Here’s your Situation Update for February 23, 2018

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Russian Ministry of Defense photo

Welcome to your Situation Update, a regular feature from Insurgentsia that covers irregular war and runs weekday mornings. The scope of these posts will cover small wars, but don’t size shame them. Thanks.

The weather forecast this morning is overcast with a 20% chance of mid-afternoon existential crisis. I hope that helps you wherever you are located as you read this.

The United Nations Security Council fails to pass a resolution imposing a ceasefire in Syria that would have allowed humanitarian aid to be delivered to a Damascus suburb that has been relentlessly bombed by the Syrian government for nearly a week. The death and destruction there is unimaginable and hundreds of civilians including women and children have been killed. Russia, who supports the Assad government, blocked the resolution.

Pro-government forces enter Syria’s Afrin despite being initially repelled by Turkish forces. The Assad-aligned militias entered the northern province to support the Kurdish residents who have been under siege by Turkey. The Turkish military entered Syria in a campaign to fight the Kurdish People’s Protection Units, also known as the YPG. This adds another layer to the strained alliances in the region because now the American-allied YPG is receiving support from pro-Assad militias who are aligned with nominal American enemies like Russia and Iran. Meanwhile, Turkey, a member of NATO, is still bent on destroying the American ally. Receiving support from anti-American militias in Syria may make it difficult for American volunteers in the YPG to return to the U.S. legally.

The U.S. successfully added Pakistan to a terrorism financier list after Saudi Arabia backed down from its previous attempts to block the move. Pakistan’s placement on the list will make it more difficult to borrow money internationally.

Car bombs kill 18 and injure 20 more in the Somali capital of Mogadishu. The Islamist militant group al-Shabaab claimed responsibility for the attack.

The Swedish Armed Forces request to more than double its budget by 2035, noting Russian military action in Europe.

This concludes your Situation Update. Questions may be posted in the comments section. Self-affirmations may also be posted in the comments section. You’re amazing.  To receive these in your inbox daily, use the follow button on the sidebar (web) or below (mobile). Your next Situation Update will be Monday, February 26th, 2018.

Here’s your Situation Update for February 22, 2018

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Department of Defense photo

Welcome to your Situation Update, a regular feature from Insurgentsia that covers irregular war and runs weekday mornings. The scope of these posts will cover wars small in name, but big in our imaginations and defense budgets.

The weather forecast this morning is cold with a 50% chance of misunderstanding the context of historical events. I hope that helps you wherever you are located as you read this.

A bomb in northern Myanmar killed two and injured 22 at a bank on Wednesday. The bombing was not claimed, but Myanmar has many armed groups representing ethnic minorities in its northern frontier. The ethnic minorities claim that Myanmar’s government is persecuting and displacing them and using examples of violence like this bombing to justify it. Myanmar is also home to the Rohingya, ethnic Muslims who live in Western Myanmar, who were recently displaced by the government in what the Western media has called a genocide.

Stealth fighters are in the Middle East and they aren’t American suggest pictures that Russia deployed its latest-generation Su-57 to Syria. Some analysts are worried this may prove Russia is preparing for a wider regional conflict there. It may also be to test their capabilities in a live war lab like the U.S. has done in Afghanistan by bombing drug laboratories with stealth F-22s.

I keep writing about the devastating violence in a Damascus suburb and there’s not much left to say. The United Nations recently delivered a blank statement as a symbol for the horror there that left them speechless. So here are some photos of the senseless and total destruction.

Saudi Arabia joined Turkey and China efforts to block the U.S. from adding Pakistan to an official international financier of terrorism list. Pakistan recently pledged 1000 troops to support Saudi Arabia’s war in Yemen. The U.S., Saudia Arabia, and Pakistan all worked together to finance what wasn’t yet popularly known as terrorism in Afghanistan from 1979 to 1989 when they armed and trained jihadists against the Soviet Union.

A Yugoslav veteran attacked the U.S. embassy in Montenegro then blew himself up. The man as served an anti-air gunner during the NATO bombing of then-Yugoslavia. Montenegro joined NATO last year.

The 76 girls missing after a Boko Haram raid in Nigeria were reported rescued by the Nigerian government. But when Nigerian officials visited the villages where the missing girls were from, they admitted that they are still missing.

A Basque separatist group in Spain plans to vote to dissolve itself by this summer. The group, known as the ETA, killed more than 850 people in a campaign for independence from Spain and France over the last half-century. It voluntarily disarmed itself last year proving insurgencies can and do end.

This concludes your Situation Update. Questions may be posted in the comments section. Answers may be given, but philosophy begins in wonder.  To receive these in your inbox daily, use the follow button on the sidebar (web) or below (mobile). Your next Situation Update will be Friday, February 23rd, 2018.

Here’s your Situation Update for February 15th, 2018

Exercise Sea Soldier '17: US-Oman MOUT Training

Department of Defense photo

Welcome to your Situation Update, a new feature from Insurgentsia that runs weekday mornings. The scope of these posts will cover unconventional warfare around the globe (conventional warfare is just so basic).

The weather forecast this morning is warm with a 90% chance of hopes and prayers from lawmakers. I hope that helps you wherever you are located as you read this.

You can come back to concentration camps the Myanmar government says to the Rohingya. The ethnic minority that fled Myanmar to Bangladesh after harsh government reprisals to insurgent attacks caused over 7,000 to flee wants to return home. Many of their villages were burned to the ground, so the Myanmar government has built what Human Rights Watch calls “open-air prisons” and the government calls “refugee camps.”

Over 10,000 Afghan civilians killed or injured in 2017 says the United Nations. Anti-government forces like the Taliban and Islamic State are deliberating targeting civilians in complex ambushes. However, casualties are also attributed to American airstrikes which have increased under the Trump Administration.

Tillerson acknowledges Hezbollah as “part of the political process in Lebanon” at a news conference in Beirut. Most of his speech was boilerplate denunciation of Hezbollah and Iran, but the statement is significant as it tacitly recognizes Hezbollah as a political organization, despite their presence on the State Department’s official list of foreign terrorist organizations. Realistically, it just means Tillerson can’t stay on message and is out of his depth.

Pakistan doesn’t want to be on the terrorism financier list so it has launched a crackdown against the jihadist group responsible for 2008 Mumbai attack that killed 166 people. It only took 10 years and a major threat from the international community.

Russia admits five civilians killed in U.S. attack in Syria last week. Russian media reported rumors of dozens if not hundreds of Russian contractor deaths, but Russia denied the claims at first. Acknowledging civilians were killed is not admitting Russia is using private military contractors, but it’s closer than saying nothing.

53 Islamist militants killed in the Sinai says the Egyptian military. The offensive began last week in response to an attack on a mosque that killed over 350 people.

This concludes your Situation Update. Questions may be posted in the comments section, but answers are busy crypto mining. To receive these in your inbox daily, use the follow button on the sidebar (web) or below (mobile). Your next Situation Update will be Friday, February 16th, 2018.

Here’s your Situation Update for February 14th, 2018

Manning the gun

Department of Defense photo

Welcome to your Situation Update, a new feature from Insurgentsia that runs weekday mornings. The scope of these posts will cover unconventional warfare around the globe (nobody does conventional warfare anymore — it’s too popular).

The weather forecast this morning is dry with a 70% chance of media-induced feelings of inadequacy. I hope that helps you wherever you are located as you read this.

United States to add Pakistan to terror financing list according to a senior Pakistan official. The U.S. will likely introduce a motion next week when the Financial Action Task Force meets in Paris. This move comes after the U.S. suspended $1.3 billion in aid to Pakistan last month.

But the U.S. admitted to financing terrorism itself, in effect, when the Director of National Intelligence stated American allies, the YPG, were “the Syrian militia of the Kurdistan Workers Party.” The Kurdistan Workers Party, or PKK, is officially listed as a Foreign Terror Organization by the State Department. The Turkish government has long claimed the YPG were part of the PKK, but the YPG and the U.S. has denied these claims.

Whose problem are British Islamic State fighters is something that Britain and the U.S. do not agree about. The British government thinks the fighters are now Iraq or Syria or somebody else’s problem, while the U.S. thinks those fighters should stand trial in Britain, and if the not there, then at least go to Guantanamo.

Iran asks U.S. to leave Syria, defending its own military presence there as legitimate as it was invited by the Syrian government. Iran now joins Syrian rebels and Turkey in calling for a U.S. withdrawal. In response, Secretary of State Rex Tillerson demanded Iran-backed militias out of Syria. He also asked the same in Iraq in October, but so far they have not complied.

The Taliban reaches out to Americans directly in a 16,000 word letter sent to the media. “Prolonging the war in Afghanistan and maintaining American troop presence is neither beneficial for America nor for anyone else,” they say. True enough, but the Taliban doesn’t understand that the American people, by and large, just don’t give a shit.

Former Bush Administration official to be new Syria envoy in the latest example of nothing matters and time is a flat circle. Mr. Hannah served as Dick Cheney’s deputy national security adviser for the Middle East and later as his national security adviser.

An Afghan Shiite militia helped defeat Islamic State in Syria and a new piece in War on the Rocks examines what their next move may be. The militia is supported by Iran and many of the Afghan militiamen’s families live in Iran, but the many of the seasoned combat veterans have been fighting for years and they may prove useful to Iran elsewhere.

This concludes your Situation Update. Questions may be posted in the comments section, but answers were given up for Lent. To receive these in your inbox daily, use the follow button on the sidebar (web) or below (mobile). Your next Situation Update will be Thursday, February 15th, 2018.

Here’s your Situation Update for February 12th, 2018

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Department of Defense photo

Welcome to your Situation Update, a new feature from Insurgentsia that runs weekday mornings. The scope of these posts will cover the globe’s military operations other than war (oddly enough, this is another name for war).

The weather forecast this morning is freezing with a 30% chance of strained Clausewitz references. I hope that helps you wherever you are located as you read this.

Gaza is starving and the world wonders if that will affect them this piece from The New York Times seems to say. Gaza has long been blockaded by Israel, but the tiny strip of land with two million people living there found ways around the economic siege to survive. Namely, tunnels into Egypt provided Gaza with goods and a tax revenue on those imported goods. But Egypt has cracked down on the tunnels and Gazans must turn to Fatah, the ruling party of the Palestinian Authority. Fatah is not keen to work with Gaza because it is ruled by a rival party, Hamas. With no where to turn, Hamas may turn to violence against Israel to draw international sympathy and aid.

Kobani, Syria is preserving a neighborhood destroyed by war by turning it into an open air museum. During the battle to win back Kobani from Islamic State, Kurdish fighters supported by  U.S. and allied air power targeted and destroyed areas where militants were operating. “A reinforced-concrete, three-story house on the street was pancaked. ‘Everyone in that house is dead now,’ said Mustafa, a 40-year-old mechanic,” says the article about part of the area preserved.

Anti-IS campaign in Iraq caused $45.7 billion in damage says a new study by the World Bank and Iraq. I wonder who will be generously willing to loan the Iraqi government money to rebuild (at a modest interest rate, of course)? The Wall Street Journal vaguely states, “international investors.”

Pakistan-based militants attacked an Indian Army base over the weekend, killing at least six. Indian authorities blamed Jaish-e-Muhammad, an insurgent group that has attacked government forces in Kashmir as well.

Israel bombed Syrian government positions over the weekend in retaliation for the shooting down off an Israeli fighter over Syrian airspace. The loss of the Israeli fighter was the first in three decades.

A Turkish helicopter was also shot down in Syria on Saturday, killing two Turkish soldiers. The Kurdish YPG claimed responsibility and posted a video of the attack.

Pakistani Taliban confirmed deputy leader killed by a suspected U.S. drone strike last week and appointed a new one.

“Tunisia is finished” says one migrant who fled to Europe is this breakdown of the crisis from The Guardian. A crackdown on the smuggling routes from Libya, including a deployment of soldiers from Italy, has shifted the business to neighboring Tunisia.

Terrorism is not as useful lens for understanding violence in the Sahel said Nathaniel Powell of King’s College London for War on Rocks last week. Support for authoritarian regimes in squashing violent dissent is not helpful in the long run, he argues.

This concludes your Situation Update. Questions may be posted in the comments section but we are unaware of answers at this time because we were traveling. To receive these in your inbox daily, use the follow button on the sidebar (web) or below (mobile). Your next Situation Update will be Tuesday, February 13th, 2018.

Situation Update February 6th, 2018

Airstrikes in Syria

Department of Defense photo

Welcome to your Situation Update, a new feature from Insurgentsia that runs weekday mornings. The scope of these posts will cover the globe’s various low-intensity conflicts (i.e. conflicts that are just as intense as any other, but armies pretend they aren’t because they’d rather fight a uniformed enemy).

The weather forecast this morning is partly cloudy with a 90% chance of confusing tactics for strategy. I hope that helps you wherever you are located as you read this.

Iraqi Shiite militia groups threaten U.S. troops if they do not leave the country. The U.S. announced a partial withdrawal on Monday. The Iran-backed militias, part of the Popular Mobilization Units that were supported by the U.S. to fight Islamic State, said U.S. troops would only attract terrorists and cause instability. One militia, Kataib Hezbollah, said in a statement, “We are serious about getting the Americans out, using the force of arms because the Americans don’t understand any other language.” This is not the first time Shiite militias groups have threatened U.S. forces since they returned to Iraq in 2014.

And leave Syria’s Manbij too said Turkish president Erdogan on Tuesday to U.S. forces, saying, “Why don’t you just go?” Turkey continues an anti-Kurdish campaign in Northern Syria, while the U.S. supported Kurdish forces in the fight against Islamic State.

An attack on the Iranian presidential complex by a man wielding only a machete is the latest escalation in nationwide protests in Iran that began over a month ago. The lone man attacked a security guard, who shot and wounded him. The attacker was a Shiite Muslim who wore a white shroud symbolizing martyrdom.

American Islamic State recruits stuck mopping and sweeping says a new study. Unlike their European counterparts, American recruits lacked the support networks needed to promote in what was apparently a good ol’ boy system, despite being from wealthier backgrounds. The American recruits frequently found themselves cleaning, cooking, and caring for the injured instead of fighting.

Don’t build the wall say Lebanese leaders to Israel. The president, prime minister, and parliament speaker, a Christian, Sunni Muslim, and Shiite Muslim, respectively, issued a joint statement saying the proposed wall was a “direct threat.”

A video shows Syrian militia abusing corpse of Kurdish woman fighter. The militiamen, from the Turkish-backed Free Syrian Army, documented themselves posing with the body, calling her names, and standing on her. The fighter was identified as one of three women killed from the Women’s Protection Units (YPJ) killed last week in Afrin. While gruesome videos are not rare in the five-year war in Syria, this one, in particular, sparked outrage due to the gender of the slain fighter.

A senior Chinese executive was murdered in Pakistan in Karachi on Monday. No group claimed responsibility for the attack, but the murder is the latest in attacks on Chinese workers as tens of thousands of Chinese nationals travel to Pakistan. Last summer, Islamic State militants kidnapped and murdered two Chinese nationals in Baluchistan.

This concludes your Situation Update. Questions may be posted in the comments section but are not encouraged. Your next Situation Update will be Wednesday, February 7th, 2018.

C.I.A. under Pompeo to join Defense Department in endless, pointless war against Taliban in Afghanistan

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Afghan soldiers on patrol in 2011 (DoD photo)

The New York Times reported Sunday that the C.I.A. broadened its Afghanistan mission from hunting al-Qaida and developing Afghan intelligence capability to fighting the Taliban. The piece explained the significance best:

“The C.I.A. has traditionally been resistant to an open-ended campaign against the Taliban, the primary militant group in Afghanistan, believing it was a waste of the agency’s time and money and would put officers at greater risk as they embark more frequently on missions.”

The CIA has a complex history in Afghanistan. From 1979 to 1989, it provided weapons and financial assistance to Islamic fighters with ties to Pakistan during Operation Cyclone. The program was portrayed in the 2007 film Charlie Wilson’s War starring Tom Hanks.

After the Islamic fighters, or mujahideen (literally those who commit jihad), defeated the Soviet-backed government in Afghanistan in 1992, the C.I.A. mostly abandoned the country until the 2001 invasion in retaliation for the al-Qaida terrorist attacks on September 11th.

With the help of a handful of special operations troops, the C.I.A. allied itself with a group of fighters in Afghanistan called “The Northern Alliance,” to overthrow the Taliban government. The Pakistan-backed Taliban took power in 1996 after a bloody civil war as a partial result of the C.I.A.’s involvement in the 1980s.

Then, the C.I.A. let the conventional military begin what has become known as the forever war: dozens of rotations of military officers and units fighting in 6-14 month deployments in Afghanistan with less than ideal continuity between them. After a decade and a half of this, with troop numbers ranging from a few thousand to 100 thousand, the Taliban implausibly controls more territory now than it has since 2001.

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Afghan and U.S. soldiers on patrol in 2010 (DoD photo)

But now under the leadership of Director Mike Pompeo, the former Congressional Representative from Kansas, appointed by Trump, the C.I.A. is back in the Taliban fighting game.

Pompeo is not known for his wisdom or restraint. As a Congressman, he said many foolish things on national security. Whether he was making the point that saying the words “radical Islamic terrorism” was the key to our success overseas, or lying about the support of American Muslims for domestic terrorists, he developed a reputation for deplorable brashness.

Most recently, he was caught boldly lying about the agency’s conclusions on Russian interference in the 2016 presidential election and saying the C.I.A., shamed by revelations of torture in the past decade, should be “more vicious.”

So, the agency’s counter-terrorism direction under Pompeo may not come as a surprise to some. But it is important to understand that whether the C.I.A. kills more Taliban or not, clandestinely killing militants is not a strategy. The United States and Afghanistan governments both plan on fighting Taliban years from now.

If the U.S. wants to bring peace to Afghanistan — a prospect it pays lip service to, but there are few signs this is a true policy objective —  the only way forward is via political settlement with the Taliban. Merely doing away with deadlines to signal to the Taliban that they cannot wait the U.S. out, as the top general in Afghanistan recently told NPR, will not work.

The U.S. cannot wait out the Taliban. Endlessly prolonging combat is not a strategy to defeat the Taliban, let alone bring peace to Afghanistan. Yet, the only public strategy from U.S. officials is: stay forever, kill terrorists (and Taliban). The Taliban are not considered terrorists under the State Departments Foreign Terrorist Organization list, but the distinction seems moot at the moment since they are getting the same treatment.

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Delta Force and C.I.A. officers in Tora Bora in 2001 (Wikimedia Commons photo)

To bring peace to Afghanistan, the Taliban must be invited into the political process. They will not stop attacking coalition forces — whom they consider foreign “invaders” and “crusaders” — or the U.S.-backed government in Kabul until they have a political stake in it.

A model for this kind of absorption of an armed insurgency into the government as a political party exists in South Africa, Lebanon, Kosovo, and Northern Ireland, among others. The Taliban is unlikely to come to the bargaining table while the C.I.A. are on patrols killing their fighters. After all, killing Afghan soldiers and C.I.A. officers has been much more effective for them so far.

Taliban control districts remain unchanged from last year, despite troop increases and heavier C.I.A. involvement. Additionally, Afghan soldiers and police are dying by the thousands. At least 6,785 Afghan soldiers and police died in 2016 and in 2017 casualties remain “shockingly high” according to the United Nations.

However badly the U.S. is performing in Afghanistan, its leaders — some elected by the American people, the rest appointed by those elected — continue to fight on aimlessly overseas. As the New York Times Editorial Board quoted retired Army colonel Andrew Bacevich on Sunday, “A collective indifference to war has become an emblem of contemporary America.”

Five Years After Killing Bin Laden: The Failure of Decapitation Strategy

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Artwork by Surian Soosay

Exactly five years ago last Monday, United States Navy SEALs killed Osama Bin Laden during a raid on the compound where he lived with his family in Abbottabad, Pakistan.

I remember where I was when I heard Bin Laden was dead: in the open bay, cinderblock barracks at Camp Shelby, Mississippi, during mobilization training for a deployment with the Oklahoma Army National Guard. The mood then among fellow soldiers was mostly surprise and perhaps a little incredulity — after all, there was no evidence of a body. Junior enlisted soldiers are, by nature, suspicious creatures.

It took almost ten years after the Bin Laden-directed attacks on September 11th, 2001 in the United States, but on the evening of May 2, 2011, President Barack Obama told the world during a televised address from the White House, “After a firefight, [a small team of Americans] killed Osama Bin Laden and took custody of his body.”

“Looking at al-Qaida’s position in the world today versus in 2011, it is hard to make a good argument that killing Bin Laden worked.”

According to President Obama himself during that very address, the killing or capture of Bin Laden was, until then, the top priority of the war against al-Qaida. But for all the resources that went into Bin Laden’s killing, did, as President Obama put it, “the most significant achievement to date in our nation’s effort to defeat al-Qaida” actually disrupt, dismantle or defeat it?

Looking at al-Qaida’s position in the world today versus in 2011, it is hard to make a good argument that killing Bin Laden worked. In 2011, al-Qaida’s core in Pakistan was suffering from seemingly endless drone strikes, disrupted communications, constant threat of infiltration, and the inability to meet in large groups. Killing Bin Laden did not much change the operational ability of al-Qaida’s core.

However, pre-Bin Laden raid, al-Qaida’s affiliated groups in Africa and the Middle East, al-Qaida in the Islamic Maghreb (AQIM), al-Qaida in the Arabian Peninsula (AQAP), and al-Qaida in Iraq (AQI) were much less active.

Since the horrific car bombing in Algiers in 2007 that killed and wounded 180 people, AQIM attacks had essentially dropped off, with no AQIM-attributed casualties in 2008 or 2010 and only 12 in 2009. But after Bin Laden’s death, attacks saw an uptick, with casualties increasing every year, culminating in two large attacks this year using gunmen in Burkina Fasso and Ivory Coast, resulting in 100 casualties — relatively high for attacks not using explosives and a marked expansion from their Algeria-centric operations prior to Bin Laden’s death.

AQAP has seen tremendous growth in the past five years. In 2009, AQAP was estimated to have only 200-300 members, but grew to nearly 1000 in 2014. Because of the Saudi-backed war in Yemen against Iranian Houthi rebels, AQAP has been able to consolidate its power, enjoying the control of a mini-state along the Yemeni coast, much like the quasi-state under the control of Islamic State (IS, also called ISIS or ISIL) in Iraq and Syria.

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Al-Qaida in the Islamic Maghreb (AQIM) fighters in the Algerian desert. The stones spell “La ilaha ila Allah (There is no god but God)” (Voice of America photo)

Another al-Qaida affiliate, Jabhat al-Nusra (also known as Nusra Front or Nusra), did not exist before Bin Laden’s death. But after the start of the Syrian Civil War, Nusra began operating as the official arm of al-Qaida in Syria with the blessing of Abu Bakr al-Baghdadi, then-leader of the Iraqi affiliate, AQI. Since its formation, Nusra has become one of the strongest and most organized rebel groups in Syria, second only to IS.

IS itself was once the al-Qaida affiliate in Iraq and then known as AQI. During the time of the Bin Laden raid, AQI was nearly defeated. But the death of Bin Laden, the civil war in Syria, and the withdrawal of American troops combined with an extremely weak government in Iraq created ideal conditions for AQI/IS to seize control of large swaths of territory in both Iraq and Syria. While not affiliated with al-Qaida anymore (Abu Bakr al-Baghdadi has eclipsed al-Qaida’s current leader, Ayman al-Zawahiri, and perhaps even Bin Laden), IS is certainly more powerful than al-Qaida ever was — before or after Bin Laden.

“The US and its partners must, at a minimum, work harder to quantify the results of their counterterrorism strategies and end the practices that are counterproductive.”

So, if al-Qaida and global jihadism have only become stronger since the death of Bin Laden, it is fair to say that killing Bin Laden was a poor top priority for the United States in its war against al-Qaida. This does not come as a surprise to all. In 2008, Aaron Manness published a study which found that decapitation strategy is not only limited in efficacy, but may actually be counterproductive when used on religiously motivated terrorist groups, who have been found to become more violent when their leaders are killed.

One could theorize that Bin Laden would have been more useful captured alive, but the point is now moot. His death, once the top priority of the US, has done nothing to defeat al-Qaida. Indeed, al-Qaida’s greatest foe today may not even be the US, but rather IS, who is competing with (and for the moment, winning against) al-Qaida to be the world’s premiere Salafi jihadist group.

Should the US defeat either IS or al-Qaida by killing its members, the other will directly benefit. If decapitation strategy does not work, the US and its partners must, at a minimum, work harder to quantify the results of their counterterrorism strategies and end the practices that are counterproductive. The killing of Bin Laden was only one of hundreds of “high value targets” that have been killed in countries the US is not technically at war with — to unimpressive results. Next, the US and its partners must identify a strategy that does not benefit al-Qaida while IS is degraded or vice versa. If they do not, this 15 year old war is not likely to end any time soon.