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The new US strategy to solve the ISIL puzzle is missing most of its pieces

Reuters/Mike Theiler
The man with a plan.
Published This article is more than 2 years old.

“You don’t know at night who’s going to be coming in through the window,” US Secretary of Defense Ash Carter said in Dec. 2015 while speaking about the new US mission to rid the battlefield of ISIL’s top henchmen.

The “specialized expeditionary targeting force,” as the US special operators being sent overseas have been dubbed, are challenged with a mission including finding ISIL leaders, raiding their locations, and collecting intelligence, among other things.

But does this expeditionary force have a chance of stopping a movement that now includes tens of thousands of followers and spans several countries? And, ultimately, is this shift down a game changer, or simply more of the same tired US strategy of using a battle-axe to perform brain surgery? Quartz sat down with research assistant Alexander Velez-Green of the nonpartisan Washington DC think tank Center for a New American Security, and Professor Stephen Walt of Harvard’s Kennedy School of Government in an attempt to answer some of these important questions. (Editor’s note: Their answers have been edited for clarity and concision.)

Quartz: It seems US special forces have been ordered to hunt down ISIL high value targets in hopes that this will eventually cause the group’s implosion. Is this a fair assessment?

The Obama administration’s basic premise for the mission is that it can degrade ISIL’s network in targeted areas.

Alex Velez-Green: I would not characterize the mission quite in those terms. While Defense secretary Carter indicated that the force will largely follow Joint Special Operations Command’s (JSOC) playbook as developed under General McChrystal, I think the Obama administration has a pretty well-developed sense of the limitations of such a small force in the current environment. For instance, it will be significantly smaller than JSOC was in Iraq under McChrystal. It will operate against a target that has greater freedom of operation than Al Qaeda did in Iraq. And, to a large extent due to the limited US presence in Iraq and Syria, it will operate with more limited intelligence capabilities.

I think the Obama administration’s basic premise for the mission is that it can degrade ISIL’s network in targeted areas. But this is more throwing sand in ISIL’s gears than setting up for a knockout blow.

Stephen Walt: I think this is perhaps too optimistic. I don’t think anyone believes that ISIL will be stopped by a single decisive blow; it is the cumulative effect of containing and weakening them over time that we are counting on.

QZ: What about ISIL’s ideological advantage? How will military strikes prevail against a group that is prepared to die rather than negotiate? And even if strikes do hobble the main strongholds, how will stability be re-established?

AVG: I think that your questions point to the most important consideration: where does the strike force fit within a broader, long-term strategy for dealing with ISIL, particularly in Syria?

It is commonly acknowledged that some ground force will be required to secure ISIL-held territory in Syria and midwife it back to stability. But that ground force does not exist today, it’s not likely that it will exist, and it’s not clear that even if it were raised it would support the United States’ goals for Syria.

So the question is not just, which ground forces can seize territory from ISIL and have the legitimacy to hold it? The question is, which forces can do the above, can lead the integration of that territory into some form of political framework that the United States can get behind?

Violent extremism cannot be wiped out by military action alone, because outside interference reinforces the radical narrative

SW: ISIL does not in fact have much support within Islam; its adherents are a tiny fraction of the world’s billion-plus Muslims. It can attract some support among populations who are angry about what their own governments or Western powers are doing, and it can cause some trouble as a result, but it remains a fringe organization. That said, violent extremism of this sort cannot be wiped out by military action alone, because outside interference reinforces the radical narrative and draws more people towards their position.

QZ: It seems like the timetable for such a mission is extremely elastic. The force would need to hit a lot of targets in an extremely short period to avoid a drawn out scenario in which they simply become fodder for ISIS recruitment, as collateral damage and other unforeseen consequences pile up. Is the mission realistic given such a daunting time crunch?

 AVG: I think the degradation-oriented approach that this force appears designed for is expected to be time-consuming, especially on the front-end as the force begins to collect intelligence and build out targeting data. And I think it could be quite successful at degrading ISIL’s operational capability.

You are quite right that the slow expansion of the US military presence in Iraq increases the risk of blowback. I think it is a real possibility that a larger US presence could spur at least some fence sitters to join ISIL and other insurgent groups.

It’s a real possibility that a larger US presence could spur at least some fence sitters to join ISIL and other insurgent groups.

But I’m more concerned about the possibility that the gradual growth of America’s presence, particularly in Iraq, could trigger a situation where Iraqi nationalists and/or Shi’a militias begin attacking our troops. This would put us in a terrible position, forced to weather the storm, fight these actors (with potentially dramatic implications for the stability of the Iraqi state), or downsize our presence. Pursuing the first or third options would likely quickly torpedo our regional and possibly global standing and would not be palatable to the US public. This leaves option two, which is less likely to result in immediate catastrophe, but could prove more costly in the long-term if the United States ends up drawn further into a new quagmire. 

SW: Exactly. And we need to remember that most terrorist organizations are not destroyed by “decapitation” (i.e., by capturing or killing top leaders), because there are always new people waiting to take over. To repeat: I doubt there is a quick and easy way to get rid of the Islamic State. 

QZ: A lot of current and former US special operators have weighed in already on this plan, suggesting this mission isn’t likely to succeed. What could we be doing better in the fight against ISIL?

AVG: I will point to what I think is the single most important strategic consideration that people should make when they think about dealing with ISIL: Wat is the real severity of the threat that this group poses to all involved? And most importantly, how does it compare with other strategic challenges, especially the ascent of competitors in other theaters? As the US leans into the fight with ISIL, it must remain cognizant of the strategic context.

Both the media and the GOP have been hyping the danger of terrorism, which unwittingly plays right into ISIL’s hands.

QZ: Depending on who you ask, president Obama’s record as a foreign policy realist is rather solid. Is it at all possible that those of us without top-secret clearances simply don’t know the true nature of the threat against us?

SW: It is possible but very, very unlikely. ISIL is a weak organization: Its total revenues are about one-fifth the annual budget of Harvard University and the area it controls has a rough GDP about the size of Barbados. This is not a great power, and that limits the harm it can cause. It can inspire random acts of terrorism, but this is not an existential threat.

Unfortunately, both the media and the GOP have been hyping the danger of terrorism quite irresponsibly, which unwittingly plays right into ISIL’s hands. So far, Obama has resisted the pressure to do a lot more, and I think his position will be vindicated over time.

Americans need to understand two things: first, terrorism is a problem, but not an existential threat. The risk of terrorism is quite small when compared with other dangers, and we should not be panicked by it. Second, terrorism is a tactic that many groups have used in the past and many will use in the future. It is not something you can ever eliminate completely, just as you can’t protect every possible target. So while the danger is very small, it is also not going to disappear and we have stop expecting presidents to achieve 100% safety against every possible danger.

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