Small Wars Journal

Measuring Strategic Progress Against ISIS

Mon, 02/18/2019 - 4:52am

Measuring Strategic Progress Against ISIS


Patricia H. M. Morrissey


“’All the airstrikes and the operations were for nothing if we aren’t able to hold the areas cleared of the militants,’ said Rezwanullah Basharmal, the senior Afghan official in Deh Bala.  ‘We, the district government, don’t have the capacity and enough numbers of forces to protect the area.’”


-- WSJ: “U.S., Afghan Offensive Crushes Islamic State in Area Near Pakistan,” 21 June 2018



Over the past four years the United States and its partners have labored mightily to remove ISIS “Core” from its self-declared Caliphate in Iraq and Syria, sever the global organization’s connection to its branches, and disrupt its propaganda and recruitment capabilities, but the number of ISIS-affiliated groups has grown and emerged in new places.  In this global fight, we continue to assess progress against ISIS and its branches and networks using maps that show territory physically taken, fighters killed, locations of enemy and friendly forces, and we count numbers of IDPs in camps or returned to their homes.  We attempt to identify jihadist leaders and their locations so they can be detained or targeted.  This information tells us very little about the underlying political and social competition or the longer-term prospects of our partners for sustainably defeating ISIS.  As history has taught us, quantitative assessment of an insurgent or violent extremist enemy’s strength versus our own only provides a fleeting, surface-level snapshot of current conditions. 


In order to make a clear case that the aggregate efforts of the Global Coalition to Counter ISIS (or Daesh as they are called in some countries) are showing progress towards “defeating” ISIS, we must understand the nature of this movement as a competition between its local jihadist groups and existing government leaders and institutions, at all levels, for the allegiance or submission of the population.  In other words, we must address it for what it is: a networked global insurgency.  ISIS branches and affiliates are competing for control over populations in vulnerable communities around the world, using the physical and ideological potency of the global network to strengthen itself.  Understanding this competition is central to the ability of the US and its allies to select the appropriate tools to assist legitimate local leaders to achieve and sustain strategic success against ISIS.    


The objective of this paper is to provide a basis for articulating a clear strategy to defeat ISIS over the long term, and to provide a theoretical framework for prioritizing civilian programs and military operations based on that strategy.  While passive and active measures to deny ISIS movement and its trans-regional communications, and to disrupt its propaganda and recruitment apparatus, are critical to containment of the immediate threat, the focus of this paper is on long-term strategy of the U.S. and Coalition against this global insurgency and our ability to measure progress towards defeating ISIS’ control of key populations and territory.  To demonstrate strategic progress against ISIS, we must be able to help local communities protect themselves against ISIS’ ability to influence and coerce them into submission to their authority.  


Global Strategy


The United States has had decades of experience in helping partners counter insurgencies of various types – from the communist insurgencies of the 20th century to the ISIS insurgency in Iraq and Syria of today.   We have learned many lessons that must be rigorously applied by the U.S. and Coalition partners in order to strategically defeat ISIS.  We have learned that the side in a civil conflict that is seen as more legitimate in the eyes of the people is likely to prevail.  We have learned that political and social stability is dependent on a system that equitably enforces rules agreed to by a majority of a community through the formal or informal selection of governing authorities who are to be responsible for implementing and sustaining that system.  The system of rules should provide physical protection and some level of economic opportunity, and not simply benefit the ruling authority.  The power of an insurgent organization that aspires to replace the existing governing authorities is ultimately dependent on the number of people it can induce to join its cause.  Insurgent groups like ISIS use persuasive (ideological, psychological and social), administrative (justice systems, essential services, social and economic incentives) and coercive (ability to punish for noncompliance) incentives in their competition with existing authorities for political control.  These are the tools ISIS used to establish and grow its Caliphate in Iraq and Syria between 2014 and 2017. 


The United States has also learned painful lessons in Afghanistan and Iraq about what it takes to put down an insurgency that has already brought a community into submission using both the carrots of their religious ideology and the sticks of severe violence (i.e. terrorism) to gain and sustain power.  The worldwide connectivity provided by the internet, mobile phones, and social media tools has enabled ISIS and its affiliates around the world to unify around an ideology rooted in an ultra-conservative interpretation of Islam, and to share human, materiel and knowledge resources to support their cause.  This ability to continue to communicate, inspire and coordinate activities exponentially increases their power to both dangle carrots and employ sticks – it is the violent insurgency’s center-of-gravity as a global organization and a force-leveler versus more heavily-armed state opponents.  ISIS’ commercial information technology infrastructure enables it to “mass effects” by distributing its forces and conducting small-scale, but persistent and lethal attacks.  The “mass effect” is the psychological terror of the population, the frustration of local government that they will always be in a losing defensive crouch, and US and Coalition exhaustion from repeated failures to strengthen local leaders so that they are able to sustain their governing authority after US and Coalition forces leave.


The ability of the US and Coalition partners to physically interfere with ISIS’ command and control, intelligence gathering, propaganda and facilitation system is severely constrained because it rides on the global public communications infrastructure. We can monitor communications with massive resources, but we cannot wage command and control warfare against an infrastructure that citizens around the world rely on for communications, commerce, and safety, amongst other services.  We can counter the messages that ISIS uses those networks to deliver, but to make progress against ISIS we must keep our focus on helping partner governments provide political narratives that address core values and local grievances and assist them in backing up those narratives with action. 


Chasing purveyors of violent extremism and their facilitators around the internet is not a winnable long-term game.  We must think realistically about effective ways to undermine ISIS as a global movement.  The most strategic end-state of the USG’s D-ISIS Strategic Framework requires the US and partners to degrade ISIS such that “it is unable to function as a unified, global organization and regresses into smaller, disaggregated organizations whose violent activity is detected and disrupted by local and regional governance, security and law enforcement.”[i] This requires us to understand how ISIS gains support or compliance at the local level and then spreads its authority to nearby communities, as it did in western Iraq and eastern Syria in 2013-14 when it overwhelmed and coopted insecure Sunni communities that had been abused and neglected by the central Shiite-led government.


Many national security experts understand what the strategic fight is going to take in terms of resources and political commitment from our leadership and are skeptical about obtaining either.  But our leadership in the US and across the Coalition must not fool themselves into thinking we can ignore what we have already learned through the sacrifice of much blood and treasure.  To defeat ISIS over the long run, we should focus even more intently on how we encourage and enable the right governance partners to increase their legitimacy and capability as protectors of the lives and rights of all of their people.  Our best strategic investment against ISIS is to assist partners in strengthening their capabilities to protect their citizens such that they are willing and capable of rejecting ISIS’ political and social agenda, and of expelling ISIS fighters and sympathizers from their territory.





Figure 1. Conceptual Framework for Thinking about the Aggregate Impact of Partner and Violent Insurgent Group Activities on the Competition for Power


Our ability to assess friendly progress against the insurgent group competing for political control requires us to conduct a net assessment of the power of legitimate (as defined by the population) authorities versus violent extremist insurgencies over time. We must be able to measure enemy capabilities and intent to attack and/or destabilize communities against the friendly government’s active and passive defenses.  To do that we must be able to monitor and characterize the competitive activities and their impact on the population. 



Global Strategy and the D-ISIS Integrated Strategic Plan (DISP)


The “Defeat-ISIS Integrated Strategic Plan” (DISP) provides the official USG documentation of the “whole-of-government” activities undertaken to achieve the eight end-states of the Defeat-ISIS Strategic Framework signed by the President in October 2017.  The DISP is structured around five “National Level Objectives” -- three functional and two that are geographically-focused (the “Core” in Iraq and Syria and its immediate neighbors Jordan and Lebanon, and the rest of the world where ISIS has a known presence).  Each section articulates a “Theory of the Case” and a set of priority actions and tasks that Departments, Agencies (and/or Coalition partners) execute to support that section of the plan.  The structure is a classic decomposition of strategic goals into ever more detailed objectives and tasks that when synchronized and aggregated back together are meant to achieve the strategic end-states.


The DISP is a massive work of interagency collaboration and State and DoD leaders have brought coherent processes to bear on an extremely broad-ranging set of activities.  The underlying assumption is that if we continuously and synchronously conduct activities that demonstrate effects consistent with desired end-states, we will eventually “defeat” ISIS.  Each section of the plan lists a set of indicators of success, but these indicators are not clearly connected to a strategic theory of victory rooted in the competition for power that ISIS is rigorously waging against established, but often weak, governing authorities.  To achieve strategic victory over the long-term, we must sharpen our focus on enabling partners to degrade and contain the physical and political power of ISIS in order to provide stable governance and effective security for their populations.  Determining what we are able to contribute to each unique set of political competitions requires us to understand how ISIS is gaining power and influence, and how it is able to break down local authorities’ ability to protect and provide for their populations.  That knowledge will allow us to tailor US and Coalition support to those activities that are most effective in helping partners prevent or counter that outcome. 




Figure 2. Tailoring D-ISIS Activities to Decrease the Political, Physical and Economic Power of ISIS

DISP Assessment: Strategic Questions about Local Dynamics


How will we know that our select set of actions are helping partners change the balance of power towards legitimate leaders who can effectively provide for the physical, economic and social security of its populations?  Past efforts to evaluate whether the US and its allies have achieved success in degrading violent insurgent groups like ISIS have been insufficient to predict sustainable/strategic progress or the emergence or possible resurgence of the insurgent group.  The DISP “Theories of the Case” for each section postulate that the aggregate effects of the priority actions and tasks will produce “defeat” of ISIS, but in order to monitor strategic effects of our actions, we must be able to take a microscope to the real impact on the ground in the most vulnerable communities.


In past campaigns against insurgent jihadists many different types of proxy indicators have been collected, but most do not accurately describe which group has political control, how that might be changing over time and why.  In order to monitor the strategic progress of the DISP and related plans, we need to ask questions that will tell us how/why ISIS may be gaining power vis a vis partner governments.  Below is a list of the questions we must strive to answer if we are to assist populations in overcoming the attractiveness of the jihadist message and physical threats from ISIS.[ii]


ISIS:  How is ISIS interacting with the population in vulnerable areas and with the global ISIS’s regional or global network to increase its strength?

  • What methods / capabilities is ISIS using to coerce the population
  • What prevents the population from cooperating with local authorities to help identify and locate members of ISIS
  • What are the key issues/grievances enabling ISIS to compete for political and physical control in the [local] area of conflict? 
  • How is ISIS able to hide?
  • How effective are we at interfering with/degrading their ability to connect to the larger jihadist movement and tap into facilitation networks to acquire human and materiel resources?  (Global Network)
  • How are we interfering with/degrading ISIS’s ability to communicate?
  • How are we helping to degrade localized propaganda that is enabling ISIS to gain recruits and other resources?

Partner authorities: Who are the legitimate authority figures in the area of conflict and how can we work with them?

  • What people/organizations have authority and why? Are we working with the right” partners?  
  • How do we enable the right partners to work with us to repel ISIS?
  • How can partners help citizens protect themselves from physical attacks?
  • What capabilities do our partners need to repel and expel ISIS from their territory?  (Local security forces - capability, capacity, commitment, trust)
  • What do we know about the levers and resources that are available in areas where ISIS is competing for control?  How do we enable the partner governance structure to access the resources ISIS is harnessing and build resilience into the population such that they are able to repel ISIS persuasive, administrative and coercive activities? 
  • If ISIS is leveraging discontent in a minority population that is ignored or attacked by the government, how do we partner with the local minority population?

This set of questions requires research and analysis to determine the political dynamics within communities, including the competitive actors, and their tools for persuasion, administration and coercion.  A strategic assessment will need to begin by identifying current sources of this type of information and organize it to assess progress against ISIS and/or identify gaps in information.  Critical sources of data include field research, conflict analysis, evaluations of partner will and capability, open source and classified intelligence, and operational and programmatic effectiveness data that enable us to see the cause and effect relationships between US/partner actions in containing and degrading ISIS’ activities.  Some of this information may not be available and research may need to be conducted to ascertain the answers to specific questions.  This data and analysis will form the basis for evaluating the strategic progress of the global campaign (offensive, defensive and enabling actions) and for operational adaptation across partner, US and Coalition military and civilian activities.


Monitoring, Evaluating and Adapting to ISIS as a Global Insurgency 


Recognition by the U.S. and its Coalition partners that the fight against ISIS and its global network is playing out locally and internationally at the same time will bring clarity to our ability to assess the strategic progress of the campaign against ISIS.  This not only requires us to acquire knowledge of the networks ISIS is using to move fighters, finances and materiel, but also to gain detailed knowledge about the local governance and security structures that ISIS is challenging.  With this knowledge we can begin to measure the ability of our tools and actions to bolster the control of the friendly governing authorities.  Some additional questions we will need to ask ourselves as we adapt our strategy and DISP:

  • How could U.S. and partners work better together to collect and analyze data that would improve knowledge of partner capabilities and political strength, and the position of the population with respect to groups competing for political control?
  • Are there new approaches we could employ to help the legitimate government provide for the security of its citizens while degrading ISIS’ ability to influence or coerce them?
  • How are political factors limiting US, Coalition efforts to enable partner authorities? Can we change those factors?
  • If we can successfully enable friendly partners to protect their communities and push ISIS out of their territory, where will they go next? 



This paper is meant to provide a conceptual framework for determining critical resources needed to make strategic progress against ISIS over time.  A successful strategic approach to defeating ISIS requires us to understand that ISIS is a globally-networked insurgency in which elements of the organization use the fundamentalist Salafi jihadist ideology to inspire commitment to the movement and their connections to the larger network to compete for power at the local level.   We should focus our support to partners on enhancing their ability to counter ISIS’ attempts to undermine their capability and legitimacy wherever we assess significant vulnerability to ISIS influence and coercion. 


In sum, an effective global strategy rests on our ability to: 

  1. Monitor for, and warn of, ISIS probing and attempts to influence and/or coerce vulnerable populations.
  2. Assess the capability and will of local partners to protect the population and enable their communities to repel and expel ISIS.
  3. Identify specific gaps in partners’ ability to detect and repel ISIS, help to fill those gaps such that the community and its leaders have the strength and will to reject ISIS. 

When we focus on measuring the competitive control dynamics between an insurgent group and local authorities, we can refine partner, USG and/or Coalition strategy and prioritize actions and capabilities accordingly.  A helpful metaphor: to defeat a chronic illness we must not only counter the observable symptoms of disease, we must understand the nature of the disease, address the underlying causes, and strengthen the body’s immune system so it can continue to prevent its reoccurrence.  The global strategy and assessment process described herein builds on lessons learned over decades.  It will still be challenging to mobilize political support for such a comprehensive approach, but it will allow us to answer the deeper questions that provide the foundation for adapting policy, strategy and resources for strategic success against ISIS and other violent extremist organizations over the long-term.


End Notes


[i] USG Defeat-ISIS Integrated Strategic Plan, July 2017 (information extracted is unclassified).

[ii] Note: These questions could be asked about any violent insurgent group’s challenge to governing authorities, but this paper focuses on ISIS.


About the Author(s)

Ms. Patricia H. M. Morrissey has over 30 years’ experience in national security with the federal government.  She would like to thank Dr. Andrea Jackson and Dr. Dave Kilcullen for their brilliant work in developing counterinsurgency strategy, which has significantly influenced this article.