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Ready, Fire, Aim: The Importance of Strategic Objectives in Countering Violent Non-State Actors
M. Daniel Kolva
"After you throw the spear, you cannot catch the end of it."
-- African Proverb
Over the last 15 years, the U.S. and her allies have responded quickly and heavily to terrorism. The intent behind these immediate responses was to demonstrate resolve, illustrate dire consequences for committing terrorism, and above all (and rarely mentioned) provide faith and confidence to the attacked population that they are safe and secure from such threats. The goal of this paper is to prescribe an alternate strategic approach to dealing with Violent Non-State Actors (VNSA) or Violent Extremist Organizations (VEO). While our strategic approach to dealing with VNSAs over the last 15 years has illustrated innumerable tactical and several operation successes, the strategic goals have not been met or even clearly defined. This is largely due to the immediate responses and the general perception that tactical success is equivalent to strategic success. Immediate responses may or may not align with long-range strategic goals and objectives. Our deep analysis and understanding of the problem sets regarding each VNSA we choose to engage needs to be attained much earlier in the process. The importance of setting achievable, specific, and strategic objectives as well as maintaining the strategic patience required for such objectives needs to be developed well before the bulk of decisive (kinetic) action.
This essay intends to survey the latest strategic guidance regarding VNSAs compared to other peer or near-peer global competitors, illustrate how actions against ISIL may be out of order (ready, fire, aim), and finally offer potential strategic objectives related to defeating VNSAs. If countering VNSAs such as ISIL will be a long-term campaign, we will need long-term goals and objectives.
Strategic guidance across the Department of Defense, as well as guidance from the Commander in Chief, often explain the importance of thwarting VNSA’s such as the Islamic State. Most strategic documents with this guidance even mention the Islamic State (IS, ISIS, ISIL, Da’esh) by name. Described as an immediate threat to U.S. national security, the Islamic State appears in Combatant Commands annual Posture statements to the Senate and House Armed Services Committees amongst other threats such as Russia, China, North Korea, and Iran. [i],[ii],[iii],[iv] This may give disproportionate attention to a VNSA (or pseudo-state actor)[v], placing the Islamic State on the same level as long-standing peer or near-peer competitors on the global stage.
The Commander in Chief described how the U.S. will defeat ISIL in the National Security Strategy as well as during an address to the nation after the attack in San Bernardino, California. First, hunt down terrorist plotters in any country where it is necessary; second, provide training and equipment to tens of thousands of Iraqi and Syrian forces; third, stop ISIL’s operations -- disrupt plots, cut off financing, and prevent recruiting; and fourth, pursue ceasefires and a political resolution to the Syrian war. [vi] [vii] This strategy is largely tactical and operational. It is worthwhile to note that the U.S. and regional allies had been conducting strikes in Syria since August 2014; the plan unveiled by the President came out in December 2015, 16 months later.
The 2015 National Military Strategy (NMS) continues this line of thinking and aligns military activities with the National Security Strategy. The NMS also compares the application of military power to both state and non-state actors, as well as a blend of the two. The 2015 NMS “asserts that the application of the military instrument of power against state threats is very different than the application of military power against non-state threats. We are more likely to face prolonged campaigns than conflicts that are resolved quickly…that control of escalation is becoming more difficult and more important…and that as a hedge against unpredictability with reduced resources, we may have to adjust our global posture.” [viii]
Both state and non-state conflict can be easily defined. The combination of the two, not so much. The Islamic State, as the name implies falls into this combination. “If ISIS is purely and simply anything, it is a pseudo-state led by a conventional army. And that is why the counterterrorism and counterinsurgency strategies that greatly diminished the threat from al Qaeda will not work against ISIS.”[ix] The conundrum we find ourselves in when dealing with a hybrid conflict such as with the Islamic State is that we have sharpened our military skills in dealing with terrorist organizations (VNSAs such as al-Qaeda and al-Shabaab) while deciding not to engage in costly and manpower heavy conventional warfare. In other words, the consequence of state conflict is greater than non-state conflict, however the U.S. military seems to be more ready to deal with the latter.
Ready (or not)
After 15 years of sustained non-state conflict (Global War on Terror, Counter Violent Extremist Operations, etc.), the U.S. military and her numerous partners around the globe have attained proficiency in killing / capturing terrorists, thwarting terrorist plots to conduct attacks, and interrupting / denying terrorist resources. The conventional capabilities of the U.S. military (state conflict) have however, waned. The service chiefs and service secretaries addressed this problem in their annual posture statements, starting with the Chairman of the Joint Chiefs of Staff: “For nearly a generation, we have consumed readiness as quickly as we have generated it. As a result, our long-term readiness has declined.” [x]
The Chief of Staff of the Army echoed these concerns and stated the Army is attempting to reverse the decline in readiness. “Given the past three years of reduced funding coupled with the uncertainty of future funding, the Army risks going to war with insufficient readiness to win decisively.” [xi] The Army Chief went on to describe how current Army leaders are trained and how they are trained to think. “Today, most leaders of combat formations have limited experience with combined arms operations against enemy conventional or hybrid forces.” [xii]
The post-World War II strategic posture influenced military senior leaders to plan for fighting a two-front conventional war. This does not seem possible today given the current readiness of the U.S. Army. “In fact, only one-third of Army forces are at acceptable combat readiness levels, a byproduct of near continuous deployments into Iraq and Afghanistan… Designed for all three components and all types of units, our objective within current budget projections is to achieve two-thirds combat readiness for global contingencies by 2023.” [xiii]
The Chief of Staff of the Air Force seconded the notion of declining conventional capability. “While our Airmen remain heavily engaged around the world, the average age of our aircraft is at an all-time high, and the size of our force and state of our full-spectrum readiness are at or near all-time lows.”[xiv] The U.S. has maintained global air superiority for over half a century. Closing technology gaps could make this capability less relevant. “Deteriorating military strength is an invitation for conflict as rising or unstable powers seek to gain from our eroding competitive advantage.” [xv]
The Navy Chief also discussed a declined but rebounding conventional naval force. “In the seven fiscal years from 9/11/2001 to 2009, our Fleet declined from 316 to 278 ships, and during that period, the Navy contracted for only 41 ships, not enough to keep our Fleet from declining nor keep our shipyards open and healthy. In the seven fiscal years following 2009, we will have contracted for 84 ships.”[xvi] The U.S. Navy has been the premier (and persistent) power projection force for well over a half century. A decline in this proven capability could be detrimental to U.S. global standing.
While the Army, Air Force, and Navy all illustrate a declined or declining conventional force, all have contributed greatly (possibly causing a decline in readiness) to applying military power to defeat violent non-state actors over the last 15 years.
The coalition against ISIL is now in its 21th month. The strike missions not only continue, but have increased. “In November (2015), pilots in the U.S.-led coalition had dropped 3,227 bombs in Iraq and Syria, a record number for a single month and more than twice as many as they had used in November 2014. Since then, the totals for bombs dropped per month eclipsed the previous year. In March, pilots dropped 1,982 bombs compared with 1,685 in March 2015, an 18% increase.”[xvii] There have been no signs of the coalition changing course anytime soon, likely because of the many success from the campaign.
The Commander of U.S. Central Command has been responsible for the bulk of the U.S. non-state conflicts since September 2001. Named operations in Afghanistan, Iraq, and Syria fall within the Central Command area of responsibility. All of these operations focused (at some point) on defeating a VNSA and enabling regional forces to do so as well. The most recent operation is intended to defeat ISIL (Da’esh) as highlighted in the mission statement: Combined Joint Task Force – Operation INHERENT RESOLVE (CJTF-OIR), by, with and through regional partners, is to militarily defeat DA’ESH in the Combined Joint Operations Area in order to enable whole-of-coalition governmental actions to increase regional stability.[xviii] Whether or not militarily defeating ISIL will enable whole-of-coalition governmental actions remains to be seen.
ISIL will be militarily defeated. The numerous successes highlighted in the CENTCOM posture statement show this trajectory. [xix] As these achievements are amassed however, the question remains; to what strategic end are we defeating ISIL? How does this compare to countering Russia, China, North Korea, and Iran in the long term? How does defeating ISIL compare to countering Russian aggression in Western Europe? China’s claims in the South China Sea and nuclear proliferation? North Korea’s nuclear sabre rattling? Iran’s influencing instability in the Middle East and again nuclear proliferation? All of these issues are met with more measured strategic planning. As mentioned earlier, the consequences of failure in state conflict are greater than non-state conflict. If the likes of the Islamic State are to be considered on the same level as peer or near-peer competitors, we still need strategic long-term objectives for VNSAs.
U.S. strategy has considered the potential for state conflict as the primary threat to national security for quite a long time. Today, these state conflict threats highlighted by both Strategic Command and Northern Command commanders include conventional, nuclear, cyber and/or counter-space threats.
Russia - Since victory in WWII, the primary threat has been Russia (Soviet Union, USSR). Much of this threat remains today, even post-Cold War. Many reasons for alarm were raised by both the STRATCOM and NORTHCOM commanders in their annual posture statements. [xx] [xxi] Most notable concerns include destabilizing actions in Syria and Ukraine, developing counter-space and cyber capabilities, as well as having the only strategic military threat able to imperil U.S. existence. Based current strategic assessments, Russia poses a strategic level threat to the U.S.
China - China, though ironically considered a third world country in certain circles, also poses a significant state conflict threat to the U.S. As the Northern Command posture statement concisely puts it, “China continues to modernize and expand its strategic forces with a focus on improving its ability to survive a first strike and penetrate United States’ missile defenses.” [xxii] China has developed a strategy that has remained consistent for possibly the last century.[xxiii] The U.S has maintained a strategic posture (though not as consistent, i.e. “One China policy and Taiwan) to counter China’s influence on the global stage.
North Korea - North Korea poses a strategic threat to the U.S. and her allies via an unpredictable leader in Pyongyang. Certainly, North Korea falls into the strategic category associated with state conflict threats to the U.S. [xxiv] [xxv] Most notable threats from North Korea include claims of miniaturized warheads, developing nuclear weapons capabilities, and hostile cyberspace activity.
Iran - Finally, among listed potential state conflicts, Iran remains a strategic concern as well. Iran is again, a strategic state conflict threat. “As Iran follows the mandates of the Joint Comprehensive Plan of Action, we must be vigilant to detect if Iran ever shifts its intentions to pursue a nuclear weapon. Iran continues to develop ballistic missiles and cyberspace capabilities – and we remain focused on countering its destabilizing activities in the region.”[xxvi] [xxvii]
ISIL - Now, comparing all of the above strategic level threat assessments and long-term views in preventing or preparing for potential state conflict, what is the U.S. strategic view of the Islamic State? Even after 15 years of conflict with VNSAs who mean to do immediate harm to the U.S. and her interests, we have not developed a long view. This could be due to the immediate nature of the threat, but again, 15 years deep into countering this type of threat world-wide, a set of strategic objectives is sorely needed.
The Special Operations Commander, the leader in fighting VNSAs expressed the strategic environment in fighting VNSAs. “Across state boundaries, violent non-state actors such as ISIL are exploiting local grievances among populations to advance their own horrific ends. Their methods routinely violate international norms and challenge regional governments’ capabilities to respond. These groups rely upon their ability to build common identities with sub-sets of disaffected populations and magnify the potential for violence. Other non-state actors have more criminal inclinations and avoid law enforcement while building their power and influence.” [xxviii] While this assessment offers implications for regional and cross-state conflict, it still does not offer strategic level objectives for the U.S.
NORTHCOM is the combatant command charged with protecting the homeland from threats emanating outside the continental U.S. As the NORTHCOM commander explains in his posture statement, however the threat is still immediate and very tactical with law enforcement the first line of defense.[xxix] In determining the best way to counter the threat by ISIL, the NORTHCOM commander describes a tactical approach. “For the Homeland, I believe Da’esh’s center of gravity is in their narrative and a perception of success in bringing about a 21st century “caliphate.” Our objective must move beyond defending against violent extremism to preventing it entirely by breaking their cycle of radicalization, which will require countering their narrative at the grassroots level.”[xxx] The NORTHCOM posture statement concludes with the command’s position to counter ISIL by being “prepared to support civil authorities when asked if a complex or large-scale attack were to take place.”[xxxi] Again, we have a largely tactical and reactive position for countering a VNSA.
Just as plans to defeat ISIS were laid out long after thousands and thousands of strikes already took place, so too has our understanding of the root causes of conflict which created the Islamic State. So how do we re-order the sequence of events in order to be ready first, take aim at the specific entities which will garner the desired effects, and then fire for effect while preventing collateral damage and exasperating the problem? The primary question remains and once answered can provide the joint force with the strategic guidance needed to better plan and execute a strategic fight against VNSAs. We must answer the questions: What happens when ISIL is defeated? What is the strategic end state 10-20 years from now?
Long-term Vision - So what is the best way to characterize our strategic objectives related to VNSAs? The idea should be to envision palatable inter-state relationships that benefit the United States and her allies. It should include nation-states (Iraq, Syria) that have normalized relationships within the international community. These nation-states will control their own borders, maintain their own security, and even contribute to providing security solutions to international crises. The defeat of the Islamic State could certainly contribute to this type of strategic end state, but will not be a strategic end state on its own. Strategic objectives require a vision that can be easily seen by the masses (or at least the strategic planners) in order to provide unity of effort for the objectives to be accomplished. If we could envision Iraqi security forces and a trusted Syrian force contributing to counter-terrorism missions in unstable areas elsewhere in the world, we may be on the right track.
Define the “Hearts and Minds” Battle End State - As the Northern Command commander alluded to, we need to better understand and address the root causes and break the cycle which leads people within a population to violent radicalization. The commander-in-chief explained this after a meeting with all of his security advisors ranging from combatant commanders to national security advisors and intelligence experts. “Ideologies are not defeated with guns. They are defeated with better ideas. This larger battle for hearts and minds is going to be a generational struggle… It will be decided by the countries and the communities that terrorists like ISIL target.”[xxxii] Does this mean local populations will eschew violence as a means to change their government? Do the populations have to become democracies? Better defining this will contribute to a larger vision.
Large-scale Non-Kinetic Action - Perhaps this hearts and minds battle can be fought with deeds such as helping Syrian refugees not only find refuge, but thrive in areas/regions they can comfortably call home. This should include the U.S., North America and the West in general. This should be preceded by ensuring people in affected areas gain access to basic life support such as food, water, and shelter, and ensuring the affected population feels safe from VNSA (or even some state actors) who might do them harm.
Maximize Other American Strengths Including the Media - The hearts and minds battle can also be fought with words… and pictures, music, movies, hats, and t-shirts. With the largest media and social media platforms ever, the West should be able to portray an effective message that illustrates a thriving non-violent Muslim population within the global community. American music, movies, and overall pop culture is still a strong influence throughout the world. If this included a more popular notion that violent extremism of all varieties should not be condoned, perhaps the driving force behind influencing 18-25 year old men to commit violence could be deterred.
VNSAs are Not Strategic - Finally, another approach could be to admit that VNSAs are not strategic at all and do not deserve mention in the same context as peer or near-pear states in which conflict could result in dire consequences. In fact, VNSA conflicts are criminal problems that state and local law enforcement need to deal with, even if outside help is required. Given the large amount of attention the likes of the Islamic State receives for actions committed and fear instilled throughout the world (in large part to the aforementioned media), this will be a hard sell, though possibly the most realistic.
Since September 11, 2001, the U.S has been swift and strong in reaction to terrorist attacks and threats of attacks. While often justified, this approach does not lead to, or even offer to lead to a strategic conclusion. Unfortunately, tactical success does not necessarily equal strategic success. Immediate responses may or may not align with long-range strategic goals and objectives. Our deep analysis and understanding of the problem sets regarding each VNSA we choose to engage needs to be attained much earlier in the process. The importance of setting achievable, specific, and strategic objectives as well as maintaining the strategic patience required for such objectives needs to be developed well before the bulk of decisive (kinetic) action. If we are to ever truly defeat VNSAs and prevent current and new VNSAs from developing and thriving, we need to develop a vision and strategic end state that we can tie U.S. and partners activities into a well thought-out and planned way ahead.
[i] Strategic Command Posture Statement, Commander, STRATCOM, February 2016.
[ii] Northern Command Posture Statement, Commander, NORTHCOM/NORAD, March 2016.
[iii] Special Operations Command Posture Statement, Commander, SOCOM, March 2015.
[iv] Central Command Posture Statement, Commander, CENTCOM, March 2016.
[v] Cronin, Audrey Kurth, ISIS Is Not a Terrorist Group, Why Counterterrorism Won’t Stop the Latest Jihadist Threat, Foreign Affairs, March/April 2015.
[vi] Address to the Nation on Foreign and Domestic Counter-Terrorism Strategies, President of the United States, White House, Washington, DC, 6 December, 2015.
[vii] National Security Strategy, President of the United States, White House, Washington, DC, 2016.
[viii] National Military Strategy, Chairman, Joint Chiefs of Staff, Washington, DC, 2015.
[ix] Cronin, Audrey Kurth, ISIS Is Not a Terrorist Group, Why Counterterrorism Won’t Stop the Latest Jihadist Threat, Foreign Affairs, March/April 2015.
[x] National Security Strategy, President of the United States, White House, Washington, DC, 2016.
[xi] Army Posture Statement, Army Chief of Staff, Washington, DC, April 7, 2016
[xii] Army Posture Statement, Army Chief of Staff, Washington, DC, April 7, 2016
[xiii] Army Posture Statement, Army Chief of Staff, Washington, DC, April 7, 2016
[xiv] Air Force Posture Statement, Air Force Chief of Staff, Washington, DC, February 2016.
[xv] Air Force Posture Statement, Air Force Chief of Staff, Washington, DC, February 2016.
[xvi] Navy Posture Statement, Secretary of the Navy, Washington, DC, March 2016.
[xvii] USA Today, New Rules Allow for More Civilian Casualties in Air War Against ISIL, 19 April, 2016.
[xix] Central Command Posture Statement, Commander, CENTCOM, March 2016.
[xx] Strategic Command Posture Statement, Commander, STRATCOM, February 2016.
[xxi] Northern Command Posture Statement, Commander, NORTHCOM/NORAD, March 2016.
[xxii] Northern Command Posture Statement, Commander, NORTHCOM/NORAD, March 2016.
[xxiii] Gertz, Bill, China’s Secret Strategy Exposed, The Washington Free Beacon, 2 February 2015. This article is based on Michael Pillsbury, the Mandarin-speaking analyst who has worked on China policy and intelligence issues for every U.S. administration since Richard Nixon.
[xxiv] Strategic Command Posture Statement, Commander, STRATCOM, February 2016.
[xxv] Northern Command Posture Statement, Commander, NORTHCOM/NORAD, March 2016.
[xxvi] Strategic Command Posture Statement, Commander, STRATCOM, February 2016.
[xxvii] Northern Command Posture Statement, Commander, NORTHCOM/NORAD, March 2016.
[xxviii] Special Operations Command Posture Statement, Commander, SOCOM, March 2015.
[xxix] Northern Command Posture Statement, Commander, NORTHCOM/NORAD, March 2016.
[xxx] Northern Command Posture Statement, Commander, NORTHCOM/NORAD, March 2016.
[xxxi] Northern Command Posture Statement, Commander, NORTHCOM/NORAD, March 2016.
[xxxii] President of the United States, Press conference, Pentagon, 6 July, 2015.