Ending Endless Wars and the Islamic State
Michael J. Mooney
Last week, U.S. Vice President Mike Pence, in a speech at the Global Chiefs of Mission Conference in Washington, DC, emphatically declared that the Islamic State (or ISIS) caliphate had “crumbled” and that “ISIS is defeated”. This statement garnered much attention in the press due to the awkwardly tone-deaf nature of his pronouncement. Only hours before his speech, ISIS had claimed responsibility for a deadly attack in Manbij, Syria which killed four Americans, making his claim ring hollow. Later that day the Vice President issued a statement denouncing the attack, removing any mention of the defeat of ISIS to more precisely restate that the caliphate had been “crushed” and its capabilities “devastated”.
What is just as telling, but lost in the rush to point out Mr. Pence’s ill-timed declaration of defeat, are the comments made by the Vice President immediately following his boast of victory, which bear examination and scrutiny as well.
The Vice President first spoke of the U.S. remaining engaged in the region and “staying in the fight” against ISIS to “ensure that ISIS does not rear its ugly head again” and “to protect the gains that our soldiers and coalition partners have secured.” This is a strong and (very necessary) statement meant to reassure U.S. allies of the Trump Administration’s commitment to combating the Islamic State.
“But this President,” Mr. Pence went on to say, “has often spoken about his desire to bring an end to endless wars in America. And the ability to bring our troops home. To bring them home in an orderly and effective way, out of their current deployment in Syria, remains a priority for this President.”
That the President desires to bring “an end to endless wars” is an admirable and rational objective. However, it ignores the fact that, as trite as it has become to state, the enemy (in this case ISIS) has a vote in what happens on the battlefield. It also illustrates a fundamental lack of understanding of the enemy.
The Islamic State fully incorporates the views of its founding father Abu Mus’ab al-Zarqawi in many areas. Brian Fishman, in his book The Master Plan: ISIS, al-Qaeda, and the Jihadi Strategy for Final Victory, explains that Zarqawiism fully embraces the notion that “religious and political legitimacy is primarily a function of participating in war.” He goes on to state that Zarqawi “…argued that Muslims could not truly fulfill their obligation to God without fighting. As a practical matter, it means that the Islamic State will always be at war.”
As such, there are no thoughts of capitulation, ending the struggle, or a lack of motivation to reestablish the caliphate in the minds of Abu Bakr al-Baghdadi and the leadership of the Islamic State. For ISIS, this is an endless war – an existential one – which must culminate with the creation of an enduring caliphate in accordance with the prophetic method, expanding over time to encompass all corners of the globe.
Al-Baghdadi’s most current audio message in August 2018 to the Islamic State faithful illustrates his lack of anxiety about the loss of the caliphate: “The scale of victory or defeat…is not tied to a city or village,” Baghdadi declared, going on to acknowledge that the United States can indeed speak of its “so-called victory in expelling the [Islamic] State from the cities and countryside in Iraq and Syria, but the land of God is wide and the tides of war change.”
This message is not a new one, but a continuation of the narrative put forth by the Islamic State well before the physical caliphate was destroyed. In May 2016, the now-deceased ISIS spokesman Abu Muhammad al-‘Adnani issued an audio statement containing the same message to the followers of ISIS:
“Do you think, America, that victory will come by killing one or more leaders?” “Do you reckon, America, that defeat is the loss of a city or the loss of territory?” Responding to his own questions, ‘Adnani declared that killing the Islamic State’s leaders would not defeat the greater “adversary”—the group itself—and that taking its land would not eliminate its “will” to fight. Even if the Islamic State were to lose all its territories, he said, it could still go back to the way it was “at the beginning,” when it was “in the desert without cities and without territory.” The allusion here is to the experience of the Islamic State of Iraq, which between 2006 and 2012 held no significant territory despite its claim to statehood. For this reason it was derided as a “paper state.” ‘Adnani is thus suggesting that even if defeated the Islamic State could take refuge in the desert, rebuild, and return anew.
Granted these are carefully tailored strategic communications by ISIS designed to bolster the morale of Islamic State followers, but nevertheless, the underlying message it sends is clear: Just because the U.S. desires an end to protracted wars, does not make it so. File this under the strategic pitfall of “wishful thinking.”
Why “wishful thinking?” In his magnum opus On War, the renowned 19th century Prussian theorist Carl von Clausewitz warned that “…the ultimate outcome in 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 in political conditions at some later date.”
This is exactly how the Islamic State leadership views the loss of the caliphate – a transitory evil which will be swept away when the tides of war shift to their favor. This war is not over for the Islamic State by a long shot. In al-Baghdadi’s view, time, the growing fatigue, cost, and eroding will of the international community are all on his side.
The tragedy is that the U.S. has seen this movie before; after being “defeated” in Iraq, the surviving members of al-Qaeda in Iraq (AQI) simply melted into the population or found sanctuary in the deserts of al Anbar. Subsequently the U.S. withdrew its forces, only to see AQI reemerge in 2014 as the Islamic State. Then as now, following revolutionary warfare theory, the fighters and core ISIS leadership have simply regressed to Mao’s “stage one”, what is known as the “strategic defensive”. In examining the current status of the Islamic State, the Combating Terrorism Center at West Point assessed in December 2018 that:
“Quantitative attack metrics paint a picture of an insurgent movement that has been ripped down to its roots, but qualitative and district-level analysis suggests the Islamic State is enthusiastically embracing the challenge of starting over within a more concentrated area of northern Iraq.”
Brett McGurk, the former U.S special presidential envoy for the Global Coalition to Defeat ISIS, who certainly possesses more intimate knowledge of the strategic nuances and intricacies of combating ISIS than probably anyone in the U.S. government, steadfastly believes that the Islamic State is far from defeated:
"In early December , Secretary Mattis and I met with all the military contributors of our coalition, including many countries that had been attacked from ISIS out of Syria and the unanimous view is that ISIS is not defeated, this mission is not over," McGurk told [Christiane] Amanpour. "I do not think there would be a single expert that would walk in the Oval Office and tell the President that this is over."
As for “bringing the troops home,” this too is an admirable and rational objective. That all Americans, regardless of political affiliation, wish to keep the men and women of our military out of harm’s way is a given, and an easy position to support. However, here it seems that U.S. foreign policy is caught on the horns of a dilemma with competing political objectives of “staying in the fight,” “bringing our troops home” in an orderly and effective way, and protecting “the gains that our soldiers and coalition partners have secured.” What is most important of these three? Can all three be accomplished, or are they in fundamental conflict with each other?
Again, Clausewitz offers insight to the cost/benefit rational calculus of grappling with such a strategically important decision: a concept he called the “value of the object.” “[W]ar is not an act of senseless passion but is controlled by its political object,” said Clausewitz. “[T]he value of this object must determine the sacrifices to be made for it in magnitude and also in duration. Once the expenditure of effort exceeds the value of the political object, the object must be renounced…” In theory, the value of the object is an expression of one’s political will – for how long, and how much of a country’s finite resources, is one willing to dedicate to achieving the political objective. Consciously or not, all political and military leaders assign a “value of the object” to their political objective as a result of the means and ways put into practice to achieve it.
So, the question follows, what is the value of the (political) object of “defeating” ISIS for the U.S.? What is the value of the object for the U.S. in bringing the troops home? In preserving the gains secured? For each one, is it high or low? Which is highest? What is the magnitude of resources (i.e., military forces, casualties, money, political/diplomatic clout, humanitarian aid, etc) and duration (i.e., amount of time) we as a nation are willing to dedicate to the goal (i.e., political object) of “defeating” ISIS, knowing that for our enemy this is an “endless war”?
Of course, there are many elements of national power the U.S. can utilize to “stay in the fight”; sometimes military power is the appropriate tool. Sometimes it is not. However, the simple fact is that without U.S. leadership and military power anchoring the Global Coalition, we would not be at the point we are in the fight against the Islamic State. Its physical caliphate is indeed destroyed, but as a symbiotic system comprised of ideologically linked components, ISIS is far from defeated. These remaining components - multiple regional wilayats or provinces, and an international cloud of aspirants connected via social media – still practice and promote their atavistic practices and dystopian views, creating disorder, instability, and immense suffering around the globe.
How the U.S. strategically addresses the problem of bringing an “end to endless wars” as ISIS reconstitutes and reassesses their next step - especially regarding the best combination of means and ways to be applied to “defeating” ISIS - are crucial questions facing the President and his national security team. The grand strategic thought and design a problem such ISIS requires demands a ruthless prioritization of finite resources balanced against multiple competing national security demands, with no simple or easy answers. However, declaring ISIS “defeated” simply because the lands of its self-declared caliphate have been liberated does not add value to the debate. At the very best a half-truth. At worst it is hyperbolic, misleading, and dangerous.
Eight months ago as I opined about the reasons behind the destruction of the Islamic State caliphate, I cited the words of the Athenian general and statesman Pericles who 2,500 years ago warned his fellow citizens that in battling the Spartans, more than the enemy’s strategy, he feared the Athenians’ own strategic blunders. “One can only hope that in moving forward the key stakeholders in this struggle [against the Islamic State] can avoid the strategic blunders which could enable the Islamic State to rise yet again,” I concluded. Unfortunately, the trajectory of events as it stands now does not look encouraging.