Will America Defeat the Islamic State?

October 8, 2014 Topic: ISISCounterinsurgency Region: United StatesIraqSyria

Will America Defeat the Islamic State?

The critical criteria for judging the success of America's campaign.

So the ongoing military campaign in the Middle East will be judged, in part, by the Islamic State’s ability to transmit images of the war to a wider audience, thereby potentially stirring up hostility against the United States and its allies while also inspiring copycat attacks.

The advent of mass communications has another consequence: individuals and interest groups in one part of the world can exploit developments in another. In other words, the more heavily the United States or one of its allies is involved in one region, the more room its enemies in another area will have for maneuvering.

And because modern media channels are so prolific—on the internet and on mobile phones—such news and opportunities are broadcast immediately to America’s enemies almost immediately.

This is not, in itself, a new phenomenon: every enemy tries to exploit the weakness and vulnerability of its opponent. Al Qaeda and the Taliban thrived in the mid-1990s at a time when the attention of the outside world was focused on the Balkans and Eastern Europe. Equally, the 7/7 attacks in London took place just as world leaders met in Britain for an international conference that diverted huge numbers of policemen, as well as the attention of domestic intelligence; and Pakistan-based insurgents attacked India’s parliament building just when Western attention, and the attention of some of Pakistan’s intelligence agencies, was focused on events in Afghanistan.

But in today’s world of instant communications, such moments of opportunity can be seized immediately. Insurgents in every part of the world know the exact moment when they have the greatest chance of evading enemy attention. This means that the success and failure of a particular campaign has to be viewed, more so than ever before, from a wider geographical perspective.

Fortunately, the United States is in a position to use this to its advantage if it is hypervigilant about the likelihood that an enemy will make a move at a particular moment. For example, it was no coincidence that one of its most spectacular anti-insurgent military operations of recent months took place on September 1, 2014, when a drone strike killed Ahmed Godane, the leader of the Al Shabaab movement in Somalia. It appears that Godane became complacent just when he thought—mistakenly—that America’s eyes were turned towards the Middle East and Ukraine: he not only chose to break cover and move camp, but also to travel away from innocent civilians who, unwittingly, provided him with a human shield.

This is just one of the four new criteria of victory by which military campaigns can today be judged: As a result of this particular campaign in one part of the world, has the United States lost or gained ground elsewhere? The other three criteria—which ask if the enemy has migrated elsewhere; whether the campaign has left an ungoverned void; and whether the enemy has managed to propagate negative and damaging images online—are just as important.

Roger Howard is the author of six books on international relations. His most recent work is ‘Terror in the Tropics: The Attack on the Nairobi Shopping Mall’.

Image: Flickr/Official U.S. Air Force/CC by-nc 2.0