The Islamic State may be on the ropes, but is certainly not defeated. In an exceedingly rare video that came to light this week, its leader, Abu Bakr al-Baghdadi, shows his face and renews his call for jihad against the terrorist group’s adversaries by calling for, among other efforts, a “battle of attrition.”
This is a classic insurgent strategy of bleeding a better-resourced adversary using a blend of regular and irregular forces to harass and degrade. Over time, the theory goes, the enemy becomes exhausted, frustrated, and loses the will to fight. It’s “winning by not losing” or “the war of the flea.” George Washington employed this strategy to varying degrees; Mao Zedong and others codified it; Gen. Vo Nguyen Giap deployed it against U.S. forces in Vietnam. Today, the Taliban use it against allied forces in Afghanistan.
But the Islamic State’s and al-Qaida’s strategy is likely doomed to fail. Why? Because the U.S. has shown itself willing to expend essentially infinite resources on warring with these terrorist groups. The Stimson Center in 2018 indicated the U.S. spent 16% of its discretionary budget on broadly defined counterterrorism efforts and war-fighting — some $2.8 trillion between fiscal years 2002 and 2017. America sees this as an existential fight, a battle to the death, which strengthens its resolve to wage this battle for the foreseeable future.