from Politics, Power, and Preventive Action and Center for Preventive Action

Obama Should Change his Counter-ISIS Strategy

October 12, 2014

Blog Post
Blog posts represent the views of CFR fellows and staff and not those of CFR, which takes no institutional positions.

Last month, I wrote about how President Obama’s announced end state to “degrade, and ultimately destroy ISIL” would not be achieved, just as previous promises by Bush and Obama administration officials to “destroy” and “eliminate” Al Qaeda and the Taliban were not. I also noted how U.S. officials have offered contradictory end states since then, a practice that continues. For example, on September 22, chairman of the joint chiefs of staff Gen. Martin Dempsey declared: “We want them to wake up every day realizing that they are being squeezed from multiple directions. If we can get [ISIS] looking in about five different directions, that’s the desired end state.” That is a plausible strategic objective given the relatively limited military and non-military resources that have been committed by the United States and coalition members. However, it is nowhere near as difficult as “destroy.”

In the month since Obama’s speech, the confusion extends to how the strategy is described by the lead agencies in this fight. The top of the Pentagon website for the unnamed war—innocuously titled the “Targeted Operations Against ISIL Terrorists”—describes airstrikes as “part of the comprehensive strategy to degrade and defeat the Islamic State of Iraq and the Levant.” The corresponding State Department website touts “The Global Coalition to Degrade and Defeat ISIL.”

During an October 3 press conference in Baghdad, retired Gen. John Allen, the Special Presidential Envoy for the Global Coalition to Counter ISIL, used “defeat” eight times, but never “destroy.” Allen said “the defeat of ISIS, which is the intent, will occur in several ways,” defining success as when “ISIS, as an identifiable organization, will cease to exist inside Iraq. That doesn’t mean that every single member of ISIS has been eliminated. But the organization has ceased to exist. There are no safe havens, there is no capacity to challenge Iraqi security forces and, ultimately, to dominate the people.”

That same day, Al Kamen wrote of how Allen “has sent word around to folks in Washington that everyone should stop using the word ‘destroy’ when describing the mission against the Islamic State.” When the Pentagon spokesperson was asked about this, he declared: “The commander-in-chief was pretty clear that the mission is to degrade and destroy ISIL, and that’s the job that we’re undertaking.” Yet, the State Department the following day announced: “General Allen and Deputy Special Envoy McGurk discussed areas of cooperation across the multiple lines of effort that will be required to degrade and ultimately defeat ISIL.”  Presidential policy speeches are supposed to provide common terms and phrases for officials to use when articulating ultimate objectives so there is no confusion. This is clearly not happening.

Why does it matter how Obama administration officials describe the end state for countering ISIS?  First, end states should guide all elements of a strategy by ensuring a prioritized and synchronized unity of effort. Second, the terms are distinct: “defeat” is to prevent an adversary from achieving their objectives through disruption and attrition, while “destroy” is to defeat an adversary to the extent that it ceases to function and cannot be reconstituted. The latter is a much more difficult and resource-intensive objective, and if Obama sincerely intends to achieve that end state then he must commit greater resources (including ground forces), and use his political capital to create a broader and more deeply committed international coalition. Finally, among State Department and Pentagon staffers and officials who actually implement this strategy there is a widespread recognition and frustration that Obama’s end state simply is not serious. When Obama first said “destroyed” on the evening of September 10 many government employees working this issue were astonished, and I have still not met one who believes that this will ever occur.

There is an easy way for the White House to back down from this increasingly embarrassing strategic error: simply declare that President Obama made a mistake by declaring an end state that is far too ambitious and unrealistic for the United States and its coalition partners to accomplish. This may be politically embarrassing in the near-term, but the alternative will be denying the reality of ISIL’s existence in the future when it is not destroyed. Much like the Bush administration’s initial refusal to acknowledge the emergence of a Sunni insurgency in Iraq after Saddam Hussein was toppled, because it had already declared “mission accomplished.” It would have been wiser and more courageous to be realistic and honest with the American people up front, rather than many years and lost lives later.