign against Qaddafi was prompted by the Libyan dictator’s repression of an insurgency against his rule. The humanitarian goal of protecting Libyans from Qaddafi was explicitly invoked by American policymakers and was indeed a just cause for intervention. The just cause was not realized in a meaningful way, however: Qaddafi’s overthrow was followed by Libya degenerating into violent conflict among factions—including ISIS. No American lives were lost—the United States relied on air power and Libyan proxies—but the intervention still cannot be judged a success.
With such recent history, what grounds do American policymakers or the public have for believing that intervention in Iraq and Syria against ISIS will lead to more satisfactory results? The likely outcome of a sustained or escalated campaign against ISIS is that the countries currently prey to ISIS will remain violent, chaotic, and unstable—and more people will have died because of American actions, including, in a possible escalated intervention, more American troops.
The current military campaign against ISIS does not have a reasonable chance of success. A military intervention, even for the most just of causes—and stopping ISIS is definitely a just cause—that does not have a likelihood of realizing that cause cannot be considered justified. American military action against ISIS must end.
A version of this essay originally appeared in Life Matters Journal.
 Associated Press, “US Hits Islamic State Group in Both Syria and Iraq,” September 24, 2014, Karen DeYoung and Anne Gearan, “Obama Sending 300 Advisers to Bolster Iraq against Rebels,” Washington Post, June 20, 2014, A01; Julie Pace and Robert Burns, “Airstrikes Undertaken as US Re-engages in Iraq,” Associated Press, August 8, 2014,
 Jim Acosta and Jeremy Diamond, “Obama ISIS Fight Request Sent to Congress,” CNN, February 12, 2015,
 Office of the United Nations High Commissioner for Human Rights (OHCHR), Report of the Office of the United Nations High Commissioner for Human Rights on the Human Rights Situation in Iraq in the Light of Abuses Committed by the So-called Islamic State in Iraq and the Levant and Associated Groups (Geneva: OHCHR, 2015), 5 passim, available at
 Jean Marc Mojon, “Widespread Outrage after IS Bulldozes Ancient Iraq City,” Agence-France Press, March 6, 2015,
 Barry Bearak, “State of Misery: A Special Report.; Afghans Ruled by the Taliban: Poor, Isolated, but Secure,” New York Times, October 10, 1998, A1; John F. Burns, “Islamic Rule Weighs Heavily for Afghans,” New York Times, September 24, 1997, A6; Barbara Crossette, “Rights Groups Tells of Taliban Massacres,” New York Times, February 19, 2001, A7.
 Barry Bearak, “Afghan Says Destruction of Buddhas Is Complete,” New York Times, March 12, 2001, A4.
 “Operation Enduring Freedom (OEF) U.S. Casualty Status,” Department of Defense, accessed April 2, 2015,
 John F. Burns, “The World; How Many People Has Hussein Killed?” New York Times, January 26, 2003, Section 4, 4; Sandra Mackey, The Reckoning: Iraq and the Legacy of Saddam Hussein (New York: W.W. Norton & Company, 2002), 262-264.
 “Operation Iraqi Freedom (OIF) U.S. Casualty Status,” Department of Defense, accessed April 2, 2015,
 James Man, The Obamians: The Struggle inside the White House to Redefine American Power (New York: Viking, 2012), xi-xiii, 283, 286, 290-291.
 Jon Lee Anderson, “The Unravelling,” New Yorker, February 23, 2015,
© 2015 John Whitehead. All rights reserved.