Lessons from the Gulf War: defeating ISIS

In contrast to the Gulf War’s victories, U.S.-led efforts to defeat ISIS have produced mixed results nearly a year later

Andrew Bowen

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As the world marks the twenty-fifth anniversary since the U.S. led a robust coalition of regional and global powers to roll-back the Iraqi army in response to their illegal intervention into Kuwait and their attempts to attack the Kingdom of Saudi Arabia, Washington and its regional and global partners are soon to mark the one year anniversary of their less than successful efforts to roll back the Islamic State of Iraq and Syria’s advances.

A former senior Department of Defense official who served as an advisor to Generals Petreaus and Odierno in Iraq, Matthew McInnis, who is a Resident Fellow now at the American Enterprise Institute, notes, “The 1991 Persian Gulf War demonstrated to the world the effectiveness of modern American military power and the importance of US leadership at a time of great uncertainty at the end of the Cold War.

The successful employment of precision-guided munitions and US air-land warfare doctrines set a new standard for fighting that our adversaries like China and Iran have spent 25 years trying to reach, or at least to mitigate.” In contrast to the Iraq War of 2003, Mcinnis observes, “The war showed the importance of fighting with strong coalition partners and having well-defined and thought-through objectives, something we did not really have in 2003 in Iraq.”

A stalemate

In contrast to the Gulf War’s victories, U.S.-led efforts to defeat ISIS have produced mixed results nearly a year later. While Turkish President Erdogan’s commitment to fully join the anti-ISIS coalition is a welcome change, ISIS is still on the march and the state failure in Iraq and Syria has produced a breeding ground for this group. U.S. Army Chief of Staff, Ray Odierno, admitted this week that Coalition efforts to counter-ISIS are “at a stalemate.”

In contrast to the Gulf War objectives of liberating Kuwait and pushing the Iraqi army back into Iraq, this Coalition critically lacks a defined end goal: is it to contain ISIS or is to defeat the terrorist organization?

Andrew Bowen

However, there a number of key differences between the Gulf War of 1990 and the present U.S.-led Coalition efforts against ISIS: namely the former was a large conventional military operation against a state with a broad coalition of support and strong U.S. leadership while the later is presently an open ended counter-insurgency operation, with less international support and the absence of a clear strategy, against an insurgent group operating in two states -- Syria and Iraq –which the U.S. has challenging relations with.

Three lessons

A quarter century later, four big lessons can be drawn from the Gulf War, which can be applied today to more effectively fight ISIS:

First, pro-active and engaged American leadership is needed which seriously addresses the threat ISIS poses to the region. President Obama was too slow to react to the surge of ISIS in the summer of 2014. Since the fall of 2014, Washington has upped its efforts to rollback ISIS, but has been reluctant to commit the resources (as evidenced by the costly and paltry efforts to train Syrians to fight ISIS) to robustly fight ISIS. At the same time, the President’s disinterest in substantively and pro-actively addressing the root causes of ISIS’s surge, namely Syria’s state failure and Iraq’s governance since 2010, has only compounded these challenges.

Obama’s leadership is in stark contrast to that of President George HW Bush and his Secretary of State James Baker who moved decisively to support America’s allies in the region and marshal international support to build a UN Security Council-backed Coalition.


Second, Washington and its partners need shared strategic objectives while knowing what their limits are (for example, not going all the way to Baghdad in 1991). While Secretary Baker was able to build a Gulf War Coalition that was able to mobilize around clearly defined objectives, Obama’s efforts to build a strong anti-ISIS Coalition have been a less successful endeavor. Despite increased cooperation recently, this Coalition is still driven by multiple states pursuing their own interests and at times, in rivalry with one another.

In contrast to the Gulf War objectives of liberating Kuwait and pushing the Iraqi army back into Iraq, this Coalition critically lacks a defined end goal: is it to contain ISIS or is to defeat the terrorist organization? Are these efforts a back door effort to target Assad? Neither Washington nor its partners can come to such an agreement and have yet to make the call Bush made of whether or not to go all the way to Baghdad.


Third, Washington should try to build a broad of coalition of support but remain wary of letting its opponents with some common interests from driving too much of the strategy at the expense of American interests and those of its allies. While Washington was able to bring on board long-time opponents including the Soviet Union and Syria to support a shared mission during the Gulf War, the U.S. and Iran haven’t reached this understanding. Instead, Iran’s a “partner” in this anti-ISIS effort who is more interested in undercutting the U.S. and its allies in the region than defeating ISIS. Instead Tehran has pursued a strategy of more managing ISIS than competently rolling it back. This certainly isn’t the type of partner Washington had in 1990. President Obama should invest instead in bringing on board more regional and international partners in fighting ISIS who have common objectives.

Finally, Washington and its coalition need an effective ground strategy to accompany its air campaign. The Gulf War Coalition didn’t roll back Saddam Hussein’s conquest of Kuwait only through the air. Neglecting a ground strategy, Obama and his Coalition partners have relied too much on an air campaign without an effective ground campaign. While Washington and its partners have few reliable partners on the ground to fight ISIS, Obama has tended to use that as more of a reason for not acting than seriously exploring alternative ground options, including pushing for an Arab League force. While this certainly doesn’t mean Washington should commit ground forces, the U.S.’s training program in Syria and its arming program in Iraq have been a complete failure.

A long war

In contrast to the present Coalition efforts to counter-ISIS, the Gulf War Coalition importantly had both strong, concerted leadership and unity in confronting common challenges and a well-defined strategy. These characteristics are desperately needed as the U.S. and its partners face a long-term confrontation with an enemy, who is different in character and whose eventual defeat will be arguably, more complex.

As policymakers and military strategists mull the next steps in rolling back ISIS, they should heed these lessons of the Gulf War and prepare for a long war against this group.

Andrew Bowen, Ph.D., is a Senior Fellow and the Director of Middle East Studies at the Center for the National Interest.

Disclaimer: Views expressed by writers in this section are their own and do not reflect Al Arabiya English's point-of-view.
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