When the US military announced in October 2014 that it chose Operation Inherent Resolve as the name for its bombing campaign against the Islamic State (IS) in Iraq and Syria, the reaction from the American public was not especially kind.
"The Pentagon has picked Operation Inherent Resolve as the name for its fight against ISIS," Tonight Show host Jimmy Fallon said during a monologue. "Unfortunately, two terrorists got away while they were busy thinking of that name."
Now, dozens of pages of previously secret military documents recently obtained by VICE News from United States Central Command (CENTCOM) provide the first look at the behind-the-scenes discussions that led to the naming of the multibillion bombing campaign against the Islamic State, now entering its second year. US military officials were actually considering three other operational names — Iraqi Resolve, Iraqi Unity, and Earnest Partner — and did not initially champion Inherent Resolve.
"We recommend [redacted] be given the name OPERATION IRAQI UNITY which is very close in meaning to the Arabic 'Almaliyet Tawlheed al Iraq,'" says an August 7, 2014 email sent to General Lloyd J. Austin, the commander of CENTCOM who oversaw the process of naming the operation. "'Almaliyet Tawlheed al Iraq' means, 'Operation Unity for Iraq.' As best expressed by LTG [Lieutenant General John Bednarek, the top American general in Iraq], this is what the majority of Iraqis want, i.e. unity (Sunni, Shia, Kurds, Yezidi's [sic], Shabaks,) etc., etc."
But after the military consulted with coalition partners, that name was rejected as being "too limited to Iraq," according to an October 1, 2014 email sent by a CENTCOM official, whose name was redacted, to Captain Richard W. Haupt and other officials whose names were also blacked out.
The email does note, however, that Iraqis "really liked" the name Iraqi Unity.
"As recently as this morning I received reports form [sic] OSC-I [Office of Security Cooperation-Iraq] and the JOC [Joint Operations Center] in Baghdad reiterating this…. Since this proposal, the JS [Joint Staff] offered/proposed the name INHERENT RESOLVE. This would cover notonly [sic] Operations in Iraq but the broader Campaign as well. We checked this with the Arabic experts. They do not think that Arab audiences will react negatively to the name itself. The Arabic for Inherent Resolve is Al-Azm al-assil or Al-Hasam al-assil. Both Al-Azm and Al-Hassam translate as 'Resolve'; however, Al-Azm conveys the sense of resolve as determination, whereas Al-Hassam signifies achievement. Either way, we believe the name to be safe enough for Arab and Western Coalition members."
According to the documents, the three proposed operational names were chosen in accordance with the naming conventions established in the Chairman of the Joint Chiefs of Staff manual titled "Code Word, Nicknames, and Exercise Term (NICKA) System," a classified computer database. CENTCOM is restricted to developing nicknames that consist of two separate words, the first of which must begin with one of the combination of letters assigned to CENTCOM. The Secretary of Defense has final approval of the name.
The documents contained a list of 24 approved code names and nicknames for operations, all of which were redacted on national security grounds. But none failed to be deemed appropriate to use for the military campaign against IS (often referred to as ISIL by US officials).
The rationale for the proposed operational names, CENTCOM explained, was aimed at evoking 'optimism in those participating in the operation, including Iraqi and US personnel.'
In the "Art of Naming Operations," a military journal article published in 1995, Army Lieutenant Colonel Gregory Sieminski wrote that since 1989, with the invasion of Panama, major US military operations have received nicknames in an effort to help shape "domestic and international perceptions about the activities they describe."
"From names that stress an operation's humanitarian focus, like Operation Provide Comfort in Turkey, to ones that stress an operation's restoration of democratic authority, like Operation Uphold Democracy in Haiti, it is evident that the military [recognizes] the power of names in waging a public relations campaign, and the significance of winning that campaign to the overall effort," Sieminski wrote.
So what does Operation Inherent Resolve convey? A set of draft talking points dated September 22, 2014 and included in the cache of documents CENTCOM turned over to VICE News lays it out:
"The name Inherent Resolve is intended to reflect the unwavering resolve and deep commitment of the U.S. and partner nations to eliminate the terrorist group ISIL and the threat they pose to Iraq, the region and the wider international community."
The discussions centering on what to name the war against IS began even before the US officially launched its first airstrikes on August 8, 2014. Two days earlier, CENTCOM, which has oversight of the operation against IS, circulated an information paper to high-ranking Pentagon and Obama administration officials and partner nations suggesting the three names.
"The name of the operation must portray the country of Iraq as the focal point for the operation," the two-page CENTCOM paper said. "The first two recommendations include the word 'Iraqi' in the title to draw attention to the Iraqi government, Iraqi Security Forces, and Iraqi people who are responsible for the success of the operation. The third recommendation focuses on the word 'partner,' underscoring the United States' role as an ally and enabler to the Iraqis for this operation."
The rationale for the three proposed operational names, CENTCOM explained, was aimed at evoking "optimism in those participating in the operation, including Iraqi and US personnel."
"The first recommendation, Iraqi Resolve, evokes a sense of determination and strength in the Iraqi government, the ISF (Iraqi Security Forces), the population, and the allies assisting their Iraqi counterparts," according to the CENTCOM paper. "The second recommendation, Iraqi Unity, reinforces the notion of a country, a government, a security force, and a population which is inclusive and unified for this operation and beyond. The third recommendation, Earnest Partner, focuses on the United States' commitment to the Iraqi people."
Still, for two months after the August 2014 paper was distributed, the military campaign against IS was without an official name, referred to by a number designated by Major General Steven Busby, CENTCOM's director of Strategy Plans and Policy.
This resulted in several news reports quoting anonymous officials who claimed the decision to wage a two-month bombing campaign against IS without a designated name was political and underscored that the Obama administration was not eager to embrace its new war.
"If you name it, you own it," an unnamed defense official told the Wall Street Journal in a report published October 3, 2014. "And they don't want to own it."
The documents, however, show that it wasn't about politics. Rather it was about disagreements between the US and its coalition partners about disseminating a message that would be seen as limiting the new war to only Iraq. The CENTCOM information paper said another challenge was to ensure that the name would not be linked to previous military campaigns in Iraq, such as Operation Iraqi Freedom.
"The name of the operation must avoid terminology associated with any previous US operation in the region," the information paper said. "The three provided recommendations do not reference any previous operation and cannot be linked to historical events with negative connotation for the Iraqi population."
Those sensitivities were laid bare in one email, under the subject line "naming assistance," dated August 6, 2014 sent by a person employed by Vistra Communications, Inc., a military contractor, to a CENTCOM official. Both of their names were redacted. The Vistra representative advised, "Would recommend deleting 'Iraqi Guard;' similar to Iraqi 'Republican Guard' and carries baggage from the Saddam era."
Still, CENTCOM officials were aware that the nameless operation against IS was turning into a public relations nightmare. One set of talking points said, "This departure from established practice has raised numerous questions from the media and the public as to why no operational name has been assigned."
Although the talking points suggest Operation Inherent Resolve was the name everyone involved in the naming process settled upon in late September 2014 after Iraqi Unity was rejected, it was still unclear if it would make the final cut. Just days before the Pentagon officially unveiled Operation Inherent Resolve on October 15, 2014, CENTCOM was still seeking final approval for the name, along with guidance as to what it could publicly say about the operation — both in a set of talking points and in the command's public statement about Inherent Resolve. In the latter document, military officials asked public affairs to "focus on mentioning coalition aspects" of the operation in its public statement. The draft public statement was then changed to include partner nations "in the region and around the globe" and the dedication of coalition members "to work closely with our friends in the region."
CENTCOM also provided VICE News with its draft copies of talking points and responses to eight likely questions, which shows how the military's messaging about Operation Inherent Resolve evolved. A set of draft talking points contained a question (presumably one that journalists would ask CENTCOM officials) about the joint operation area under Inherent Resolve. The response to the question in the talking points said it was Iraq and Syria.
But another draft of the talking points — the sixth, dated October 15, 2014 — said, "Due to operational security considerations I can't discuss the land and maritime boundaries of the joint operation area."
In an email sent on the same day, Lieutenant Colonel Steven Wollman, the CENTCOM spokesman at MacDill Air Force Base in Tampa, wrote in an October 15, 2014 email, "Please take out the part about service members serving in Syria." (CENTCOM publicly announced the name of its air war against IS on October 15, 2014.)
That prompted a track changes comment in the talking points document by an official who asked, "Is there a way to define this with an unclassified statement?" The comments also indicate that it was a CENTCOM lawyer who had been preparing some of the answers to the likely questions reporters would ask.
CENTCOM's public statement, however, does say that Inherent Resolve involves military action against IS in Iraq and Syria.
Another talking points question asked how the name would impact troops deployed to support Inherent Resolve. "Naming the operation has no immediate impact on service members deployed in support of this operation," was the response.
In a track changes comment, CENTCOM public affairs officer Major Curtis Kellogg wrote:
Understand the SJA's [Staff Judge Advocate] comment below, but do we want to discuss the psychological impact as a reason for naming an operation? If so, maybe we start the answer with: 'Naming the operation helps codify unity of effort and unity of purpose for forces deployed in support of these operations, providing a clear and concise designation to categorize current and future actions against ISIL. From a practical standpoint, naming the operation helps define the purpose. I believe Soldiers also get the psychological benefit after they retire of saying that they contributed to a named operation because the public can relate.
Kellogg's suggestions apparently were not adopted for the final talking points. Additionally, a CENTCOM official whose name was redacted emailed Kellogg about the public announcement the command intended to make about the name Operation Inherent Resolve and said, "I am unaware of any positive authority granted by naming an operation other than perhaps priority of resources from within" the Department of Defense.
In another email, a CENTCOM official congratulated Kellogg for preparing responses to likely questions about the legal significance of a named operation versus an unnamed one. The talking points said there is no significant difference.
"Good job capturing what we provided by SEPCOR [separate correspondence] and melding it with what you received from [the Joint Chiefs of Staff] and [lawyers]," the CENTCOM official said in the October 15, 2014 email. "The result is a nicely balanced 'its convenient to have a name for the operation, but it isn't what allows the operation to be carried out.'"
A response to the same email hours later made reference to Operation New Dawn, the name the military christened the conflict in Iraq in 2010 to coincide with an end to combat operations there.
"'New Dawn' now seems ironic," the CENTCOM official wrote. "Given current bleak scenario and situation, for sequencing purposes I'd have gone with 'High Noon.'"
As of last November 30, the US has spent $5.36 billion — $11 million a day — on Operation Inherent Resolve since the start of the bombing campaign on August 8, 2014, according to the latest figures tallied by the Pentagon.
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