Do Great Nations Fight Endless Wars? Against the Islamic State, They Might

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In his State of the Union Address, President Donald Trump declared that “Great nations do not fight endless wars.” It was a memorable line, met with bipartisan applause that provided the backdrop for again emphasizing his administration’s intention to draw down U.S. force commitments in Afghanistan and Syria. Previously, Trump had identified the defeat of the Islamic State (also known as ISIL) as the justification for withdrawal from Syria. Yet the last four years have shown the global implications of mistakenly believing the Islamic State was permanently defeated after 2011. The question for past, present, and even future administrations is how should a great nation confront an adversary like Islamic State that is committed to fighting forever war? The answer requires a more advanced understanding of Islamic State as a strategic adversary than we generally possess.

Why ISIL Survives

The Islamic State movement has demonstrated an equanimity — even a desire — to be misunderstood and underestimated by its foes. It is hard to believe that a group with as high a profile as the Islamic State can be underestimated. Yet that is its history. The early focus of U.S. occupational forces in Iraq in 2003 on Ba’athist remnants led to a belated realization that the initial roots of the Salafi-jihadi group were spreading rapidly, particularly after the 2004 battles of Fallujah. The refocus of U.S. counter-network targeting eventually adapted but found an opponent that was well entrenched across Iraq and that resisted elimination even after the successful “Surge” of U.S. military brigades, combined with tribal forces of the “Awakening” movement, smashed its base in 2007. Prior to this, some analysts suspected that the United States was embellishing the group’s influence for propaganda purposes. In retrospect, these accusations were unfounded, and the group’s core ably navigated the shoals of their defeat and eventually reset for the future.

The underestimation resumed after a brief abatement during the post-surge period, as the Iraqi government’s focus on state building and power consolidation precluded a serious focus on the Islamic State movement, which led to a decline in counter-terrorism capability. The group’s attacks in Iraq after 2011 were under-reported on a wide scale due to a reliance on media outlets for attack data and a general lack of visibility in rural areas. By 2013, the group was in full swing in Iraq while simultaneously gaining ground in Syria through its Jabhat al-Nusra franchise. The group was so underestimated during this period that reports often describe the fall of Mosul in 2014 as an invasion from Syria, when in reality the preponderance of the group’s military and terrorist attacks, local recruiting, and fundraising was all taking place in Iraq. The fall of Mosul was less a coup de main and more a belated realization by Iraqi security forces of the true extent of the Islamic State’s domination of northern and western Iraq.

The picture is clear: Underestimation and misunderstanding have been a boon for the Islamic State at times when sustained pressure would likely have curbed its recuperative potential. Outside of Iraq and Syria, this pattern holds true. For example, the Islamic State-influenced takeover of the city of Marawi in the Philippines by a coalition of jihadists punctured perceptions that preexisting militant movements in Asia were impervious to Islamic State poaching. The devastation of the city after a five-month siege that mirrored the Islamic State’s grab of large populated urban centers elsewhere will have a lasting impact on the Asian jihadist milieu for decades. Whether an aspirating affiliate like that in East Asia or a formal wilayat (province) such as those in Afghanistan or Nigeria, miscalculation of the threat is too often fueled by a deeper misunderstanding of the Islamic State’s strategic logic.

The Islamic State movement’s strategy of revolutionary warfare — characterized by phases of unconventional and conventional politico-military operations that the group transitions through dependent on conditions in the field — is the means by which its creed of perpetual war is realized. Throughout its history, the group’s strategy has alternated between brilliance and foolhardiness, producing oscillatory results that further confuse and at times inspire the underestimation of the group’s trajectory and level of threat. War is an enterprise whose outcome is difficult to predict, and the Islamic State’s fortunes in war have reinforced this notion.

The movement’s long experience of survival and redemption in Iraq made it the perfect entity to flourish in Syria, where insurgent fracturing and rivalry frustrated the anti-Assad coalition. The Islamic State, with its determination to create a monopoly of political power in a landscape of local militias, always had the best idea of achieving unification through relentless recruiting and absorption. In Iraq, the careful elimination — and in some cases, co-option — of its Sahwa (Awakening) tribal rivals, whom the Iraqi government had reluctantly entrusted with security responsibilities in the Sunni heartland, was often brilliant in planning and execution. The Islamic State’s written strategy at the time, with the slogan “nine bullets for the traitors, one for the enemy,” focused its forces on a slow attrition of security forces in breadth and width while ignoring the withdrawing Americans. In short, what may look like sweeping successes, such as the capture of Mosul or Raqqa, are inevitably built on years of patient strategic operations targeting local communities.

Don’t miss Haroro in a new episode of the War on the Rocks podcast on this very topic

A Strategic Culture

As has often been the case throughout its history, the fruits of the Islamic State’s successes contained the seeds of its future failings. For example, transitioning from insurgency to proto-state is a time-, resource-, and personnel-intensive enterprise. What emerges then is that the Islamic State’s greatest successes — i.e., holding territory upon which to run its so-called caliphate — contributed significantly to its demise. In 2015, the Islamic State’s upward trajectory faltered for the first time since 2010. And so it reluctantly engineered a transition to strategic defense, trading space for time to extract resources, save money, recruit soldiers for the future insurgency, and move those resources from its collapsing caliphate. To point to the Islamic State’s conventional and territorial demise as indicative of strategic defeat and use it as a rationale for a complete withdrawal is dangerous if allies are left ill-prepared and unsupported for the challenges ahead.

Sixteen years of constant evolution while pressured by the world’s greatest counterterrorism units has produced an organization tailored for perpetual war. The Islamic State’s creed of loyalty and disavowal (al wala’ wal bara’) demands constant battle without compromise against its enemies: total war in the Clausewitzian sense. However, against more powerful adversaries, the Islamic State understands that operationalizing such a creed requires a phased politico-military campaign strategy of revolutionary war. Of course, the organization of its personnel and resources (i.e. its organizational configuration) must transition accordingly, and the Islamic State is structured for that purpose. Organizationally, the adhocratic qualities that characterize the Islamic State — selective decentralization, small specialized teams functionally deployed for operational needs, liaison units to link disparate networks to the central coordinating mechanism and mobilized supporting functions — remain largely understudied, to the detriment of counter-strategy design. These fundamental organizational traits enable the contraction and expansion of the group as it moves through the phases of its strategy during times of boom and bust.

Indeed, the Islamic State movement has a decades-long history of continual evolution, shape shifting, rebranding, and co-option of fracturing jihadi rivals and local tribes, as well as attracting streams of foreign fighters. It is a history characterized by cycles of extraordinary success and crippling failures that the movement appears to instrumentally embrace. It is a “learning organization” that is deeply conscious of its history as an essential source of “lessons” for improving future performance. In the aftermath of the group’s defeat during the “surge” and Sunni Awakening period in Iraq, leaders in the group penned multiple “lessons learned” analyses that reshaped its strategy and lay the foundations for resurgence. Today, the same dynamic is playing out as members of the group try to rationalize the caliph’s current approach without straying into disobedience and conspiracy.

A biased history is also regularly deployed in Islamic State’s propaganda, especially to transnational audiences, as a testimony to its principles and the ultimate barometer for the state of the ummah. The Islamic State’s propagandists have often demonstrated a willingness to play upon historical memory in local populations it once controlled by re-writing its legacy as one of prosperity and security. By deploying nostalgia narratives in this way, the Islamic State seeks to reframe its history and sow the seeds for returning. It is a major reason why the Islamic State has tended to reemerge in communities it once controlled. The overarching point is that all of this is possible, to varying degrees, because of a strategic culture that has been encouraged by the group’s leaders, past and present.

True resiliency requires more than mere survival but also strategic and operational coherence over time. A major challenge facing the Islamic State’s leaders is how to maintain strategic and operational coherence of effort when mechanisms such as an active middle management, deployment of specialist liaison teams, and direct communication with networks have been crippled. The Islamic State’s leaders will need to ensure that this coherence is maintained, especially given its focus on manhaj (methodology) as a source of credibility and efficacy. The post-Abu Musab al-Zarqawi leaders of the Islamic State have sought to bring stability to the movement, especially during times of trouble. An example of how the movement is organizationally evolving to deal with these challenges of decline emerged in recent months when the Islamic State disseminated doctrine to help guide its so-called “media operatives” in how best to support the movement’s propaganda effort. While its online supporters are important amplifiers and content creators, concerns were emerging within the organization that these auxiliaries were inadvertently broadcasting erroneous messages. The Islamic State’s Caliph Abu Bakr al-Baghdadi addressed this danger in his August 2018 speech, and the Islamic State’s Arabic newsletter Al-Naba later offered a framework for guiding its supporter base.

Defeat and rollback have also inspired serious division within the Islamic State between its moderate camp and the dominant hardliners, as Aymenn Jawad al-Tamimi, Cole Bunzel, and Tore Hamming have examined based on a series of leaked dissents. But efforts in 2018 suggest that the Islamic State’s leadership has tried to be responsive to these tensions. The caliph’s intervention into serious internal disputes has potentially prevented a takeover by more extreme wings of the group. By reshuffling the members of the Islamic State’s consultative council and sending some of its highest-ranking members into exile, Abu Bakr seems to have exercised extant power over the group, the cost of which remains to be fully appreciated.

Keeping ISIL Defeated

By almost every tangible measure, the Islamic State’s political goals and standing army have been crushed. Our own history demonstrates that these battlefield defeats are rarely permanent, and militant groups can survive and reorganize to fight again. And so it is just as clear that the Islamic State retains an operational guerilla capability in Syria and Iraq, while influencing formal and aspirational affiliates active around the world.

As the Islamic State has successfully transitioned back to uniform insurgency after five years of holding territory in some fashion, so should Washington shift its efforts in Syria and Iraq. The capabilities needed to destroy the caliphate are not the same careful instruments needed to limit the recuperative potential of the movement, and calls to transform the current coalition into a more sustainable posture that focuses on contributing force-multiplying strategic effects in support of allied partner efforts are well-founded. Degrading the qualities that have enabled the Islamic State to remain on the battlefield, aggravating tensions within the movement, and exacerbating fractures between the Islamic State and its communities of potential support must be central to such efforts. We suggest a posture based on five interconnected pillars.

Pillar 1: Support intelligence capabilities

It is essential that intelligence capabilities are deployed to closely monitor the Islamic State movement wherever it emerges. While this will often mean the United States and Western allies taking the lead, boosting capacity-building initiatives for partners across the Middle East, Africa, and Asia will be vital for identifying operational and strategic shifts that are indicative of the Islamic State (and affiliates) transitioning through the phases of their campaign plans.

Pillar 2: Advantage in the air

Airpower is an area in which Islamic State has been unable to counter U.S. and allied efforts. Indeed, in his September 2014 speech Indeed, Your Lord is Ever Watchful, the Islamic State’s late spokesman Abu Muhammad al-Adnani lamented, “O Allah, you have placed them above us by their airplanes. O Allah, you know we have no power nor strength against their planes except through You. O Allah, do not let them be above us while You are above them. O Allah, do not let them be above us while we are higher than them.” Air strikes have played a pivotal role in destroying Islamic State assets and restricting the movement of personnel, resources, and capabilities. The military advantage is compounded by the boost in morale with the availability of air support for ground operations.

Pillar 3: Military assistance

Whether in the Middle East, Africa, or Asia, it is local forces that will need to do the vast majority of the fighting against the Islamic State and its affiliates. Ensuring that government forces have the knowledge, skills, and capabilities necessary to succeed will require direct government-to-government and military-to-military partnerships in some contexts (e.g. Iraq, the Philippines) whereas, in others, it may be necessary to support neighboring countries and friendly local actors in the conflict-effected area itself (e.g. Syria). The deployment of military personnel — whether for “training and assistance” or special forces to engage in targeted operations or direct air support (pillar 2) — may also be necessary and the exact numbers for deployment will depend on the mission. What is most important is to recognize that a continued presence and engagement has benefits beyond just anti-ISIL efforts but broader, and more important, “grand strategy” aims of being an engaged power.

Pillar 4: Salting the earth to prevent a legacy-based resurgence

The Islamic State has tended to reemerge in locations where it has previously succeeded. It does so for a variety of reasons, including that it may have networks already embedded in those communities, it understands the physical, psychosocial, and strategic nuances of the location, and the very human reality of returning to a place that is known rather than unknown during times of uncertainty. In this regard, there is a lot of ground to makeup. The anti-ISIL coalition decision to use heavy munitions in the urban fight to remove Islamic State militants from Raqqa and Mosul and elsewhere will make it even harder to engage with communities who are fragmented and unable to rebuild. It is a point of leverage the Islamic State is sure to manipulate. Indeed, the Islamic State has a history of manipulating perceptions of its legacy to help sow the seeds for a future resurgence. Such areas must therefore be prioritized as targets to prevent a future Islamic State emergence by engaging in grassroots capacity-building programs directly with local communities.

Areas where the Islamic State has succeeded have often been places where the reach of central governments are weak or non-existent. Working with locals at the grassroots level can be a way to circumvent such problems and directly engage with people innately invested in their communities for the long term. Development projects owned and operated by local community members can be a more cost-effective means to build society and goodwill. Our own experiences working across the Middle East and South and Southeast Asia in various capacities to counter Islamic State in the field is that in the immediate aftermath of the Islamic State being routed from their cities, local communities are typically keen to engage in initiatives that will prevent their return. Offering capacity-building programs — for example, in strategic communications and public outreach — gives local actors the strategic and technical skills to “outcompete” Islamic State elements for the hearts and minds of their people. After all, locals are inevitably the best message architects and messengers for communicating with their own communities, certainly compared to “outsiders” from capital cities or foreign countries. If such grassroots efforts are successful, it may force the Islamic State to attempt its resurgence in areas where they are less acquainted and must accept higher levels of potential risk.

Pillar 5: Drive the force-multiplier effect

These pillars are designed to have a force-multiplying effect and must be synchronized in practice. With better intelligence on Islamic State activities comes the promise of more effective and efficient military operations. As local security improves, there will be more space and time for rebuilding shattered cities. By supporting local grassroots efforts and strengthening communities from the bottom-up, the more Islamic State networks are likely to be exposed by “friendlier” populations and potentially adopt more coercive and divisive strategies and/or be forced to build their resurgence elsewhere. By taking greater risks they are, in turn, more exposed to the pillars of this approach.

Finding the Balance for Anti-ISIL and Broader Strategic Benefits

The equation facing strategic-policy decisionmakers in how to confront the Islamic State threat is not a binary choice between “eternal war” or “total withdrawal.” Nonetheless, this is where we find ourselves. While former Obama administration officials would claim that their offers to remain partners against the Islamic State’s predecessors were in good faith, the low levels of commitment were disregarded by the Iraqis as not worth the political risk. In effect, and maybe without the same intent, Obama’s policy in 2011 had the same effect as the current administration’s planned abandonment of the fight against Islamic State in the Syrian theater: a resurgent Islamic State across the Levant forcing the United States to return. Advocates of leaving need to explain how they plan to mitigate the risk that the Islamic State’s next boom period continues its exponential increase in violence against civilians as well as the synergistic effects of expansive geographic influence. Contrast this risk mitigation with a more balanced, tailored, and proportional long-term commitment that avoids yet another demoralizing mobilization of a tired anti-ISIL coalition.

More broadly, remaining committed to allies that are still in the fight against Islamic State is important for the United States for reasons beyond the anti-ISIL effort. Being actively engaged in troubled regions is not only important for demonstrating to allies that a relationship with the United States is based on values and not fleeting expediencies. It is also a means by which the United States can work to maintain intra- and inter-regional stability while establishing a buffer against an Eastern Bloc actively seeking to exert its influence across the Middle East, Africa and Asia.

What Great Nations Do

Be careful of intuitive but false claims about great nations and endless wars. Great powers sometimes do fight long wars, particularly when there are no prospects for a better peace. The Islamic State, unlike what we currently see with the Taliban, will never compromise. Like other ideological foes in our past, our only choice is to fight them until they pose a low residual threat to our regional and global interests. What Great nations do not do is arbitrarily leave partners to fight alone against our adversaries. Faced with this challenge, a great nation recognizes that falling for the zero-sum belief that the Islamic State threat requires an all-or-nothing commitment is the first step towards succumbing politically, strategically, and operationally to the strategic logic of their asymmetric campaign.

This threat is not going to disappear with the possible degradation and permanent defeat of an Islamic State. Non-state actors deploying violence for political ends, regardless of ideological motivation, will be a perpetual security concern that will continually evolve, with the potential to destabilize not just communities or nations but entire regions. As a great nation, the United States must adopt a posture that enables it to confront the threat of terrorism at home and abroad in a manner that is politically, militarily, and economically sustainable.

But the threat of terrorism, including that posed by the Islamic State, al-Qaeda, and other jihadists, is not an existential one for a great nation. So the United States needs to develop strategies that are not only sustainable but proportional in the context of other security, foreign, and public policy concerns. It is within this context that a great nation may be tempted to pivot its focus to managing greater concerns for the nation and globe. However, even great nations need partners when faced with their own existential threats. And when that day comes, the United States will want to find its allies by its side. For those allied nations, it is times like these — when they themselves face existential threats — that will be the barometer for their willingness to help. A great nation recognizes that in helping to secure its friends, it is securing itself.


Haroro J. Ingram is a senior research fellow with the Program on Extremism at George Washington University.

Craig Whiteside is associate professor of national security affairs at the Naval War College (Monterey) and a newly appointed fellow with the Program on Extremism.

Both authors are associate fellows at the International Centre for Counterterrorism in The Hague. These views belong to the authors and do not reflect the views or policy of the U.S. government.

Image: DoD Photo by Navy Petty Officer 2nd Class Dominique A. Pineiro