Small Wars Journal

The Decision to Depart and the Defeat of Violent Extremist Organizations

Sat, 12/29/2018 - 9:37am

The Decision to Depart and the Defeat of Violent Extremist Organizations

Donald C. Bolduc

SWJ Editor Note: In this passionate plea to the ‘powers that be’, Brigadier General (Ret.) Don Bolduc squarely hits the nail on the head. What is sad for me is, in the 20-years I have been online addressing small / irregular warfare, I have seen the issues BG Bolduc identifies and the recommendations he suggests made time and time again. So here we are, more lessons to unlearn and rediscover at some later date.

The President made it clear for some time that he is not in favor of these wars.  His advisors, senior civilians, and generals had almost two years to figure out how to disengage and they did not get it done.  The President probably grew weary of hearing that if we depart, ISIS will resurge in the political vacuum. American presence acts as buffer against a conflict between two American allies — the Turks and the Kurds, humanitarian concerns, and our presence in Syria allows the United States a seat at the table in any future Syrian peace negotiations.  All true, but this is not what the President wanted to hear from his diplomats, senior military leaders, and advisors.  He wanted to know how this can be done without a boots on the ground commitment, a commitment that has produced limited success at best.   I am sure the President received multiple military courses of action over the past two years, but they likely reinforced the status quo - they were not different.  This left the Pentagon unprepared to execute the President’s orders when they finally came.

Bottom line, the United States is leaving.  It is time, past time, for diplomats, senior civilian advisors, and generals to move smartly to the follow-on question of “what now”.

We know who is going to fill the void.

We need to figure out how we are going to support our allies and partners.

There are sides to pick and we must be decisive in regard to what best supports U.S. interests.

Populations are most vulnerable to the trans-regional threat - threat groups that operate where governance is weakest.  The root causes of instability are inadequate security, economic and development challenges, and a disenfranchised populace that provides violent extremist organizations opportunities to threaten the national interests of the U.S. and its partners.  We operate in politically sensitive and challenging Areas of Responsibility (AoR) that simultaneously crosses multiple instruments of power (diplomatic, informational, military, economic, financial, intelligence, and legal).

Recognizing we operate in an environment where diplomacy is key to attaining U.S. policy objectives, any given Country Teams’ Integrated Country Strategy must drive a synchronized comprehensive approach to achieve stability.  This delegates military efforts to a supporting role (where they should be).  The military is part of any solution… not the solution.

The Threat

We have been applying a lot of resources against ‘the threat’ for a long time.  We are trying to kill our way to victory instead of addressing strengths and countering ideology.  Once we truly understand how they operate we would approach the threat problem much differently.  Tactical level, threat focused counterterrorism strategy will not work.  We must work with our allies, partners, international and nongovernmental organizations to improve governance from the local level to the national level, create functional civil administration, and secure and protect the populace.  The delivering of goods and services to the populace is hugely important and will legitimize any government and delegitimize the threat.

I do not consider myself an expert on the threat, but I do have a perspective after 17 years of experience in Afghanistan and Africa.  We have seen success when we have implemented a comprehensive population-centric approach, but we never, ever, apply it early enough nor do we ‘stick with it’.

The Caliphate is not gone.  To think so is to fundamentally misunderstand the goal of ISIS and other violent extremist organizations.  The caliphate is the goal, and, in their minds, there is no way to defeat this goal.  We continue to reason among ourselves that severe reduction in threat territory (‘mile count’) and militant numbers (‘body count’) is defeat and it is not.

The tactical neutralization of the threat is not defeat.  We consistently go after one leg of the stool and we consistently get it wrong.  To continue to follow a counterterrorism approach that only achieves short-term objectives is a mistake.  Until we at least begin to understand their goal, respect their commitment, and develop a comprehensive approach, we will continue to get it wrong.

The violent extremist organization threat operates in a state and/or nonstate, trans-regional and trans-national, decentralized and dispersed operational construct. It exploits and exacerbates instability in Iraq, Syria, Afghanistan, and Africa.  The threat survives in ungoverned and under-governed safe-havens and sanctuaries created by ineffective governance - resulting in a population that has lost hope and reluctantly and without choice supports the threat.  The threat often has outside support, controls the populace, exploits asymmetric approaches, and leverages information operations to promulgate its ideology and implement its will.

Countering this threat to create opportunities for a comprehensive approach (whole of society) is in the common interest of U.S. policy objectives and those of our partners. The operational threat emanating from the Greater Middle East (including North Africa) is eroding the institutional framework of Western security – this is especially true for Europe.

The transnational security threats posed by threat groups resemble a refined Maoist playbook.  Like the Maoist revolutionary war theory, the three phases of insurgent operations used by threat groups in many of the group’s areas of operation (within Africa, Afghanistan, Arabia, Asia, Europe) can best be described as: gain a foothold, organize and expand, and control territory.

Depending on the operational environment, the threat will move their insurgency efforts forward or backwards along this strategic template to conduct violent extremist operations.  This is what we are seeing in Africa, Afghanistan, Iraq and Syria.   We club them over the head and then fail to have a plan to fill the void with resilient and reliable security forces (police), good governance at the local level, and we do little to rebuild and support the populace.  This keeps us in the perpetual operational cycle as the threat waits, plans, organizes, and resurges to take back the territory.  They can afford to do this forever, we cannot.

Our counter-strategy should be to assist in building local security forces to fill the void, improve governance at all levels, and protect and support to the populace.  Diplomacy, development, and defense must be integrated in all phases to effectively disrupt, degrade, and neutralize.  Defeat of violent extremists is a long-term goal and an impossible task for the United States that must be left to our partners to accomplish.         

Understanding where the threat is in this cycle enables us to craft effective policy and a counter-strategy.  It allows us to focus our efforts in support of our partners to be effective in security, improve governance, and support the populace.  We must also get our policy goals, strategic objectives, operational approaches, and tactical tasks synchronized, mutually supporting, and tied to an end state.

Violent Extremist Organizations Attempt To…

  1. Gain a foothold: The objective of establishing a foothold is to build organizational functions such as recruiting, finance, and planning.   Recruitment tactics include turning opponents’ fighters, importing foreign fighters, flipping entire groups, and dispersing local recruiters with continuous enticement through social media.  At this stage, recruitment is buttressed by terror operations focused on opportunistic attacks against both military and non-combatant targets.  Information Operations highlight local successes via social media, personal relationship building, thereby promoting the terror group’s global brand.  Examples include recruitment via social media (i.e. Indonesia).
  2. Organize and expand: In this phase the focus is on developing the authority of the threat group and undermining the authority of opponents.  Information Operations will adjust to fit media that highlight legitimacy claims, ideological training, messaging, and moving into civil society in the absence of government during this phase of operations. Kinetic Operations also redirect terror attacks against government facilities and on vulnerable populations (VBIEDs, PBIEDs, complex attacks, and sniper operations). Examples are abundant in Africa, Afghanistan, Iraq, and Syria.
  3. Control territory: This phase includes three internal stages: 1 -Shaping; 2- Taking Territory; and 3 – Governance.  Examples are abundant in Africa, Afghanistan, Iraq, and Syria.
  4. The first stage of control territory is shaping.  Activities include reconnaissance, preposition of fighters, tactical alliances, amassing supplies in place, assassination campaigns, Information Operations against the enemy, intimidation campaigns, and other acts of barbarity.  Examples of this stage include assassination and intimidation campaigns and videotaping the killing of tribal, government and military leaders (Africa, Afghanistan, Iraq, Syria). 
  5. The second stage of control territory is taking territory.  Tactics include activating sleeper cells, utilizing technical for maneuver, assassination campaigns, conquering strategic infrastructure, killing or exiling local leaders, use of social media for C2 (command and control) and propaganda, public executions, signaling power through takeover of symbolic locations, breaching VBIEDs and PBIEDs, attacking checkpoints, offensive snipers, and integrating UAVs for both targeting and ISR.  Examples of this include technical used as mobile cavalry in the takeover of symbolic locations (Africa, Afghanistan, Iraq, Syria).
  6. The final stage of control territory is governance.  Key activities include tax collection, security, moral policing, population control, barbaric punishments, sharia law enforcement, control over key institutions and communication, aid distribution, education, utilities, and establishing administrative services.  An example is the enforcement of extreme interpretation of sharia law.  This is also seen in vice squads targeting narcotics, cigarettes, banning girls going to school, and television (Africa, Iraq, Syria, and Afghanistan).  


At this point, we can assess that the investment we have made in time, money, resources, and casualties have not resulted in a partner that is capable of securing the civilian population against the threat.  Our partners are incapable of taking responsibility for the problem, the fight, and the solution to develop and maintain stability.  We need to develop a better policy, strategy, and operational approach as an international team; the solution is neither military nor unilateral.  If people have no hope for the future, no job, no education, and poor government, they will be subject to extremism, and this will lead to continued instability.


So, if we know the problem is poor local civil administration, corruption at the national level that creates ungoverned spaces and safe havens, poor infrastructure and an inability to secure the populace and deliver goods and services, then why do we continue to follow a counterterrorism centric approach?  If we know the threat and how they operate, then why do we continue to follow a tactical centric approach that guarantees short-term disruption and degradation and not a comprehensive approach that will lead to their neutralization at the strategic level?  Why do we fail to listen to the experts, contrarians and spend millions on studies that indicate we need a broader approach?  We know the military is not the solution, and that long-term success is about governance, security, and development?  We continuously fail to secure stability after we set conditions for it.


Our service members and their families deserve a clear statement of U.S. policy, strategy, measures of effectiveness, and end state that justify their service and sacrifice, of which our senior leaders have no answer.  This is not about winning or losing, it is about doing what is right and depart in a more responsible manner.  As much as we need to depart, we should not depart in a knee jerk fashion without a responsible plan.  Our service members and their families have performed honorably and endured a conflict that our civilian and military leadership has turned into a generational war.  We owe them, the American people, and our allies and partners a better plan and be ready for the political, diplomatic, humanitarian fallout of our precipitous departure.


About the Author(s)

Brigadier General Bolduc is a former commander of U.S. Special Operations Command Africa. During his 33 years of active duty, he received 2 awards for valor, 5 Bronze Stars and 2 Purple Hearts and survived numerous firefights, a bombing, and a helicopter crash.  He is a self-described leader who admits his mistakes, learned from his many mistakes, and keeps the faith with the people, family, and organizations he serves.