Iraq finds itself in a precarious security situation today. The insurgency has been able to rebuild itself in Anbar, while violence is taking off in other provinces such as Babil and Salahaddin. That goes along with the continued attacks in Baghdad and Ninewa. The Iraqi Security Forces (ISF) has been hard pressed to stop this resurgence and appears to be losing ground in some areas. To help explain the current scenario and provide a bit of background to how Iraq arrived at this place is Alex Mello a student of Classics and Oriental studies who has extensively studied the Iraqi insurgency and security forces. He can be followed on Twitter
|Ansar al-Sunna fighters in Mosul. Their operations pale in comparison to to how many ISIS launches in Iraq (via Aymenn Jawad al-Tamimi)|
1. Most of your research has focused upon the Islamic State of Iraq and the Levant’s (ISIS) operations. By your estimations how much of the violence in Iraq are they responsible for today compared to the other insurgent groups such as the Naqhshibandi, Ansar al-Sunna, etc.?
Compared even to the 2006-2007 period, when the then Islamic State of Iraq (ISIS) was making its bid for control of the insurgency, the current insurgency is far more homogenous. ISIS is the only insurgent group that operates extensively countrywide and has the capacity to carry out attacks in the Shiite south. In total ISIS is probably responsible for some 75 to 95% of all insurgent attacks. Ansar al-Sunna largely operates in Ninewa and Kirkuk, but has also carried out operations in Diyala and Salahuddin provinces, and recently expanded into Anbar. To give an example of the extent to which ISIS is the dominant group in the insurgency, the regular monthly total of all Ansar al-Sunna operations in Iraq is considerably less then the number of attacks ISIS carries out in a month in any one of Iraq's provinces in which it is operationally active. [Jaish Rijal al-Tariqa al-Naqshibandi] JRTN operates mainly in its historic strongholds in Ninewa, Kirkuk and northern Salahuddin and Diyala provinces, though it has capitalized on the Anbar uprising in January 2014 to expand to other Sunni provinces through setting up Military Tribal Council (MCTs) as local front groups. Other insurgent groups have reemerged with the Anbar uprising, including Jaysh al-Mujahideen, which operates mainly in the Fallujah area and the Baghdad belts but has recently expanded into Ninewa and Kirkuk provinces, the Islamic Army in Iraq, which was once one of Iraq's largest insurgent groups, and the 1920 Revolution Brigades. These newly reactivated groups are still too operationally insignificant to be a major factor in the insurgency.
2. Back in 2011 when the United States withdrew its military from Iraq it appeared that the country was only dealing with a bad terrorism problem, which could be managed. What was the state of ISIS and the other insurgent groups at that time, and how were they able to rebuild their networks and strength from that period to the present?
By the drawdown of USF-I [U.S. Forces-Iraq] forces in late 2011 ISIS had collapsed into a network of isolated cells and local units with a minimal centralized hierarchical command structure. ISIS had the capacity to maintain a low-level insurgency and carry out VBIED [Vehicle Borne Improvised Explosive Device] wave attacks and complex assaults, but not to control terrain or exercise area denial against ISF and was no longer an existential threat to the Iraqi government. Continuous, industrial-scale spec ops raids by Joint Special Operations Command (JSOC) had massively degraded ISIS' attack capabilities and depleted its middle and upper tier leadership and VBIED network, killing 34 of the 43 top ISIS leaders. In April 2010 a joint JSOC/ISOF operation in the Tharthar area of Salahuddin province killed ISIS leader Abu Omar al-Baghdadi and its top military commander, Abu Ayyub al-Masri, and by late 2011 it was estimated that ISIS' core strength had been reduced to around 1,500 fighters.
After the US withdrawal in 2011, the ISF largely stopped carrying out proactive counterinsurgency operations. Without U.S. troops in an advise and assist role, the ISF fell back on reactive, ineffective search and raid operations, large-scale clearing operations and a reactive operational posture of defense of fixed positions like checkpoints and combat outposts. The Iraqi government also released large numbers of insurgents that had been held in detention by U.S. forces, many of who rejoined ISIS, boosting its strength with an infusion of experienced, veteran manpower. In early 2012 without the pressure from JSOC's special forces raids, ISIS began reconstituting its leadership structure, centralized command hierarchy and VBIED network, escalating its operational tempo in June 2012 with the start of the insurgent summer offensive. Already by late 2012 ISI had reportedly increased its core strength to around 2,500 fighters.
|ISIS attacked Abu Ghraib prison in July 2013 and early sign of its resurgence (AFP)|
In July 2012 ISIS leader Abu Bakr al-Baghdadi announced the launch of the "Breaking the Walls" campaign, a year long campaign of prison breaks, VBIED attack waves and attacks on key Iraqi government targets that culminated with the assault on Abu Ghraib and Taji prisons in July 2013. By the time ISIS launched "Breaking the Walls" it had reconstituted as an effective fighting force, regenerated its attack capabilities, and reestablished a centralized command structure capable of coordinating multi-province offensives and synchronized VBIED attack waves across Iraq. In retrospect we can identify the period between December 2011 and launch of ISIS' "Breaking the Walls" campaign in July 2012 as the critical period when the changed ISF posture enabled ISIS to reconstitute and regenerate its attack capabilities.
3. What were some early signs that the militants were making a comeback in the country?
ISIS was at its nadir in 2010 and 2011. In April 2010 the top ISI leadership had been decapitated in a joint US/ISF operation, much of its middle and upper tier leadership cadre had been killed or captured and its VBIED attack capabilities has been severely degraded. However, ISIS gradually began to recover from its 2007-2009 defeat and near extinction, and to operationally adapt and respond to its weakened state. From late 2011 on, ISIS evolved into an operationally leaner and more effective force. Instead of wasting manpower trying to assert control of territory and fight the ISF head on, ISIS waged an effective campaign of targeted killings using silenced weapons and covert operations disguised as ISF personnel, primarily against Awakening leaders and ISF personnel. It also developed the use of Adhesive Explosive Devices (AEDs) or 'sticky bombs' to more accurately target ISF and Iraqi government personnel, and gradually reconstituted, rebuild and expanded its VBIED construction capabilities. The large VBIED attack waves on Arba'een in January 2012 and during the Arab League Summit in March 2012 demonstrated ISIS had already begun to rebuild and expand its VBIED cell network and take advantage of the new security environment without the presence of US forces. The March 2012 raid in Haditha showed ISIS retained the capacity to carry out sophisticated assault operations. By early to mid-2012 security in northern Babil province had already begun to deteriorate after an effective ISIS campaign against the Awakening elements in the province. Finally, the July 2012 announcement by ISIS leader Abu Bakr al-Baghdadi of the "Breaking the Walls" campaign was a clear indication that ISIS had reconstituted, regenerated its capabilities and was making a comeback, although this would only become apparent in 2013, when the insurgency was fully reborn.
4. After the U.S. pullout the Iraqi Security Forces (ISF) went through its own transformation. It stopped carrying out counterinsurgency operations and began to steadily lose ground to the insurgency. Why did the security forces change for the worse after 2011?
The ISF at the drawdown of USF-I in late 2011 were still more dependent on the U.S. troop presence then was apparently realized at the time. The U.S. had withdrawn its troops from the cities in 2009 and its forces had shifted to an advise and assist role in 2010. The ISF were definitely capable of carrying out large-scale independent operations and the Iraqi Special Operations Forces (ISOF) were effective special ops and counterterrorism units. However, counterinsurgency doctrine and the capabilities for effective counterinsurgency had failed to penetrate into the ISF operational doctrine and military culture. Without U.S. forces partnering in joint operations and in an overwatch role, the ISF lacked the capacity to carry out the population-centric counterinsurgency operations U.S. troops had used to clear insurgents from Anbar and the Baghdad belts in 2007-2008. Instead, ISF reverted to the model of counterinsurgency operations that has been standard among Middle Eastern militaries for decades, similar to the sort of ineffective, brute-force clearing operations the U.S. had been carrying out in the Sunni triangle 2003-2004. As we've seen, ISF can frequently clear an area of insurgents, but often fail in the 'hold' and 'build' stages of counterinsurgency operations as they withdraw to static defense of fixed positions and insurgents reinfiltrate the area.
The U.S. withdrawal also left ISF without sufficient aerial reconnaissance and surveillance capabilities to support ground operations and carry out intelligence-drive spec ops raids. As a result, ISF frequently fail to synchronize airstrikes and accurate fire support with ground operations and lack the intelligence gathering, fusion and rapid-response capabilities that enabled JSOC to massively degrade ISIS' leadership and VBIED network. ISF were also left with limited aerial strike capabilities, except for a small force of helicopter gunships and ground-attack aircraft. Lack of air cover has enabled ISIS to operate with impunity in many areas and launch assaults on ISF combat outposts and bases that would have rapidly drawn airstrikes or a quick-reaction force during the time of the U.S. troop presence. Finally, the ISF logistics systems began collapsing soon after the U.S. withdrawal, and Iraqi army units fighting in Anbar are now reportedly suffering from low ammunition and high rates of desertion.
5. The U.S. is attempting to re-engage with Baghdad now that the insurgency has been reborn. It has been shipping ammunition, small arms, and Hellfire missiles to Iraq, and announced new arms deals are in the works. American forces have also stepped up training for the Iraqi Special Forces in Jordan. Will this aid help or is it the strategy and tactics of the ISF that are at the root of its problems?
U.S. re-engagement with Iraq is still on too small a scale to make a significant difference against the insurgency. Since the Anbar uprising in January, ISIS has captured massive quantities of ISF equipment including hundreds of M16 rifles, RPGs, night-vision equipment and sophisticated anti-tank missiles and dozens of U.S.-upgraded Humvees, 4x4 technicals with mounted weapons, and even an M113 APC. It is not much of an exaggeration to say that for every Hellfire missile the U.S. has sent, ISIS has captured or destroyed an ISF Humvee or police truck. The arms deals that are in the works, including for F-16s and Apache helicopters from the United States and Mil Mi-28NE Night Hunter attack helicopters from Russia along with the reconnaissance drones and surveillance balloons the U.S. has already supplied will help the ISF overcome its lack of aerial reconnaissance and airstrike capability. Similarly, U.S. training of ISOF in Jordan will help, especially since the ISF are forced to deploy elite special operations units like the Golden Division in regular combat in Ramadi to shore up regular units suffering from high attrition and desertion rates. However, to make a significant difference against the insurgency the U.S. would have to massively expand its training of ISF personnel, and possibly redeploy personnel on the ground in Iraq to partner with ISF in joint operations.
|ISIS has captured and destroyed a huge number of ISF vehicles like these Humvees, police trucks and even an M1113 armored personnel carrier seen in the Islamic State's parade in Abu Ghraib in March 2014|
6. History appears to be repeating itself in Iraq right now. After the 2003 invasion Anbar was the first place where the insurgency really took off, and that is true with its rebirth today. What is the current disposition of the opposing forces in the province, and has the ISF made any headway there since January when fighting took off?
The insurgency's main strongholds and control zones in Anbar are the rural corridor between Ramadi and Fallujah and the area stretching east of Fallujah to Baghdad and south to northern Babil province. The provincial capital of Ramadi has seen intense, continuous fighting since January. The Iraqi government has deployed elite counterterrorism units like the 1st Commando Division, the so-called 'Golden Division' in Ramadi and has repeatedly claimed to have cleared the city of insurgents. However, the ISF have failed to clear the insurgent support zones and sanctuaries in rural belts surrounding the city, as a result of which insurgents reinfiltrate into areas cleared by the special forces troops and push out the regular army and police units charged with holding the area. Fighting has been especially intense in the south-eastern area of the city bordering historic ISIS strongholds in the rural area to the east. In al-Huz, Mua'almeen, Thuba't and Mala'ab districts ISIS continues to control terrain and launch daily attacks on ISF.
Fallujah remains entirely outside government control, and the zone south-east of the city including the critical Nuaimiyah dam is still largely insurgent controlled and denied area for the ISF. ISIS has used the Nuaimiyah dam to flood nearby agricultural areas and villages to make it difficult for ISF vehicles to move and to force the ISF to withdraw from the area. In early May the ISF launched a series of large-scale clearing operations in the area stretching from Fallujah to Baghdad and have managed to again partially secure a cordon around the perimeter of the city and launch probing attacks into the Fallūjah urban area, possibly preparatory to a major assault. These operations now appear to have bogged down, and intense fighting is still ongoing around the outskirts of the city and in the surrounding rural belts.
7. ISIS appears to be following the same plan that Abu Musab al-Zarqawi outlined in 2005, which is to move from Anbar to the Baghdad belts to the capital itself. Where has ISIS been able to establish itself in the areas surrounding Baghdad, how do those compare to where it was before the Surge, and how closely is it following Zarqawi’s strategy?
ISIS is largely following Zarqawi's classic strategy, with certain adaptation for the slightly different security conditions and operating environment. ISIS has been able establish itself most securely in the north-western belts in the rural corridor between Fallujah and Baghdad. In areas like Nuaimiyah, Zowba'a and Nahiyat al-Karmah ISIS has demonstrated extensive control of terrain and effective area denial against ISF, even establishing proto-governance institutions like sharia courts and holding mass repentance ceremonies of Sahwa fighters. In April, ISIS paraded a huge convoy through Abu Ghraib on the western Baghdad outskirts at the edge of the Baghdad security perimeter, a mere twenty-five miles from the Green Zone, and five miles from the former Coalition headquarters at Camp Victory in Baghdad International Airport, something it was unable to do even during the height of the insurgency in 2006-2007.
In the south-western quadrant, the growth of ISIS is developing very similar to 2004-2005. ISIS controls or can deny to the ISF an extensive belt of territory between the Euphrates and the outskirts of Baghdad. Since early 2014 ISIS has been escalating operations in the area around Yusufiyah, Latifiyah, and Iskandariyah, what Coalition forces called the 'triangle of death', launching complex assaults on ISF bases and attacks on convoys. In Jurf as-Sakhar in northern Babil, ISIS has also asserted control over a wide area, as evidenced by the forced displacement of local residents and mass 'repentance' of local Awakening fighters.
In the northeastern quadrant, the area of operations for ISIS' wilayat of northern Baghdad, ISIS appears to be attempting to replicate its successes in Jurf as-Sakhar south of the capital, maintaining a constant stream of VBIEDs, suicide bombers and complex attacks against ISF bases and convoys to exercise area denial and assert control of terrain over this area in the area between Taji, Khan al-Mashahidah and the historic ISIS stronghold of Tarmiyah. In the Diyala river valley to the east, ISIS launched an offensive in the area in late March which saw intense fighting in Buhriz on the outskirts of Baq'ubah and in Khan Bani Saad, but so far the strong ISF and Shiite militia response appears to have prevented ISIS from advancing down the Diyala river to Baghdad.
In contrast to the 2004-2006 period of the insurgency, the south-eastern quadrant around the Tigris river and the historic ISIS strongholds of Salman Pak, Arab Jabour, Jisr Diyala and Hawr Rajab has been, with the exception of sporadic attacks and the VBIED cells projecting attacks into eastern Baghdad and Wasit province, relatively quite when compared to 2005-2006 when the low level of MNF-I and ISF presence in the southeast let the insurgency assert greater control over this area then any other sector.
8. Besides Anbar northern Babil has become a battleground between ISIS and the ISF. The government has announced one security operation after another there in recent weeks. How has the fighting there gone?
ISIS dismantling security installations set up by ISF in Jurf al-Sakhr May 2014 (via Alexandre Massimo)
The security situation in northern Babil began to deteriorate in early 2012, soon after the U.S. withdrawal. ISF began a series of security sweeps in the area in the summer 2012, but ISF control over the area really collapsed in the late summer and fall 2013. ISIS was able to assert control over the Jurf as-Sakhar area of northern Babil and exercise effective area denial and control of terrain against ISF. Since the beginning of 2014 ISF have launched numerous clearing operations in Jurf as-Sakhar, all of which have consistently failed, with high losses in personnel and vehicles. In response to these failures, Maliki created a new Operations Command for Babil province in March but, since then he's already twice sacked and replaced its commander as follow up ISF operations have also failed. As of May 2014 ISIS has apparently expanded its control zone south from Jurf as-Sakhar to areas in the outskirts of Musayyib and north to ISIS controlled areas around Amiriyat al-Fallujah and Yusufiyah. ISIS is now openly using earthmoving vehicles to dismantle captured ISF combat outposts in broad daylight, an indication that it has achieved near total operational freedom in this area.
9. Looking into the future what do you think the security situation in the country will be like by the end of the year?
The current security situation is similar to what it was ten years ago in the summer 2004, with Fallujah under insurgent control, and the insurgency metastasizing and escalating its tempo of operations. By late 2014 and early 2015, even if Fallujah is cleared, we can expect to see a situation similar to what we saw almost exactly ten years ago. Violence will continue to grow, and ISIS will begin to push in from the rural belts surrounding major cities and attempt to assert control of urban terrain in provincial centers and major towns. We will probably see this process begin to occur in many of the same cities that it did in 2004-2005, like Baq'ubah in Diyala province, Samarra and Tikrit in Salahuddin, and Tall Afar and Mosul in Ninewa. ISIS will also escalate from projecting VBIED attacks into Baghdad to staging raids and actual fighting in the Sunni districts of the capital, a development similar to what we saw in 2005. Watching the current growth of the insurgency is like seeing the 2003-2006 period being replayed on fast-forward. The difference is that now the insurgency is much more homogenous and dominated by ISIS, and most insurgents are combat -hardened veterans of years of fighting.