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Tactical Partnerships for Strategic Effects: Recent Experiences of U.S. Forces Working By, With, and Through Surrogates in Syria and Libya

By Kim Cragin Journal of Defense Studies

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CJTF-OIR
A Special Forces Soldier conducts weapons training with partner forces on a range in Southwest Asia, Sept. 2, 2019. In conjunction with partner forces, Combined Joint Task Force – Operation Inherent Resolve defeats Daesh in designated areas of Iraq and Syria and sets conditions for follow-on operations to increase regional stability. (U.S. Army photo by Sgt. Kyle Alvarez)
CJTF-OIR
190902-A-OC000-0116
A Special Forces Soldier conducts weapons training with partner forces on a range in Southwest Asia, Sept. 2, 2019. In conjunction with partner forces, Combined Joint Task Force – Operation Inherent Resolve defeats Daesh in designated areas of Iraq and Syria and sets conditions for follow-on operations to increase regional stability. (U.S. Army photo by Sgt. Kyle Alvarez)
Photo By: Sgt. Kyle Alvarez
VIRIN: 190902-A-OC000-0116

The Islamic State (IS) ruled over 11 million people at the height of its power. It also orchestrated over 250 terrorist attacks against the West. Thus, by any measure, IS surpassed the ambitions held by its predecessor al-Qaeda. Yet the United States (US) did not deploy tens of thousands of troops to confront it. It instead used surrogate forces to evict IS from its strongholds. Drawing on interviews with senior policymakers, diplomats, and military officials with knowledge of Operations Inherent Resolve in Syria and Odyssey Lightning in Libya, this paper confronts commonly-held perspectives on the “by, with, through” approach to warfare. It argues that will-to-fight and skillset play important roles in US military partnerships with irregular forces. Nevertheless, these two characteristics alone cannot overcome interference by other nation-states. To be successful, these partnerships should either be limited to short-term objectives or the US and allied forces should be prepared to deter opposition to their surrogates over the medium-to-long term.

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Dr. Kim Cragin is a Senior Research Fellow at the Institute for National Strategic Studies, Center for Strategic Research at National Defense University.