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After ISIS: What is Victory?

After ISIS: What is Victory?

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A Critical Moment

The United States has reached a critical moment in the fight against ISIS. With the Islamic State hemorrhaging money and the loss of 40% of its territory in Iraq, it seems that victory may be just around the corner. However, the loss of ISIS territory will not mean the end of the legacy of the Islamic State. As William McCants says in TIME: “The [Islamic] State’s government may disappear soon but [their] tormented children will be with us for decades to come”. Since the effects of ISIS are going to linger for years, if not decades to come, then what is victory? Victory is achieving clearly defined objectives that take into account all available aspects of the conflict.

Defining these objectives is not easy. No one has the same concept of what the winning objectives are. Even the leader of the free world faces issues with listing objectives, because the answers will vary from person to person, from general to general, and, ultimately, from president to president. It also requires input from international actors, regional actors, and, most importantly, the local populace themselves.


Afghanistan, Libya, and Iraq

But why is defining victory important? When objectives are not clearly defined or fail to take all aspects of the conflict into account, disaster occurs in the form of terrorist groups, government collapse, insurgencies, and civil war.

Afghanistan is a disaster. After 15 years of war, the Taliban have yet to be fully defeated, the federal government is corrupt and distrusted by the people, and the United States is still investing money and lives into trying to fulfill an objective that doesn’t have the support of the local populace: a federal democracy. Afghan soldiers are now throwing down their arms and joining the Taliban after the recent push by the insurgency group to retake the Helmand region capital of Lashkar Gah. How did this conflict become so drawn out and costly? The victory objectives were not defined. A 2012 ASP report analyzing the war in Afghanistan titled Measuring Success – Are We Winning stated that after 10 years “we still lack the means to tell whether the war is being won or not”. The victory goal of Afghanistan was to destroy Al Qaeda and implement a U.S. friendly democracy in the region, and both goals are still out of our reach. However, a horrible mistake was made in defining these objectives: no one took into account the local actors and what they wanted.

Libya is a failed state. Various groups wage constant warfare for control of the country, and any idea of stability is far out of reach. This was caused by not defining the objectives. No one wanted to think about what would happen after the fall of Moammar Gadhafi, and now Libyans pay the price of the lack of foresight with a multi-group civil war. Recently, President Barack Obama has even listed the worst mistake of his presidency as the lack of planning after the fall of Moammar Gadhafi.

Iraq is on the verge of collapse. The economy is in shambles, and its political troubles are overshadowing any military victories by the Iraqi military. The Kurdish Regional Government is calling for more autonomy after their string of military victories and expanding territory. The United States invaded Iraq with little understanding of local political realities on the ground, and held an ill-informed and rosy picture of what Iraq would be like in the future. Realistic objectives were not defined, and the lack of foresight in Iraq ultimately led to the rise of ISIS as a territorial entity.


What is Our Future?

If the United States doesn’t prepare its objectives for a region without ISIS; it is doomed to repeat the same mistakes made in Afghanistan, Libya, and Iraq. We need to prepare the tools and policies for success in the Middle East now, instead of as an afterthought.

The United States does not have the military, economic, or political capital to continue fighting wars without end. Continuing these wars without clear objectives harms U.S. diplomatic capabilities throughout the world and weakens the U.S. position on the international stage.

If we are to risk the lives of American civilians and soldiers on foreign soil, we must have a strategy to achieve victory. To continue a conflict with no victory or payoff is a disservice to the American people who have lost loved ones overseas.

The United States has the ability to plan better, without expecting outcomes based on magical thinking or overestimating the limits of its abilities to produce favorable outcomes in foreign countries. Achievable objectives and recognition that the local actors will ultimately decide their own future will lead to a better concept of what victory looks like.


  1. I’m not sure history will spin the loss of American lives and the unfathomable amounts of money the US spent during our time in the middle east during the past 15 years as a victory. I know my grandchildren will learn the truth so that possibly they will not be bound to repeat the same mistakes. Facing our failures in truth is the only possible victory we have a fighting chance at obtaining. I would take that victory over any victory rooted in lies any day.

  2. This would be a wonderful topic on which to have an all-day or at least half day conference at ASP.

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