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Nov 16 / Great Apes

What Does Defeating ISIS Actually Mean?

In the wake of the horrific attacks in Paris this weekend, there has been a renewal of calls to defeat ISIS.  Take, for example, this New York Times op-ed:

The only adequate measure, after the killing of at least 129 people in Paris, is military, and the only objective commensurate with the ongoing threat is the crushing of ISIS and the elimination of its stronghold in Syria and Iraq.

One big problem with these kinds of calls to action is that it’s never entirely clear what it would mean to “defeat” ISIS.  This is not a trivial question.

Most peoples’ ideas of war are based on historical conflicts like World War 2.  It’s relatively clear how you win a conflict like that: you roll back the Nazi front and force Germany to surrender.  For inter-state conflicts resulting in one state invading the territory of another, this is a good and workable model.

The problem is that it’s not a model that can be applied to a conflict with non-state groups.  ISIS isn’t the government of a state, it’s not really an army, and it can’t surrender (even if leadership surrendered, it’s doubtful that all of their followers would concede with them).  So the inter-state model of conflict resolution doesn’t hold.

So if ISIS can’t be defeated in the way a nation-state could be, that leads to the question of what, exactly defeating them would mean.  Let’s look at a few possibilities.

1. Roll back ISIS territorial control.

This is a fairly clearly defined goal and it’s likely relatively achievable, too.  Though it’s very likely more difficult than it sounds, and virtually impossible without a major ground force.  Rolling ISIS back is the goal of the air campaign of which Canada is a part, and it’s had pretty mixed results.  It’s also worth remembering that even with a large ground force, the U.S. still struggled to control parts of Afghanistan and Iraq, so even this seemingly modest goal is in all likelihood harder than it sounds.

But since this is already what the U.S. and its allies are attempting to do, and critics who want ISIS “crushed” or “defeated” tend to be asking for more force, I have to conclude that rolling back ISIS’s territorial gains is not sufficient for those critics.

2. Reduce the probability of an attack in a NATO country to zero.

Almost certainly impossible.  The rate of attacks is already quite low.  In Canada you’re drastically more likely to be killed by a car while you cross the street than you are to be murdered by a terrorist.  I don’t know how we’d even determine that the possibility of an attack had been entirely eliminated.  Attacks are already so infrequent I don’t know what the measuring stick would be, but at any rate there’s no way to completely stop any possible terror attack.  Going back to World War 2 for a second, consider this: even though we pretty decisively defeated the Nazis, there are still neo-Nazis who commit terrorist attacks 70 years later.  There’s no such thing as absolute safety.

3. Kill all of ISIS’s senior leadership.

Now we start to get into murky territory, and it’ll only get more ambiguous from here on out.  Who are counted as ISIS’s senior leadership?  If they’re killed, but the next in line just keep moving up, doesn’t that suggest a significantly broader campaign?  Indeed, this is precisely the situation the U.S.’s special operations forces in places like Yemen and Afghanistan have been running into.  You say you’re going kill the “leaders”, but then after you’ve killed the leaders you decide there are more leaders than the ones you said you were after, and the list keeps expanding, and somehow you discover that the more people you kill, the bigger your list of targets becomes.

4. Kill everyone in ISIS.

This is an hopelessly vague idea, and is almost certainly impossible.  Who are we defining as ISIS?  Obviously not just senior leadership, or we’d be back at #3.  Is it anyone who’s been involved in the planning or execution of an attack that’s already occurred?  We might be able to accomplish that, though it’s worth noting that even that seemingly modest goal could prove quite difficult.  One of the men alleged to have been involved in the 2000 bombing of the USS Cole in Yemen still remains at largeAnother two were killed more than a decade after the fact.

What if the campaign to kill the people we’ve currently identified as ISIS leads to civilian casualties that increases ISIS recruitment?  That almost certainly will happen, given the precedent in America’s other recent wars.  So does killing everyone in ISIS mean creating new terrorists for us to kill?

What about people who have never been active in any ISIS campaign in any direct sense, but have provided them with housing or food or transport or other support?  One of the most important things that the excellent book No Good Men Among The Living gets across about the conflict with the Taliban and al Qaeda in Afghanistan is how frequently people have changed sides over the past several decades.  People have often switched their allegiance to the Soviets, the Taliban, the U.S., al Qaeda, and back and forth.  They switch sides not because they’re bad people, but because they want simple things like a decent living and security for their family, and they’ll go wherever they think they can find those things.  So in places like Syria, are we including all of those people in ISIS too?  Must we kill all of them?  And isn’t that just going to create more enemies that we then have to kill, creating more enemies that we then have to kill, creating . . .

So this all leads back to my original question: what exactly would it mean to defeat ISIS and how would we know we were successful?  It seems to me as though people who want to “defeat” ISIS don’t really know what they mean or how we would go about doing it, they just think it sounds like the kind of thing you ought to say.  Which is probably not a good way to decide whether or not to go to war.

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