FPI Bulletin: “Whack-a-Mole” is Not a Winning Strategy

June 22, 2015

The successful airstrike against Nasser al-Wuhayshi—the leader of al-Qaeda’s affiliate in Yemen and the second-in-command of the overall organization—is a commendable and important victory in the War on Terror.  However, this type of tactical success will not translate into enduring gains against Islamist extremism absent a coherent U.S. strategy to deny terrorist groups a territorial safe haven.  While the United States has killed many high-ranking terrorist leaders since September 11, 2001—including Osama bin Laden himself—both al-Qaeda and the Islamic State of Iraq and Syria (ISIS) are expanding their influence.  As a result, the current combination of one-off raids and airstrikes amounts to little more than “Whack-a-Mole.”

The death of Nasser al-Wuhayshi is particularly noteworthy because the recent overthrow of the Yemeni government by Iranian-backed Houthi rebels forced the United States to withdraw its military and intelligence assets from the country.  Subsequent reporting from the Washington Post, however, indicates that the United States did not know that al-Wuhayshi would be present in the compound where he was killed.  Instead, he was killed in a “‘signature strike,’ in which the CIA is permitted to fire based on patterns of suspected militant activity even if the agency does not know the identities of those who could be killed.”  It seems the United States simply had a stroke of good luck.

While the head of Al-Qaeda in the Arabian Peninsula (AQAP) is now dead, the organization itself is on the march.  As the Post also reported, AQAP “has seized parts of the country’s largest province, territory that includes military bases, an airfield and ports.”  It has done so by quietly exploiting the conflict between pro-government forces and the Shiite Houthis and winning favor with local populations.  This safe haven, the Post adds, could be used to plan attacks against the United States—as AQAP has previously attempted.  Wednesday’s coordinated bombings in the capital of Sana’a graphically indicate that ISIS, too, is expanding in Yemen. Alexis Knutsen of the American Enterprise Institute (AEI) writes that “Yemen is part of ISIS’s global strategy of fostering affiliates and stoking sectarian tensions. The al Houthis’ expansion in Yemen has pushed many local tribes in central and southern Yemen to work with AQAP, and ISIS groups may look to imitate the same strategy.”

In Iraq and Syria, the Obama administration also appears to be relying on a strategy of limited engagement against an increasingly powerful Islamist foe.  Recently, the United States conducted a successful raid against ISIS chief financial officer Abu Sayyaf—one that has reportedly yielded a treasure trove of intelligence regarding the group’s leadership structure and financial operations.  However, ISIS has expanded its territory over the course of the nearly year-long U.S.-led air campaign, illustrated by the fall of Ramadi to ISIS forces last month. 

In response, the White House recently announced that it will deploy 450 additional U.S. troops to train Sunni tribal fighters and units of the Iraqi Security Forces (ISF) in Anbar province.  This action amounts only to tinkering with the administration’s strategy against ISIS, and will likely be insufficient to “degrade and ultimately destroy” the extremist group.  Even after ISIS demonstrated that it can still mount major offensive operations by taking Ramadi, the Obama administration still refuses to recognize that much greater action will be needed if the organization is to be defeated soon.

The administration is doing more than targeting individual terrorist leaders in Iraq and Syria.  However, its minimalist, air power-centered approach to the campaign against ISIS amounts to little more than playing “Whack-a-Mole” on a larger scale.  This is by design.  In his address to the nation on September 10, 2014, President Obama explained that his strategy consisted of “using our air power and our support for partner forces on the ground” to defeat ISIS. American air strikes are intended to both buy time for, and then support the friendly forces who will fight on the ground.

The risk in this strategy is indicated by President Obama’s claim last September that this approach is “one that we have successfully pursued in Yemen and Somalia for years.”  Yemen is now coming apart at the seams, and Al Qaeda and ISIS are on the march across the region.  As Katherine Zimmerman of AEI wrote, this is because “Al Qaeda and now ISIS are more than just their leaders…They are part of a movement, once relegated to the fringes, that is sweeping across the Muslim-majority world.” 

Ultimately, the effort against ISIS and al-Qaeda will require a substantial commitment of American trainers, advisers, and enablers to build up our partners in this fight.  Air power and raids alone will neither buy enough time nor provide sufficient support to friendly forces.  As retired Army General Stanley McChrystal told ABC News, “you can't a play a numbers game in this kind of effort, you can't count how many people you've killed, particularly how many leaders, because they're replaceable. What you've got to do is destroy the fabric of the organization, their ability to communicate. And that's a little bit more intangible and takes a wider, more holistic effort.” A “wider, more holistic effort” will indeed be required to defeat al Qaeda and ISIS.

Mission Statement

The Foreign Policy Initiative seeks to promote an active U.S. foreign policy committed to robust support for democratic allies, human rights, a strong American military equipped to meet the challenges of the 21st century, and strengthening America’s global economic competitiveness.
Read More