Redesigning Strategy for Irregular War

Improving Strategic Design for Planners and Policymakers to Help Defeat Groups Like the Islamic State

by Ben Connable

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This working paper derives from an ongoing research effort to improve U.S. strategic design to defeat the Islamic State (IS), a hybrid insurgent-terrorist group that currently holds territory in Iraq and Syria, and has affiliates across the world. The current strategy to degrade, defeat, and destroy the Islamic State, and American strategies to succeed in Vietnam, Afghanistan, and Iraq, reveal serious flaws in the Western approach to strategic design: ends are unclear, yet it seems hard to envision clean and concise ending to such complex problems. Simple yet substantive modifications to terms and design processes can greatly improve the viability of long-term military campaigns targeting irregular, or hybrid adversaries. In this working paper I argue that selection of strategy should derive immediately from a policymaker's broader vision for the world and then a region, and only then to defeat a specific group like IS. I offer a simple yet practical interpretation of terms to facilitate this selection. The central argument in this working paper is that the American "ends, ways, and means" approach to military strategy should be modified to address complex irregular warfare problems like the one posed by IS. It is unrealistic to imagine irregular wars ending on clear, finite terms, so American strategist should stop trying to shoehorn irregular war planning into an ill-fitting ends, ways, and means paradigm designed for conventional war. Once ends, ways, and means are modified for irregular war, the U.S. and its allies should consider similar modifications to the strategic design process writ large, with the intent of improving military and governmental effectiveness, reducing costs, and avoiding the kind of political backlash that often undermines long-term military operations. To focus this argument, I offer changes within the context of the counter-IS strategy. Examples in this working paper center on IS and the Middle East. However, findings and recommendations are intended to have broader relevance.

This research was conducted by the International Security and Defense Policy Center of the RAND National Security Research Division.

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