ISIS versus ISIL? Both are valid names for the same thing. ISIS stands for Islamic State of Iraq and Syria. ISIL stands for Islamic State of Iraq and the Levant.
As of 16 August 2014
RED = Areas controlled by the Islamic State
GREY = Areas claimed by the Islamic State
Note: map includes uninhabited areas.
Darwinian natural selection plays a major role in armed struggle. The less competent—and the just plain unlucky—tended to get killed off while the survivors become more and more experienced. This is one reason why terrorism is so hard to eliminate—and why veteran soldiers take lower casualties.
Terrorist who survive become extraordinarily skilled. However, once they lose the support of the population, there is very little they can actually do—so you get de facto peace—which is sufficient in this imperfect world for most of us. Also, terrorists—no matter how lucky, experienced, and skilled—age and get tired. Even if they, themselves don’t, those around them do. Fatigue is a great peacemaker and peer pressure should never be under-estimated.
I’m using the word ‘terrorist’ here in a very loose sense to make some wider points while thinking about ISIS. Yes, they are classified as a terrorist organization—by a whole host of countries—but one person’s terrorist is another person’s freedom fighter. ISIS make the whole thing clearer by being a criminal organization as well.
The media have recently awarded ISIS Superman status. Why so?
- They are the most successful opponents of Syria’s President Assad.
- They have routed five or six divisions of the Iraqi Army and seized a good chunk of Iraq including Mosul.
- They have succeeded in pushing back the Kurds on several occasions—though the Kurds have counter-attacked with some success.
Why have ISIS been so successful?
- At their core, they are an extremely experienced organization—and they are ably led.
- Their particular brand of Islamic fundamentalism makes them highly motivated.
- They are exceptionally well resourced and armed.
- Their ruthlessness has made them much feared—a fact they exploit with considerable skill.
- They excel at propaganda.
- They rarely face significant, professional, well armed opposition. Assad’s army is a pale shadow of what it was—and Iraq’s de-motivated forces didn’t even fight. Primarily, they just melted away.
- They practice maneuver warfare. They move, shoot, and communicate at speed, and with skill. This is particularly important. It makes them disproportionately effective.
Who backs them?
- Saudi and other Arab money coming from Islamic extremists even though the Saudi government has declared them a terrorist organization.
- They have a considerable ability to generate their own funding through theft, extortion etc.
How are they vulnerable?
- Their ruthlessness is likely to alienate the local populations in both Syria and Iraq. Though ISIS are Sunni, to be Sunni does not mean that you necessarily support ISIS (or that you will continue to support ISIS even if you have temporarily).
- After they have been defeated militarily in several encounters, they will lose their reputation as being militarily unstoppable.
- They are not that large an organization. Their speed and decisiveness give the impression that there are way more of them than there are.
- If their speed of maneuver is severely curtailed—through air-strikes, for instance—their effectiveness will be severely curtailed.
- Defeating ISIS will help Syria’s President Assad unless an alternative anti-Assad group can step into ISIS’s place.
- Defeating ISIS will help Iran in that Iran is a major backer of Assad.
- The emotional appeal of a caliphate is considerable. ISIS may be able to suffer considerable casualties and still keep its numbers up.
- Left unchecked, they will not only de-stabilize Iraq but much of the Middle East—and the caliphate concept could easily spread to Africa and perhaps even further afield.
- Their brutality alone requires that they be stopped.
- They are not only a terrorist organization, but criminal.
What should we do?
At this stage I had better make it clear that I don’t know enough to come up with specific conclusions. In particular, I have no clear figures of ISIS’s real strength—nor of the strength of other anti-Assad groups in Syria.
Fundamentally, I believe we need to get out of this habit of lurching from one conflict to another—at vast cost in blood and treasure,and, above all, to resist occupying other countries. They don’t like it—no one likes being occupied (we certainly wouldn’t)--and we can’t afford it.
In this case I believe we have to act—mainly by:
- Continuing the air war against ISIS.
- Putting Special Forces on the ground to direct it.
- Arming the Kurds.
The above may not be enough. We may need to insert an expeditionary force (almost certainly with allies). The least worst option may be to defeat both ISIS and Assad—but is there a viable alternative?
Let me close by saying that we need to learn the difference between invading a country (as with Afghanistan and Iraq) and force projection with limited objectives. Both the British and the French have achieved considerable success with very small numbers of troops (such as in Sierra Leone and Mali) whereas we tend to cling to deploying in truly vast numbers.
Small can be effective. It is certainly less costly. We don’t seem to quite know how to do it—except with Special Forces. The stage above that is to have an expeditionary force (albeit supported by Special Forces). In theory we have such forces—both the Marines and the 82nd Airborne would qualify, for instance (if they had armor—but they don’t—though the Marines have a little). But, in practice we seem reluctant to operate this way—or don’t quite know how to. Special Forces apart, the Army seems to be wedded to the Colin Powell doctrine of overwhelming force which it tends to associate with large numbers (tens of thousands is good—hundreds of thousands is better).
This is a cultural issue. Generals always want more resources—though such a mindset has not always worked to our advantage whether the troops be ours or those we have trained. Recall Vietnam—and we have trained hundreds of thousands in both Afghanistan and Iraq.
Moreover, if you look at the firepower of a heavy BCT (Brigade Combat Team) it is hard not to be struck by the fact that even just one BCT (totaling less that 5,000 soldiers) constitutes overwhelming force in most situations—and that is before Air Force and Army aviation are factored in. Aviation brings with it not merely formidable attack capabilities, but intelligence, surveillance, and reconnaissance, But just in itself, one single armored BCT includes:
- Soldiers - 4,743
- Tanks - 90 M1A2 Abrams
- Infantry Fighting Vehicles - 90 Bradley
- 112 M-113
- Artillery M109 155mm howitzers – 3 batteries of 6 guns
That adds up to a formidable amount of mobile firepower—let alone when combined with the Air Force and Army aviation. Because of the linear road-bound way we have become accustomed to deploy in, it is questionable whether we still know how to utilize such resources to best advantage.
It’s time we learned (or re-learned)—and started to practice military minimalism of the “One riot, one ranger,” variety. If we combined it with maneuver, I suspect we would surprise ourselves—and we would certainly surprise the enemy.
It could just be that is the whole idea.