What Does ‘Defeating ISIS’ Actually Look Like?

How many members of ISIS must be killed before victory can be declared and the mission accomplished?

If we defeated the Islamic State of Iraq and al-Sham (ISIS), would we know victory when we saw it? We often talk about winning and losing without having any idea what these terms mean. As a new coalition of the willing gestates in the wake of Paris, before we speak of sacrifices to be made, we first need to ask what we want to achieve vis-à-vis the Islamic State. Each definition of victory carries separate sets of commitments and sacrifices. However, from brute force to outright surrender, the best way to defeat ISIS is to implode it.

Our definitions of “wins” and “losses” have a chameleon-like tendency to change. After 9/11, our definition of victory changed from removing the Taliban from power and eliminating Al Qaeda’s leadership to building a centralized, democratic Afghanistan. Now, victory means allowing the U.S. to save enough face to stave off a total Taliban victory while holding off new gains from ISIS throughout. Our ability to jump from one lily pad’s definition of triumph to another is a recipe for morass.

One renowned scholar identifies six ways terrorist organizations end: leadership decapitation, incorporating the organization into a peaceful political transition, allowing the terrorist group to succeed, changes in the group’s tactics, crushing the group through brute force, and fostering the enemy’s implosion through undermining its popular support.

Leadership decapitation is most effective when it is difficult for an organization to replace a leader once he’s been assassinated. This is a popular option, but has not met with much success, as evidenced by Israel’s targeting of the leadership of Hamas. Furthermore, ISIS has already formulated succession procedures should Abu Bakr al-Baghdadi be assassinated.

A second option is to incorporate a terrorist organization into a peaceful postwar transition. This would involve embracing regime change in Damascus as an objective and finding a place for ISIS in post-Ba’ath government. This would place the U.S. at loggerheads with Russia and Iran, two countries critical to any anti-ISIS coalition. (While John Kerry stated the Kremlin is not wedded to keeping Assad in power, and similar rumors have circulated with respect to Iran, both Moscow and Tehran have denied them.)

Even if Russia and Iran could be brought around to the idea of regime change in Damascus, another issue stands in the way: disarmament. A Third Wave–style pacted transition away from Assad’s Syria toward a coalition government that included ISIS, along with the Nusra Front and any number of other opposition groups, would require the opposition to eventually lay down their arms, and either merge into a single army or delegate responsibility for defending Syria to a professional fighting force. Neither is likely to happen without a sustained third-party intervention to manage the peace. Power-sharing agreements break down, because former combatants fear what will happen once they give up their weapons.

Allowing ISIS to succeed is an unthinkable option. Many have seen what it has done in the pieces of territory it already governs. While it has attracted support from many Sunnis tired of corruption and a lack of public services, it has attempted the genocide of the Yazidis. It is also unclear where its ambitions end, or what they entail.

Repression and fighting ISIS to a finish is an obvious and appealing option. But relying on force alone entails two problems. First, how do we know when it has been destroyed? How many members of ISIS must be killed before victory can be declared and the mission accomplished?

Another option is for ISIS to change tactics. Terrorist organizations, like states, emulate success and eschew failure. But their choice of tactics is driven, in part, by their contact with other terrorist organizations and organizational capacity, as well as the means they are seeking to attain. For the past few years, ISIS has been seen as the premier innovator on the terrorist block, through its use of social media together with its quick advances. Other groups would have to lay down their arms and meet with significant policy concessions in order for ISIS to reconsider its tactics.

The use of brute force alone is a tempting one. However, as evidenced by Russia’s experience in the Second Chechen War, reliance on force alone can easily backfire. We could create more terrorists than we kill.

Many times, terrorist organizations simply implode—by alienating the very populations they intend to attract or to govern. Audrey Kurth Cronin identifies a host of variables responsible for popular apathy, from offering the people a better alternative to widespread revulsion among the population.

There are five ways we can bring this about:

The first step in the long march to victory begins with rethinking what constitutes the battlefield. The border between Syria and Iraq is nothing more than a line on a map. For too long, we have treated these as separate states, facing separate terrorist organizations that happened to have the same name. This would be akin to Franklin Roosevelt having one policy for Nazi Germany, another for Vichy, a third for North Africa and a fourth for Mussolini’s Italy.

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