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Mission Improbable

Mission Improbable

Two weeks ago, Secretary of Defense Chuck Hagel attempted to clarify the United States’ military objectives against the militant organization the Islamic State (IS). He noted: "We will do everything possible that we can do to destroy their capacity to inflict harm on our people and Western values and our interests."

That expansive and unachievable aspiration was limited slightly last week when, on the eve of the anniversary of 9/11, U.S. President Barack Obama announced: "Our objective is clear: We will degrade, and ultimately destroy, ISIL." Then, on Sunday, White House Chief of Staff Denis McDonough significantly re-raised the bar of the ultimate objective when he stated: "Success looks like an ISIL that no longer threatens our friends in the region, no longer threatens the United States. An ISIL that can’t accumulate followers, or threaten Muslims in Syria, Iran, Iraq, or otherwise." This suggests that some degree of confusion within the administration remains.

I recently wrote about the U.S. predilection for mission creep in military interventions. The companion to, and enabling factor for, mission creep is end state confusion and delusion. The military defines an end state as: "The set of required conditions that defines achievement of the commander’s objectives." This broadly expressed vision presented by the president and senior officials should be clearly defined to ensure a unity of effort among the relevant government agencies in order to promote a synchronization of efforts and to clarify the risks associated with the campaign. Without a reasonable vision for what a strategy is supposed to achieve, it is almost certain to fail.

Sadly, if one behavior characterizes America’s post-9/11 counterterrorism strategies, it is political leaders presenting totally unrealistic and implausible end states. Most troubling of all, even after a president states such goals, and it is not achieved, there has been no accountability for their failures. Moreover, there is little skepticism among policymakers or the media when the subsequent unobtainable end state is announced, the latest being Obama’s objective to "ultimately destroy ISIL." And speaking at CENTCOM on Wednesday, Obama emphasized that "we mean what we say" when it comes to destroying or defeating terrorism, but when it comes to threats like IS the evidence suggests the opposite is true. When confronting threats like IS, however, rather than being honest and pragmatic about countering the threat of terrorism, political leaders have been misleading and maximalist.

Let’s start with the initial military enemy in the global war on terrorism — the Taliban. On Oct. 11, 2001, President George W. Bush offered the leadership of the Afghan government a "second chance" — a deal whereby the U.S. military offensive in Kabul would be halted if they surrendered Osama bin Laden. The Taliban refused, and although it offered to turn bin Laden over to a third country, Bush rejected the counteroffer and the Taliban were toppled in December 2001. However, they soon reconstituted themselves around their historical strongholds in southern Afghanistan and the tribal areas of Pakistan.

Nevertheless, starting in the fall of 2002, Bush claimed repeatedly that: "The Taliban’s ability to brutalize the Afghan people and to harbor and support terrorists has been virtually eliminated." By September 2005, Bush felt comfortable declaring: "As a result of the United States military, Taliban no longer is in existence. And the people of Afghanistan are now free." This assertion was demonstrably false when Bush first stated it, and is even further from the truth today. The Taliban’s numbers are estimated to be between 20,000 and 60,000, comprised of members of varying commitment, and its leaders remain safely in Quetta, Pakistan. According to journalist Dexter Filkins, the Taliban has also established parallel government and judicial structures, or "shadow governments," in all 34 Afghan provinces except for Kabul.

For the past ten years, according to the University of Maryland’s Global Terrorism Database, the Taliban has also been the single greatest perpetrator of terrorism. In 2013, it was responsible for the most terrorist attacks around the world (641), which killed the most people (2,340), according to State Department. (In second place was IS itself, with 401 attacks that killed 1,725 people.) The Pentagon’s latest bi-annual Afghanistan progress report highlights the Taliban’s unpopularity and casualty rate, and how they are "unable to turn limited tactical successes into strategic or operational gains." But minimizing the Taliban’s reach within Afghanistan was never America’s stated objective — it was the outright defeat of the movement. And, in no way, has the Taliban been defeated, nor is its defeat imminent.

What about the terrorist organization directly responsible for conducting 9/11? In its national counterterrorism strategies, the Bush administration provided that its ultimate objective was "to disrupt and destroy terrorist organizations of global reach"(2002), and "defeat global terrorism" (2006). As Bush announced in September 2006: "We will defeat the Taliban, we will defeat al Qaeda." The Obama administration has adhered to this comprehensive end state. In June 2011, the White House released its own National Strategy for Counterterrorism, which stated in its first paragraph a top national security priorities of "disrupting, dismantling, and eventually defeating al-Qa’ida (sic) and its affiliates and adherents." In April 2012, then-White House counterterrorism adviser John Brennan declared: "We’re not going to rest until al Qaeda the organization is destroyed and is eliminated from areas in Afghanistan, Pakistan, Yemen, Africa and other areas. We’re determined to do that."

By the U.S. government’s own data, these strategic objectives have all failed, despite lots of airstrikes and sustained support for local security forces. Of the four al Qaeda-affiliated groups for which the State Department has provided estimates of strength over the past five years, the only one to decrease in strength was al Qaeda in the Arabian Peninsula. All others are estimated to still have the same number of fighters as they did in 2009.

Strength of al-Qaeda Affiliates

 

2009

2010

2011

2012

2013

al Qaeda in the Arabian Peninsula

several thousand

several thousand

few thousand

1,000

1,000

al Qaeda in the Islamic Maghreb

less than 1,000

less than 1,000

less than 1,000

less than 1,000

less than 1,000

al Qaeda in Iraq

1,000-2,000

1,000-2,000

1,000-2,000

1,000-2,000

1,000-2,000

al-Shabab

unknown

several thousand

several thousand

several thousand

several thousand

Source: U.S. Department of State Country Reports on Terrorism 2009-2013.

Given that two administrations have failed to achieve their end states of defeating the Taliban and al Qaeda and its affiliated organizations, we should be extremely doubtful of the Obama administration’s strategic objective of destroying IS or its ability to threaten the United States or any of the world’s 1.6 billion Muslims. Furthermore, it is difficult to ascertain what the Obama administration has learned from the total failure to eliminate the Taliban and al Qaeda and all affiliates. Based upon White House statements, it appears that its sole lesson from the post-9/11 era is to avoid massive ground invasions, and to emulate the policies from Yemen and Somalia, which again, according to U.S. government data, have not worked.

On Friday, Pentagon spokesperson Rear Admiral John Kirby was asked how IS would be destroyed, beyond airstrikes and supporting partners on the ground. He replied: "It also is going to take the ultimate destruction of their ideology." If this is truly the ultimate pathway for IS’s destruction, then it was strange that it did not appear anywhere in President Obama’s strategy speech. Furthermore, altering the interpretation that others hold of a religious ideology is something that governments are really bad at. Indeed, this has to be the least successful U.S. counterterrorism line of effort over the past 13 years. In nearly every major policy speech or oversight hearing, Bush and Obama officials have repeatedly emphasized their belief of what Islam really is (peaceful and compassionate), and what it is not (violent and oppressive).

It is unclear who their attempts to discredit extremist Islam are intended to reach, but they have not succeeded in minimizing the appeal that the ideology holds for domestic and foreign jihadist fighters. Within the Muslim world, the views of al Qaeda are extremely unfavorable, and concerns about Islamic extremism have grown over the past ten years. Yet, the number of individuals willing to fight and die on behalf of that ideology has not subsequently diminished. Seth Jones at the RAND Corporation recently found that over the past four years there was a 60 percent increase in the number of radical Islamic groups while the number of extremist fighters more than doubled. This suggests that if ideology is the "center of gravity" as the Pentagon spokesperson contended, then the United States will never be able to destroy it, nor IS itself.

In my totally idiosyncratic (and informal) survey of U.S. government employees and military officers over the past two weeks, I have not communicated with one person who thinks that IS will be "destroyed," using the military definition: "A condition of a target so damaged that it can neither function as intended nor be restored to a usable condition." The overwhelming response has been one of eye rolling, followed by a sympathetic "well, he had to say that." Moreover, most Americans feel the same way. According to a recent Wall Street Journal survey, 68 percent of the American people do not have confidence that the United States will achieve the goals outlined in Obama’s speech, even while 71 percent support airstrikes in Iraq, and 65 percent support them in Syria. Therefore, the United States is eagerly and collectively marching towards a destination that it knows it will never reach.

Why did Obama claim that the United States can destroy a militant army of 10,000 to 30,000 members, when few people in or out of government believe that this aspirational end state can be achieved? Obviously, it is a simpler message that sounds super tough. Like his predecessor, Obama chose to articulate a wildly unachievable end state, rather than show the political courage to say the truth: the United States will attempt to diminish the threat that IS poses to U.S. personnel in the region to the greatest extent possible based upon the political will and resources that the United States and countries in the region are willing to commit. The only thing to be certain of when IS is not destroyed is that nobody will be held accountable, and another terrorist enemy will be put on the destruction list.