ISW's early work focused almost entirely on Iraq and Afghanistan. More recently, it has published reports on Iran, Syria, Libya, and the Gulf States. Today the bulk of ISW's research is categorized under projects devoted specifically to Iraq, Afghanistan, or "Middle East Security."
ISW figures have been vocal proponents of escalating U.S. involvement in Syria's civil war. In a 2013 article for the Hoover Institution's Strategika, Kim Kagan established an ISW baseline on Syria, arguing that Washington should fully arm and equip "moderate" factions in Syria's armed opposition with the aim of overthrowing the Assad regime. Arguing that the "security of the United States and its allies would be significantly enhanced if Assad fell and Iranian influence over Syria were removed," Kagan wrote that the "United States should fully support the secular opposition to Bashar al-Assad through the provision of funds, weapons, equipment, and training."
Elizabeth O'Bagy, a researcher who led the organization's Syria Team for much of 2013, advocated more forceful strategies while based at ISW, including pushing direct U.S. attacks on critical regime infrastructure and supplying the rebels with heavy weaponry. O'Bagy outlined this case in a controversial August 2013 op-ed for the Wall Street Journal in which she also argued that reports of extremist involvement in Syria's armed opposition were overblown—a claim that was subsequently repeated by intervention advocates like Sen. John McCain and Secretary of State John Kerry. Several observers disputed this assessment. Reuters reported that it was "at odds with estimates by U.S. and European intelligence sources and nongovernmental experts, who say Islamic extremists remain by far the fiercest and best-organized rebel elements."
More controversially, the Journal initially failed to disclose that O'Bagy had been a paid consultant—with the title "political director"—for the Syrian Emergency Task Force, an interest group deeply linked to the Syrian rebels that has advocated similar position's to O'Bagy's. "O'Bagy seems to pass herself off as an impartial observer of the situation," said one Center for Security Policy staffer quoted by the Daily Caller. "Her access to Congress, intelligence services and to think tanks should be regarded as what it really is, which is a reflection of the Syrian rebels' cause and aspirations." ISW stood by O'Bagy's impartiality, but subsequently fired her after learning that she had exaggerated her credentials in claiming that she had earned a PhD from Georgetown when in fact she was not even enrolled in a program.
ISW's Iraq Project, once a clearinghouse for reports and commentaries advocating prolonged U.S. troop presence in Iraq, is now devoted to issues of Iraqi security and U.S.-Iraqi relations. Recent Iraq Project publications have concluded that, in the absence of a U.S. occupation force, the country may be headed for a renewed civil war between its various rival factions.
Previously, ISW played an important role promoting the 2007 "surge" in Iraq. In 2009 it released a film called "The Surge: the Untold Story," a 34-minute documentary that favorably covered the Iraq surge and included interviews with key players in the war and the surge strategy, including Gen. Raymond Odierno and Amb. Ryan Crocker.
ISW's Afghanistan Project focuses on the details of counterinsurgency operations in Afghanistan and across the border in Pakistan. ISW bills the project as an effort to document "the pattern of enemy activity in Afghanistan and Pakistan; military operations by Coalition and Afghan forces; the implications of the drawdown of Surge forces; and the political, economic, and demographic dynamics underlying the conflict."
The project issues recommendations and commentaries, often urging a continued commitment to the U.S. war effort. In January 2013, for example, a joint American Enterprise Institute-ISW backgrounder called "How Many Troops Does the U.S. Need in Afghanistan?" argued that the United States would need at least 6,000 troops to maintain even a single base in Afghanistan after 2014, compared to the lower numbers sometimes mentioned as possibilities. In a Washington Post op-ed published the following the month, Kim and Frederick Kagan advocated keeping 68,000 troops in the country through 2014, and leaving at least 30,000 indefinitely thereafter.
ISW's "Middle East Security" project covers a host of other countries in the greater Middle East and North African region. According to ISW's website, the project aims "to study the national security challenges and opportunities emerging from the Persian Gulf and wider Arab World; to identify ways the United States and Gulf States can check Iran's growing influence and contain the threat posed by its nuclear ambitions; to explain the shifting balance of power within the Middle East caused by recent upheaval, and assess the responses of the United States and Arab States to address these changes as they emerge."
A key country of interest appears to be Iran. In February 2008, Kagan coauthored a report published by AEI that discussed the extent of Iranian influence across the Middle East. Titled "Iranian Influence in the Levant, Iraq, and Afghanistan," the report warned, "Much as America might desire to avoid war with Iran, continued Iranian interventions ... might ultimately make that option less repulsive than the alternatives."
Kagan also published a report in 2007 that concludes that U.S. diplomatic engagement with Iran would be counterproductive, supporting a speech made by then-President Bush alleging that Iran was supporting the arming of "Shia extremists."
Relations with the Military
ISW often provides a podium for military brass who advocate the escalation of U.S. military engagements. In January 2010, General David Petraeus spoke at an ISW event promoting the "surge" in Iraq. He argued that "far more important than the surge of 30,000 additional U.S. troops was the surge of ideas that helped us to employ those troops, and that surge of forces enabled the employment of the new ideas that were indeed the key to making the progress that has been achieved in Iraq over the course of the last three years." Petraeus went on to compliment his hosts, saying: "At that time, Kim was in a different location, but the founder of the ISW guided together with Fred and a number of other heroes a study and analysis that did indeed have a strategic impact unlike that of any other study or analysis that I can think of," referring to the 2007 report that gave political traction to the surge theory in Iraq. (For more on ISW and its relationship to the U.S. military, see Michael Flynn, "The Surge of Ideas," Right Web, June 2010.)
The Kagans have long enjoyed a close relationship with Petraeus, even drawing the scrutiny of military investigators into the treatment they received as civilian advisers to the general in Afghanistan. According to a December 2012 Washington Post investigation, the Kagans visited Afghanistan repeatedly and extensively throughout Petraeus' tenure there, during which time they received extraordinary accommodations for civilian visitors—including near round-the-clock access to military and intelligence officials, top-level security clearance, and priority travel to anywhere in the country, as well as desks and military email accounts. In return, the Kagans advised Petraeus and penned supportive op-eds about the general and the war effort when they periodically returned home.
Although the Kagans did not receive compensation from the U.S. military for their advisory work, the Post noted that they continued to receive paychecks from their respective think tanks while they were advising Petraeus. "For Kim Kagan, spending so many months away from research and advocacy work in Washington could have annoyed many donors to the Institute for the Study of War," it observed. "But her major backers appear to have been pleased that she cultivated such close ties with Petraeus."
Many of ISW's major contributors and fundraisers—including DynCorps International, CACI International, and General Dynamics—are military contractors with active interests in the Afghan war. At a 2011 ISW event honoring Petraeus, Kagan thanked her corporate supporters for sponsoring her "ability to have a 15-month deployment [in Afghanistan] essentially in the service of those who needed some help."
At a $10,000-a-head dinner ISW held in his honor after the end of his command in Afghanistan, Petraeus himself acknowledged his close relationship with the Kagans. "What the Kagans do is they grade my work on a daily basis," he said to laughs from ISW donors. "There's some suspicion that there's a hand up my back, and it makes my lips talk, and it's operated by one of the Doctors Kagan."
Leadership and Funding
As of 2013, ISW did not publicize on its website the members of its board of directors. However, according to 2011 tax documents, directors included: Elizabeth Cheney, daughter of Vice President Dick Cheney and founder of the right-wing advocacy group Keep America Safe; William Kristol, editor of the neoconservative flagship magazine the Weekly Standard; Jack Keane, a retired four-star general who coauthored with Frederick Kagan of the American Enterprise Institute "Choosing Victory," a 2007 study that served as a blueprint for the so-called "surge" in Iraq; Dennis Showalter, a military historian; Hal Hirsch; Bill Roberti; and Kim Kagan.
According to its 2011 Form 990, ISW had operating expenses of just under $1.9 million that year, up from $1.57 in 2010.
A non-exhaustive Right Web investigation of Form 990 U.S. tax records revealed nearly $700,000 in donations from charitable foundations during 2007-2009. Donations included nearly $180,000 from the Foundation for Defense of Democracies, a premier neoconservative advocacy group, as well as $60,000 from the Lynde and Harry Bradley Foundation, a right-wing foundation that has funded other militarist outfits like the Middle East Media Research Institute (MEMRI) and Daniel Pipes' Middle East Forum, earning it a spot among the top funders of the anti-Islamic discourse in the United States according to a 2011 report by the Center for American Progress. The Marcus Foundation, which has also supported MEMRI, contributed another $250,000 to ISW during this period. (For a full list of Right Web's findings, click here.)
ISW has increasingly drawn support from military contractors with stakes in the issues that the institute studies. "According to ISW's last annual report," noted Consortium News in December 2012, "its original supporters were mostly right-wing foundations, such as the Smith-Richardson Foundation and the Lynde and Harry Bradley Foundation, but it now is backed by national security contractors, including major ones like General Dynamics, Northrop Grumman and CACI, as well as lesser-known firms such as DynCorp International, which provides training for Afghan police, and Palantir, a technology company founded with the backing of the CIA's venture-capital arm, In-Q-Tel. Palantir supplies software to U.S. military intelligence in Afghanistan."