Conflict simulation, peacebuilding, and development

Daily Archives: 15/07/2015

ISW wargames international responses to ISIS global strategy

Wargame report cover_0The Institute for the Study of War has released a report on two wargames it conducted earlier this year that examined the global expansion of ISIS activities and the possible response of the US, European, and regional actors.

ISW’s simulation focused on possible outcomes of ISIS’s regional activity. The anti-ISIS coalition is currently focused on ISIS only within Iraq and Syria. Therefore the U.S. is vulnerable to strategic surprise resulting from ISIS’s external activity. ISIS has the potential to pressure and divert allies that are critical to the U.S.-led coalition’s efforts, while continuing its own expansion program. Simulating the effects of ISIS’s endeavor in advance revealed insights that will assist in the creation of a coherent counter-ISIS strategy, rather than a piecemeal strategy formulated as crises occur.


  • ISIS likely will expand regionally and project force globally in the medium term
  • Few countries are willing or able to counter ISIS as a global phenomenon. No simulation participants took multi-front action to limit ISIS’s regional expansion, even though most participants opposed ISIS. This was true even of al Qaeda
  • Avoiding or delaying action against ISIS will not necessarily preserve strategic options in the future. Instead, U.S. strategic options may narrow as adversaries grow in strength and potential allies suffer losses and turn to other partners. Participants did not consider that smaller, early action might prevent the need for more drastic steps later on. Simula­tion participants expressed concern about overreach and unwittingly playing into sectarian conflicts. However, partici­pants did not recognize that their inaction might also play into those conflicts
  • The military planners in the simulation perceived that the United States does not have enough armed forces to undertake a multi-theater campaign to degrade and defeat ISIS on its own. The U.S. therefore must choose between increasing its armed forces, relying on coalition partners to achieve the defined mission, or changing the defined mission against ISIS
  • The U.S. must define the global counter-ISIS mission, and then determine the nested objectives for ISIS and each of its affiliates in support of that mission
  • In the absence of an explicit strategy to counter ISIS’s regional expansion, the U.S. and its allies likely will rely on stable and semi-stable states, such as Saudi Arabia, Egypt, Jordan, Tunisia, Algeria, and Morocco. In both simulations the U.S. team’s implicit long-term strategy was to contain regional chaos as best possible through these partners, rather than adopt a campaign against extremist groups directly
  • ISIS has an asymmetric advantage because it can project force from disparate regions, potentially exploiting fissures between multiple international organizations and U.S. combatant commands
  • ISIS’s Near Abroad and Far Abroad campaigns likely will exacerbate cleavages amongst European actors, leading to interstate and intrastate divergences on security approaches and prioritization of threats
  • Turkey, Russia, and Egypt each have a disproportionate ability to spoil or facilitate counter-ISIS strategies devised by the U.S
  • The U.S. risks strategic failure even if ISIS does not attempt coherent action across global fronts. The campaigns of ISIS’s affiliates and supporters across multiple regions may distract and divide the U.S.’s allies and resources, as may other conflicts such as the one in Ukraine
  • ISIS’s global campaign likely will increase policymakers’ tolerance of frequent, high-level, and widespread violent events, creating opportunities for the United States’ adversaries
  • The U.S. and its allies cannot conduct counter-ISIS operations without considering the context of other extremist forces in the region. A strategy focused on ISIS alone likely will allow other radical actors to thrive.

ISW does some very good work on the current conflicts in Iraq and Syria, so the report is well worth a look. As a Middle East specialist who has periodically worked on ISIS issues in an analytical capacity and who has frequently wargamed the “ISIS Crisis,” I was particularly interested in what they had to say, and how they conducted the game. ISW previously conducted a wargame on the civil war in Syria back in 2012. At the time, I was somewhat critical of the way in which that game was conducted and aspects of the final report. Credit where credit is due, however: ISW did accurately point to the dangers of conflict spill-over from Syria into Iraq—exactly the dynamic that has subsequently given rise to ISIS.

In this case, there is a little more information on the game methodology, which is helpful in assessing the findings. Both games were two-move seminar games, in which the teams were given a scenario (+injects), and then proposed actions. These were then partly reflected in turn 2.


As noted in the summary above, a key finding of the wargame was the need for a more coherent global counter-ISIS strategy. I don’t disagree—coherence is a good thing—but it isn’t clear to me whether a “more coherent” strategy would look all that much different from what the US and its allies are doing at present. This is, in large part, because the key stakeholders do not have identical interests. This presents the US with almost insoluble dilemmas—for example, cultivating Egypt as a key counter-jihadist ally is severely complicated by the fact the Egypt’s repression of the more moderate Muslim Brotherhood undoubtedly spurs jihadist radicalization. In other words, I think the degree of coherence that can be expected is limited, and at a certain point an effort to achieve unachievable strategic elegance becomes a waste of valuable time and effort. You go to war with the coalitions and constraints you have, not those you might wish for.

Complicating things still further, the efficacy of various policy options against ISIS isn’t clear either—in real life that is, much less in any simulation. Does the US have many military options that would significantly degrade ISIS at reasonable cost and reasonable risk, and also be acceptable to Congress and the American public? I’m not sure that it does.

Finally, I worry that the games conducted by ISW failed to sufficiently incorporate domestic politics in the key affected countries. A key part of some of the scenarios, for example, were developments in Libya. However, exploring this requires that conflicting Libyan actors be represented in the game too—especially given the extent to which ISIS has grown amid the chaos of clashes between the country’s two would-be governments, various “none of the above” Islamist groups, and sundry other armed actors. Indeed, one of the key findings from our own series of ISIS games has been that self-interested locals often stymie efforts by outside actors to support effective action against ISIS.

On the positive side, I do think ISW is absolutely right to represent ISIS as a major global threat to international peace and security. They are very scary people indeed, and the fight to degrade the organization will take many years of difficult effort.

How does the seminar wargame methodology chosen by ISW compared with the “matrix game” approach we’ve used in our ISIL wargames? On the one hand, a seminar game does allow for considered discussion and development of strategy. On the other hand, it allows far less adversarial interaction and adaption, especially when only two weakly-linked moves are involved. In a seminar game, debates over the efficacy of actions are largely confined to the white cell during the adjudication process (and it isn’t clear to what extent player actions really did reshape “move two” in the ISW games). In a matrix game, however, they become a centrepiece of game play, with participants directly involved in identifying and discussing factors that might inhibit or enable a particular course of action. Smaller matrix games may be more strongly affected by personality, gaming style and other idiosyncratic factors than larger seminar games. However, I think a matrix game more fully captures the challenges of policy-making in a dynamic and uncertain world.

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UPDATE: The Atlantic Council has also conducted a couple of ISIS wargames, in September 2014 and February 2015. For some discussion of all of these, see a blog post by Charles Cameron at ZenPundit.



Today we received the first production copy of AFTERSHOCK: A Humanitarian Crisis Game from Game Crafter. As you can see from the video below, it came out very well indeed–all of the components are crisp, clear, and nicely printed on good-quality stock.

The game will be available for order in the next few days. We will, of course, announce that here on PAXsims—then you’ll all be able to buy your own copy!

All net proceeds from the sale of AFTERSHOCK go the the World Food Programme and other UN humanitarian agencies.


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