The Islamic State, formerly ISIS or ISIL, has evolved from humble beginnings in AQI (Al Qaeda in Iraq), separating from Al Qaeda to form one of the two largest rebel groups in Syria (the other being the Al Qaeda-backed Al Nusra Front) and launching an invasion of Iraq that has run roughshod over the Iraqi Military, stretched the Kurdish Peshmarga to their limits, and closed in on the capital of Baghdad. The United States, a collection of allies, and a handful of other countries (such as Iran) not considered to be allies of America, have begun to support regional actors who are directly opposed to the Islamic State. In America’s case, the support has most recently taken the form of airstrikes in support of the Iraqi military and the Kurdish Peshmarga, and limited targeted airstrikes within Syria.
The Islamic State is currently operating in the form of a conventional force. They have captured armor, artillery, and light assault vehicles during their expansion, and have used captured oil and other resources to supply their fighters. While the idea of a conventionally-armed force of religious fundamentalists bent on expanding their borders and influence is, justifiably, terrifying to many, it is important to remember that a conventional force is exactly what America’s air power was primarily designed to destroy. Airstrikes have already taken their toll on the Islamic State’s armor, artillery, and supply and ammunition dumps, and the presence of and coordination with allied ground forces in the form of the Iraqi Army and the Peshmarga has meant that American infantrymen have not been required to physically reclaim territory. This combination has been effective in slowing the advance of IS fighters in Iraq, and an increase in operational tempo could reasonably be expected to reclaim lost ground if the Islamic State remains in its current form. Unfortunately, this is not the most likely scenario.
It is vital to remember that the Islamic State’s origins are in AQI, a decidedly unconventional terror organization. While IS now commands the hardware and resources to launch a conventional campaign, they are still fully capable of returning to their unconventional roots by mixing with local populations to escape and confound American airstrikes. In this way, IS poses a hybrid threat, capable of both conventional and asymmetric combat. In the face of airstrikes IS can go to ground and conduct unconventional warfare, and if faced with American conventional forces IS can launch the same style of asymmetric warfare that was favored by AQI and couple it with conventional assaults. While IS’s conventional thrust would surely be halted by the technologically superior American hardware, the Islamic State is politically able to absorb much higher losses than the United States and would surely inflict losses that America has never experienced before in Iraq. And so the American military has two very imperfect options: If airstrikes remain the only form of support, IS can go to ground and wage an unconventional campaign against the Iraqi military and the Peshmarga. If America deploys conventional units, it very likely enters into a drawn out and costly campaign against a capable hybrid fighting force.
A third option seeks to bypass the advantages of this hybrid threat while maintaining the smallest possible footprint in the region. Mid-level targeting attempts to strike at the core of an organization, taking out multiple vital and difficult to replace figures to cripple logistics, planning, recruitment, and leadership. Somewhere between the “decapitation” of High Value Target (HVT) strikes and the “finger smashing” of an attrition campaign, mid-level targeting can be thought of as a strike against an organization’s central nervous system.
In the event of a “decapitation,” the “body” is left intact for another actor to either take over and utilize or for another leader to be promoted from within. In some instances, such as when the leader of an organization poses a unique threat either through capability, personality, or reputation, then a “decapitation” strike can be very effective. A good example would be the killing of Osama bin Laden. Bin Laden was, as a person, important to the reputation and planning of Al Qaeda, and his death clearly dealt the organization a heavy blow. That said, the death of bin Laden as a single event did little to degrade the organizational and material abilities of the organization inherited by Ayman al-Zawahiri, the current leader of Al Qaeda. The experiences of the American infantry forces in Afghanistan and Iraq are an illustration of the limits of an attrition war. American forces inflicted an incredibly high ratio of casualties on a variety of opposing forces, including AQI and the Taliban, in both theaters, but these losses were easily replaced through recruitment and coercion. Often, especially in Afghanistan, the fighters sent against American positions were not true soldiers but were farmers and villagers who were forced into combat by the Taliban.
Mid-level targeting would be effective against an organization like the Islamic State, which has an ambiguous “head” and a versatile and difficult-to-pin force on the ground, because it blends the benefits of target accessibility in the bottom-up attack pattern with the target criticality of the “decapitation” strike. In addition, mid-level operators are equally vital and vulnerable to targeted kill-or-capture missions in either a conventional or unconventional configuration, and limited deployments of special operations teams to the region present a much smaller vulnerability profile than the deployment of conventional forces. To counter, pin, and defeat the Islamic State, coordination between indigenous ground forces and American air power should continue with the addition of targeted mid-level strikes executed by limited deployments of special operations personnel.
CARVER target evaluation, used to select and prioritize targets in attacking an organization.
Vanda Felbab-Brown for the Brookings Institute, “Matching Interdiction Patterns to Specific Narcoterrorism and Organized-Crime Contexts”