What the ISIS Campaign Teaches Us About the Future of War

Winning today's fights still means reaching an actual victory, focusing on changing players, and heeding history.

It has now been over 250 days since U.S. forces began air strikes on the Islamic State, or ISIS,. U.S. warplanes have conducted 2,893 air strikes that have hit 5,314 targets ranging from 1,425 buildings to 58 boats, according to the most recent U.S. Central Command figures for Operation Inherent Resolve. The cost has reached roughly $8.5 million per day, summing just under $2.5 billion so far.

History is written by the victors, it is said, and this conflict is certainly far from over. But surely some lessons of battle can be learned in the midst of war. For example, by the 250th day mark of World War I, it was clear that trench warfare had changed the flow of battle and new technologies like the machine gun and submarine would play a bigger role than expected. Or 250 days into the Iraq War, it was clear the U.S. quick takeover of Iraq had devolved into a painful insurgency that was more than a few “small pockets” of “dead-enders,” as infamously claimed by former Defense Secretary Don Rumsfeld.

So we asked our multidisciplinary Future of War network of more than 20 experts and leaders:

What lessons can we learn from the experience of the campaign against ISIS so far, not merely for Iraq and Syria, but the future of war more broadly?

Three themes seemed to cut across the reactions of a group that ranges in background from Navy SEALs to lawyers, technologists, and historians:

  • Depression is the inability to construct a future. – The existential psychologist Rollo May would have a field day with the American security community today. A pervading sense of frustration seemed to color the responses. None of the more than 20 experts was exultant and most were downright gloomy. This is notable in that they were asked about an operation in which U.S. forces have not lost a single battle nor life. Certain aspects of the future of warfare seem easier than ever, but not the part that matters most: achieving victory.
  • The Future of War is Mad Men Meets Game of Thrones – War is about politics by other means, but the storylines, structures, and maybe even ends of politics in the 21st century are shifting. Social media and strange alliances characterize this fight as much as the traditional tools, meaning Don Draper and Littlefinger might be apt players today. The concern is that in both the sale and ugly strategy of war, non-state actors are more nimble, more successful, or at least more disruptive than ever. How to counter that will shape the future of war.
  • History is the Future; The Future is History – Again and again, the experts cited ways in which history seemed to be either repeating itself or was being ignored. Perhaps then the secret to the future of war may be how better to apply the lessons of the past to today’s fight?

Peter Bergenvice president at New America and professor at Arizona State University, CNN national security analyst and the author of best-selling books about al-Qaeda, including Manhunt: The Ten Year Search for Bin Laden from 9/11 to Abbottabad.

The rise of ISIS is a useful reminder of both Hobbes and Machiavelli. The only thing worse than a dictator-Leviathan (Saddam) is anarchy and civil war which we precipitated in Iraq with our 2003 invasion. That civil war bred al-Qaeda in Iraq, which had no presence in Iraq under Saddam and is the parent organization of ISIS, which we are now, of course, fighting once again. This same grisly movie is also unfolding in Libya where we removed another Leviathan (Ghaddafi) precipitating civil war and anarchy that has allowed ISIS significant room to grow in Libya. Which brings us to Machiavelli: "Wars begin when you please, but they do not end when you will." 

Rosa Brooks, New America fellow and professor at Georgetown University School of Law; former counselor to the under secretary of defense for policy.

ISIL should remind us that, as William Faulkner put it, "The past is never dead. It's not even past." Contrary to much media analysis and presidential handwringing, there's nothing terribly new about ISIS and its tactics. For most of human history, the lines between states and non-state actors have been murky, as have the lines between legitimate and illegitimate violence. Even ISIS's mixed focus on spectacles of governance (videos of ISIS schools, nursing homes, etc.) and spectacles of extreme, brutal violence are hardly new as a method of establishing, consolidating, and reinforcing civic authority. (Consider the Roman Games, the public burning of heretics in England, the gruesome ritual violence of the Spanish Inquisition, or the more than 15,000 "enemies of the revolution" sent to the guillotine during the reign of terror following the French Revolution.) Most modern states were born in blood, and denying ISIS's continuities with historical examples of state formation leads us to exaggerate the threat it poses, misunderstand its ability to attract adherents from around the globe, and develop anti-ISIS tactics that are more likely to backfire than succeed.

Steve Corman, professor and director of the Center for Strategic Communication at Arizona State University.

A huge factor in the future of war is narrative. ISIS has been successful because their narrative motivates people who support them more than the counter-narratives motivate the people who are against them. It takes a narrative to fight a narrative.

Kevin C. Desouza, associate dean for research at the College of Public Service & Community Solutions and professor in the School of Public Affairs at Arizona State University.

The agility and fragility of strategic networks and alliances -- the very nature of how alliances are constructed, operationalized, mobilized, and dismantled have undergone fundamental transformations given the dynamism of the operating theatres, information technologies, blurring geographies, fragile competing ideologies, and multifaceted actors. Ultimately, movements like ISIS are thriving on being at the edges and at the intersection of our blindspots.

Christopher Fussell, senior fellow at the New America Foundation and a principal at the McChrystal Group. He has spent the past 15 years as an officer in the Navy SEAL Teams.

Nation state structures are reliable and predictable, but incapable of effectively dealing with fast moving networks that are unencumbered by the bureaucracy of traditional systems. We are continuing to address 21st century problems with 20th century solutions. Nations must be comfortable creating network-based communities that are able to retain the strength of bureaucracies while living in a constant state of adaptation to fast-moving threats.

Joel Garreau, Lincoln Professor of Law, Culture and Values at the Sandra Day O'Connor College of Law at Arizona State University

Change in the 21st century is so great that it feels like the ground is moving beneath our feet. At such times, rational primates look for something apparently solid to hang on to. Is it any wonder that demagogues with simplistic if not fundamentalist stories abound?

Mark Hagerott, nonresident fellow at New America and distinguished professor of cyber security at the U.S. Naval Academy; retired Navy captain, his experience ranges from nuclear engineering to security force assistance/advising to Afghan Army, Air Corps, and police programs.

A socio-technical truth comes into stark relief as ISIS advances and urban social services and infrastructure collapse in major cities (e.g., Mosul): in the 21st century, urban centers can no longer abide violent, chaotic regime change. This is new. In the past, when civil societies were more resilient (ie., segmented water networks, power plants, food sources, provide by local labor) moderate to large cities could often sustain disruptive and violent social/political change and still feed and sustain the population. Today, when urban areas are dependent on brittle, centralized industrial scale infrastructure, operated by often a politicized bureaucratic workforce which cannot defend itself or the infrastructure, the likelihood of systemic infrastructure collapse accompanies violent overthrow of a social-governance system. The policy consequence is painful but clear: the world community can no longer abide violent regime change when urban areas are in harm’s way.  

Shane Harris, senior correspondent at The Daily Beast, fellow at New America, and author of @ War: The Rise of the Military Internet Complex

Our adversaries are extraordinarily adept at propaganda and public manipulation. And so far, we've been essentially powerless to stop them. This is a continuing trend. And it's yet another example of how a foe with a "flat" structure, like ISIS, moves much faster and more effectively than our mostly hierarchical forces. 

Heather Hurlburt, director, New Models of Policy Change project at New America. Previously, she held senior positions in the White House and State Department; and worked on Capitol Hill and for the International Crisis Group.

Lesson of the war on ISIS so far: we the experts and opinion-leaders have failed to make the effort to offer the American people an honest non-partisan framework to understand the dangers and complexities of our world. That results in the policy getting mired in partisanship, fear-mongering driving out intelligent discussion, and in policy makers' inability to make and sustain coherent policies that have a chance of success.

Ioannis Koskinas, senior fellow at New America, and CEO of the Hoplite Group, he retired from the U.S. Air Force in 2011 after a twenty-year career in special operations.

Pericles: "I fear more our own mistakes than the strategy (plans) of our enemies"

Michael Lind, co-founder of New America, former editor/staff writer for The New Yorker, Harpers, and The National Interest, author of multiple books including The American Way of Strategy.

Don't kick over anthills. Wars of regime change in Muslim countries should be avoided, if the likely result is not a functioning, friendly government but anarchy that can be exploited by jihadists. The most successful transitions from autocracy to democracy have been peaceful: the Soviet bloc, Latin America, South Korea, and the Philippines. In many cases, a repressive regime that represses jihadists among others is less harmful, even to most of the tyrannized population, than chaos, terrorism, ethnic cleansing, and economic and infrastructure collapse. 

Doug Ollivant, senior fellow at New America; retired US Army officer, he served as a director on the National Security Council, counterinsurgency advisor in Afghanistan and leader of the team that wrote the 2006-7 Baghdad “surge” plan.

You get the allies/partners/proxies you are dealt, not the allies/partners/proxies you might prefer. In the real world of Iraq and Syria, you may well have to side with "mere" war criminals in order to stop génocidaires.

Matthew Pinsker, ASU Future of War fellow; Brian Pohanka chair of Civil War history at Dickinson; professor at the Strategic Studies Institute of the U.S. Army War College; and director of the House Divided Project.

The worst threat to American security in the eighteenth and nineteenth century was European imperialism. In the 20th century, fascism and communism emerged as the great threats. For the next century, it appears that our most imposing challenge will be to contain global anarchy, as this fight against ISIS so painfully illustrates. 

 Tom Ricks, senior advisor at New America, Pulitzer Prize-winning former Washington Post reporter, author of best-selling books about the U.S. military including Fiasco: The American Military Adventure in Iraq.

I fear one broad lesson is that we always think war can't become more terrible, but that there is always someone who can find a way to make it so. A narrower lesson is that the adversary in our current wars will tend to morph—you can wipe out one organization, but another one will pop up in its place. Thus security can't be achieved by itself, and to be sustainable requires political movement as well. 

Daniel Rothenberg, co-director of the Future of War Project, Future of War fellow at New America, professor of practice at Arizona State University, and co-editor of Drone Wars.

Brutal acts of violence inspire outrage and demand attention, as they should. Yet, the desire to respond to the immediacy of terror often masks an engagement with the context within which it is deployed and becomes an obstacle to clear analysis and understanding. Worse still, where these actions occur far from our shores, there is a tendency to read them through interpretive narratives that are more about us than about the people and places impacted by the actual atrocities. Regarding the rise of ISIS, its systematic cruelty, and its strategy of publicizing beheadings, torture, and killing, we should resist simple causal explanations bound to U.S. action or inaction such as, ‘leaving more troops in Iraq would have prevented the rise of ISIS’ and/or ‘rising violence in Iraq is the result of decisions by President Obama.’ It is incumbent upon policy makers and others to openly engage recent history and to remember that when our nation deployed over 150,000 troops to Iraq, levels of internal violence in much of the country were higher than they are at present, vicious sectarian violence produced the forcible displacement of millions, and minority groups were systematically targeted. The rise of ISIS cannot be understood outside the context of recent history or separate from the enormously complex nature of political reality on the ground in both Iraq and Syria.

Paulo Shakarian, assistant professor in the computer science program at Arizona State specializing in data mining and artificial intelligence. Previously, he served two combat tours with the U.S. Army in Operation Iraqi Freedom.

Based on our recent data-driven research, the campaign against ISIS highlights the success of a rogue actor when it shows proficiency in a variety of tactics (in the case of ISIS switching among conventional, insurgent, and terrorist operations) and also engages in cross-border operations (Iraq/Syria). ISIS’s response to actions by the U.S. and others displays its ability to rapidly change its tactics and this adaptability separates them from the previous insurgent operations the U.S. has faced in the last decade. A key lesson is that other groups are likely to learn from what ISIS is doing in this regard and the U.S. and others should be prepared.

Peter W. Singer is strategist for New America and author of the upcoming book Ghost Fleet: A Novel of the Next World War (ghostfleetbook.com)

The efficacy of tried and trusted tools of power is being called into question. The U.S. military has conducted 2,891 air strikes, to take out 5,314 targets, providing a historically staggering level of accuracy (compare to the less than 4 percent hit rate in World War II against stationary targets), all with not a single American life lost in combat. This would amaze our forebears and have them think we are steering towards perfection in warfighting. And yet, the connection of strategy to power is about getting the outcome you want. So far we have not met that standard, unless our goal is running a stimulus program for the Toyota pickup truck dealers of the Middle East.

Anne Marie Slaughter, president of the New America Foundation; former director of policy planning, State Department, and dean of the Wilson School of Public and International Affairs at Princeton University

Brutality breeds brutality in an escalating cycle of violence. By ignoring the horrors visited upon Syrians by their own government, we left the field open for the most extreme and ruthless forces to take root. As with Germany between the wars, human desperation feeds fanaticism. Even the most barbaric order is preferable to the chaos of all against all.

Ian Wallace, senior fellow and co-director of the Cybersecurity Initiative at New America; previously a senior official at the British Ministry of Defence and the British Embassy, for Washingtons defense policy and nuclear counselor.

One important lesson for future warriors is the reminder that there are some enduring truths in war – including that the better motivated and more innovative force often prevails, at least until it over extends itself. But the ISIS campaign does showcase a wider shift in the character of conflict: combatants are getting better and better at leveraging networked communication technologies to spread their ‘warfighting’ beyond the traditional battlefield. ISIS are not the first to do this, and others will undoubtedly continue the trend. But their strategy and tactics have served to highlight some demanding future challenges, especially for democratic but bureaucratically inflexible societies that are heavily reliant on private sector owned infrastructure. And as the world becomes more networked, and those networks reach further and further into people’s lives, those challenges will only increase.

Michael Waltz, senior national security fellow with the New America Foundation, and president of Metis Solutions. He commanded a U.S. Army Special Forces unit in the reserve component with multiple deployments to Afghanistan and the Middle East.

We should never confuse activity for progress. Our current efforts against ISIS in the absence of a broader strategy is just that - activity with little progress.  It is a lesson for future warriors and one that I hoped we would have learned over the past 14 years.  

Dan Ward, non-resident fellow at New America, is a bestselling author and expert on military technology and innovation. He served more than 20 years as an Air Force acquisition officer.

Nature may abhor a vacuum, but chaos loves it. In the absence of credible, stable mechanisms to participate in society, young people got "disenchanted, disillusioned and disenfranchised – and then radicalised and violently militant," to borrow Ali Khedery's apt summary. The implication for the future of war is that we should focus on finding and making opportunities to disrupt the cycle.