Why the Islamic State is Winning

Today’s headlines bring word of some sort of ceasefire, or at least modus vivendi, between the Islamic State (*Da’ish) and Al-Qa’ida (AQ) in Syria, where the Salafi jihadists have been bitter enemies, fighting each other often more than the Assad regime which they both seek to overthrow. While it would be unwise to think this is more than a tactical allliance, any rapprochement between Da’ish and AQ is an important development that has worrisome implications for their mutual enemies.

This is particularly the case because the U.S.-led campaign to prevent Da’ish from taking over more of Syria and Iraq than the fanatical group already controls is going poorly, to be charitable. The belatedly named Operation INHERENT RESOLVE has been underway for over three months already and its accomplishments are few. Beyond some individually impressive airstrikes on Da’ish targets, there is less here than meets the eye, strategically speaking. In terms of operational tempo and coordination of objectives, what the United States and its allies are doing via air falls well short of an actual strategic air campaign, as has been obvious for some time, and stands little chance of blunting the grave Da’ish threat to both Syria and Iraq anytime soon. Dropping some bombs does not a strategic air campaign make, as the Obama White House seems to be grasping rather late.

Small wonder, then, that today we have news of Da’ish leadership, supposedly the “caliph” Abu Bakr al-Baghdadi — who may, or may not, have been gravely injured in a recent U.S. airstrike — taunting the American-led war against the group as “terrified, weak and powerless.” To make matters worse, Da’ish is proving adept at minimizing the impact of U.S. intelligence; specifically its communications security is showing worrisome signs of having a learning curve that will blunt the power of American SIGINT, which is always our leading source of intelligence around the world. One U.S. intelligence official noted that Da’ish “likely learned a lot from recent unauthorized disclosures,” an oblique reference to the on-going Snowden Operation, the largest leak in intelligence history, which hit Western SIGINT like a locomotive. The bottom line is that shortfalls in intelligence are rendering our already inadequate air war against Da’ish even less effective than it could be.

Then there is the far from trivial matter of confusion in Washington, DC, about what exactly Operation INHERENT RESOLVE is supposed to achieve. Reports this week reveal that the Pentagon cannot decide internally just what its new Iraq war is trying to do, while coordination with the White House, and particularly Obama’s deeply troubled National Security Council, falls short of the abysmal standards of civil-military relations set by the Johnson Administration during their failed war in Vietnam. Also as in the late 1960s, Pentagon displeasure at NSC micromanagement of the air war, particularly by the unpleasant and unqualified National Security Adviser Susan Rice, has leaked into the media in impressive, and depressing, detail.

To make matters worse, the current American strategy to defeat Da’ish, inasmuch as it exists at all, is based on the assumption that the United States and its allies will bring airpower to act as the hammer to crush Da’ish on the anvil of the Iraqi military. That force, created at enormous expense in American time, talent and treasure over the past decade, is frankly a joke. Yesterday, Joint Chiefs Chairman General Martin Dempsey explained the requirement concisely“We’re going to need about 80,000 competent Iraqi security forces to recapture territory lost, and eventually the city of Mosul, to restore the border.” Regrettably, Baghdad has nowhere near that many “competent” troops, despite the expenditure of billions of U.S. dollars to that end. In reality, the Iraqi military has roughly nine serviceable brigades, a bit more than 20,000 battle-ready troops who can be relied upon to confront Da’ish with any hope of success — and even that may be an optimistic estimate. Without a significant injection of American military advisors down to the battalion level in the Iraqi Army, there seems little hope that Bahgdad can push Da’ish back in a strategic manner, no matter how many bombs we drop. American taxpayers ought to have many questions about all this, having been told for years that their money had bought a decent military for Iraq.

Some have called for the introduction of U.S. ground forces to defeat Da’ish. While there is little doubt that this would work, at least temporarily — it would require something like two to three heavy divisions to get the job done, however, a considerable force — that it is being pushed by the very same strategically illiterate neocon cheerleaders who got everything wrong about Iraq since 2003 should tell you a lot about the quality of their analysis. Moreover, there is no reason to think that introducing U.S. ground forces into Iraq in large numbers will produce outcomes any different than they did a decade ago: tactical victories leading to no discernible strategic wins, which amounts to the same thing as defeat.

Recently retired Army Lieutenant General Daniel Bolger is causing a stir by pointing out the obvious yet painful truth that, in any strategic sense, the United States has been defeated in both its wars in the Greater Middle East since 2001. His new book, aptly named Why We Lost, is causing upset yet is sparking a debate that must happen (you can get a teaser of his views here). While I am not in full agreement with Bolger’s argument, it reveals realities that have been largely kept from the American public, specifically that generalship in both Afghanistan and Iraq has been deeply flawed, and that the Pentagon invested in impossible strategic goals in both countries. Bolger helpfully demolishes the Petraeus legend (like Petraeus, Bolger is a soldier with a Ph.D.; unlike Petraeus, Bolger is a serious and much-published scholar), which ought to have the salutary effect of blunting the peculiar and pernicious myth, beloved by neocons, that the U.S. military won in Iraq only to be sold out by Washington, DC. This “stab in the back” legend is toxic, though easily found inside the Beltway, and Bolger’s work, which has been preceded by equally trenchant analysis showing the essential fraudulence of Petraeus’s vaunted Surge, ought to have a cleansing effect on American discussions of our realistic strategic options in the Middle East.

The U.S. military is quite capable of defeating almost any adversary on the battlefield, even Da’ish, though that is not the same thing as producing lasting political outcomes that Americans will like. This is particularly true in the Greater Middle East, where the politico-cultural barriers to Westernization delivered by the barrel of a gun are steep and strong. Over the last decade, multiple approaches have been tried: in Afghanistan and Iraq, a U.S. “heavy” footprint was applied while in Libya a “lead from behind” air coalition employing locals as the ground force (not unlike what we hope to do in Iraq now) sufficed to overthrow the Qaddafi regime. All these countries are violent basket-cases now.

On the essential fraudulence of the “counterinsurgency” myth that was peddled to the American public during George W. Bush’s second term I don’t have much to add to what other scholars have already said. The “COIN” agenda proved effective at promoting the careers and fortunes of some U.S. Army officers and their think-tank hangers-on, yet quite ineffective at producing strategic victory. It is now time, indeed long overdue, to dispense with magical thinking about what the application of American military power might achieve in any lasting strategic or political sense in the Middle East.

To be blunt, we kill very effectively but we have precious little understanding of how to transform Muslim societies by force. Indeed, our efforts in that direction usually produce opposite outcomes, which should be easily predictable were we not besotted by lies about how others view us and what we seek to achieve. It is dangerously easy, when ensconced in the Pentagon or White House bubble of endless PowerPoints and meetings, to believe entirely untrue things. This is a strategic deception that is painful because it is entirely self-inflicted.

Simply put, we have no ability to change Muslim societies unless we are willing to stay the long haul and are eager to kill staggering numbers of people, many of them civilians, in horrible ways. And even then, lasting victory is far from certain. In the 1950’s, France crushed the Algerian insurgency tactically through methods that no Western state would approve today — massive internment of civilians, indiscriminate killings, and torture on an industrial scale — and still failed to strategically defeat the local resistance, thanks in no small part to global disgust at what France was doing in Algeria. And this was a country that France had occupied for well over a century and its military knew intimately. (One of the more ridiculous facets of the Petraeus-led COIN mafia was their citation of France’s 1954-62 war in Algeria as a model of any sort to emulate, but how they out-cherry-picked Cheney to make their ahistorical arguments is, alas, another story.)

The bad news I have to share with you is that the last time any Western effort to strategically defeat an uprising in the Middle East, meaning crushing it and bringing some sort of lasting peace, was in the early 1930’s, over eighty years ago. The worse news is it was Fascist Italy pacifying its Libyan colony with horrifying force.

Italy had occupied Libya since 1911-12, when it grabbed it from the ailing Ottoman Empire, and Rome periodically crushed small-scale rebellions there. By the late 1920’s, however, the Italians faced a serious uprising, led by the wily Sheikh Omar Mukhtar, a gifted rebel leader. To crush this revolt, Mussolini dispatched General Rodolfo Graziani with a mandate to exert Fascist control over Libya using all means necessary. This Graziani did, employing armor, artillery, and airplanes, some carrying chemical bombs, to kill everybody moving in rebel-held areas. Moreover, the Italians interned the entire civilian population in many places, some 100,000 people, mainly women and children, of whom forty percent died from disease and malnutrition. Mukhtar was captured by the Italians in 1931, his rebel army having been ground to pieces, and was executed in public. By the next year, Rome had pacified Libya, thanks to outreach to the defeated rebels, and the country was at peace, as it would remain until the Second World War. That many Libyans fought for Fascist Italy against the British in that war says something about Italian acumen in suppressing rebellions — although, needless to add, Graziani is considered a war criminal today, as he certainly was by our current standards.

Simply put, no Western country today would approve the use of almost any of the methods that Italy applied in Libya. Indeed, as I’ve explained previously, even Putin’s Russia has cleaned up its act in this regard. No state in the 21st century that does not wish to be a global pariah can employ tactics that would actually be effective in suppressing the sorts of uprisings that are now endemic in Iraq, Syria, and Libya — and are likely spreading across the Middle East right now. Unless the fate of one’s country is directly at stake, killing lots of civilians and applying brute force on a massive scale is simply off the table. The sooner we accept this fact, the sooner we can have an honest and reality-based debate about what can be achieved by force of arms in the Middle East.

Nearly three months ago, I explained how airpower should be applied to gradually defeat Da’ish, and I stick by my recommendations. We can still win this one, in the sense that we can prevent Da’ish fanatics from taking over more of the Middle East than they already have. Eventually, they will implode thanks to their own toxic radicalism. Additionally, my recommendations on how to slowly, deeply defeat Da’ish through aggressive offensive counterintelligence, strategically applied, still stand. Regrettably, I see no signs that any of this is happening. Instead, our efforts to defeat Da’ish are ailing, and this is a fight we cannot afford to lose. A necessary first step is having a genuine debate about what our military can — and cannot — achieve in Iraq and Syria.

*Da’ish is considered pejorative and is disliked by the Islamic State, so by all means let’s use it.


19 comments on “Why the Islamic State is Winning”
  1. Not George Sabra says:

    Reports of Daesh-AQ kiss-and-makeup are mistaken. This is a video from Nov. 13 of Jaysh al-Muhajirin wal-Ansar leader (Salahuddin Shishani) reaffirming that Daesh views AQ as kuffar and that they reject any truce (this guy travelled to Raqqa to broker a truce between them [Jabhat al-Nusra asked him to do this]) https://www.youtube.com/watch?v=MHhQQR9pZNY.

    That said, the danger of Daesh-AQ uniting in some fashion is real and is the logical result of Obama’s strategically inane and self-defeating decision to hit Jabhat al-Nusra (and now Ahrar al-Sham) with airstrikes while withholding stepped up arms and support to the moderate rebels on the ground who are bearing the brunt of AQ’s counter-attacks to the strikes.

    1. Not George Sabra says:

      Some are claiming that ISIS sleeper cells have infiltrated Jabhat al-Nusra and its leadership, which to my mind is at least plausible unlike the “AQ-ISIS merger” narrative coming from CNN and co. http://www.mcclatchydc.com/2014/11/13/246801_moderate-syrian-rebels-say-us.html?rh=1

  2. Attitudes change easier than capabilities do…

  3. sel says:

    Very interesting.

    One question: I’ve read quite a bit of what you’ve written (here and via twitter), but I don’t think I’ve ever seen you discuss Middle Eastern issues in Bill Lind’s Fourth Generation War context.

    Are you not a fan of that framework, or do you not think it properly applies to why we can’t win in the Middle East?

    1. 20committee says:

      I think 4GW framework can be useful — though I the Hammes iteration is far more relevant than Lind’s — but it is not a total explanation of reality. In warfare, I think there is very little new under the sun outside the merely technological realm.

  4. Andraz says:

    Thanks for the great article.
    I would like to add tribes and families also play an important role – in most of the ME countries they represent huge influence over geographical areas, and that helps with gaining the local support, checking the sentiment, and gathering intelligence. They settle their own disputes and run their own economies as they see just and fair. Just look at the elections in the area – even in Egypt it is all interconnected through seats in the parliament and positions in the bureaucracy. When tribal-family factor experiences grievances with central governments or worse – they feel sidelined, then it can become a breeding ground for jihadi insurgence.
    I think that was one of the reasons for successful insurgencies in Iraq and Syria. You can’t just bring in democratic elections thinking all will be just fine due to the high levels of corruption in the area. It would probably be better for the US to just seize the oil proceeds in Iraq and try to control their distribution as much as not let the Sunni tribes feel sidelined. Sacking all the ex-forces was also a mistake because they new the country well – ‘after WWII japanisation’ type of occupation would probably work much better. Now I believe the biggest benefactor in the area is China.
    May I stress another issue – it doesn’t help flirting around with Iran when bombing the area because that will not help get Sunni locals on your side – they pretty much see Damascus and Baghdad as colonies of Iran.
    And last – the US should stop cooling its relationships with long time allies such as Egypt, KSA, Israel, etc. because you need their support. Regarding Egypt – the US government has failed in every aspect to assess the situation correctly in the last years, bringing the relationship to the lowest point. Especially this summer when Egypt, KSA, and UAE cooled their relationships with Hamas. I thought that was a great opportunity for the West to exploit however it miserably failed.

    I am sorry for two long comments in two days – not trolling.

    With best regards.


  5. Phineas Fahrquar says:

    Reblogged this on Public Secrets and commented:
    Some needed hard words from XX Committee. if we don’t get our heads on straight, we’re going to let these refugees from the 7th century win.

  6. genomega1 says:

    Reblogged this on News You May Have Missed and commented:
    Why the #Islamic #State is Winning

  7. Blackshoe says:

    Interestingly, I can think of one country outside the Middle East that also managed to finish off an insurgency recently: Sri Lanka, and they were brutal in doing so as well.

    1. 20committee says:

      Quite correct — and quite brutal they were; it worked.

  8. c6543 says:

    ” Unless the fate of one’s country is directly at stake, killing lots of civilians and applying brute force on a massive scale is simply off the table.”

    The bad news I have to share with you is that, thanks to the Operatsya Multikulturnaya, the fate of all Europe is now at stake, which, I guess, was exactly what it was all about all along. Though, of course we should still avoid killing civilians, but som cordoning off is certainly absolutely necessary.

    Also discouraging is the news that France’s 150 year long adventure in Algeria only started after centuries long and increasing pirate attacks on civilian shipping made the situation in the Mediterranean absolutely unbearable and intolerable. Does it sound familiar? It is.

    Not trolling either.

  9. Steve Manning says:

    Thank you for this insightful analysis. It’s reassuring to know “drain the swap” techniques used since forever in warfare of all peoples, and unmentioned by our leaders and war colleges today, are not forgotten. It’s also good that things for us would have to get so bad for us to use these techniques as we are probably more peaceful and civil civilizations as a result of this reluctance.

    But yeah – Obama and his crew take it too far. Spooky gun ships should be hovering IS territory 24/7 eliminating targets, air strikes and drones increased by an order on magnitude, etc. Basically let the generals do their job of destroying Daesh as president said he would do. Obama has Salafi sympathizers in his office often enough though so this probably contributes to his reluctance to unleash our full air power and decided to pass the buck to 2017 when adults will come in power. His personality is one that just wants to get along with everyone and pleases no one I think and leads to perceived MIA decision making.

    1. 20committee says:

      Thanks for your kind words.

  10. A.I.Schmelzer says:

    DAESH has a couple of other advantadges going for them.

    First, one should remember that their massacres have 2 distinct reasons. First, they spread fear and Terror among their adversaries, but they also burn any bridges back into civilization that a DAESH fighter may possess. Massacre wise, they actually arent that exceptional, what is exceptional is the self documentation of them.
    This makes DAESH a very diverse force, that can thus draw mix-and-match from very distinct operational histories (Chechen tactics differ from tactics used in Syria against Assad and also differ form tactics in Iraq used against US troops).
    Second, the alliance(s) against them are disadvantadges by being to big and being to heterogenous. History has 2 Major examples in which “Grand coalitions” failed to take down their intended target because the individual coalition nations played an extended game of buck passing, waiting on their “Partners” to suffer the costs from bringing down the target while maintaining their own Forces to be better able of influencing the post war Situation.

    Situation one was the 7 year war in Europe. Prussia faced a huge coalition involving the other German states and 3 Great powers. Simplified, the Saxon General waited on the Bavarian HRE General, who waited on the Austrian, who waited on the French, who waited on the Russian. Meanwhile, Frederick the second assembled his army into one wrecking ball and managed to defeat several of his enemies in detail. Even when that didnt quite work against the Russians, the rest of the coalition was not very keen on Russia winning that by herself. Fate of course also intervened.

    Situation 2 was the Russian civil War. With only Nestor Makhnos Black army as a “on and off” “ally”, the Red army was faced with the various White armies, Seperatists from non Makhno-Ukraine, the Baltic states and from central Asia, the Germans, the Entente powers, Japan, the USA, the Czech Legion and a certain nutcase who thought that he is Dschingis Khan reborn.
    What happened was a repeat of the second year war. Using the fact that their enemies where anything but united and coordinated, the Red leadership successfully managed to create a “wrecking ball” out of their armies and utilized internal lines of communication and mobility to defeat/crush its foes in Detail. When this didnt work (Poland) they settled for temprarily disadvantadgeous seperate peace terms. In Polands case they also successfully managed to turn the Poles against the Ukrainians.

    Daesh is facing a “coalition” of Iran, the USA, Russia, the Iraqi State, Iraqi Shia militias, the Assad Regime, some Gulf Arabs, various Kurdish factions and propably some other actors I am forgetting about at the Moment. Compared to that, the coalitions that faced the Prussians or the Bolsheviks were completely homogenous and easy to manage.

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