Shadow Government

How to Know if We’re Winning Against the Islamic State

Are we winning or losing Operation Inherent Resolve, the name given the new war against the Islamic State? This is not a gotcha question designed to embarrass the Obama administration, though it is a very difficult one to answer, as this awkward exchange with Pentagon spokesman Rear Adm. John Kirby makes clear. Reasonable people can ...

Spencer Platt/Getty Images
Spencer Platt/Getty Images

Are we winning or losing Operation Inherent Resolve, the name given the new war against the Islamic State? This is not a gotcha question designed to embarrass the Obama administration, though it is a very difficult one to answer, as this awkward exchange with Pentagon spokesman Rear Adm. John Kirby makes clear. Reasonable people can disagree — check out the optimist’s case and the pessimist’s case. And while I lean in the direction of the pessimists, I think the Obama administration is absolutely correct to say that it is too early to tell for certain and that even a war that is ultimately going to be won might experience tactical setbacks along the way.

Critics were too quick to claim that the 2001 effort to topple the Taliban would fail, and similar warnings about how the 2003 invasion of Iraq were premature, too. On the other hand, later criticisms that the war in Iraq was unraveling in 2006 proved to be right even though we in the Bush administration thought otherwise at the time.

Knowing whether you are winning or losing matters for two big reasons. First, and most importantly, it matters because wars are ultimately won not by the side that enters the war with the best plan but by the side that best innovates and responds to the unfolding situation. "No plan survives contact with the enemy" is a truism in strategy and it means that the side that is slower to adjust is the side likely to lose. The most crucial pillar of American military power is not our technological prowess but rather our capacity to learn and adjust — we invest more in the human capital of enlisted and officers than other great powers precisely to build on this strength. But you can only adjust and react if you have a valid and reliable assessment mechanism to know how you are doing in the first place.

Second, it matters because political support — a requisite for any democracy fighting a sustained war like this — hinges on whether the public and their elected representatives have good reason to believe that we will ultimately be successful in the mission. The inevitable human toll of war is politically tolerable for successful missions; even comparatively small costs are politically toxic if they come in a doomed mission.

Right now it is not clear to me that the administration has identified and articulated a clear set of metrics for success (or failure) that they are confident will give them, and us, a clear idea of how the war is unfolding. They have rightly emphasized that this war will take a long time and that we should expect some tactical setbacks. But I don’t think they have yet sufficiently solved the metrics question, and I bet they are having as difficult a time doing so as we did in the last Iraq war.

It is easier to identify misleading metrics than to identify useful ones. Counting the number of times the Islamic State commits an atrocity that grips cable news coverage is misleading; it will always be able to do something horrific that shocks the public conscience perhaps even long after they are a political potent threat to the region. However, counting the number of pick-up trucks we destroy in air strikes is probably also misleading, akin to the infamous body counts during the Vietnam War.

What is needed are metrics that align with the political objectives of the war, and here my criticism of the "degrade and ultimately destroy" description of the political objective becomes relevant. I do not think "degrade" is a good objective; it is tactically achievable but strategically unimportant. "Destroy," however, is strategically important but may be tactically unachievable (at least at the level of effort we are willing to commit).

I am convinced that if the administration identifies valid metrics, and provided those metrics do show progress towards success, even if slow and sometimes halting — or, if the indicators reveal that we are losing, provided that the administration adjusts accordingly — President Obama will have the political support he needs to see this war through to a successful outcome.

Peter D. Feaver is a professor of political science and public policy and Bass Fellow at Duke University, and director of the Triangle Institute for Security Studies and the Duke Program in American Grand Strategy. He is co-editor of Elephants in the Room.

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