Striking ISIS: How Do We Know if We’re Winning?

While official footage of air strikes against ISIS targets provide good optics, they are not a reliable in measuring the success of the broader military strategy against the group. 

A US-led coalition is at war in Iraq and Syria. Britain, a latecomer to the coalition, had to wait three days after parliament authorised intervention before it conducted a single airstrike, but has since destroyed several targets – documented tweet by tweet, and one even caught on Channel 4’s cameras

But airstrikes are tactics, and the successful destruction of an individual target tells us little about whether the broader military strategy – let alone the overarching political strategy – is working. How do we know if it is?

Military Strategy

Political leaders have not articulated their military or political strategy in any great detail, so this is a difficult question to answer. President Barack Obama has committed to ‘degrade and ultimately destroy’ ISIS, and this wording implies an acknowledgment of that fact that the short and medium term objective is to weaken rather than eliminate ISIS.

Other US and British statements suggest that the ultimate task of destruction is envisaged as a task for local forces rather outside powers. The aim of degradation is still fluid and open-ended, but considerably more modest than seeking outright defeat.

Military Aims

With this in mind, it is crucial to distinguish military targets from aims or effects, and to observe and assess the latter, rather than become preoccupied with tactical successes. We might outline at least three such aims or desired effects in the short to medium term (i.e., next six months):

  1. Change in ISIS’ tactics: reduction in ISIS’ ability to mount conventional military – as opposed to hit-and-run or terrorist – operations
  2. Confine ISIS to cities: reduction in ISIS’ ability to operate outside of population centres. This involves denying ISIS control of non-urban territory (as distinct from recapturing it), defending key Iraqi-controlled sites, and preventing ISIS from moving personnel or movement between areas they control
  3. Reduce ISIS’ resources: reduction in ISIS’ ability to exploit oil facilities for export revenue, patronage, and military operations.

Thus far airstrikes have had mixed success in furthering these relatively limited aims. For instance, within the past few weeks ISIS has been able conduct a successful five-day siege of an Iraqi army north of Fallujah, seize small towns in that area, and advance on the Syrian border town of Kobane.

On the other hand, where local ground forces are effective and airstrikes are well coordinated with those forces, ISIS has been rolled back – as with Kurdish advances against ISIS in the Rabia district – and, even without that ground support, the coalition has destroyed 16 out of 20 ISIS-controlled oil refineries in Syria, which will inevitably impact ISIS’ oil resources.

Over the medium to longer-term, if and when local ground forces grow in size, coherence and effectiveness, additional military aims will become viable, such as the systematic re-capture of more significant population centres currently under ISIS’ control, such as Mosul. But in those circumstances, the efficacy and scope of airstrikes will diminish, particularly given the coalition’s likely casualty-aversion. For now, some recapture of territory is on-going, particularly around the Kurdish periphery, but many gains elsewhere look fragile and reversible. But the aims outlined here are modest and limited – something that may be confusing to the public, who have been mobilised on the basis that ISIS presents an imminent and drastic humanitarian and security challenge. 

The Role of Decapitation

One unanswered question is whether ISIS’ leadership and organisation are presently military targets. In the counterterrorism campaigns of the past decade – including the examples approvingly cited by President Obama, Yemen and Somalia, as well as other cases like Pakistan – airstrikes have targeted militant leaders.

By contrast, and assuming that there is no covert assassination campaign that is occurring, the overwhelming majority of strikes in Syria and Iraq, since the US campaign began in early August, have been directed at tactical, battlefield targets (92% of targets were vehicles, as of September 29). Syrian targets have included a larger proportion of fixed sites, such as ISIS-held military bases, command hubs, oil facilities, and gas plants, but these have still focused on the group’s physical rather than human infrastructure.

The academic literature is divided over the effect of decapitation in counterinsurgency campaigns. A 2012 study by Patrick Johnson concluded that ‘campaigns are more likely to end quickly when counterinsurgents successfully target enemy leaders’, whereas a 2014 paper by Jenna Jordan qualified this by suggesting that the net effect would depend on ‘organisational resilience’, itself linked to ‘bureaucratisation and communal support’, both of which ISIS appears to possess to a high degree.

The US has likely learnt from its decapitation-focused counterterrorist efforts in Asia and the Middle East over the past decade. It may be withholding this tactic out of concern for civilian casualties as a result of poor intelligence, given that targeting is based on overhead ISR (specifically, ‘satellites, drones and surveillance flights’) rather than an extensive ground-based human intelligence network – a notable problem in Yemen. The US may also be anticipating that such a tactic might be more effective once local ground forces are able to concurrently apply pressure to ISIS rather than now, when ISIS would have ample time to recover and adapt with limited pressure on the ground.

In any case, the restraint towards ISIS’ leadership is anomalous in the context of US counterterrorism strategy, and it seems likely this will in due course become part of the campaign. But if airstrikes do target leaders, it will be far more important to focus on the effect this has on the group’s cohesion and operation rather than on the number or status of leaders killed.

Military versus Political Objectives

The coalition’s political objectives go well beyond this narrow set of aims, including, for instance, reduced foreign funding for ISIS, the separation of ISIS from Sunni tribal Baathist allies, and pan-sectarian/ethnic political unity in Iraq. But these are not objectives that can be directly furthered by the military campaign, and certainly not through airstrikes alone.

But a military campaign must have appropriate military aims, which can be measured through both military and non-military effects. Three of these short-term effects – relating to tactics, territory, and resources – have been outlined here, and we should refer to these as we judge whether the military campaign is working. At the same time, we should be judging the overarching strategy according to a broader set of political, diplomatic, economic, and other metrics.


Shashank Joshi

Advisory Board

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