Small Wars Journal

Donald Trump Will Defeat ISIS

Sat, 02/18/2017 - 9:58am

Donald Trump Will Defeat ISIS by Andrew Exum, The Atlantic / Defense One

And it will be mostly due to the work of his predecessor.

The dysfunction at the highest levels of the American government right now obscures a dramatic reality: Donald Trump is going to defeat the Islamic State, and Americans need to be fine with that.

Like most of the people reading this, I have been so completely absorbed by the drama at the White House over the past week that its been easy to lose track of what’s taking place on the ground in the Middle East, where U.S. troops, diplomats, and intelligence professionals continue to work by, with, and through local forces to destroy the Islamic State.

When President Obama turned the affairs of state over to President Trump on January 20th, the Islamic State was in full retreat across Iraq and Syria. This was no accident: In the fall of 2015, while I was serving as the head of the Pentagon’s Middle East policy shop, the Obama administration ramped up its campaign against the group—and began to see the effects of that escalation when Iraqi forces retook Ramadi in December of 2015.

Over the course of a very difficult summer of 2015—one in which both Ramadi in Iraq and Palmyra in Syria had fallen under the black flags of the Islamic State—civilian and military planners noticed an opportunity: For the first time since their campaign began in 2014, the U.S. and coalition forces surrounding the Islamic State were in a position to squeeze it from all directions.

When I came back into the Department of Defense in 2015 after a two-year sojourn away, I was struck by how well the Islamic State moved men, weapons, and materiel across the battlefield in Iraq and Syria. This allowed them to apply pressure to the places where the forces in opposition were weakest. It also allowed them to mass their own limited forces in places where they could overmatch their opposition.

If we could figure out a way to apply pressure to the group from multiple directions and cut off its key supply routes, that would create real dilemmas for them.

And so that’s what we did…

Read on.


Henry Kissinger:

"We fought a military war; our opponents fought a political one. We sought physical attrition; our opponents aimed for our psychological exhaustion." (See the top of page 214.)

In "wars of exhaustion" (such as those indicated by COL Maxwell below?), the relative value of what each party seeks to achieve, and how well their populations are prepared to support these such causes; this would seem to be of exceptional importance.

Thus, with the Vietnam War, and with our wars in the Greater Middle East today also (such as those against ISIS, AQ, the Taliban, etc.):

a. What the U.S./the West sought/seeks to achieve might fall under the heading of "expansion"/ "imperialism;" to wit: the gaining of greater security and prosperity for one's country by transforming and assimilating other states and their societies. In stark contrast,

b. What one's opponents, thus threatened, sought/seeks to achieve (in the Vietnamese, the Greater Middle East, and in other cases ad infinitum) is more nationalist and/or civilizational in nature, to wit: as per the gaining -- or the regaining -- of independence and freedom. (And, thus, for the "natives," a much more critical and compelling cause?)

This being the case, then might we agree that:

a. What the U.S./the West sought/seeks to achieve in S. Vietnam then, and in the Greater Middle East, etc., today (greater security and prosperity -- by way of the "expansion" of our political, economic, social and value institutions and norms); this, given the costs of same, were/are of relatively less value to the populations of the U.S./the West than, might we agree,

b. What the populations of such nations as Vietnam then, and those of the Greater Middle East now, sought/seek to achieve (to wit: independence and freedom); this being a cause for which these populations were/are clearly prepared to pay a much greater price?

Thus, these such conflicts to be viewed as "asymmetric" -- not so much from the "military power" perspective (in which the U.S./the West clearly prevails) -- but more from the "political power" point-of-view (where the party seeking freedom and independence from foreign interference/imperial expansion has/can have the clear advantage)?

"Exhaustion," thus, to be viewed more from this "political power" perspective, outlined above; one which finds that:

a. While the U.S./the West's market-democracy "expansionist" efforts of the post-Cold War -- and especially our populations' enthusiasm for same -- have now been greatly diminished. (As such things as the Brexit, and especially President Trump's recent election here at home, would seem to confirm?),

b. The Rest of the World's (led by such entities as Russia, China, Iran, ISIS, AQ, etc., today?) "freedom and independence" agenda -- and their populations' significant approval of same -- these would seem to have, of late, been soundly enhanced. (As the rise of both "nationalist" and "civilizational" leaders appears to indicate?)

(If one wakes up one morning and finds that the much of the Rest of the World appears to be against you -- this, specifically because of your enormous state and societal "transformation and assimilation" efforts undertaken post-the Old Cold War -- then can political and psychological "exhaustion," in such a circumstance, not be far behind? This, given that such things as "universal western values" [much as was the case with "universal communist values" before them] have failed to materialize/have proven to be fantasy?)

Bottom Line Thought:

As I have noted in my comment below, and given the similarity with the Soviet/the communist "Rest of the World is against you" political and psychological "exhaustion" case, then might the U.S./the West -- and given the similar stresses that we and our allies are experiencing now -- also have to come to grips with the understanding that we must abandon our outlying state and societies "transformation and assimilation" goals and objectives; sooner rather than later?

This, before the U.S./the West and its alliances -- much like those of the similarly "expansionist" Soviets/communists before us -- and under similar political and psychological "exhaustion" pressures -- likewise devolve/disintegrate/cease to exist?

(Significant internal disagreement, revolt, etc., such as the U.S./the West and its allies are currently experiencing; these confirming, much as they did during the Vietnam War of old, that our militarily weaker -- but politically stronger -- opponents, and specifically via their combined or separate [but apparently highly successful] political and psychological "exhaustion" strategies, are "winning?")


Thu, 02/23/2017 - 10:05am

In reply to by Bill C.

I understand the NSS (and anticipate there's a new one coming within the year), but its activism is filtered. With very few exceptions, we haven't grabbed a population directly and imposed our will on it. We've worked through (apparently) sympathetic local and national leadership, through NGOs, through the UN, and so on..."by, with, and through". We give lots of advice, throw in seed money and material, but we don't demand a return on that investment. I believe that's part of the reason for political dissatisfaction with our adventures in Iraq and Afghanistan -- the neocon strategy implied we'd be leaving little democratic, free-market clones behind, but because we didn't bulldoze the human terrain flat and re-landscape, it didn't happen.

I also understand the concept behind SFABs...and note that they don't actually exist yet. I think the Army will find them fairly expensive to raise and maintain, and once the new NSS is published, the Army will find a way to let the idea die quietly, particularly if resistance builds within Army SOF (…).

Last, I'm familiar with Mack's article. I think he's guilty of the same thing I mentioned above: he gives the Vietnam War more credit than it's due for the domestic turmoil that spread across the United States at the time, when there were far more independent variables at work -- some of which affected the war, rather than the other way around. Mack drops in mention of economic stressors as if that was a minor issue for both Algeria and Vietnam, but both were a heavy drain on French and U.S. budgets -- France was dealing not only with Algeria, but Vietnam, and Niger. DeGaulle was pushing rapid expansion of the French economy, and as part of developing a national security strategy independent of NATO, including a rather expensive independent nuclear force. At the same time the U.S. was ramping up in Vietnam, Johnson was pushing through his Great Society legislation, which directly competed with the war for funds. The increasingly unstable situation between Israel and her Arab enemies, the rise international terrorism, and Arab realization they controlled a major portion of the West's energy supply played a role as well. College graduates burning their draft cards and protestors marching against the war made for good TV, but that's only a portion of what "exhausted" the population at the time.

So no, I don't concur.

Bill C.

Wed, 02/22/2017 - 7:17pm

In reply to by Warlock


Let's see if I can help explain the strategy for employing SFA units.

First, from President Obama's 2015 National Security Strategy -- and as relates to threat posed by weak and/or failed states:


Within states, the nexus of weak governance and widespread grievance allows extremism to take root, violent non-state actors to rise up, and conflict to overtake state structures. To meet these challenges, we will continue to work with partners and through multilateral organizations to address the root causes of conflict before they erupt and to contain and resolve them when they do. We prefer to partner with those fragile states that have a genuine political commitment to establishing legitimate governance and providing for their people. The focus of our efforts will be on proven areas of need and impact, such as inclusive politics, enabling effective and equitable service delivery, reforming security and rule of law sectors, combating corruption and organized crime, and promoting economic opportunity, particularly among youth and women. We will continue to lead the effort to ensure women serve as mediators of conflict and in peacebuilding efforts, and they are protected from gender-based violence. We will continue to bolster the capacity of the U.N. and regional organizations to help resolve disputes, build resilience to crises and shocks, strengthen governance, end extreme poverty, and increase prosperity, so that fragile states can provide for the basic needs of their citizens and can avoid being vulnerable hosts for extremism and terrorism.

END QUOTE (Go to Section II, "Security," which begins on Page 7. Within this major section, scroll down to the subsection entitled "Build Capacity to Prevent Conflict," which begins on Page 10. Herein, see the second paragraph).

Next, we will go to the 2011 Congressional Research Service Report entitled: "Building the Capacity of Partner States Through Security Force Assistance:"


Supporters of a broad SFA strategy emphasize that neutralizing threats posed by state failure is becoming a top national security priority. The National Security Strategies (NSS) put forth by the last three presidential administrations have emphasized this premise. Most recently, the Obama Administration reiterated that “diplomacy and development capabilities must strengthen weak and failing states,” that “failing states breed conflict and endanger regional and global security,” and that “our military will continue strengthening its capacity to partner with foreign counterparts, train and assist security forces, and pursue military-to- military ties with a broad range of governments.” (Go to the section, beginning on Page 8, entitled [interestingly enough, given your thought above]: "How SFA Fits into U.S. Strategy and Administration Policy." The quote that I provide above, this is to be found on Page 10.)

Thus, and in sum, to see (a) the rationale for Security Force Assistance units through (b) the lens of the perceived threat posed by weak and/or failed/failing states?

Q: The understood "cure" for this (to wit: weak and/or failed/failing states)?

A: Transformation of these outlying states and their societies more along modern western lines:


“ ... since extremely poor societies and weak states provide optimal breeding grounds for disease, terrorism, and conflict ... (the United States must) “invest in building capable, democratic states that can establish healthy and educated communities, develop markets, and generate wealth ... ” (Item in parenthesis is mine.)


Is all of this helpful? (Note that NONE of this appears to come under the heading of "setting the example." And ALL of this, instead, appears to be interventionist in nature. On this -- can we now agree?)

Lastly, and as relates to the concept of "political exhaustion." This term is synonymous, I believe, with the term "political attrition;" as explained in great detail in Andrew Mack's "How Big Countries Lose Small Wars" -- link provided immediately below.…

Read through this, if you like, and see if you concur.



Wed, 02/22/2017 - 4:38pm

In reply to by Bill C.

What is "political exhaustion"? In the U.S., it's popular discontent powerful enough to affect the result of elections. Holding the Vietnam War up as an example ignores many societal and economic changes within American domestic society, not to mention events across the rest of the world. It's probably as fair to say that civil discord due to societal and economic changes had as much effect on our involvement in Vietnam as it is to say that Vietnam caused civil discord at home. Nixon managed to be re-elected even after expanding the war he'd promised to end in his initial campaign, suggesting there were other factors in play.

For a non-elected government, does political exhaustion exist? Probably within the inner workings, as power shifts between individuals or factions. You could say such shifts within the CPSU led to "political exhaustion" within the Soviet Union, but it has economic roots. Wars -- even cold ones -- run on money, and the Soviets simply ran out.

After my own long career in uniform, I've come to believe in the power of inertia -- we do things in the manner we're comfortable, until something forces a change. If we export our "way of life" to foreign countries, it's because we drag it along with us.

As far as the Security Force Assistance Units, I suspect the Army will reform them back into conventional units as soon as they need the resources for something else. They're a reaction to critics, either those who maintain that SFA activities degrade combat units, or that combat units are incapable of effective SFA. Either way, they're not a comfortable fit for the Army. And I don't think anyone's seen a coherent strategy for employing them.

Bill C.

Tue, 02/21/2017 - 6:56pm

In reply to by Warlock


First, to note that I did not, I believe, suggest that there was a "global, united, anti-U.S./anti-West alliance."

(I did suggest, however, that much of the Rest of the World may indeed be against us; however united and organized, or separate and disorganized, this such resistance may be.)

Second, to note that I did not, I believe, suggest that there is, or had been, an "organized, post-Cold War effort by the U.S. to transform, through force of arms, the entire non-Western world in our image."

(As we all know, however, and for example in such cases as Japan and Germany following WWII, S. Korea and S. Vietnam during the Old Cold War, and Iraq and Afghanistan currently, the U.S. is, indeed, prepared to use force of arms to achieve such transformative ends; if and when we determine that we must do so. Likewise, we should not be so blind as to think that such things as "Security Force Assistance Units" -- being developed and deployed overseas today -- these such units are not designed to bring military muscle to bear on those segments of various populations, throughout the world, who would resist our, and their governments, efforts to transform/further transform their states and societies more along modern western political, economic, social and value lines.)

Next, to note that neither I nor COL Maxwell above suggested, I believe, that "economic exhaustion" was our concern. Rather, I believe that we were looking more toward "political" and "psychological" exhaustion; such as with the U.S. during the Vietnam War. A time, like today, when (a) the war had been going on for a very long time and (b) civil discord, here at home, was/is prominent -- was/is on the rise? (Political and psychological exhaustion also applying to the Soviet/the communist Old Cold War case -- as I implied?)

And last to ask, if our goal of "advancing/sustaining political, economic, social and value market-democracy" throughout the world is not, as you suggest, a "planned campaign;" then how do you account for the U.S.'s -- non-example setting -- actions and activities; such as those that I have outlined immediately above?

Thus, and for example, should we see our "Security Force Assistance Units" as being accidental, having come into existence in and of themselves; this, given that these such units, as you suggest, (a) serve no military purpose, (b) are not part of a "planned campaign" and, thus, (c) exist only as per some non-existent -- and/or simple "example setting" -- strategy?

Food for thought?


Tue, 02/21/2017 - 3:59pm

In reply to by Bill C.

You're building the opposition larger than it is. There is no global, united, anti-U.S./anti-West alliance. There is not been an organized, post-Cold War effort by the U.S. to transform, through force of arms, the entire non-Western world in our image. We have always sought to promote democracy and free-market economics through by example -- this is nothing new.

The Soviets were done in by economic exhaustion produced by a combination of a high proportion of military spending, coupled with an inefficient economic system that resulted in a poor standard of living and general discontent and apathy across the population. The U.S., even now, is a long way from economic exhaustion. Discontent with the economy is a product of deliberate decisions to keep revenues low, while encouraging risky, but profitable investment activity. Sustained defense spending is low, which is slowly exhausting the military, but the economy could sustain the changes necessary to remedy those faults.

Ideologically, most of the Non-Western world could care less about what we do or don't do, so long as we're not moving their cheese. Our "goal of advancing/sustaining political, economic, social and value market-democracy" is less a planned campaign than simply doing things the way we're used to...and moving the locals' cheese as a result.

Bill C.

Sat, 02/18/2017 - 11:59am

In reply to by Dave Maxwell

The concept -- and extreme danger -- of "exhaustion" to be even better understood today when we look at the vast number of challenges/challengers facing the U.S./the West worldwide?

Herein, for example, to find the U.S./the West contemplating sending more troops to Syria to defeat ISIS, sending more troops to Afghanistan to defeat the Taliban, sending more troops to Europe to deal with Russia, sending more troops to the Pacific to deal with China, sending more troops to the Middle East to deal with Iran, sending more troops to Africa to deal with Boko Haram, etc., etc., etc.

(This, while our vast enemies above adopt more of a two-prong approach; one which favors, or at least gives equal treatment to, propaganda over "soldiers"/"combatants?")

Thus, to understand that -- if the entire non-western world has become somewhat allied against us -- then "exhaustion" (and abandonment?) becomes a real possibility/may not be far behind?

(Such things as the Brexit, and the election here at home of President Trump [on something of a isolationist/retreat from the world platform?]; these such events suggesting that our enemies' goal of "exhausting" the U.S./the West has, in fact, already been achieved?)


a. With the end of the Cold War Part I (cir. 1990) -- and due to over-extension/exhaustion -- the Soviets/the communists come home, and their goal of achieving/sustaining political, economic, social and value communism, both at home and abroad; this comes to an end? Likewise,

b. With the end of the Cold War Part II (cir. 2017) -- and due also to over-extension/exhaustion -- the U.S./the West comes home, and our goal of advancing/sustaining political, economic, social and value market-democracy, both at home and abroad; this likewise becomes significantly endangered/comes to an end?

(Thus, by opening the aperture even further as I have suggested above, to see even better the reality, and the real extent of the danger; this, as we see ALL of our enemies, working separately or together, attempting something of a "war of exhaustion" against the U.S./the West today?)

Dave Maxwell

Sat, 02/18/2017 - 10:01am

:-) A defense of the Obama strategy. Argument: POTUS will defeat ISIS because of the strategy he has inherited.

My question is can we win a war of exhaustion? Not attrition, but exhaustion. We should think about Dau Tranh in Vietnam.

“You will kill ten of our men, and we will kill one of yours, and in the end it will be you who tires of it” Ho Chi Minh (1969)