Every week, the Islamic State (IS) makes further headlines with its ruthless behavior. Beheadings, mass executions, burnings and extreme acts of brutality are the methods of a terrorist campaign intended to cow opponents and rally potential fighters. At the same time, the group is fighting a guerilla war against Iraqi forces while engaging in more conventional infantry battles against Kurdish Peshmerga and Free Syrian Army cadres. The many tactics of IS raises the question: which type of war are we fighting against it?
President Barack Obama recently announced his strategy for stopping IS militants, presenting a draft authorization of military force. The debates about his request have used the language of traditional war – which take into account clear geographic boundaries and fully committed allies. This is misguided. There is no single front in this war and the level of our allies’ commitment to the effort varies from place to place. The fight against IS is, in fact, several different wars against the same enemy, with porous fronts that only occasionally resemble contiguous state boundaries.
Therefore, finding the right strategy will require working with our allies in the Middle East to define their objectives and limitations—including an honest assessment of which territories matter enough for them to commit troops on the ground and eventually govern—and build our policy accordingly.
But doing this is hard because some of our basic notions about war mislead us when examining the conflict with IS. Our world map, with its thick black lines winding between countries, was created by wars fought between nations, wars that were usually won by the side with superior weapons and larger armies, who then went on to exert full control over the territory they conquered. So our cultural conception of war – its dynamics and the ways to prepare for and win it – is based in large part on those clashes, with the two World Wars casting a long shadow.
Such a conception of war is historically accurate but dated and does us a disservice when we approach most current conflicts, including the one against IS. Fronts in this conflict are porous and shifting and run along a complex web of political fault lines that only occasionally resemble contiguous state boundaries.
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Applying analogies from nation-versus-nation wars can lead us to overlook critical constraints on what the United States can accomplish against IS, constraints that stem not from our vast physical capacity to wage conventional war, but from the interaction of two factors: the essential role played by local allies and the sometimes limited objectives of those allies.
For the last five years, our multi-university research collective, the Empirical Studies of Conflict Project (ESOC) , has worked to understand the complexities of subnational conflict, both on the ground and academically. We have assembled micro-level conflict data from nine different countries on political violence and are now working on several other countries. We map territory and study conflict at a very local level, and combine a rich appreciation of local politics with economic theory and large datasets to generate and test clear predictions. We are interested in how policy choices influence trends and outcomes within wars. In short, we bring data driven evidence to hotly contested arguments that have typically been adjudicated on the basis of anecdote.
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One outcome of our research is that we can say a good deal about what outsiders can do to help in suppressing threats emanating from IS in Iraq and Syria. ESOC models suggest multiple important steps the United States and its allies can take to create better strategies.
Subnational conflict: Symmetry, Asymmetry and Information
Subnational conflict is not new; there have always been wars that do not operate according to a nation-versus-nation dynamic. For example, in Napoleon’s struggle to control the Iberian Peninsula, he didn’t face one central opponent. Instead, he fought many “little wars” or guerilla wars, as the Spanish called them. Nearly a century later, after Spain ceded the Philippines to the United States, the United States waged a three-year war within this newly acquired territory against multiple insurgent groups. Although this conflict officially ended in victory in 1902, there was sporadic violence for decades afterwards. On the Eastern Front during World War II, Hitler’s armies fought various insurgencies including the Yugoslav Partisans, the Polish Underground State, and the Ukrainian Insurgent Army, which also fought the Soviets.
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Recent research by Stathis Kalyvas of Yale University and Laia Balcells of Duke emphasizes the distinctions between symmetric and asymmetric subnational conflicts. Symmetric civil wars involve protagonists of roughly equal capacity and are fought mostly over territorial control. In the latter stages of the Vietnam War, for instance, combatants fought along well-defined fronts as in international wars, with victory usually secured by a combination of superior weaponry, numbers and strategy.