Defeating ISIS – It is time to frame Emergent Strategies

“Everyone has a plan,” Mike Tyson explained, “‘till they get punched in the mouth.”  The boxer gives an able corollary to the truism that no plan survives contact with the enemy.

This is particularly true of a deliberate strategy – a detailed initial game-plan designed to achieve specified goals.

It is a best estimate for success.  Done well, it helps a combatant gain the initiative in the conflict, amplify adversary vulnerabilities, shape future events in a desired direction, and reveal critical information.

Because outcomes in war are unpredictable, however, emergent strategies are often needed to address unexpected risks and opportunities or to adjust to new realities.

The coalition war against ISIS is no different.  As Chairman of the Joint Chiefs General Dempsey suggested in his testimony on 13 November, changes to the current deliberate strategy may be needed to “destroy” the group.

Framing scenarios for emergent strategies will identify critical risks that need to be mitigated and potential opportunities that should be exploited to keep the war on track.  Alternatively, they could become the basis for a more thorough re-vamp.

This example uses a quad chart denoting friendly and enemy effectiveness along the axes.

The deliberate strategy, depicted by the blue arrow, assumes steady progress.  Coalition pressure weakens ISIS until it collapses.  Local forces, grown over time, destroy the group. Responsible and accountable governments take control.

The war, however, may not unfold according to plan.

Potential Emergent Strategies_ISIS_14 NOVScenario 1. A precipitous ISIS collapse, perhaps caused by a successful strike against its leadership, requires an emergent strategy.  Catastrophic success may be unlikely, but the situation would leave a huge power vacuum.  Local forces we are carefully cultivating are not yet ready to fill the void.  The sitting governments remain too compromised to do so.  Local conflicts could emerge that become impossible to manage, resulting in even greater human suffering and loss of life.  Putting U.S. forces on the ground could further complicate the situation.

Scenario 2.  ISIS consolidates control as their advance culminates.  Here, coalition efforts contain ISIS but cannot destroy themAfter wiping out local opposition, ISIS has co-opted others while consolidating control in the Sunni areas.  Local sheikhs accept their rule as inevitableA de facto state emerges.  ISIL begins to seek recognition from Sunni Arab states, while taking action that advances the likelihood of such support.  Continued U.S. bombing, in this case, could push the population closer to ISIS while undermining coalition cohesion.

Scenario 3. Quadrant III outlines a scenario in which the war is going badly all around.  ISIL is showing signs of collapse, local forces are incapable of asserting control, sitting governments remain vehemently rejected, and the coalition begins to fracture over various issues.   If left unaddressed, a quadrant I scenario could emerge.  Alternatively, ISIL could be given a respite to shore-up itself and consolidate power.

Scenario 4.  Finally, the coalition may fracture while ISIS consolidates control and threatens to advance into other Sunni areas.  There is no need to explain why this is bad.

Once the scenarios are framed, the next step would be to determine the conditions necessary for each one to come about.  These would reveal risks that need mitigation or prevention and opportunities that could be exploited.

Scenarios can also generate priority intelligence requirements that help policy-makers and commanders identify the direction of the conflict and make key adjustments.  If movement into one of the scenarios becomes highly likely, despite efforts to the contrary, leaders may need to re-vamp the strategy or even re-examine goals.

Having no strategy is as foolish as falling in love with one.  It is time to adapt.

Christopher D. Kolenda is the Senior Military Fellow at King’s College London and the President & CEO of Kolenda Strategic Leadership, LLC ( which helps NGO’s maximize their impact in conflict zones.  A highly decorated former commander of Paratroopers  and veteran of four tours in Afghanistan, he has been a key strategist and senior advisor on Afghanistan and Pakistan for three Secretaries of Defense and four ISAF Commanders.

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Kolenda Strategic Leadership LLC

Kolenda Strategic Leadership LLC