Can the US really destroy terrorist groups like ISIS?

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The stated goal of Combined Joint Task Force Operation Inherent Resolve, the U.S.-led global anti-Islamic State in Iraq and Syria (ISIS) coalition, is to “degrade and destroy” the organization. However, some have taken issue with this policy as unrealistic, even questioning the feasibility of destroying the group altogether. This debate merits a wider reflection as to other U.S. battles with terrorism and whether terrorist groups can be fully destroyed at all.

{mosads}Staying on ISIS for a moment, the group’s seemingly surprising and meteoric rise from the clutches of its defeated insurgency after the surge and Awakening movement in 2007 during the Iraq War, has drawn significant contention regarding the handling of the security situation by both the George W. Bush and Obama administrations. According to Brian Fishman, research fellow at New America Foundation, ISIS’s predecessor, al Qaeda in Iraq, “was never close to destroyed,” despite comments to the contrary. The Awakening weakened the group and pushed it into Iraq’s Sunni heartland to fester. As a result, the group shifted its tactics and rebuilt, gaining strength in the coming years to resurge in 2009. Some blame Obama for ISIS’s rise due to the fact that the U.S. did not leave a residual force that might have quelled any hiccups of remaining insurgency desires or capabilities.

In Operation Enduring Freedom, otherwise known as the Afghanistan War, U.S. goals were to overthrow the Afghan government — at the time, ruled by the Taliban — for not giving up the members of al Qaeda responsible for the 9/11 attacks, as well to disrupt terrorist safe havens and military capabilities. Yet, after 14 years of war, the Taliban in Afghanistan show little sign of relenting its insurgency and focus, despite reports of internal fracturing and disagreements between senior leadership following the death of its founder and the appointment of a new leader. In fact, the time has come to potentially negotiate with the terrorist organization so as to cease continued bloodshed that appears to have no end in sight. It is quite possible that the Taliban could have been even more significantly degraded and rendered ineffective if it did not receive at least some tacit support from Pakistan, to which the group’s leadership fled following the U.S. invasion.

For many in government, success comes down to subjective goals. “Defeating a group doesn’t necessarily mean you will have been successful at eradicating every single person who was ever aligned with the group,” Matt Olsen, former director of the National Counterterrorism Center, told reporters last year regarding ISIS. Nick Rasmussen, current director of the National Counterterrorism Center, stated at the Aspen Security Forum that while “there are more terrorist bad actors coming at us from a greater array of places, in larger numbers than there have been at any point. … I would point to the significant progress we have made as a country in diminishing — dramatically — the threat from core al Qaeda.” Rasmussen continued, saying that no groups the U.S. faces today have capabilities to carry out large-scale attacks on the U.S. homeland.

According to former head of the Defense Intelligence Agency, retired Army Lt. Gen. Michael Flynn, President Obama should not have used the words “degrade and destroy” to describe the mission against ISIS. “[T]hose were incorrect words to use and he should’ve been more precise and he should’ve actually stated what I believe would be attainable goals, which would be to change the behavior,” he stated in July on Al Jazeera, adding “destroying” is not a realistic goal. “I don’t think that we’ll ever destroy [ISIS]. We may cause it to change its name, but we are never going to destroy this organization. Destroy means completely eliminate in military parlance; that would be to annihilate.”

Army Gen. Joseph Votel, commander of Special Operations Command, likened the current fight against ISIS to Colombia’s decades-long battle against the Revolutionary Armed Forces of Colombia, better known by its Spanish acronym, FARC. “I would focus you on Colombia for a moment here and look at what Columbia has dealt with for a number of years with the FARC, greater than 50 years … it’s gone back and forth and you know, through the use of kinetic action and military action, you know now they’re at a point where there are actually some negotiations ongoing. But it’s taken a long time to get there,” he said at the Aspen Security Forum.

Votel also likened the current terrorism struggle to Italy’s, with a similar anecdote from a speech at the 2015 Senior Conference at West Point. “The Red Brigades gradually lapsed into inactivity through the 1980s and 1990s. However, a decade after their supposed demise, a new group emerged calling itself the ‘Anti-Capitalist Attack Nuclei.’ This group materialized, seemingly from nowhere, exhibiting a continuity of ideology, symbols and communication styles with the allegedly defunct Red Brigades.”

Furthermore, groups such as al Qaeda’s regional affiliates are patient and play the long game. “When confronted with a furious Saudi attack on its infrastructure in the kingdom in 2006, it retreated into Yemen — only to reemerge as al-Qaida in the Arabian Peninsula in 2009. [Al Qaeda] adopted a similar tactic in Iraq, reemerging from the surge after the Americans had gone home,” wrote Bruce Riedel, senior fellow at the Brookings Institution and a former CIA official.

As previously mentioned, some terrorist groups could possibly have been extinguished further. In the case of Iraq, the U.S. could have degraded al Qaeda in Iraq even further, although at the time, the terrorist group’s losses were good enough to accomplish U.S. goals: a stable and secure situation in which to begin the political rebuilding process.

As for the fight against ISIS, to borrow a common phrase, ISIS is merely a symptom of the greater problem of the Bashar Assad regime in Syria and that country’s civil war. ISIS cannot be extinguished without a political transition in the Syrian government. “So if we don’t look at the fundamental problems, then ISIS, or son of ISIS or grandson of ISIS, will be a problem for years and years to come,” former Army Gen. Stanley McChrystal said on CBS in May regarding the overall political narrative of the region. The U.S. took this stance as a precondition to intervening in Iraq last summer, waiting for political reforms to take shape.

As the saying goes, words matter. Destroying terrorism entails far more than exterminating terrorists. Every security situation is different and there is not a one-size-fits-all approach. Counterterrorism efforts from a U.S. approach at a basic level serve to protect the homeland and prop up partners. As for the current situation against ISIS, the metrics taken to “degrade and ultimately destroy” the group are too narrow to succeed in the long-term.

Pomerleau is a freelance journalist based in Washington covering politics and policy. Follow him @MpoM24.

Tags Afghanistan War al Qaeda al Qaeda in Iraq Iraq Iraq War ISIS Islamic State in Iraq and Syria Syria
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