By: Anthony H. Cordesman
It is one of the many ironies of the 2016 presidential campaign that the United States is at war in varying degrees in four different countries in the Middle East and North Africa—Iraq, Syria, Libya, and Yemen—as well as continuing its “longest war” in Afghanistan.
All five of these wars now involve ISIS to some degree—ISIS is the central focus of the wars in Iraq, Syria, and Libya—and probably to a degree that seriously threatens the future stability of the MENA region and U.S. strategic interests.
Neither Trump nor Clinton have seriously addressed U.S. policy for any of these five wars, and the Obama Administration has not publically stated its grand strategy for any conflict. For the first time in its national history, the United States may get through a Presidential campaign amidst multiple wars without seriously debating or discussing where any of its wars are going, or what their longer-term impact will be.
If anything, both American politics and the media seem to focus far more on whether or not President Obama failed to keep his 2008 campaign promises to end very different wars. This focus disregards whether or not his legacy involves the ability to actually win any of what are now very different conflicts in a form that will have an outcome that serves U.S. interests and those of our allies.
True Victory in War is Not Shaped by the Military Outcome But by What Happens Once the Fighting is Over
This lack of attention to America’s wars is dangerous in the case of all its wars, but it is particularly dangerous in the case of Iraq, Syria, Libya, and Yemen. The United States is supporting a very different mix of forces in each country in different ways with what seems to be one narrow goal: denying ISIS the ability to control territory or the ability to establish some form of government and sanctuary. The key U.S. tools in each war zone mix air power and with U.S. train and assist efforts and arms transfers to local factions. The United States also provides some limited ground artillery and Special Forces support in Iraq, and a mix of more limited U.S. and allied support for very different types of factions in Syria and Libya.
In each case, the United States may be succeeding to the point where it is tipping the balance enough to achieve the narrow strategic goal of “defeating” ISIS to the point where ISIS no longer controls major cities or blocs of territory. Moreover, the United States may largely achieve this goal before a new President comes to office and can put his or her national security team fully in place. This may well be a “victory” in a narrow sense, and no one can deny that ISIS’s ability to control population centers, blocs of territory, and sanctuaries for fundraising, training terrorists and fighters, and for carrying out its indoctrination efforts made it a far more serious threat.
There is no prospect in any such war, however, that the United States will win a near term victory in either the broader strategic sense of fully defeating ISIS, or in the grand strategic sense of ending a war with a stable and desirable outcome.
Once again, the United States does not seem to be learning from its past. The real test of victory is never tactical success or even ending a war on favorable military terms, it is what comes next. World War I was a military victory that became a grand strategic disaster. World War II led to nearly half a century of Cold War, the creation of an existential nuclear threat to the United States, and a “peace” that still has not created a stable relationship with Russia. Korea has been locked into more than half a century of unstable stalemate that is now going nuclear. Vietnam has produced the irony of a long chain of U.S. tactical victories that have ended in a major strategic defeat, but have gradually been followed by steadily closer U.S. strategic relations with its former enemy.
ISIS Cannot Be Defeated Quickly and No Credible Form of Eventual Defeat of ISIS Will Defeat the Threat of Terrorism
Moreover, America’s political leaders seem to be ignoring warnings from senior U.S. officials like the Chairman of the Joint Chiefs, Director of National Intelligence, and experts in its National Counterterrorism Center that any victory which deprives ISIS of control over cities and major blocs of territory in Iraq, Syria, and Libya will be limited at best. U.S. military planners—like their Iraqi counterparts—are deeply concerned that “liberating” Mosul will trigger at least a year of constant ISIS attacks from the fighters that disperse or hide in Western Iraq, and no one seems to openly address how Western Iraq can be secured until IISS is defeated in Syria as well.
This, however, raises the broader issue of what will happen to tens of thousands of ISIS fighters if ISIS loses its major population centers in Iraq and Syria like Mosul and Raqqa, as well as control over the coastal strip in Libya around Sirte (Surt). Many will head back to their country of origin, others will go to a new front somewhere in the region or South and Central Asia, and some will stay. The organizations they join may or may not keep the name ISIS, but they are likely to stay violent Islam extremists whose terrorism in the United States and Europe continues to try to divide the true path of Islam from the rest of world, and threaten every moderate regime in the Muslim world.
A terrorist by any other name is not a “rose,” and the threat both ISIS fighters and other such extremists pose will continue to be a threat indefinitely into the future. Moreover, all of the political, economic, social, and demographics forces that triggered the rise of such extremism and the massive upheaval that begin in 2011 have grown worse over the last half-decade – as have the tensions Muslims living in the West face as the result of the terrorism committed by a small minority.
The effort to counter the extremist message seems to be improving, but there is no similar success in addressing the complex mix of other underlying causes. Civil upheavals, civil war, sectarian and ethnic violence, a loss of investment and capital flight, massive refugee and IDP problems, a loss of tourist income, and a 40-60% drop in petroleum revenues do not alone produce some predictable increase in extremism or terrorism. Neither does fear of Muslims by non-Muslims, and discrimination against Muslims in the West and other areas outside largely Muslim states. These forces, however, are almost certain to make things worse.
Here, it is critical to look beyond the current U.S. obsession with ISIS and look at the broader threat. If one looks at the most recent START statistics on terrorism in the State Department annual report on terrorism, and only considers the top five threats, three are clearly Islamist extremist: ISIS (in Syria and Iraq), the Taliban, and Boko Harum. There are more than 40 Islamist extremist groups listed in the START database, but if one looks only at these top three, ISIS was responsible for only 37% of the attacks and 38% of the deaths.
(Source: National Consortium for the Study of Terrorism and Responses to Terrorism: “Annex of Statistical Information,” Country Reports on Terrorism 2015, U.S. State Department, Bureau of Counterterrorism and Countering Violent Extremism, May 2016, http://www.state.gov/j/ct/rls/crt/2015/257526.htm )
There is no clear way to assess the role of ISIS role in terms of all Islamist extremist attacks, but if one looks at the total numbers of attacks in the countries with the highest rates of terrorism in the MENA region (Egypt, Iraq, Libya, and Syria), ISIS was responsible for 29% of the attacks in 2015, and 56% of the deaths.
Islamic extremism does dominate global terrorism, but ISIS was only responsible for 9% of the attacks in the entire world in 2015, and 21% of the deaths. Depriving ISIS of control over population centers and sanctuary to raise funds and train fighters, and breaking it up as key organization, matters. Defeating it in any practical sense, however, will not begin to deal with the lasting threat.
(Source: National Consortium for the Study of Terrorism and Responses to Terrorism: “Annex of Statistical Information,”Country Reports on Terrorism 2015, U.S. State Department, Bureau of Counterterrorism and Countering Violent Extremism, May 2016, http://www.state.gov/j/ct/rls/crt/2015/257526.htm )
Looking Beyond ISIS: What Comes Next in Libya
The problems of what comes next in the wars the United States is now fighting also goes far beyond ISIS. The issue is simplest in Libya. Defeating ISIS may or may not ease the tensions between Libya’s two de facto governments in its west and its East. They have cooperated to some degree in fighting ISIS. It may or may not ease the internal tensions within each area that have sharply reduced Libya’s petroleum exports and income. Other tribal and regional fighting may or may not emerge as more serious problems.
What is clear is that these divisions and low-level civil war have made Qaddafi’s terrible legacy in terms of poor governance and failed economic development even worse. Libya will need a decade of rebuilding and reform to produce true stability and raise its per capita income and income distribution to acceptable levels. This requires both stable internal politics and leadership, and serious international aid.
Once again, the civil dimension both in war and post-conflict is critical to any form of lasting successful outcome. Some form of “nation-building” is even more difficult than winning actual conflict, but is no less necessary. No real grand strategy is possible without it, and Libya faces critical challenges.
• Population 6.4 million; Median age 28
• Youth unemployment 48.7%; overall unemployment 30% (?)
• 79.7% urbanized
• GDP drops from $130.2B in 2013 to $92.6B in 2015
• Per capita income drops from $20,800 in 2013 to $14,600 in 2015
• 33% below poverty line in 2014.
• As of 2015, 434,869 IDPs, 471,653 people of concern.
• Libya’s economy, almost entirely dependent on oil and gas exports, struggled during 2015 as the country plunged into civil war and world oil prices dropped to seven-year lows.
• In early 2015, armed conflict between rival forces for control of the country’s largest oil terminals caused a decline in Libyan crude oil production, which never recovered to more than one-third of the average pre-Revolution highs of 1.6 million barrels per day.
• The Central Bank of Libya continued to pay government salaries to a majority of the Libyan workforce and to fund subsidies for fuel and food, resulting in an estimated budget deficit of about 49% of GDP.
• Libya’s economic transition away from Qaddafi’s notionally socialist model has completely stalled
• Libya’s leaders have hindered economic development by failing to use its financial resources to invest in national infrastructure. The country suffers from widespread power outages in its largest cities, caused by shortages of fuel for power generation. Living conditions, including access to clean drinking water, medical services, and safe housing, have all declined as the civil war has caused more people to become internally displaced, further straining local resources.
• Extremists affiliated with the Islamic State of Iraq and the Levant (ISIL) attacked Libyan oilfields in the first half of 2015; ISIL has a presence in many cities across Libya including near oil infrastructure, threatening future government revenues from oil and gas.
This does not mean the United States needs a major aid mission or even has to take the lead. The United States does, however, need a clear strategy that looks beyond ISIS, does not simply hope for action by other countries, or simply leave a vacuum in its broader efforts while it bombs ISIS. It can lever limited civil and military aid, seek some kind of common effort with Europe, and develop an integrated civil-military approach to strategic partnership.
Past experience also shows that such efforts have to be public and transparent enough to put real pressure on State, USAID, and Defense to act. The past efforts in Iraq and Afghanistan simply papered over a lack of real planning, interagency coordination, and effective effort. It also papered over a lack of coordination with other countries, tolerance of failed efforts by key groups like UNAMA, and unwillingness to press coordination with the World Bank and IMF.
Whether the next President choses to use more force, rely on strategic partnerships, or do both, the U.S. has got to look beyond ISIS in dealing with Libya, and look beyond the threat alone, as well as look beyond the partisan domestic politics in the United States of the tragedy in Benghazi.
Anthony H. Cordesman – Arleigh A. Burke Chair in Strategy
Center for Strategic & International Studies