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.