Airstrike footage can be seductive. The bad guys look so helpless against such lethal precision. We tend to forget that enemies adapt. Thinking enemies adapt even faster – particularly after suffering punishment on the battlefield and in public support.
Failure to anticipate adaptation puts us steps behind the enemy. We risk employing the same tactics over and over again and expecting different results. Over time, we may fall so far behind that the cost of reversing the enemy’s momentum becomes more than we wish to pay.
Adaptation explains why many Sunnis in Iraq abandoned the conventional fight in 2003 and became insurgents who fought the coalition, then turned on al Qaeda in Iraq during the so-called Awakening, revolted against the Maliki kleptocracy a few years later, and now show varying degrees of support for Islamic State (IS).
We should avoid the mistaken belief that attrition will break an enemy’s will. That may work on a poorly-led force that does not believe in why they are fighting, as evidenced by the Iraqi Army’s recent collapses.
For an enemy that wants to win – and who believes the status quo is an existential threat – attrition is highly unlikely to result in surrender or groveling to negotiate. Instead, a thinking enemy tends to fight smarter.
Battlefield outcomes thus far suggest adaptation is underway. Airstrikes are likely to have diminishing returns.
How to avoid expensive failure? Begin by thinking several steps ahead. Here are three ways IS may adapt.
1. Hug the population. As in Afghanistan, civilian casualties can be an Achilles Heel for the coalition military campaign. Few actions drive a population into the arms of a perceived protector more quickly than the destruction of innocent life and property.
Expect IS to disperse and move further into populated areas. They want to limit the damage from airstrikes while inducing civilian casualties.
This is simple insurgent math: killing ten insurgents out of twenty does not necessarily mean only ten remain. If civilian casualties are involved, 20 – 10 could equal 30.
IS gained support due to the predatory behaviors of the Assad and Maliki regimes in Syria and Iraq. Such support will deepen if IS are seen as resistance to indiscriminate coalition bombing and protectors against future subjugation.
This adaptation, however, offers a credible ground force (if one existed) the opportunity to regain large chunks of territory, critical road networks as well as other infrastructure, and to isolate IS. If IS concentrates, they get punished from the air. If they remain dispersed among population centers, they cannot stop the ground force.
A note of caution – it is highly unlikely that local Sunnis will blame IS for civilian casualties inflicted by the coalition. IS will get the benefit of the doubt as long as people perceive them as protectors against something worse.
2. Strengthen local governance and control. IS will want to consolidate gains. They will likely strengthen their hold on the population through a combination of better-than-the-alternative governance and fear. Sadly for us, the sitting governments in Syria and Iraq are pathetically low bars. Same at this point for the Free Syrian Army (FSA).
Expect IS to focus on improving their local administration, providing services, and maintaining a coercive threat to those who might oppose them. We should not delude ourselves into believing that fear is their only weapon.
If a credible ground force materializes, IS will need to rely upon popular support for survival. Better-than-the alternative governance is critical to such support.
This adaptation is difficult to overcome. It becomes even harder if people consider IS governance legitimate.
This is why a coalition political strategy is so crucial, but so maddeningly absent. The Free Syrian Army and Iraqi government will need to win the uphill battle-of-belief that they can govern better than IS.
We should create powerful incentives for FSA and the Iraqi government to develop a credible political program, followed by concrete measures that build confidence among Sunnis in IS-controlled areas that reform is for real. Changing a few national leaders is not enough.
Alternatively, we could give serious but quiet thought to whether significant autonomy or independence could help generate a moderate alternative to IS. Exploring such questions may also create greater impetus for political reform among current and aspiring governments.
3. Seek international legitimacy. IS likely view Gulf State participation in air strikes unsettling. If IS’s goal is to establish a Sunni state along the Euphrates, they will need Gulf support. IS may hit back in the near-term, but will probably attempt to split the latter from the coalition.
They may explore multiple avenues. Gaining support from key religious leaders is very likely. They could also develop a political program to sway the Gulf States into a more neutral stance. Posing as a better and friendlier alternative to the current Syrian and Iraqi regimes may work to IS’s advantage.
They may even begin to purge the more lunatic elements of their movement. Such action could garner support from key Gulf political and religious leaders.
Preparing the coalition for such eventuality is crucial. Members with less commitment to the cause may jump at the first chance to declare victory.
The risk of IS insincerity is high. Members should develop credibility tests to gauge IS intentions. They should also create a standing mechanism to coordinate coalition diplomatic activity – a sort of analog to the one coordinating the military effort.
IS may take these steps or alternatives. The better we anticipate their moves and adapt our efforts, the more likely we are to achieve our aims at the least cost in blood, treasure, and time.
Christopher D. Kolenda is the Senior Military Fellow at King’s College London and the President & CEO of Kolenda Strategic Leadership, LLC (www.kolendastrategicleadership.com) which helps NGO’s maximize their impact in conflict zones. He has been as a key advisor on Afghanistan and Pakistan to three Secretaries of Defense and four ISAF Commanders, to include serving four tours in Afghanistan. He is the author of Leadership: The Warrior’s Art and The Counterinsurgency Challenge.