Mission Accomplished? How to Measure Success against ISIS

December 30, 2014 Topic: Security Region: Middle East

Mission Accomplished? How to Measure Success against ISIS

While success against ISIL may be difficult to unambiguously describe at the outset of this new war, frequent assessments are vital.

Senior U.S. officials have stated that Operation Inherent Resolve (OIR) – the war against the Islamic State in Iraq and the Levant (ISIL) – will probably last between three and ten years. As the U.S. gears up for another prolonged conflict in the Middle East against a violent extremist group, questions are rightly being asked as to how we will know if we are succeeding and indeed, what success will even look like. Not surprisingly, similar questions were asked during the Vietnam War, the Afghanistan War, and the last Iraq War. Yet assessments of each of these wars were often inaccurate and in some cases dangerously misleading. So how might we do better in the war against ISIL?

To answer that question, we must first understand our objectives in this new war. In his speech back in September, President Obama told the American people , “Our objective is clear: We will degrade, and ultimately destroy, ISIL through a comprehensive and sustained counterterrorism strategy.” In a White House fact sheet , the administration lists nine lines of effort to achieve this objective: Supporting Effective Governance in Iraq; Denying ISIL Safe-Haven; Building Partner Capacity; Enhancing Intelligence Collection on ISIL; Disrupting ISIL’s Finances; Exposing ISIL’s True Nature; Disrupting the Flow of Foreign Fighters; Protecting the Homeland; and Humanitarian Support. Together, these nine lines of effort describe what the U.S. will do to fight ISIL in the years ahead.

There has been much less discussion of what we can expect to see if these actions are successful. It is not clear what the defeat or destruction of ISIL might actually look like, or what might happen after these objectives are achieved. To be fair, irregular conflicts such as the war against ISIL are rife with ambiguity, and at their outset it is often difficult to articulate in detail what a successful conclusion of the conflict may look like. But that does not remove the impetus to strive for clarity in our understanding of the conflict and of the outcomes of our actions. While success against ISIL may be difficult to unambiguously describe at the outset of this new war, frequent assessment of the drivers of conflict, and of our campaign to counter this group, is vital to recognizing successes and failures as they occur. Assessment in this environment is difficult to conduct, but it is critical to the flexibility and adaptability that successful irregular warfare campaigns require.

The Obama administration – and its successor – will likely conduct its own internal assessments of its campaign against ISIL. But these will undoubtedly be classified and not fully available to the U.S. Congress, which needs to understand the course and progress of the war on its own terms in order to determine how best to support—or in some cases oppose—ongoing efforts. While the administration has announced goals for the war against ISIL and lines of effort to achieve them, Congress has responsibility for funding those efforts, and concurrently, for providing oversight of those efforts on behalf of the U.S. taxpayer.

In the last Iraq war, Congress tried using a “benchmark” approach to holding the Bush administration accountable for maintaining progress in the war. In 2007, Congress required the Department of Defense (DoD) to report on 18 benchmarks designed to grade the Iraqi government’s progress toward stability. Future funding of Operation Iraqi Freedom (OIF) was to be contingent on Iraqi leaders making sufficient progress toward these benchmarks. Ultimately this turned out to be more of a pro forma assessment than a basis for making decisions about the war: despite a report from the Government Accountability Office later that year titled, “Iraqi Government Has Not Met Most Legislative, Security, and Economic Benchmarks,” Congress never acted on the lack of progress toward the benchmarks.


For the war in Afghanistan, Congress took a different approach. Instead of establishing benchmarks for success, it mandated a semi-annual, publically available assessment by the DoD on its progress in conducting the war (colloquially called the “ 1230 Report ” from the section of the military authorization bill that mandates it). This report, while a useful source of unclassified information about operations in Afghanistan, is far from an assessment that could be used to make significant decisions about the war. It is written by the same entities conducting the war (the military in theater and civilians in the Office of the Secretary of Defense) so it is burdened with subjectivity. In addition, this report only focuses on the military aspects of the war—there is no corresponding report required of other U.S. government agencies involved in Afghanistan on non-military aspects of the war. And most importantly, as in OIF, this report on Afghanistan has had little direct impact on the direction of the war or our objectives in waging it.

What, then, can we learn from our experiences with assessing progress in war over the past decade? How should we assess progress against ISIL going forward? A four-pronged approach is needed.