Iraq, the Islamic State, and War Termination

Iraq, the Islamic State, and War Termination

Michael J. Mooney

SWJ Editor’s Note:  With the Islamic State’s so-called caliphate quickly crumbling within Iraq, the Iraqi government, led by its Prime Minister, must look to actions beyond the current kinetic fight to wisely use the victories they have gained against the terrorist group to bring peace and stability to Iraq.  Penned as an unsolicited letter to the Iraqi Prime Minister, the author offers three broad questions to provide strategic guidance as the active, open conventional fight against the Islamic State within Iraq inches closer to its conclusion.

To: H.E. Prime Minister Dr. Haider Al-Abadi,

Please allow me to add my congratulations to that of the international community on your recent liberation of Mosul from Daesh. Reports this week indicate that the city of Tal Afar has also been retaken.  Your country has every right to be proud of these hard-fought victories on the path to defeating the scourge of Daesh within Iraq.

To that end I humbly commend to you a few unsolicited strategic points to consider as you strive to achieve the policy goals you recently discussed with the Commanding General of U.S. Central Command, General Joseph Votel, to “end the presence of Daesh gangs in the Iraqi territories, liberating the rest of [our] territories, protecting and securing borders, [and] moving ahead to stabilize and return IDPs [internally displaced persons] to their homes.”

Of critical importance at this stage of your campaign against Daesh are the “war termination criteria” for your open, conventional fight against Daesh. How this fight ends will determine how unified (and bloody) a post-Daesh Iraq will be. Accordingly, there are three questions for you to consider.

The first question is “How far do we (i.e. Iraq) go militarily against Daesh?” There is no doubt that allowing Daesh to continue as an organized, armed group within your sovereign territory is unacceptable.  It appears that from your policy goals you have quantifiable and verifiable metrics against which to measure your progress. And as you affirmed with U.S. Secretary of State Rex Tillerson, last month, there no purely military solution to Daesh.  But it does raise a series of broader questions. 

Will you pursue Daesh “gangs” into the deserts of al-Anbar and beyond? And what exactly constitutes a Daesh “gang”? Can you achieve this without external support? Once the remaining major population centers are liberated, will you transition to a law enforcement approach?  What will determine that point? Have you considered the perils of passing the culminating point of victory, where continued military action is more damaging than beneficial?

“What do we demand at the peace table?” comes next. For hard-core members of Daesh, sitting around a peace table is anathema. The demographic this question focuses on are those individuals or tribes that openly or tacitly supported Daesh, but have now disavowed the group. Who will be forgiven and who will not? What requirements will you place upon them? 

In a manner, the “peace table” will be within the chambers of your government where you will need to seek consensus for systemic changes within your country to address the underlying causes which facilitated the reemergence of Daesh. To quote retired Gen. David Petraeus, an individual with much experience in your country, failure to do so will likely result in “ISIS 3.0.” The rigor you put into this “peacemaking” step will contribute greatly to crafting effective courses of action to address the final question of the three: “How will we enforce the peace?”

“Enforcing” the peace is different than “making” the peace; your obvious objective here is to prevent the Islamic State from reemerging yet again.  In this case enforcing the peace will involve “the application of a range of coercive measures, including [if required] the use of military force.” When you transition to a law enforcement approach, how will you integrate these military efforts with your police forces? Will the lead responsibility rest with your Counter Terrorism Service? What role will the Popular Mobilization Forces (PMF) and foreign militaries play? Legislatively, what authorities do you need to effectively continue the fight against Daesh?

As you move forward, by no means are the above questions the sole points you should consider as you move toward achieving your policy goals against Daesh. War is the most complex endeavor known to man, and the analysis required is more than I could possibly provide in a short missive to you.  As a hybrid threat, please remember to conduct frequent reassessments of your policy goals and corresponding strategies as the enemy you are fighting is not a potted plant, and has shown a tremendous ability to adapt and alter its modus operandi in response to pressure.  Such is the interactive nature of war.

“There are, it may be,” U.S. President Woodrow Wilson said 100 years ago as my country plunged into the cauldron of the First World War, “many months of fiery trial and sacrifice ahead of us…” Despite your announcement that the recapture of Mosul is “the end and the failure of the fake state”, you cannot, as one of your fellow Iraqi citizens opined, “use the victory at Mosul as a springboard to jump over the tremendous challenges ahead.” It is important to realize – and I believe you - that your country as well has many months of fiery trial and sacrifice ahead of it.

For the truth is that Daesh will never reconcile with your government. Ending the “state” does not end the threat, and you cannot kill ideas with bullets. An opponent’s “will to fight” multiplied by their “means to fight” equals their “ability to resist”.  As my own country experienced in the Vietnam War, breaking an opponent’s will is far more difficult than destroying means. The challenge for you is not to kill the enemy, but how to end their will to fight. As witnessed by the premature declarations of the demise of then al-Qaeda in Iraq, Daesh fully prescribes to the axiom put forth by the 19th century Prussian author Carl von Clausewitz that “...even the ultimate outcome of war is not always to be regarded as final. The defeated state often considers the outcome merely as a transitory evil, for which a remedy may still be found…”

The successes your country and the Global Coalition have made against Daesh are very encouraging to say the least.  The victories won on Iraqi soil - in the very land Daesh declared as part of their caliphate - benefit the entire globe, and are essential to the international community of nations achieving an enduring solution to Daesh. 

However, the decisions you make as this conventional fight ends, and far beyond the temporal confines of the active battlefield, along with strong, principled, even-handed leadership, will be the most consequential in proving Clausewitz wrong or right.  In closing, I offer the wisdom of the ancient historian Polybius as a guide. “It is a great feat to steer a policy to a successful conclusion or to overcome one’s enemies in a campaign,” he said, “but it requires a great deal more of skill and caution to make good use of such triumphs. Thus we find that those who have won victories are far more numerous than those who have used them well.” You have my most sincere wishes for success in using your victories well, and navigating the long road ahead.

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