by Edward Hunt
During its final years in office, the Obama administration has devised a new form of warfare with major implications for how the U.S. government confronts its enemies. With the ability to quickly locate and eliminate potential adversaries with little to no risk to U.S. forces, the Obama administration has begun to eradicate some of its main enemies in a new kind of exterminatory warfare.
So far, the Obama administration has applied its innovation to militant groups throughout the Middle East and the surrounding area. Its primary target has been the Islamic State (ISIS or IS), but it has expanded its campaign to include IS forces in Libya and al-Shabab in Somalia.
Remarkably, administration officials have made no secret of their intentions. Receiving significant cooperation from their allies and facing no serious opposition from the U.S. public, administration officials have confirmed that they intend to eradicate their targets as quickly as possible. They have promised to maintain their operations through the end of their time in office, and they expect to see comparable operations maintained well into the future.
The Goal: Eradicate ISIS
The Obama administration first began to develop its new model of exterminatory warfare in the late summer of 2014 when it faced a significant new challenge from IS. As IS began to acquire control of large parts of Iraq and Syria, the Obama administration began working on a new military approach to confront the militant group and eventually wipe it out.
On September 10, 2014, the day before the 13th anniversary of the 9/11 terrorist attacks, President Obama introduced his administration’s plans in a speech to the nation. From the White House, Obama announced that he had initiated a new military program to “degrade,” “destroy,” and “eradicate” IS. The military campaign “will be waged through a steady, relentless effort to take out ISIL wherever they exist,” he specified. With his remarks, Obama introduced a new military program to completely eliminate IS, saying that he hoped to contribute to a broader trend in world history in which “those who offer only hate and destruction have been vanquished from the Earth.”
In the time since Obama announced the plans, additional officials have articulated similar goals. Although U.S. officials do not typically announce that they are planning to vanquish certain forces from the Earth, a number of administration officials have left no doubt that they intend to completely eradicate IS.
This past June, State Department official Brett McGurk provided the most direct confirmation of the administration’s intentions. After presenting the White House press corps with a map that showed various areas that remained under the control of IS, McGurk stated that “we have to wipe them off this map.”
A few months later, Secretary of State John Kerry made a comparable point. As he worked to put together a new program for the U.S. and Russian governments to work together to target militant groups in Syria, Kerry said that both the United States and Russia “have a mutual interest” in “terminating ISIL/Daesh, as fast as possible.”
Earlier this month, Colonel John Dorrian provided additional confirmation. Speaking to the Pentagon press corps, Dorrian announced that the U.S. government is working to terminate IS forces in the Iraqi city of Mosul, where coalition forces are now battling the militant group. The IS forces “are really the worst people in the world, and they have to be eradicated from Mosul as efficiently and as quickly as possible,” Dorrian stated.
As part of the campaign, U.S. forces have also devastated IS forces to the west of Mosul. ”We’ve conducted various strikes out there,” Lieutenant General Stephen Townsend, the commander of coalition forces, acknowledged in a separate press briefing. “I don’t require a lot of justification for doing that,” he added. “There is ISIL out there that needs killing, so we’re killing them.”
Indeed, U.S. officials are waging a major military campaign to eradicate IS. Arguing that that the militant group poses a special threat to the Middle East and the rest of the world, they have made it their goal to completely eliminate the organization. “We want to wipe ISIL entirely off this map,” McGurk confirmed once again this past week. In other words, U.S. officials have decided to wage exterminatory warfare against IS.
To wage exterminatory warfare against the Islamic State, the Obama administration has employed a number of specific measures. Taking advantage of the extraordinary air power of the U.S. military, the Obama administration has waged an unprecedented air campaign to kill its targets.
The Obama administration has been especially effective at killing IS’s senior leaders. Since its first began its military campaign against IS in August 2014, the Obama administration has killed hundreds of senior leaders, according to U.S. officials. “It’s a short career as a leader in ISIL,” U.S. Colonel Steve Warren acknowledged during a press briefing in March 2016. “You’re not going to last very long. You won’t make it to retirement.” The main reason, Warren specified, is that coalition forces are constantly killing IS leaders as well as their replacements. “We’ll kill them,” Warren stated. In some cases, “we’ve killed–we’ve gone three deep in a position.”
Moreover, U.S. officials insist that they must continue with their assassination program. As new leaders rise to fill the ranks, U.S. officials keep targeting them for elimination. “We must keep systematically eliminating every key leader we find, and we must deny them safe haven wherever they may seek it,” Secretary of Defense Ashton Carter has insisted.
As they have grown increasingly effective at killing IS leaders, administration officials have also grown increasingly confident in their operations. For example, McGurk recently declared that the U.S. government would soon succeed in killing the Islamic State’s “caliph,” Abu Bakr al-Baghdadi. “It’s a matter of time until we eliminate him,” McGurk stated. “His days are very much numbered.” After making his point, McGurk also confirmed that coalition forces would continue with the broader program of assassinating all IS leaders. “And those are things that–operations we don’t always talk about, but that is happening every single day, every single night,” McGurk stated. “When we see their leaders, we make sure that their leaders are eliminated.”
In short, U.S. officials are waging a major assassination program in which they are killing hundreds of IS leaders. Not only have they made it their goal to assassinate all of the current leaders of IS, but they have continuously worked to kill anyone who steps in to replace them. “And as these leaders are replaced, we target and kill their replacements,” McGurk has confirmed.
As U.S. officials have worked to systematically eliminate the Islamic State’s leaders, they have also conducted a far more extensive campaign against the militant organization. Over the past two years, U.S. officials have worked with coalition forces to launch more than 15,000 airstrikes against IS as part of a comprehensive military campaign to systematically kill as many IS fighters as possible.
This past August, Lieutenant General Sean MacFarland described the extent of the campaign during a press briefing that was hosted by the Pentagon. In his statement, MacFarland explained that coalition forces have killed tens of thousands of IS fighters. “We estimate that over the past 11 months we’ve killed about 25,000 enemy fighters,” MacFarland stated. “When you add that to the 20,000 estimated killed prior to our arrival, that’s 45,000 enemy taken off the battlefield.” Moreover, MacFarland noted that it has become increasingly easy to kill IS militants. “We don’t see them operating nearly as effectively as they have in the past,” he noted. The trend “makes them even easier targets for us so as a result they’re attrition has accelerated here of late.”
Continuing with his remarks, MacFarland then shared some of the reasons why IS forces have become such easy targets. For starters, he noted that the group’s leaders have been forcing noncombatants to guard various locations. “They can grab a bunch of people minding their own business off the street, throw them in the back of a pickup truck, and drop them off at a checkpoint with some AKs and say, ‘defend this checkpoint,’” MacFarland explained. “And they’ve done that. We’ve seen them do that in places.” In addition, MacFarland noted that IS leaders have begun to replace fighters with administrative people, who typically have no combat training. “We know that they’ve taken a lot of their administrative folks and pushed them out to the front lines,” MacFarland stated. “They’re not really supposed to be there.” Consequently, MacFarland found that it had become much easier to kill IS targets. “And as soon as they demonstrate hostile intent, then we’ll take them out,” he said.
Through such efforts, U.S. officials have waged a devastating war against the Islamic State. By continually assassinating IS leaders and targeting any IS operatives on the battlefield, including those people who may have been forced into working for the organization, U.S. officials have killed tens of thousands of people and given very real meaning to their promise to eradicate IS.
Extending the Campaign
In fact, the Obama administration has recently begun to extend its campaign to eradicate the Islamic State. Viewing its program against IS in Iraq and Syria as a great success, the Obama administration has expanded its program to target the group’s other branches. This past November, Secretary of Defense Ashton Carter confirmed the move when he noted that “in addition to destroying ISIL in Iraq and Syria, we’re also pursuing and destroying them everywhere else in the world.”
As part of its broader mission, the Obama administration has focused much of its effort on the IS branch in Libya. Since the branch has attracted thousands of IS fighters, the Obama administration has identified the branch as its next major target for elimination. Certainly, “they need to be taken out,” a senior State Department official said earlier this year. “There’s going to be, I think, a substantial effort required to extirpate them entirely.”
In June 2016, the Obama administration then began working to fulfill its objective, using the same model it was using to eradicate IS from Iraq and Syria. “They will eventually all be eliminated,” State Department official McGurk declared in late October 2016, referring to IS fighters in the Libyan city of Sirte. “That’s simply a military proposition and it is a matter of time.” Moreover, McGurk confirmed that coalition forces had already begun to achieve their objectives. “We are removing their leaders from the battlefield one by one and in a quite dramatic fashion,” he noted. In early November, McGurk then confirmed that coalition forces had largely succeeded in their efforts. Currently, “if you look at Sirte, Daesh has almost been entirely eliminated from Sirte,” McGurk observed.
More recently, U.S. Special Envoy for Libya Jonathan M. Winer has also confirmed that coalition forces have largely eliminated their targets. There has been “rapid progress” in the effort “to eradicate ISIL from the city and surrounding areas,” Winer noted in a hearing before members of Congress.
Indeed, the Obama administration has made swift progress in its campaign to eradicate IS fighters in Libya. Although administration officials have not disclosed exactly how many IS fighters have been killed in the operations, they made it clear that coalition forces have quickly eliminated the great bulk of their targets. Ultimately, “it was important to eliminate them” and “we did that,” Secretary of Defense Ashton Carter acknowledged last week.
Applying the Model
Having devised a powerful new model of exterminatory warfare, the Obama administration has also experimented with additional applications. Rather than limiting its new approach to IS and its offshoots, the Obama administration has applied its model to other militant groups around the world.
Earlier this year, the Obama administration provided a powerful signal of its willingness to wage exterminatory warfare against other militant groups when it launched airstrikes against the militant group al-Shabab in Somalia, killing about 150 al-Shabab fighters in a single attack. It was “a very successful strike,” Pentagon Press Secretary Peter Cook announced at the time. Moreover, the strike was quite significant because of the people who were targeted. As The New York Times reported, the strike was “a sharp deviation from previous American strikes, which have concentrated on the group’s leaders, not on its foot soldiers.” In other words, the Obama administration launched the strike to eliminate al-Shabab members that could be seen as having hostile intent, just as it has been doing in Iraq and Syria.
More recently, administration officials have also confirmed that they harbor much greater ambitions for their mission in Somalia. No longer willing to tolerate the existence of al-Shabab in the country, they have concluded that they must eradicate the group. “We’ve got a major planned offensive to really sort of, I hope, terminate the al-Shabaab challenge in Somalia,” Secretary of State John Kerry confirmed this past September.
In fact, the offensive has already begun. As The New York Times has disclosed in a series of recent reports, coalition forces have been steadily escalating their ongoing military operations against al-Shabab over the past year, mainly by using the same tactics that have been used against IS and its offshoots. In other words, the Obama administration is now applying its new model of exterminatory warfare to al-Shabab, demonstrating its willingness to apply its approach to other militant groups around the world.
The Long-Term Outlook
As the Obama administration has devised and implemented its new model of exterminatory warfare, it has also made it clear that the U.S. government is only just beginning to apply the new approach to U.S. enemies. Although the Obama administration insists that its current targets will soon be eliminated, it expects that the U.S. government will continue to wage similar kinds of warfare well into the future.
For the most part, administration officials have based their predictions on their expectations for their ongoing military campaign against the Islamic State. Concerned that certain elements of IS might survive the military assault and perhaps even regroup under a new name, administration officials have said that there will continue to be a need to eliminate new threats. President Obama made the point this past August when he announced that “even as we need to crush ISIL on the battlefield, their military defeat will not be enough.” Certain “networks will probably sustain themselves even after ISIL is defeated in Raqqa and Mosul.” In other words, Obama believed that new threats will emerge and will need to be eliminated. Moving forward, “we will dismantle these networks also,” Obama promised.
A few weeks later, U.S. General Joseph L. Votel made a similar point during a press briefing at the Pentagon. In the years ahead, “we will continue to deal with the next evolution of ISIL,” Votel stated. In fact, people should not get “the impression that when we finish with Mosul or Raqqa that we’re done,” he added. “We’re not. We will continue to deal with them.”
More recently, Director of National Intelligence James Clapper has made the same prediction. After noting in a talk at the Council on Foreign Relations that IS will probably “morph into something else or other similar extremist groups will be spawned,” Clapper argued that the U.S. government would continue working to confront the new threats. “And I believe we’re going to be in the business of suppressing these extremist movements for a long time to come,” Clapper noted.
In short, officials in the Obama administration largely agree that the U.S. government has only just begun applying the administratin’s new form of exterminatory warfare to militant groups around the world. Administration officials may insist that they are going to eliminate IS and other militant groups, but they also expect that their operations will spawn new groups that will need to be confronted in similar ways.
The Final Factor
Of course, the architects of the new exterminatory warfare have also had to deal with one additional factor that they had not initially expected: the victory of Donald Trump in the recent presidential election. Currently, it is unclear how the incoming Trump administration will proceed with the ongoing wars of eradication.
Certainly, Trump has signaled that he intends to direct similar operations against U.S. enemies. During the presidential campaign, Trump pledged in a radio commercial to “quickly and decisively bomb the hell out of ISIS.” Moreover, Trump has appeared more than willing to escalate military operations. In contrast to the Obama administration, which has primarily worked to eradicate the leaders and fighters of its targets, Trump has suggested that it will be necessary to eliminate the family members as well. “You have to take out their families,” Trump insisted.
Trump has since clarified his remarks, saying that he only intends to “go after” families and not kill them, but he has also made it clear that he maintains the same overall objective. When he delivered his major policy speech on terrorism this past August, Trump promised to wage major military campaigns to eradicate IS and other militant groups. “My Administration will aggressively pursue joint and coalition military operations to crush and destroy ISIS,” Trump stated. It will also “decimate Al Qaeda,” he added.
Indeed, Trump has indicated that he intends to perpetuate the new form of exterminatory warfare. Although it remains unclear whether Trump will escalate the operations to include families and other civilians, he has criticized Obama for not going far enough, signaling that he intends to implement more aggressive policies. Consequently, it remains likely that the officials in the Obama administration will see their innovation applied and extended under the Trump administration, with the United States waging exterminatory warfare well into the future.
Edward Hunt writes about war and empire. He has a PhD in American Studies from the College of William & Mary.