This article is from the archive of our partner National Journal

Killing Islamic State leader Abu Bakr al-Baghdadi would be a meaningful step toward degrading and destroying the extremist group, according to two-thirds of National Journal's National Security Insiders.

But even among those who think Baghdadi's death would advance the stated goals of the American operation, many said an assassination is necessary but not sufficient to degrade and destroy the group.

The step would be meaningful in the context of the campaign "only if it's followed by a steady stream of operations against ISIS leadership," said one Insider, using another name for the Islamic State. "Killings in isolation don't work; degradation does, and that only happens with a steady ops tempo over a long period of time."

Another Insider said that targeting Baghdadi should not be done in isolation. "We learned that killing leadership is only effective if we target current leaders and likely replacements—along with key staff—almost simultaneously." A third Insider agreed that the leader's death is only one piece of the puzzle: "His assassination should be part of the offensive to destroy these extremists, not an end in itself."

But some Insiders said that even on its own, Baghdadi's death would be a significant blow to the extremist group he leads. One said that "since mysticism is a big part of a religious fundamentalist movement, it would strike a blow at the assumption that they are invincible."

Insiders who answered both ways on the question of the significance of killing Baghdadi share the worry that assassinating him could actually harm the campaign. "Decapitation strategies are inconclusive. Could also backfire by generating more rage and making him a martyr," said one Insider.

Among those who said an assassination would not advance the campaign's goals, many said that Baghdadi could easily be replaced were he to be killed. "This is not a matter of personalities. They will merely pick another leader if we kill him," said one Insider. "The IS is a hydra," said another. "Cutting one head off leaves many others."

But not all agree that a new leader could easily take Baghdadi's place. One Insider argued that he possesses unique traits that would be difficult to find in a potential successor. "Strong leaders have various rare attributes: the ability to inspire, the ability to organize and execute, the ability to engage in varied types of operations, the Insider said. "They are not easily replaced. And while ISIS is more ideologically oriented and certainly not dependent on al-Baghdadi, he is a rare combination in the Arab world, an ideologue with disciplined military skills."

And one Insider said it will take more than just targeted strikes on the extremist group's leadership to bring it down. "We simply must have boots on the ground to do the proper job of defeating ISIL," the Insider said.

Separately, 70 percent of Security Insiders said the U.S. operation in Iraq and Syria is experiencing "mission creep."

Many said they saw it coming. One Insider blamed the Obama administration's tentative approach to the campaign. Mission creep, the Insider said, is "an outgrowth of a failed minimalist strategy that should have never been implemented in the first place. We should have gone in big and fast, with no apologies. Now, mission creep has become inevitable as we belatedly realize that only our leadership has a hope of minimizing ISIS's advance."

Another Insider echoed this criticism. "Without a clear goal that is feasible and realistic, we will continue to expand our activities in an effort to 'do something, do anything' until we stumble on to the right answer," this Insider said. "The administration is very shortsighted on this issue, which contributed to the region falling into this mess in the first place."

One noticed a trend in recent U.S. military history. "Mission creep is what America does."

U.S. troop numbers will likely continue to increase, Insiders said. There are "more to come," said one. "I expect the pace will accelerate," another said.

But perhaps mission creep isn't all bad, some Insiders said. "An effort that is justified but could be limited by self-imposed, artificial restrictions that just prolong the fight and prevent accomplishment of the goal in the quickest time possible is counterproductive," one Insider said. "Mission creep is not 100% a bad thing unless it happens in an unknowing or accidental fashion. One thing you can say for this administration, they are showing a real reluctance to expand this mission, and they won't do it without a thought-out objective."

Those Insiders who think mission creep isn't happening in Iraq and Syria had varying reasons for saying so. Some said the Obama administration hasn't outlined a mission at all. One Insider said a better characterization would be to call it "mission failure."

Or maybe the changing face of the campaign in Iraq and Syria isn't the result of an evolving mission but rather of the Defense Department catching up to the administration's vision, said one Insider. "We are finally beginning to resource the mission the president assigned the military."

Would killing Islamic State leader Abu Bakr al-Baghdadi be a meaningful step toward degrading and destroying the extremist group? (53 responses)

Yes: 66 percentNo: 34 percent

Yes

"Necessary, but not sufficient."

"Helpful, but far from decisive."

"It is necessary, but not sufficient. We learned that killing leadership is only effective if we target current leaders and likely replacements—along with key staff—almost simultaneously."

"Meaningful, but by no means fatal to the group."

"It would not destroy IS, but would have a chilling effect."

"Degrade, yes; destroy, no. Baghdadi's death would by no means spell the end of ISIS nor their ability to ability to engage in terror, but it would signal that they are not invincible and may cause internal strife regarding leadership."

"But only if it's followed by a steady stream of operations against ISIS leadership. Killings in isolation don't work; degradation does, and that only happens with a steady ops tempo over a long period of time."

"It would be a key step to the degree that leadership was consistently disrupted and displaced. Defeating terrorist organizations is very difficult under any circumstances. Leaders must be killed or denied safe haven as a first step toward defeat."

"Yes, but we ultimately need to take down the network, which is a continuing transnational criminal enterprise masquerading as a political movement."

"Killing al-Baghdadi would be a significant step to degrade or destroy ISIS, but it would have to be accompanied by other significant military and social-media efforts that would continue even after his death. His assassination should be part of the offensive to destroy these extremists, not an end in itself."

"It would be like chicken soup—it couldn't hurt. Strong leaders have various rare attributes: the ability to inspire, the ability to organize and execute, the ability to engaged in varied types of operations. They are not easily replaced. And while ISIS is more ideologically oriented and certainly not dependent on al-Baghdadi, he is a rare combination in the Arab world, an ideologue with disciplined military skills."

"Really impossible to know. Sometimes decapitation leads to a more virulent and fragmented group."

"Won't end the threat, but since mysticism is a big part of a religious fundamentalist movement, it would strike a blow at the assumption that they are invincible. Downside: makes a martyr of him."

"It would be a symbolic victory but would also make him a martyr like Osama bin Laden. There are leaders waiting in the wings to head up ISIL in the event of his demise."

"A charismatic leader's demise is meaningful, but won't address the 'strategic error' (Brent Scowcroft's words) of trying to reorder the Iraqi political establishment. The grievance is there."

No

"Decapitation strategies are inconclusive. Could also backfire by generating more rage and making him a martyr."

"The jihadi bench is deep—we should not delude ourselves that killing one person will make a difference."

"This is not a matter of personalities. They will merely pick another leader if we kill him."

"Degrade, maybe. Destroy, definitely not. There are others waiting in the wings."

"The IS is a hydra. Cutting one head off leaves many others."

"No. The more we kill they more they seem to recruit, so it will probably just serve to recruit more members."

"It might be, but there's been a lot of outside help IS has gotten that is likely to continue with or without Baghdadi."

"This group is much less dependent on a 'leader.' It has much better infrastructure than AQ."

"We concentrate too much on the killing of the one leader and expecting collapse. Would it hurt? Yes. Would it stop them? No. A more comprehensive program of rooting out leadership is needed. Also, we simply must have boots on the ground to do the proper job of defeating ISIL."

"Not likely, because of the uncertainty about how ISIS is structured. There may be others already waiting in the wings who can step in, or their movement could fracture into many other cells, in which case we will need to track many more organizations."

Is the U.S. operation in Iraq and Syria experiencing mission creep? (53 responses)

Yes: 70 percentNo: 30 percent

Yes

"It will be increasingly hard for the U.S. to separate its advisory and counterterrorism mission in Iraq from morphing into support for the Iraqi government; it will be nearly impossible for the U.S. to avoid some sort of post-Assad stabilization mission in Syria."

"Of course "¦ and that mission creep was fully predictable. It is an outgrowth of a failed minimalist strategy that should have never been implemented in the first place. We should have gone in big and fast, with no apologies. Now, mission creep has become inevitable as we belatedly realize that only our leadership has a hope of minimizing ISIS's advance."

"The U.S. keeps changing and broadening the strategy against ISIL and now must develop a comprehensive plan to address Iraq and Assad in Syria at the same time as ISIL does not recognize borders."

"But what did you expect the result to be from an administration that keeps setting magically fluid red lines and pulling the proverbial rug out from underneath the Baghdad government?"

"Mission creep is what America does."

"Without a clear goal that is feasible and realistic, we will continue to expand our activities in an effort to 'do something, do anything' until we stumble on to the right answer. The administration is very short-sighted on this issue, which contributed to the region falling into this mess in the first place."

"It is, but all parties seem to be aware of and signing up for it."

"Not mission creep so much as the inevitable pull of forces that cannot be denied."

"There is no way to avoid mission creep—evaluating combat at the front, battlefield advice to the Iraqis, and spotting targets lead inexorably to mission creep."

"Mission creep became a pejorative after Vietnam but it's oftentimes just the result of dynamic conflict. Not necessarily good or bad. In this case, the desires the administration being overridden by the cold reality of ISIS and the Arab world."

"Yes, but in this case, mission creep is a necessity."

"But that's a good thing. An effort that is justified but could be limited by self-imposed, artificial restrictions that just prolong the fight and prevent accomplishment of the goal in the quickest time possible is counterproductive. Mission creep is not 100% a bad thing unless it happens in an unknowing or accidental fashion. One thing you can say for this administration, they are showing a real reluctance to expand this mission, and they won't do it without a thought out objective. If anything, they have been too cautious and tentative."

"The U.S. has taken on a role that will be termed a failure unless the mission creeps up to nation-building."

"This process is moving steadily toward reintroduction of U.S. ground combat forces."

"We will soon be up to 3,000 troops, and more will be needed to train the Iraqi Army and Syrian opposition, as well as to provide on-the-ground spotters for aircraft sorties. With OCO money available, troop levels will shoot up."

"With more to come."

"Yes, but very slowly. I expect the pace will accelerate."

No

"But we are finally beginning to resource the mission the president assigned the military."

"Hard to say 'mission creep' when the administration can't define the mission in the first place."

"There is no coherent mission."

"No, because to have mission creep, you need a mission to begin with. In the case of our approach to Iraq and Syria, under Obama, we see tactics but not a strategy—not a mission. He doesn't act until politics force his hand, then he throw things at the wall without defining his strategy or planning the overall mission. Remember the Lord's Resistance Army? We threw 'military advisors' at them and they're still there. Remember Boko Haram and 'bring back our girls?' Still there. Same thing seems to be happening with the men and women we're throwing against ISIS."

"I think it would be more accurate to call it mission failure."

"The mission is to defeat ISIS, hence no "¦ "

"The mission is the same—only the means to accomplish it are changing."

"Not yet, but some mission creep is inevitable as results show more U.S. direct engagement is needed to achieve desired effects."

"We need to get U.S. Special Operations Forces embedded with Iraqi Security Forces yesterday—then start building Syrian units."

"We should stop obsessing about numbers of ground troops and start focusing on a long-term approach and what is actually required. May require a few more troops, but either way there are no quick fixes."

National Journal's National Security Insiders Poll is a periodic survey of more than 100 defense and foreign policy experts. They include: Gordon Adams, Charles Allen, Michael Allen, Thad Allen, Graham Allison, James Bamford, David Barno, Milt Bearden, Peter Bergen, Samuel "Sandy" Berger, David Berteau, Stephen Biddle, Nancy Birdsall, Marion Blakey, Kit Bond, Stuart Bowen, Mike Breen, Paula Broadwell, Mark Brunner, Nicholas Burns, Dan Byman, James Jay Carafano, Phillip Carter, Wendy Chamberlin, Michael Chertoff, Frank Cilluffo, James Clad, Richard Clarke, Steve Clemons, Joseph Collins, William Courtney, Lorne Craner, Roger Cressey, Gregory Dahlberg, Robert Danin, Richard Danzig, Janine Davidson, Daniel Drezner, Mackenzie Eaglen, Paul Eaton, Andrew Exum, Eric Farnsworth, Jacques Gansler, Stephen Ganyard, Daniel Goure, Mark Green, Mike Green, Mark Gunzinger, John Hamre, Jim Harper, Todd Harrison, Marty Hauser, Michael Hayden, Michael Herson, Pete Hoekstra, Bruce Hoffman, Paul Hughes, Mark Jackson, Colin Kahl, Donald Kerrick, Rachel Kleinfeld, Lawrence Korb, Andrew Krepinevich, Charlie Kupchan, W. Patrick Lang, Cedric Leighton, Michael Leiter, James Lindsay, Justin Logan, Trent Lott, Peter Mansoor, Ronald Marks, Brian McCaffrey, Steven Metz, Franklin Miller, Michael Morell, Philip Mudd, John Nagl, Shuja Nawaz, Kevin Nealer, Michael Oates, Thomas Pickering, Paul Pillar, Larry Prior, Stephen Rademaker, Marc Raimondi, Celina Realuyo, Barry Rhoads, Wilhelm Richard, Bruce Riedel, Marc Rotenberg, Frank Ruggiero, Gary Samore, Kori Schake, Mark Schneider, Tammy Schultz, John Scofield, Stephen Sestanovich, Sarah Sewall, Matthew Sherman, Jennifer Sims, Suzanne Spaulding, James Stavridis, Constanze Stelzenmüller, Ted Stroup, Guy Swan, Frances Townsend, Mick Trainor, Tamara Wittes, Dov Zakheim, and Juan Zarate.

 

Would killing Islamic State leader Abu Bakr al-Baghdadi be a meaningful step toward degrading and destroying the extremist group? (53 responses)

Yes: 66 percentNo: 34 percent

Yes

"Necessary, but not sufficient."

"Helpful, but far from decisive."

"It is necessary, but not sufficient. We learned that killing leadership is only effective if we target current leaders and likely replacements—along with key staff—almost simultaneously."

"Meaningful, but by no means fatal to the group."

"It would not destroy IS, but would have a chilling effect."

"Degrade, yes; destroy, no. Baghdadi's death would by no means spell the end of ISIS nor their ability to ability to engage in terror, but it would signal that they are not invincible and may cause internal strife regarding leadership."

"But only if it's followed by a steady stream of operations against ISIS leadership. Killings in isolation don't work; degradation does, and that only happens with a steady ops tempo over a long period of time."

"It would be a key step to the degree that leadership was consistently disrupted and displaced. Defeating terrorist organizations is very difficult under any circumstances. Leaders must be killed or denied safe haven as a first step toward defeat."

"Yes, but we ultimately need to take down the network, which is a continuing transnational criminal enterprise masquerading as a political movement."

"Killing al-Baghdadi would be a significant step to degrade or destroy ISIS, but it would have to be accompanied by other significant military and social-media efforts that would continue even after his death. His assassination should be part of the offensive to destroy these extremists, not an end in itself."

"It would be like chicken soup—it couldn't hurt. Strong leaders have various rare attributes: the ability to inspire, the ability to organize and execute, the ability to engaged in varied types of operations. They are not easily replaced. And while ISIS is more ideologically oriented and certainly not dependent on al-Baghdadi, he is a rare combination in the Arab world, an ideologue with disciplined military skills."

"Really impossible to know. Sometimes decapitation leads to a more virulent and fragmented group."

"Won't end the threat, but since mysticism is a big part of a religious fundamentalist movement, it would strike a blow at the assumption that they are invincible. Downside: makes a martyr of him."

"It would be a symbolic victory but would also make him a martyr like Osama bin Laden. There are leaders waiting in the wings to head up ISIL in the event of his demise."

"A charismatic leader's demise is meaningful, but won't address the 'strategic error' (Brent Scowcroft's words) of trying to reorder the Iraqi political establishment. The grievance is there."

No

"Decapitation strategies are inconclusive. Could also backfire by generating more rage and making him a martyr."

"The jihadi bench is deep—we should not delude ourselves that killing one person will make a difference."

"This is not a matter of personalities. They will merely pick another leader if we kill him."

"Degrade, maybe. Destroy, definitely not. There are others waiting in the wings."

"The IS is a hydra. Cutting one head off leaves many others."

"No. The more we kill they more they seem to recruit, so it will probably just serve to recruit more members."

"It might be, but there's been a lot of outside help IS has gotten that is likely to continue with or without Baghdadi."

"This group is much less dependent on a 'leader.' It has much better infrastructure than AQ."

"We concentrate too much on the killing of the one leader and expecting collapse. Would it hurt? Yes. Would it stop them? No. A more comprehensive program of rooting out leadership is needed. Also, we simply must have boots on the ground to do the proper job of defeating ISIL."

"Not likely, because of the uncertainty about how ISIS is structured. There may be others already waiting in the wings who can step in, or their movement could fracture into many other cells, in which case we will need to track many more organizations."

Is the U.S. operation in Iraq and Syria experiencing mission creep? (53 responses)

Yes: 70 percentNo: 30 percent

Yes

"It will be increasingly hard for the U.S. to separate its advisory and counterterrorism mission in Iraq from morphing into support for the Iraqi government; it will be nearly impossible for the U.S. to avoid some sort of post-Assad stabilization mission in Syria."

"Of course "¦ and that mission creep was fully predictable. It is an outgrowth of a failed minimalist strategy that should have never been implemented in the first place. We should have gone in big and fast, with no apologies. Now, mission creep has become inevitable as we belatedly realize that only our leadership has a hope of minimizing ISIS's advance."

"The U.S. keeps changing and broadening the strategy against ISIL and now must develop a comprehensive plan to address Iraq and Assad in Syria at the same time as ISIL does not recognize borders."

"But what did you expect the result to be from an administration that keeps setting magically fluid red lines and pulling the proverbial rug out from underneath the Baghdad government?"

"Mission creep is what America does."

"Without a clear goal that is feasible and realistic, we will continue to expand our activities in an effort to 'do something, do anything' until we stumble on to the right answer. The administration is very short-sighted on this issue, which contributed to the region falling into this mess in the first place."

"It is, but all parties seem to be aware of and signing up for it."

"Not mission creep so much as the inevitable pull of forces that cannot be denied."

"There is no way to avoid mission creep—evaluating combat at the front, battlefield advice to the Iraqis, and spotting targets lead inexorably to mission creep."

"Mission creep became a pejorative after Vietnam but it's oftentimes just the result of dynamic conflict. Not necessarily good or bad. In this case, the desires the administration being overridden by the cold reality of ISIS and the Arab world."

"Yes, but in this case, mission creep is a necessity."

"But that's a good thing. An effort that is justified but could be limited by self-imposed, artificial restrictions that just prolong the fight and prevent accomplishment of the goal in the quickest time possible is counterproductive. Mission creep is not 100% a bad thing unless it happens in an unknowing or accidental fashion. One thing you can say for this administration, they are showing a real reluctance to expand this mission, and they won't do it without a thought out objective. If anything, they have been too cautious and tentative."

"The U.S. has taken on a role that will be termed a failure unless the mission creeps up to nation-building."

"This process is moving steadily toward reintroduction of U.S. ground combat forces."

"We will soon be up to 3,000 troops, and more will be needed to train the Iraqi Army and Syrian opposition, as well as to provide on-the-ground spotters for aircraft sorties. With OCO money available, troop levels will shoot up."

"With more to come."

"Yes, but very slowly. I expect the pace will accelerate."

No

"But we are finally beginning to resource the mission the president assigned the military."

"Hard to say 'mission creep' when the administration can't define the mission in the first place."

"There is no coherent mission."

"No, because to have mission creep, you need a mission to begin with. In the case of our approach to Iraq and Syria, under Obama, we see tactics but not a strategy—not a mission. He doesn't act until politics force his hand, then he throw things at the wall without defining his strategy or planning the overall mission. Remember the Lord's Resistance Army? We threw 'military advisors' at them and they're still there. Remember Boko Haram and 'bring back our girls?' Still there. Same thing seems to be happening with the men and women we're throwing against ISIS."

"I think it would be more accurate to call it mission failure."

"The mission is to defeat ISIS, hence no "¦ "

"The mission is the same—only the means to accomplish it are changing."

"Not yet, but some mission creep is inevitable as results show more U.S. direct engagement is needed to achieve desired effects."

"We need to get U.S. Special Operations Forces embedded with Iraqi Security Forces yesterday—then start building Syrian units."

"We should stop obsessing about numbers of ground troops and start focusing on a long-term approach and what is actually required. May require a few more troops, but either way there are no quick fixes."

National Journal's National Security Insiders Poll is a periodic survey of more than 100 defense and foreign policy experts. They include: Gordon Adams, Charles Allen, Michael Allen, Thad Allen, Graham Allison, James Bamford, David Barno, Milt Bearden, Peter Bergen, Samuel "Sandy" Berger, David Berteau, Stephen Biddle, Nancy Birdsall, Marion Blakey, Kit Bond, Stuart Bowen, Mike Breen, Paula Broadwell, Mark Brunner, Nicholas Burns, Dan Byman, James Jay Carafano, Phillip Carter, Wendy Chamberlin, Michael Chertoff, Frank Cilluffo, James Clad, Richard Clarke, Steve Clemons, Joseph Collins, William Courtney, Lorne Craner, Roger Cressey, Gregory Dahlberg, Robert Danin, Richard Danzig, Janine Davidson, Daniel Drezner, Mackenzie Eaglen, Paul Eaton, Andrew Exum, Eric Farnsworth, Jacques Gansler, Stephen Ganyard, Daniel Goure, Mark Green, Mike Green, Mark Gunzinger, John Hamre, Jim Harper, Todd Harrison, Marty Hauser, Michael Hayden, Michael Herson, Pete Hoekstra, Bruce Hoffman, Paul Hughes, Mark Jackson, Colin Kahl, Donald Kerrick, Rachel Kleinfeld, Lawrence Korb, Andrew Krepinevich, Charlie Kupchan, W. Patrick Lang, Cedric Leighton, Michael Leiter, James Lindsay, Justin Logan, Trent Lott, Peter Mansoor, Ronald Marks, Brian McCaffrey, Steven Metz, Franklin Miller, Michael Morell, Philip Mudd, John Nagl, Shuja Nawaz, Kevin Nealer, Michael Oates, Thomas Pickering, Paul Pillar, Larry Prior, Stephen Rademaker, Marc Raimondi, Celina Realuyo, Barry Rhoads, Wilhelm Richard, Bruce Riedel, Marc Rotenberg, Frank Ruggiero, Gary Samore, Kori Schake, Mark Schneider, Tammy Schultz, John Scofield, Stephen Sestanovich, Sarah Sewall, Matthew Sherman, Jennifer Sims, Suzanne Spaulding, James Stavridis, Constanze Stelzenmüller, Ted Stroup, Guy Swan, Frances Townsend, Mick Trainor, Tamara Wittes, Dov Zakheim, and Juan Zarate.

 

This article is from the archive of our partner National Journal.

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