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What Is the Counter-Daesh Strategy?: A “Cohenian” Exercise
“So tonight, with a new Iraqi government in place, and following consultations with allies abroad and Congress at home, I can announce that America will lead a broad coalition to roll back this terrorist threat. Our objective is clear: We will degrade and ultimately destroy ISIL through a comprehensive and sustained counterterrorism strategy.”[i]
Many pundits and politicians decry America and the Obama administration’s lack of a strategy on how to deal with ISIS. For example, Sen. John McCain, the new chairman of the Senate Armed Services Committee said the Obama administration is “delusional” to think it is winning the fight against these terror groups. “I’m afraid that (White House chief of staff Denis McDonough) and the president have lost touch with reality,” McCain told CBS’s “Face the Nation.”[ii] Accepting the political nature of this on-going scenario highlighted by the latest presidential news conference and following commentary thereon, President Obama said the United States does not have a complete plan to train and equip Iraqi forces to fight the Islamic State in Iraq and Syria (ISIS), saying Baghdad needs to show a greater commitment to building a fighting force.
“We don’t yet have a complete strategy,” Obama told reporters during a news conference at the G-7 summit of leading industrial nations in Germany.[iii] Michael O’Hanlon of Brookings said, “our Iraq policy is solid but under resourced and flawed. [The President] does admit distinct and emerging frailties: The anti-ISIS game plan is stumbling enough “that it risks failing,” just like our Syria policy. “We have some serious work to do.”[iv] The pressure for action is great. Presidential guidance, above, remains the start point for understanding the strategy to confront Daesh.[v]
Degrade then destroy ISIL is fairly straightforward guidance. In the February 2015 National Security Strategy the guidance changed to, “We have undertaken a comprehensive effort to degrade and ultimately defeat ISIL.”[vi] I would not ask for much more than this statement as it allows plenty of freedom of action to design a strategy. The president also put a constraint on the use of US ground forces to wit; no US troops in direct combat. US ground forces in both Iraq and Jordan serve as trainers for Iraqi military units and selected Syrian organizations.
There are whispers among military circles, uniformed and retired we are pursuing a “Strategy by CONOP” that is a piecemeal effort built upon the perceived and real results of the effects delivered during a series of short duration contingency operations. We are better than all of this. After years of war I am convinced there is a strategy based on politically aware military advice which is focusing our military efforts on attaining the objectives of our policy vis-à-vis Daesh. Using the Eliot Cohen model for 21st century strategy and only open source information I offer what I think our strategy contains.[vii]
The Cohen model of strategy, broadly stated, requires assumptions, a discussion of ends-ways-means, articulation of accepted risks, priorities, and a theory of victory. I begin with what I believe are the extant assumptions associated with our strategy. Assumptions take the place of facts which are necessary to continue planning. Assumptions made must be checked because if they do not become fact then the strategy is undermined and will definitely demand a new effort.
Our assumptions appear to be; 1] coalition interests will remain in confluence, 2] basing and over flight permissions will remain in effect, 3] airstrikes will work to encourage Iraqi security forces to fight, and 4] the counter Daesh policy will remain in effect in next administration. The first two assumptions require constant vigilance and discussion between senior US diplomats and military leaders with their counter-parts within the anti-Daesh coalition. Sustaining a broad coalition, even one brought together by mutual revulsion of Daesh’s barbarity, requires continuous dialogue. Diplomats and military leaders must reassure each other and most especially those front line nations directly engaged with Daesh about the solid commitment to the cause of degrading and defeating Daesh. A rush of doubt or the development of friction points between competing interests would undermine the coalition. A denial of overflight rights completely disrupts the delivery of aerial fires which support ground forces. The third assumption demands constant validation and challenge. The final assumption is a US political assumption.
The diplomatic and military efforts to degrade and ultimately defeat Daesh demands firm commitment by the US government, irrespective of which party holds the White House. The proposed authorization for the use of military force, AUMF, currently before the Congress contains the prudent clause of a reconsideration of the effort after three years. This period carries the AUMF into the next administration. This is prudent as strategy must always be assessed, adjusted and reconsidered based on whether or not we are attaining our desired results. Nonetheless this is a necessary assumption as it serves as a forcing function for our government. Each administration must represent the will of the people regarding the application of force against the threat Daesh represents. The application of force leads to the consideration of the relationship of the ends-ways-means of our strategy.[viii]
A discussion of ends, ways, and means is by no means a relic of 19th and 20th century strategy. The means and ways committed to attaining our policy and strategic ends must be equal to the task. If they are not we are limiting ourselves to a “strategy by CONOPS” and risk squandering any tactical success we attain. Our ends are stated and unstated, in my view.
The stated end of our strategy is Daesh defeated. The unstated ends are, 1] Iraq secure as a nation-state, 2] Iranian ambitions in the greater Middle East checked, 3] Israel reassured, 4] the Jordanian kingdom supported, and finally 5] the US position in the Middle East strengthened. The president announced our stated end in his speech of 10 September 2014; “Our objective is clear: We will degrade and ultimately destroy ISIL through a comprehensive and sustained counterterrorism strategy.” The unstated objectives come from an analysis of media reports, written and video.
There are two distinct theaters of operations for the counter-Daesh strategy; Iraq and Syria. The self-proclaimed Daesh caliphate consists of territory occupied in both countries. A stable and whole nation-state of Iraq is in the interest of the United States. The same is true of Syria with the additional end of the Assad regime replaced. Attaining this end requires a separate strategy but the counter-Daesh strategy contributes to attaining this goal.
Checking Iranian ambitions in the greater Middle East is a worthwhile end for our strategy. On the one hand, in Iraq, the Iranian military contributions on the ground will assist in attaining US objectives. On the other we must ensure Iranian “success” diminishes Iranian standing by emptying Iranian coffers of treasure and tying up Iranian conventional and unconventional military forces for an appreciable amount of time. The final three unstated ends are obtained enroute to attaining the previously stated ends.
The Jordanians are steadfast allies and deserve our support. Daesh provided the motivation for Jordanian participation. US operations in support of this end must be designed as support only with clear Jordanian leadership in the fore. Israel, rough as our relations are at the moment, also deserves our support. The Israeli people and government must know our one of our ends is a more secure Israel. Finally the ultimate end of our strategy must be an improved situation for the United States in the Middle East and the world. The ways of our strategy must reach conditions which assure attaining theses ends.
The ways of our strategy, some of them at least, were sketched out in the president’s 10 September 2014 speech. He stated,
“First, we will conduct a systematic campaign of airstrikes against these terrorists.” “Second, we will increase our support to forces fighting these terrorists on the ground… Across the border in Syria, we have ramped up our military assistance to the Syrian opposition.” “Third, we will continue to draw on our substantial counterterrorism capabilities to prevent ISIL attacks.” “Fourth, we will continue to provide humanitarian assistance to innocent civilians who’ve been displaced by this terrorist organization.”[ix]
Another “way” which must be included in the execution of our strategy is a focused inform and influence operations/campaign. Much is made of Daesh’s social media campaign, how it uses social media to attract a flow of volunteers into Syria and Iraq which sustains its fighting strength as well as filling its coffers. Knowing people who work in the cyber domain I am convinced we are waging counter actions in the social media. For example two stories from Reuters, published in the Hartford Courant cite living conditions in the region held by Daesh and condemnation of Daesh by Pope Francis.
“Services are collapsing, prices are soaring and medicines are scarce in towns and cities across the “caliphate” proclaimed in Iraq and Syria by the Islamic State, residents say, belying the group’s boasts that it is delivering a model form of governance for Muslims.”[x]
“Pope Francis on Thursday condemned the “brutal persecution” of minorities by Islamic State insurgents and said the joy of Christmas was marred by the suffering of children in the Middle East and around the world…He condemned Islamic State fighters who have killed or displaced Shiite Muslims, Christians, and others in Syria and Iraq who do not share the group’s ideologies…he spoke of “contemporary Herods,” with blood on their hands.”[xi]
The struggle in the cyber domain for an information high ground must be a considered part of a holistic strategy to counter Daesh. The other “way” which must be incorporated into our strategy is the Iranian presence in Iraq.
Iranian military operations in Iraq can be useful in reaching US policy and strategic objectives. This will not be easy but Iranian actions must be considered in our overall strategy. Where our interests coincide our strategy must allow us to take advantage of Iranian efforts. Where our interests are at odds, in Syria, there must be active-overt and covert-actions to frustrate Iran. As the Chairman, JCS stated during testimony to the Senate Foreign Relations Committee on Wednesday, 11 March, “anything anyone does to counter IS is a "positive thing."”[xii] The challenge in executing our strategy is ensuring success on the ground in Iraq also serves to attain US policy objectives for the country.
Broadly stated the strategy is designed around three major lines of effort. The first, “the struggle over the legitimacy to govern, make laws, and enforce them.” This contest is between Daesh and the legitimate Iraqi regime and the regime which follows Assad in Syria. The second line of effort is the defense of the populations in Syria and Iraq from the barbarity of Daesh during the fighting over each community. The third line of effort is the offensive designed to defeat Daesh in occupied Iraq and Syria, literally a town-by-town and village-by-village effort.[xiii]
The means of our strategy, broadly stated, are, the US training mission in Iraq, coalition training missions in Iraq, the US training mission for Syrian resistance, Coalition air forces, and the ground forces consisting of the Iraqi military and Syrian resistance. Information operations conducted in the cyber domain contest this space with Daesh. We must also consider the committed air and ground forces from Iran as additional means of our strategy.
The constraints on the US missions are a fact therefore use of these means must abide by them. There are no reports of similar constraints on the reported Canadian, German or Australian trainers. Chances are the undoubtedly highly skilled Soldiers from these countries can perform other roles nearer the line of contact with Daesh in conjunction with Iraqi units and the pesh merga.
The available means contribute to build and maintain the coalition. The US-led Combined Joint Task Force provides an organizing framework designed to integrate capabilities and amplify coalition efforts. The forty-plus nations contributing to the effort provide a strategic advantage.
The means of the coalition will pursue Daesh to degrade and destroy its capabilities and defeat its efforts. On 18 December 2014 the coalition air forces conducted 1,361 air strikes. For example the 53 precision air strikes in support of Iraqi security force operations around Sinjar and Zumar resulted in allowing Iraqi forces to regain approximately 100 square kilometers of ground from Daesh.
Coalition means work to deny Daesh safe haven and sanctuary. The coalition uses more than precision strikes, but also enables Iraqi forces to expand their areas of control on the ground. Coalition information operations remove the opportunities for Daesh to manipulate youth, harm citizens, deny basic services and recruit fighters.[xiv]
The risks attendant to our strategy are clear. The Syrian resistance fails to coalesce into a force effective enough to defeat Daesh AND Assad. The pesh merga reinforces gains in Iraq and Kurdistan becomes a reality. The Kingdom of Saudi Arabia’s interests are threatened forcing more Saudi action counter to the coalition. Finally, Iran’s interests are threatened and the ayatollahs act to strengthen their hand in the region.
Execution of our strategy demands constant attention is paid to these array of risks and actions are adjusted to fit the needs of attaining our policy and strategic objectives. The National Security Council clearly plays the leading role in overseeing the execution of the strategy and its military, diplomatic, informational and economic aspects.
The priorities of the strategy can suggest a strategic sequencing, as was seen by the initial focus of air operations to disrupt Daesh’s advance in Iraq. The first priority is degrade then defeat Daesh, all efforts must support this priority. Second are the efforts to train/support the Iraqi military and the Syrian resistance. Finally, but certainly not the less, are the associated international and regional diplomatic efforts to sustain coalition.
Managing the efforts associated with the strategic priorities is a full time job, a statement of the obvious perhaps. The information operations to confuse Daesh and sustain public support, American and international, must be prudently conducted. The counter-position to prudent management is a willingness to react to opportunity as opposed to trying to adjust while executing an information plan which may not be attuned to shifting conditions. An effort along these lines demands an extremely agile group of information specialists. This team must operate in the depth and breadth of the cyber domain and reinforce news that harms Daesh while sustaining positive news which sustains the home fronts.
The theory of victory, why we believe our strategy will work is not overly complicated. The strategy plays to US strengths, Special Forces and Special Operating Forces training, air delivered precision fires, a depth of diplomatic experience over years of war in the region and a confluence of interests among the countries of the region.
A Daesh action which plays to our strength is the drive to acquire territory. MAJ Ian Fleischmann observed,
“By ceding terrain to an ideological adversary, we grant ourselves freedom of action to reform the front in a way that is more advantageous to ourselves. In this instance, we've allowed them to coalesce into a recognizable force. In Sun Tzu's terms, the formless adversary has taken form. This gives two key advantages: First, it gives our tactical actions moral weight they didn't have in the past…Now, tactical defeats can be arranged in time and space for the purpose of manipulating ISIS morale, as defeats are clear and recognizable. Second, it has begun the process of redrawing the ideological front and shifting bases of political support.”[xv]
The barbarity of Daesh actions in ruling its “caliphate” offer stark evidence of cruelty which can be used to influence a wider audience away from supporting this group.
It is an understatement to say getting this strategy right is important. We study the theory of strategy and its relationship to policy in staff and war colleges. We know, “What matters most is the ultimate perception of the situation, not the facts. And the perception will be of the effects, not the effort-there is no credit for trying hard. Different people, depending on their perspective, can legitimately differ in their assessment.” We understand, “[W]inning a war (as opposed to a battle or campaign) is a political condition. If war is a political act, victory at the highest levels must be defined in political terms. That is a fairly uncontroversial assertion today, but one with enormous implications…The implication is that military victory (tactical or operational victory) without favorable political outcomes is sterile, and by any reasonable assessment that is true.”[xvi]
It is also true, especially for the American people we serve winning and victory goes beyond achieving an esoteric political condition. The expectation of the people of our Republic is our Army and the joint force reach a definitive, conclusive result, a result which defeats an opponent and ensures we do not have to repeat our efforts and expend our blood and treasure, at least in the near term. As COL (ret) Rick Sinnreich succinctly observed, “Americans are accused of being war-weary. We're not war-weary - we're failure-weary.”[xvii]
[i] Transcript Obama speech on ISIL Policy 10SEP14 September 10 at 9:37 PM
[iii] Jordan Fabian, The Hill, 06/08/15 on line
[iv] James Warren, The NEW YORK DAILY NEWS, on line, Published: Tuesday, June 9, 2015
[v] I use Daesh instead of IS, ISIS, or ISIL. Ken Pollack of Brookings first suggested this to me and from the 9 OCT 14 Boston Globe, in an essay by Zeba Khan, “Words matter in ‘ISIS’ war, so use ‘Daesh,’ “The term “Daesh” is strategically a better choice because it is still accurate in that it spells out the acronym of the group’s full Arabic name, al-Dawla al-Islamiya fi al-Iraq wa al-Sham. Yet, at the same time, “Daesh” can also be understood as a play on words — and an insult. Depending on how it is conjugated in Arabic, it can mean anything from “to trample down and crush” to “a bigot who imposes his view on others.” Already, the group has reportedly threatened to cut out the tongues of anyone who uses the term.”
[vi] National Security Strategy of the United States, February 2015. Retrieved from White House.gov blog: http://www.whitehouse.gov/blog/2015/02/06/president-obamas-national-security-strategy-2015-strong-and-sustainable-american-leadership
[vii] T.X. Hammes mentioned a model for 21st century strategy articulated by Eliot Cohen in a 7 August 2013 essay, “Sorry, AirSea Battle Is No Strategy,” written for The National Interest. In an exchange of personal e-mail, in 2013, the author asked Cohen further explain the model. This essay is built upon that understanding.
[viii] On 27 April 15, at a “town-hall meeting” in Leavenworth, KS with Kansas US Senator Jerry Moran, the author asked SEN Moran when the Senate would take up the President’s proposed AUMF. SEN Moran said there was no interest in either the White House or the Senate to take up a new AUMF. Counter-Daesh operations will continue under the authorization of the post-9/11 AUMF of 2001.
[ix] Transcript Obama speech on ISIL Policy 10SEP14 September 10 at 9:37 PM
[x] Title “Living Conditions Deteriorate In Seized Territory” The Hartford Courant 26 December 2014 Page A 13 Reprint of an article by Liz Sly, Washington Post
[xi] 26 December 2014 Hartford Courant Page A10 Philip Pullella Reuters
[xii] 11 March 2015 Deb Riechmann, Associated Press
[xiii] Huba Wass de Czege, “Defeating the Islamic State: A Commentary on Core Strategy,” in Parameters 44(4) Winter 2014-15, pp. 64-65. I am indebted to BG Wass de Czege for his review and comments on this essay.
[xv] Drawn from a personal e-mail to the author by MAJ Ian Fleischmann, a 2015 graduate of the Advanced Military Studies Program of the School of Advanced Military Studies. Used with his permission.
[xvi] J. Boone Bartholomees, Jr., Chapter 7, A Theory of Victory, U.S. Army War College Guide to National Security Issues, Vol. 1: Theory of War and Strategy, pp. 92-93.
[xvii] Electronic mail note written by Rick Sinnreich, 25 February 2015 on PLANSLIST, a distribution list for the exchange of ideas on strategy, the operational art and tactics.