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

By Major Matt Cavanaugh

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.

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