Destroying Value: ISIS, The Anaconda, and War on the Cheap

This past week, while reading and thinking about the Islamic State in Iraq and Syria (ISIS), two figures jumped out at me. The first comes from an interview with the head of (Iraqi) Kurdish intelligence, who said he believes that ISIS “generates something equivalent to $6 million a day by the selling of oil, wheat, taking taxes from people, ransoms, and still getting donations.” The second figure, just released by the Pentagon, is how much the American component of the bombing campaign against ISIS costs US taxpayers per day: “7 million to $10 million per day in Iraq and Syria.”

As we spend so much time considering military effectiveness (which is, admittedly, a terribly important measure), one underestimated component to any strategy is efficiency. In essence, how sustainable are your military actions? Consider for a moment, the expense incurred to combat the threat in Afghanistan, as related by The Washington Post’s George Will in a 2011 column:

Jim Lacey of the Marine Corps War College notes that General David Petraeus has said that there are perhaps about 100 Al Qaeda fighters in Afghanistan. “Did anyone,” Lacey asks, “do the math?” There are, he says, more than 140,000 coalition soldiers in Afghanistan, or 1,400 for every Al Qaeda fighter. It costs about $1 million/year to deploy and support every soldier — or up to $140 billion, or close to $1.5 billion/year, for each Al Qaeda fighter. “In what universe to we find strategists to whom this makes sense?”

This was the essential “Long War” (or “War on Terror”) imbalance. Extremely lofty ends — ending terror and remaking the Middle East — without correspondingly sustainable means with which to achieve these generational-length tasks. The great domestic fear in the middle of the last decade was that the US was “waging war on the cheap,” and so spent enormous sums of money on the wars in Afghanistan and Iraq. It seems that experience is correcting/tilting the balance to a more stable expenditure. And “war on the cheap,” in the right circumstances, can be beneficial.

In comparison, taking on ISIS seems to be a bargain at the $7 million/day mark (or, as a car salesman might put it, “price point”). Moreover, Thomas Schelling has helpfully pointed out that military force can be used to “destroy value.” In this case, ISIS derives most of its revenues for support of military operations through oil (all those black flags don’t just pay for themselves!) — not unlike the American Confederacy’s heavy reliance on “King Cotton.” In that conflict, General Winfield Scott’s initial “Anaconda” plan was one of broad concentric pressure that slowly constricted the opponent into submission. It was political pressure that forced President Lincoln to ask Scott to speed it up through aggressive and active landpower, which will definitely not be the case today. Attrition is clearly sustainable here — spending $7–10 million/day (a very reasonable sum for a country with a $15 trillion GDP) to destroy a significant amount of ISIS’s entire GDP (roughly $6 million/day). But sustainability is not the only consideration.

Back to effectiveness. President Obama’s military objectives with respect to ISIS are to “degrade and ultimately destroy” the organization. It seems that counter value bombing (i.e. to deny ISIS oil revenue) will work towards achieving “degrade” — but this almost certainly will not “destroy” ISIS. One does not need to be an analyst to realize that groups like this are formed by three things: stuff, people, and ideas. Attritional bombing can reduce an awful lot of the tangible stuff, but defeating ISIS will need to directly address the people and ideas. This is the harder part, as estimates of ISIS fighters in the region run as high as 40,000, and that they have a support base (some out of fear, some out of genuine support) of approximately 100,000 people. We have to convince them to walk away from ISIS — not an easy task while their skies are clouded by our bombing runs.

In sum, the military component will fix and reduce the military threat ISIS poses for as long as need be; it’s up to the capable (diplomatic) hands of the US State Department to orchestrate the kill shot to ISIS. To our friends at State: happy hunting!

Matthew Cavanaugh is a U.S. Army Strategist and editor at, on which this post was originally published. The views expressed belong to the author alone and do not represent the U.S. Army, the Department of Defense, or the U.S. Government.

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