Retaking Ramadi and the “Afghan Model”: Stephen Biddle, Air Power, and Maneuver Warfare

By Greg Mercer
On December 29, 2015, Iraqi forces recaptured the city of Ramadi, which was controlled by ISIS. While there remains resistance (in up to 25% of Ramadi), the victory is being hailed by some as a sign that ISIS is in retreat and losing momentum. An editorial in the New York Times lays out the situation and addresses where the US stands in the fight.

Many questions remain about the conflict- where it will go, how it will resolve, the political effort it will require from intervening forces, and ultimately what kind of conflict this is.

Twitter speculation is prescient, as always:

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That’s NPR’s defense writer Phil Ewing.

To assess this question of COIN-or-conventional, consider the theories of security studies hero and frequent commentator Stephen Biddle.

I have no interest in (mis)representing Biddle’s own opinions on ISIS, which have appeared in the Washington Post’s excellent Monkey Cage blogthe Atlantic, and the Council on Foreign Relations. Instead, I’m interested in two of his works addressing recent US conflicts- his seminal Military Power: Explaining Victory and Defeat in Modern Battle and his paper, Afghanistan and the Future of Warfare: Implications for Army and Defense Policy, wherein he spent a great deal of effort arguing against the idea of a Revolution in Military Affairs (RMA in Pentagonese).[1]

Military Power sees Biddle arguing that war hasn’t really changed all that much since artillery-aided maneuver warfare (Biddle calls this the “Modern System”) emerged in the First World War. This style of combat sees offenses where entrenched enemies are softened up with artillery barrages[2] and then overrun by infantry, using fire-and-maneuver tactics. Biddle supports this claim with a combination of case studies, statistical analysis of conflicts, and computer simulations. It’s something of a methodological cornerstone.

Afghanistan and the Future of Warfare takes on the dueling ideas that early American involvement in Northern Afghanistan, characterized by a Special Forces-Air Power-local allies triumvirate, is either so revolutionary as to herald a new “Afghan Model” of warfare or that it’s a complete topographical fluke unlikely to be repeated elsewhere. Biddle argues it was neither of these, but rather a fairly conventional war between two land forces characterized by its use of Special Forces to target precision guided munitions.

The Afghan Model, if it existed, would allow American air power dominance to “make conquerors” of local allies. Biddle’s test for whether Afghanistan represents a new model (the way some have said that it does) consists of three features:

  • Special Operations Forces and standoff sensors must have been able to find key targets for precision engagement;
  • PGMs must have been able to kill the targets found, at standoff ranges; and,
  • The indigenous allies’ role must have been undemanding.[3]

Basically, the aggregate of these features is a war wherein the US can take care of all of the actual finding and killing of targets with precision munitions targeted from the air, from orbit, or by small Special Forces teams, causing the enemy force structure to collapse, thus allowing local allies to take care of a few remnants and capture the territory. Biddle finds that initial operations in Afghanistan didn’t meet this standard.

These features are also a useful test for the war against ISIS. Again, the best-case-scenario is one where the 630 air strikes conducted by the US and its allies pave the way for local forces (in this case, the Iraqi Army[4]) to retake ISIS-held territory. This has been partially successful, and the Iraqis probably wouldn’t have been nearly as successful if not for friendly skies. But by Biddle’s conditions above, it would be premature to call this a new way of war. The US certainly hasn’t been able to conduct an entirely removed air war, opting to place forces on the ground. Identifying targets hasn’t been easy—ISIS occupies cities and villages populated by the civilians that the US and Iraqis seek to protect. Further complications arise from the proliferation of independent groups and actors on the ground (just look at the debate over what constitutes a Western-friendly moderate worth arming). The role of the allies on the ground has been anything but undemanding. So when we apply Biddle’s reasoning on the 2003 Iraq War and the 2002 Afghanistan War, the war against ISIS begins to look much more like a technologically advanced shade of good old maneuver warfare than a new type of conflict.

The idea of conducting an entire war from the air is compelling, though. What would it take to identify every enemy target and deliver precise munitions? The US already possesses some of the best[5] remote sensing equipment and military hardware out there, but it still requires targeting from allies on the ground or American Special Forces (as we saw in the case of the bombing of the Doctors Without Borders Hospital in Afghanistan, this is not a perfect system). To advance the art of air power to the point where it displaces land war requires near-omniscience and the ability to strike targets anywhere in the world in real time. Technologically or doctrinally, this just doesn’t exist.

Russia is simultaneously conducting airstrikes against ISIS and providing military assistance to allies on the ground. We’ve seen Russian airstrikes kill US-backed rebels and more recently, the leader of an insurgent group resisting Syrian President Bashar al-Assad’s control in Damascus. This begs the question of whether the Russian military sees itself following a conventional model of warfare, an Afghan Model, or some other model entirely. Following this, what happens when two powers try to “make conquerors” of their own local forces?

Finally, what of political solutions? The Times editorial notes that defeating ISIS militarily can’t alone solve the power vacuum and sense of Sunni disenfranchisement in Iraq that ISIS uses to build power. It’s widely understood that this requires a stable political solution, whether from within or without. Carl von Clausewitz tells us that war is an extension of politics, and in this case too we’ll have to see a military resolution and a political one.

[1] More explicitly in the former, but the latter certainly has shades of this.

[2] Biddle says that in WWI, this could mean firepower in the magnitude of nuclear weapons, dispelling the notion of boring-old-conventional-weapons.

[3] Biddle, Afghanistan and the Future of Warfare, 24

[4] And with regards to Ramadi, just the Iraqi Army. The Kurds and Iran-backed Shiites were excluded in favor of US-trained local Sunnis.

[5] Ok, the best.


What threat does the Islamic State pose to America?

By Erik Goepner 

One way to assess the threat that IS poses to America is to see what the National Terrorism Advisory System (NTAS) says. To date, NTAS has issued no alerts regarding the terrorist threat from IS. Back in 2011, NTAS replaced DHS’ memorable color-coded system. It is also worth noting that in those intervening years, the NTS has apparently not issued any alerts about terrorist threats against the homeland.

Statements by government officials provide another way to assess the threat, and they do not appear to suggest IS presents a significant threat to America. The President’s National Security Strategy (NSS), published last week, notes that “the threat of catastrophic attacks against our homeland by terrorists has diminished but still persists.” The NSS goes on to refer to “an array of terrorist threats.” As for IS in particular, the NSS mentions them as one of several “regionally focused and globally connected groups” that “could” pose a threat to the homeland.

Rolling out the new NSS at the Brookings Institution last Friday, the National Security Advisor appeared concerned that threat concerns were being unnecessarily inflated by some. Ms. Rice cautioned, “We cannot afford to be buffeted by alarmism and an instantaneous news cycle,” as she characterized the threats as not existential.

Another estimate comes from the Department of Homeland Security Deputy Assistant Secretary for Counterterrorism Policy. This past December, he testified before a House subcommittee hearing on ISIS. His assessment? “At present, DHS is unaware of any specific, credible threat to the U.S. Homeland from ISIL.”

If Americans’ perception of the threat posed by the Islamic State substantially differs from the actual threat, our unconscious biases may have something to do with it. Ms. Rice potentially alluded to one—the availability bias—when she cautioned against alarmism and the instantaneous news cycle. The availability bias suggests people estimate the likelihood of an event based on how easily they can imagine it or remember a past occurrence. Since the sensational, yet uncommon, event is often of greater interest to the media, the public may hear more about unlikely events than they do common ones. In response, people overestimate the likelihood of rare events while underestimating the probability of common ones.[1]

Additionally, people tend to overstate threats they dread, even if the evidence indicates otherwise. The Islamic State’s gruesome videos of beheadings and the recent burning alive of the Jordanian pilot effectively evoke dread in many.

Potential biases notwithstanding, those responsible for assessing the threat and keeping the homeland safe indicate that the Islamic State could pose a threat to us, but at this time, IS does not pose a specific, credible or imminent threat.


Image Credit: The Knight Foundation

[1] See, for example, Morgan’s “Risk Assessment and Management.”

The Islamic State as Insurgency: The Growing Strength of Salafi Jihadists

By Erik Goepner

Terrorists occupy the low-end of the power spectrum. They are weaker than guerrillas, who are weaker than insurgents, who are weaker than conventional armies, who are weaker than nuclear-equipped armies. That is a point made, more or less, by the Council of Foreign Relation’s Max Boot. Successful revolutionary, Mao Tse Tung,[1] made a similar point when he noted guerrillas are but a step towards total war and regular armies. Has the Islamic State, then, progressed the Salafi jihadist movement from the weak power position of terrorism to the mid-range power of insurgency?

RAND researcher, Seth Jones, defines a Salafi jihadist group as one that emphasizes the need to return to “pure” Islam during the time of the Salaf (“pious ancestors”) and believes that violent jihad is a duty of each member of the ummah, much like daily prayers, fasting during Ramadan, etc. Dr. Jones notes that between 2010 and 2013, the number of Salafi jihadist groups rose by 58%. Interestingly, the growth roughly coincided with the timing of U.S. surge operations in Afghanistan. At the end of that period, IS began seizing and holding terrain in Iraq and Syria, with some estimating they now control approximately 81,000 square miles, or the land mass equivalent of Great Britain. Professor Bruce Hoffman, author of the seminal work Inside Terrorism, suggests that while both insurgents and terrorists may use the same tactics, even for the same purposes, insurgents differ from terrorists in that they often operate as military units, seize and hold terrain, and include informational and psychological warfare in an effort to win over the population’s support.

If so, and if the Islamic State is winning over segments of the Iraqi and Syrian populations rather than just terrorizing them, then the problem set facing the U.S. would be substantially different. Terrorists can, in large measure, be defeated by police or military action, which the world’s premier military can accomplish unlike any other. If, however, IS now finds firm footing as an insurgency, broader issues must be tackled. Issues that can only be successfully resolved by the indigenous government—which we are not—or dictatorial occupiers—which we will not be.

Image Credit: NBC News

[1] See The Red Book of Guerrilla Warfare by Mao Zedong.

The Global War on Terror Redux

By Erik Goepner

Are we destroying the Islamic State or fighting a global war on terror?

In the past six months, the U.S. launched air strikes to neutralize the al Qaeda offshoot, Khorasan group, and the imminent threat they posed. Authorities in Ohio arrested a man—apparently self-radicalized—who was planning to target the U.S. Capitol. The Charlie Hebdo attackers reportedly received funding and guidance from Yemeni-based, al Qaeda in the Arabian Peninsula. The kosher market killer apparently had pledged allegiance to the Islamic State. Soon after, French, Belgian, and German authorities arrested more than a dozen suspected terrorists, some of whom had recently returned from Syria and allegedly may have ties to the Islamic State.

While the Islamic State dominates the headlines and Obama Administration officials repeat the defeat and destroy Daesh (nee ISIL) mantra, the President’s narrowly-named Special Envoy for the Global Coalition to Counter ISIL speaks of a decidedly broader end goal. General Allen recently acknowledged “Daesh” as the immediate threat, but noted, “more broadly we’re interested in the underlying factors that create these problems.” He went on to talk of the collective action needed to eliminate the social, ethnic, religious and economic problems that have combined in the Middle East. He noted that if we are successful, there will be a government in Syria that “reflects the will of the Syrian people,” which will have “the happy second and third order effect of assisting in the creation of stability more broadly in the region.”

In words reminiscent of President Bush, “Our war on terror begins with Al Qaeda, but it does not end there,” Secretary Kerry recently shared similar thoughts. In a speech at the Saban Forum, the Secretary observed that “even once Daesh is defeated and Syria is stabilized, our work is far from over.”

These are amazingly aspirational goals. Daesh defeated. Syria stabilized. A government in Syria reflecting the will of the people. And it would seem, a stabilized Iraq and Afghanistan, too.

Again, the similarities are evident. Also speaking at the Saban Forum, though years prior, President Bush outlined similar aspirations, “Our vision for the future: a Middle East where our friends are strengthened and the extremists are discredited, where economies are open and prosperity is widespread, and where all people enjoy the life of liberty…”

Times have changed, but the mission hasn’t. However passionately or half-heartedly we approach it, America continues to wage a global war on terror and seek the remaking of the Middle East.

Image Credit: Huffington Post

Fighting Terrorists & Unintended Consequences

By Erik Goepner

A retired Army general recently suggested that if U.S. military advisers can’t successfully train up nine Iraqi brigades within the next year, then either more U.S. forces must be deployed to Iraq or Americans will have to accept the Islamic State’s caliphate. The implicit assumption –that American effort is critical to stopping the Islamic State (or al Qaeda, or whatever similarly inspired group may follow) – is common. Yet, attempts to quantify the return on America’s investment of “effort” are rare. Typically, the debate seems influenced by either those who view any loss of life as unacceptable or those who say no 9/11 type of event has occurred since, so whatever the cost, keep it up. On the one side: We should never have invaded Iraq, on the other: If we had not left when we did, things there would be better.

A Rudimentary Assessment

One way to look at America’s effort is to tally the amount of money spent fighting terrorism and the number of military members who have been deployed to the fight. That effort could be compared to the number of terrorist events which have occurred. Recognizing efforts typically take time to have an impact, the money and manpower effort for this basic assessment lagged a year, so the impact of the 2001 effort was compared to the number of terrorist attacks in 2002. In 2001, the U.S. deployed approximately 17,500 military members to fight the global war on terror and the Department of Defense spent approximately $16.6 billion[1] to support those efforts. In the intervening 12 years, the number of service members deployed to fight the war on terror peaked above 200,000[2] before settling at nearly 67,000 in 2012. During the same time, spending peaked at $184.8 billion in 2008/9 before decreasing to $125.6 billion in 2012.[3]

Across those 11 years, America’s efforts to fight terror increased dramatically. Funding rose more than 600% and military personnel support rose by nearly 300%.[4] During that time, however, the number of terrorist attacks jumped 345%. Call it unintended consequences. Call it complex and nuanced. Either way, significant research is needed, as America’s efforts, albeit noble, do not appear to be delivering the desired results. Pouring forth money is one thing, but putting America’s sons and daughters in harm’s way is quite another. We need to ensure the efforts achieve the goal.


Image Credit: NBC News

[1] See “The Cost of Iraq, Afghanistan, and Other Global War on Terror Operations Since 9/11” by Amy Belasco (Congressional Research Service), March 29, 2011

[2] See chart on p. 25 in “Troop Levels in the Afghan and Iraq Wars, FY2001-FY2012: Cost and Other Potential Issues” by Amy Belasco (Congressional Research Service), July 2, 2009

[3] See p. 4, “U.S. Costs of Wars Through 2014” by Neta Crawford, 25 June 2014

[4] See Crawford and Belasco’s reports listed above.

Terrorist Attacks in a Democracy

By Erik Goepner

Terrorists executed nearly 690 attacks in India last year. For the second year in a row India ranked fourth in total number of terrorist attacks, behind only Iraq, Afghanistan and Pakistan. In fact, in each of the past six years, over 500 attacks per year have taken place in India.

Beyond the high volume of attacks, lies another story—the interesting hodgepodge of terrorist groups within India’s borders. To the north—where the world’s highest altitude conflict continues over Kashmir—Islamic extremist groups such as Lashkar-e-Taiba operate. As noted in the graphic below, these  groups have launched successful attacks in more populous and central areas of India, as well. To the west, Socialist and/or Communist groups like the United A’chik Liberation Army conduct attacks with the goal of seceding from India. Located more in the interior of the country, Communist organizations commit their atrocities in an effort to overthrow the Indian government.

Last year, seventeen of these terrorist events killed six or more people. As the graphic below shows, the Communist terrorists caused the most high-fatality events and also committed the two most destructive attacks, killing 17 and 15 people respectively.

India Picindia index




Perhaps even more disturbing than the terrorism numbers, the Center for Systemic Peace ranks India as the nation with the highest “interstate, societal, and communal warfare magnitude score” in the world. The score reflects the “total summed magnitude” of major episodes of political violence within a country’s borders and consists of civil violence and war, ethnic violence, and international violence and war. Based on the research conducted by the Center, India has had the highest magnitude score since 2002 (see Major Episodes of Political Violence, 1946-2013 dataset and accompanying Codebook at html).


Map Credit; Image Credit

Terrorism in 2013

By Erik Goepner

An estimated 61% more people perished from terrorist attacks in 2013[1] than did in 2012. As the Global Terrorism Index Report authors note, those 18,000 deaths far surpassed the 3,361 deaths from terrorist attacks in 2000. Drawing on data from the National Consortium for the Study of Terrorism and Responses to Terrorism’s Global Terrorism Database, the report and the data it contains have much to offer.

Interested in how terrorist group ideology has morphed over the past decade and a half? Check out the following graphic and observe how the religious-based groups have come to dominate terrorist activity.

Terrorism 2013(Source: Global Terrorism Index 2014, p. 31)

Who conducted the attacks? Two-thirds of the fatalities were caused by four groups: the Islamic State, Boko Haram, the Taliban, and al-Qaeda and its affiliates. As the report noted, “extreme interpretations of Wahhabi Islam” were the key commonality among the groups.

Unsurprisingly, more than 50% of the fatalities occurred in Iraq and Afghanistan. Pakistan, Nigeria and Syria accounted for another 30% of the fatalities.  In total, those five countries bore the brunt for 82% of terrorist-caused fatalities last year.

Looking at the details of the attacks, half of them resulted in no fatalities. Approximately 40% killed between one and five people, while 10% took the lives of six or more human beings. The most lethal form of attack was suicide bomber. While suicide attacks had the highest failure rate (56%), they caused an average of 11 fatalities per attack as compared to two fatalities for all other forms of terrorist attack.

Last year, suicide attacks only accounted for five percent of all terrorist attacks. Of concern, though, the Islamic State conducted 58 of the suicide attacks. By comparison, the two most prolific suicide attack groups over the past decade—al-Qaeda in Iraq and Tehrik-I-Taliban in Pakistan—have averaged 13 and 14 suicide attacks per year, respectively.

As a final note—perhaps for balance, perhaps to recognize the role of fear in terrorism—how might we understand the tragic loss of 18,000 lives to terrorism last year as compared to the 430,000[2] who were killed in homicides?


Image Credit: United Nations Office on Drugs and Crime and Terrorism Prevention

[1] The authors of the report note that the manner of data collection for the Global Terrorism Database became more automated in 2011. As a result, some events that may have been missed in prior years would now be collected, possibly inflating numbers for 2011 and following years. In response, they modeled three approaches. For example, their conservative model indicated the number of terrorist events rose by 475% since 2000, as compared to a 689% increase for the upper bounded model.

[2] See the Global Study on Homicide 2013 available at

Game of Goons: Boko Haram & the War on Educated Girls

By Alena M. James

It has been nearly a month since the terrorist organization known as Boko Haram raided a secondary school located in Chibok—a Local Government Area located in Borno State, Nigeria. During the raid, the terrorist group abducted more than 200 girls and loaded them onto trucks. Many of the girls were tricked into believing the terrorists were soldiers. Some of the girls believed the men to be evil and managed to escape the village by jumping from the trucks to get away. The brave girls who escaped shared their horrific stories with loved ones and authorities who were startled by the event that had transpired.

The majority of the girls involved in the abduction campaign remain missing and social movements are taking place to spread awareness and rally support in efforts to find them. Malala Yousafzai, the young Pakistani girl who was targeted for assassination by the Taliban, spoke out against the abductions referring to the abductees as “her sisters” and condemned Boko Haram for their lack of understanding of Islam saying, “They should go and they should learn Islam, and I think that they should think of these girls as their own sisters. How can one imprison their own sisters and treat them in such a bad way?” Malala has helped to perpetuate the #BringBackOurGirls campaign to speak up for her sisters.

In an unsettling video message acquired by Nigerian authorities, the terrorist group’s leader, Abubaka Shekau, announced he intends to sell the 15-18 year old girls into the human trafficking market coercing the girls into marriages, forcing them into slavery, and having them sexually exploited.  The extremist leader declared, “I abducted a girl at a Western education school and you are disturbed. I said Western education should end. Western education should end. Girls, you should go and get married.”

Several countries have offered their support in the search for the missing girls. France, the United Kingdom, China, and the United States have deployed teams to aid in rescue efforts. Reports have suggested that the girls have been divided into groups and likely carried across Nigeria’s borders into the countries of Chad and Cameroon.

Boko Haram is an Islamic Extremist Group that was founded in 2002. Since then, the terrorist organization has fought against the Nigerian government which they view as advocates for the influence of Western Culture. The U.S. declared Boko Haram a terrorist organization in 2013 based on their suicide attack on a UN building in Abuja, the Nigerian capital, in 2011.

Following is a Terrorist Group profile on the organization.


The group firmly adheres to Islam and believes that western influence does not belong in Nigeria.  The organization fights against Western societies and deems Western education as sinful. The group desires to make Nigeria an Islamist State and seeks to impose Sharia Law on the country. They also target “false Muslims.”

Leadership Style

The organization was first led by Mohammed Yusuf, a western educated Nigerian who considered Western Education to corrupt one’s belief in one God.  Analysts have described Yusuf as being both very wealthy and highly educated. Yusuf was killed trying to escape Nigerian police in 2009.  After Yusuf’s death, he was succeed by Abubakr Sheku.  Sheku has been described as a quiet theologian possessing an eidetic memory. He is fluent in the languages of Kanuri, Hausa, Arabic, and English. Reports indicate that Sheku lacks charisma and oratorical skills, but his ruthless actions makes him incredibly dangerous. The US placed a $7 million bounty on Sheku. The leader continually releases recorded video messages taking credit for its terrorist operations in Nigeria.


Several reports have announced classified members of the Boko Haram as being individuals stemming from low social economic statuses. The group attracts individuals in need of wealth and is believed to be comprised of men from other countries such as Chad, Somalia, and Sudan.

Monetary Sources

It is unclear from where Boko Haram receives the monetary resources to fund its operations, but reports suggest the group relies on contributions from its members and possibly other Islamic militant groups.

Logistical & Tactical Resources

The group is suspected of having ties to Al Qaeda and to have received training in terrorist tactics such as carrying out explosion operations. The US reported in its 2011 National Strategy for Counterterrorism (page 16) that Boko Haram had ties to Al Qaeda in the Islamic Maghreb (AQIM). However, even Al Qaeda has expressed its opposition to the school girls’ abductions.


According to START’s Global Terrorism Database, the group has targeted numerous establishments over the years. Businesses, educational institutions, government facilities, military facilities, police stations, bus stations, private citizens, religious figures, and telecommunication establishments, among others. The group has targeted 52 educational facilities and 79 government buildings.

Weapon Types

Also, according to data collected from START’s Global Terrorism Database, the group relies heavily on explosives, firearms, and incendiary devices to carry out its operations. Armed assaults comprise the majority of the organization’s attacks. The database indicates that more than 320 armed assaults and 205 bombing/explosion attacks have been carried out by Boko Haram.


Much of the information collected in the profile above was obtained and summarized from circulating news sources, a report provided by the Anti-Defamation League published in 2012, an exposition provided by The Council on Foreign Relations, and the National Consortium for the Study of Terrorism and Responses to Terrorism’s Global Terrorism Database. Additional sources contributing information can be found via the links provided.


(Image Credit: NBC)