Wednesday, October 18, 2017

Coming out of a Senate Foreign Relations Committee meeting, Sen. Bob Corker, R-Tenn., said, according to Foreign Policy’s Situation Report of July 20, there’s “a lot more clarity, a lot more focus on annihilation [of the Islamic State group].” Perhaps Corker is right, but public evidence suggests otherwise.

There is evidence that the current administration is applying more military pressure, focused and intense, on the group in Iraq and Syria. Maybe that’s coming in Afghanistan as well; we’ll see. So it’s fair to say military pressure is being applied in sophisticated, combined arms ways using indigenous forces and U.S. forces—sometimes as separate units, sometimes in coordination with each other and sometimes with U.S. forces embedded within indigenous forces. The battle for Tabqa in Syria is an example of this more intense and sophisticated approach; so was the battle for Mosul, Iraq. As far as any strategy of annihilation is concerned, however, the jury is still out.

A strategy of annihilation does not require killing or capturing every last enemy fighter. Rather, it means to seek victory in a war by attaining one’s strategic aims through defeating enemy forces and preventing their ability to reconstitute.

In a strategy of annihilation, one seeks to force or impose a decision on the enemy, rather than attrit the enemy to a point where it is willing to negotiate—that is a strategy of exhaustion. Thus, using a strategy of annihilation, one must take territory, force capability away from the enemy and prevent it from regaining either. Defeating the Islamic State group, al-Qaida and their ilk may mean some number of fighters and leader-zealots will remain, but these residuals will be unable to threaten governments or disrupt international security.

Two Other Lines of Effort

A strategy of annihilation against the enemies we face—that is, to defeat them and prevent their reconstitution—requires more than military means. The kind of intense military pressure the administration is placing on the Islamic State group in Iraq and Syria is necessary but not sufficient. A strategy of annihilation against this particular enemy necessitates at least two other lines of effort.

First, the same intense, coordinated and sophisticated pressure must be focused on shutting down the systems the enemy uses to reconstitute: getting funding; attracting and recruiting new members; coordinating operations and logistics; replacing dead and wounded members and leaders; and resupplying arms, ammunition, equipment and other supplies.

To concentrate this kind of pressure takes three things: identifying the right set of nonmilitary agencies that can achieve desired pressure; coordinating the actions of these agencies so they complement what is being done on the military front; and creating an organization that can do the coordination, synchronization and adaptation among these agencies as the war unfolds.

These nonmilitary means, to make matters more complex, must not only be integrated domestically but also transnationally because the systems the enemy uses to reconstitute are transnational.


A member of the Iraqi security forces near a patrol base in Mosul, Iraq.
(Credit: U.S. Army/Cpl. Rachel Diehm)

There’s not much public evidence that the current administration is doing any better than the past two at cracking the code for coordinating the nonmilitary actions necessary for annihilating this kind of enemy—domestically or transnationally. Certainly, our newly announced strategy in Afghanistan and South Asia suggests U.S. efforts will use all elements of national power to strip the enemy of territory, cut off funding, expose their ideology and dry up recruitment. Perhaps these words convey an administration that finally can create and sustain the kind of domestic and transnational “counter-reconstitution” program that is necessary to defeat our enemies.

The proof will be in the pudding, however, for previous administrations used similar words—words, however, that did not match what the administrations actually did.

Strategic End Remains Elusive

Second, the current administration is like the previous ones in that none have produced a plan for what happens after the fighting. What is the strategic aim a military victory over the Islamic State group or al-Qaida helps attain? Perhaps this administration is working on that. I suppose somebody is. But there’s not much evidence of it in the public sphere.

Annihilating the Islamic State group, al-Qaida and their ilk is a means toward a strategic end, and that end remains elusive. Using terms like “winning” and “victory” is not enough. After 16 years of war, the U.S. and its allies and partners must finally answer the key strategic question: What is the durable political solution in Iraq and Syria, as well as the rest of the globe, that annihilation of the Islamic State group and al-Qaida will help achieve? Assuming some kind of “status quo ante 9/11” will naturally return is fantasy. The U.S. must take the lead in structuring a new status quo so to speak, one that reduces global instability and the continued likelihood of war.

The previous administrations had no answer to this key strategic question and so far, neither does this one. Without an answer—or at least an agreement among a sufficient number of governments on the framework of an answer—we just set the conditions for continued fighting. Like the counter-reconstitution program necessary for a strategy of annihilation, this broader strategy and the durable, political solution toward which it aims beg a transnational approach.

Support Won’t Last Forever

Absent these two nonmilitary lines of effort, one doesn’t annihilate anything. Rather, one temporarily disrupts the enemy—which is what we’ve been doing for the past 16 years. Absent these nonmilitary lines of effort, our enemies will simply resume operations somewhere in the world where they are able, or change their operational methods. I hope this administration is taking these other two lines of effort—equally essential to military action—seriously. For these are the conditions necessary for a strategy of annihilation to work. American support for a war that seemingly cannot end successfully will not last forever.  

Success in the war against the Islamic State group and al-Qaida matters not only to the American public but also to a global security environment that America needs to flourish. Russia, China and Iraq—all near-peer, revisionist competitors—are watching. So is North Korea. They are making conclusions about whether the U.S. is able to use force to attain its strategic aims. Part of the reason for the “competition” rising in the South China Sea, Central Europe, throughout the Middle East and from North Korea results from conclusions these nations are drawing. Further, the longer we take in our war against the Islamic State group, al-Qaida and the like, the more at risk we are in being able to deter rival powers and keep global competition below the threshold of conventional war.