Afghanistan, Iraq, Syria, ISIS, and Iran: Is "Half" a Strategy Better than None?

By Anthony Cordesman

The United States seems to have at least a short-term military strategy in Iraq and Syria. It is actively seeking to drive ISIS out of its remaining population centers in Mosul, Raqqa and the rest of Syria and Iraq. The United States also seems to have adjusted its military strategy in Afghanistan in a more open ended way: it will add some 4,000 troops and expand its military train and assist mission, boost the Afghan counterterrorism forces, and provide substantially more air support. It has some elements of a military strategy in dealing with Iran: largely consisting of working with its regional allies to deter and contain Iran while still debating what to do, if anything, about the Iran nuclear agreement – the JCPOA.

The Military “Half” of a Strategy

It is more than a bit generous to do so, but let's call this "half "of a strategy the military half. It's generous to do so for seven all too important reasons:

  • There is no element of strategy for conflict termination or stability operations, even in the most narrow military sense of the term.
  • The announced plan for dealing with ISIS is essentially to deprive it of control of major population centers, but no strategy or plan has been announced for what happens next.
  • Quite aside from the lack of any clear plan to deal with the remnants of ISIS after Mosul and Raqqa, there is no strategy or plan for dealing with the other elements of terrorism in the region. ISIS is a very real threat, but it was only responsible for 5% of the total terrorist elements in the world in 2015 – the last year for which data are available in the START data base – and 11% of the terrorist incidents in the Middle East and North Africa. The total destruction of ISIS would leave most of the terrorist threat intact and growing.
  • The plan for dealing with the Taliban, Haqqani Network, and other extremist elements in Afghanistan is to keep fighting indefinitely, with occasional mention of peace negotiations.
  • There is no announced plan or strategy for dealing with various Arab and other rebel elements in Syria, the various Kurdish elements in Syria and Iraq, and the Shiite and Sunni popular militias once ISIS is defeated.
  • There is no public strategy for dealing with Russia, Turkey, and Iran's military and security role in Syria, Iraq, and the region after ISIS is driven out of Mosul and Raqqa, or for dealing with the threat Pakistan's tolerance and support of extremist elements poses to Afghanistan.
  • The cumulative time frame for the previous six caveats means that the United States at best has the military half of a strategy through about September of this year – ignoring the complications in America's other military interventions in Libya, Somalia, Yemen, Sub-Saharan Africa, and now the Philippines.

Some might say that the United States has about a quarter of the military half of a strategy, but perhaps that standard is a bit too high for the current standards set by American strategic thinking.

The Missing Civil "Half:" Relying on an "Anti-Strategy"

The most serious gap in U.S. strategy, however, is that all of the wars it is fighting now are wars in "failed states" with weak and corrupt governance, serious to critical economic problems, inadequate rule of law, and deep political divisions – often involving critical religious, ethic, regional, and tribal tensions – as well as serious population pressure on jobs and urbanization. Rebuilding (or building) a viable economic, political, and governance structure is critical to avoid today's wars and extremist threats from mutating into new civil conflicts and human suffering.

A stable end to war also means dealing with its human consequences. In the case of both Syria and Yemen, a new UNHCR report – Global Trends: Forced Displacement in 2016 – confirms previous reports by the UNOCHA that show that more than half of the population has already been put at risk, made into refugees, or left as internally displaced persons (IDPs) without homes, jobs, businesses, effective health care, and schools. Afghanistan has well over 4 million refugees and IDPs, Iraq has over three million, and Somalia has well over one million.

The World Bank, IMF, and UN have also published studies showing just how difficult it can be to fund and carry out recovery – much less development – even if governments have broad popular support, and are honest and effective. It can easily take the equivalent of a year's GDP simply to fund a recovery effort, and no state where the United States is now fighting has as yet shown anything like the level of integrity, unity, and competence necessary to act on such a basis. All, for example, are grossly corrupt according to World Bank and Transparency International ratings.

This means an effective U.S. strategy to successfully end the current fighting and extremist threat in any lasting way must involve some form of help in "nation building." It is also clear from the failures that the United States has often touted as successes in Afghanistan and Iraq that such efforts take time, patience, and demand levels of realism – rather than following a road paved largely in good intentions.

At present, however, one of the few areas where the United States does seem to have some elements of bipartisan agreement is to avoid "nation building." The Administration has proposed massive cuts in State Department and USAID programs, the Congress has yet to show any real collective interest in the civil side of counter insurgency and preventing civil war, and the United States is addressing the civil side of both strategy and grand strategy largely through denial: the equivalent of an "anti-strategy" approach to the other half of strategy.

Anthony H. Cordesman holds the Arleigh A. Burke Chair in Strategy at the Center for Strategic and International Studies in Washington, D.C.

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