Wednesday, July 8, 2015

Breaking Down The Islamic State's Military Strategy In Iraq


There is a huge amount of uncertainty about violence in Iraq today. In a war there are plenty of areas off limits to reporters. Some provinces do not get as much coverage as others. The Iraqi government is in propaganda mode and only reports victories. The number of casualties is being obfuscated for that last reason as well. Out of all of the statistics available for the on going conflict collating the number of attacks reported in the media might prove to be the most useful. While there are plenty of incidents that don’t get mentioned the ones that do can provide a rough idea of where the focus of the Islamic State is in Iraq. That shows that the organization is carrying out a successful policy of seizing territory in Anbar, while holding down government forces in the rest of the country, and terrorizing the capital.

The statistic used in this study is the average number of attacks per day by province. Rather than looking at the total number of reported incidents each month, the average by day seemed a bit more precise because it can overcome the different number of days each month contains. The range selected was from January 2014 to June 2015 so that there was data before and after the fall of Mosul and the Islamic State’s summer offensive. Also rather than cover all of Iraq’s 18 provinces only those with the most violence were included: Anbar, Babil, Baghdad, Diyala, Kirkuk, Ninewa, and Salahaddin. Over 90% of the attacks in the country are in those seven governorates.

Avg. Number of Attacks Per Day In Iraq And By Province Pre-Mosul January-May 2014
Province
Jan
2014
31
Feb
28
Mar
31
Apr
30
May
31
Iraq
32.7
34.1
32.0
33.0
29.1
Anbar
7.7
6.1
6.8
6.0
4.4
Babil
1.1
1.6
1.6
2.0
2.8
Baghdad
7.1
6.6
6.6
6.0
6.1
Diyala
2.2
2.3
2.2
2.3
1.9
Kirkuk
1.6
2.5
1.6
2.2
0.7
Ninewa
5.4
6.5
5.8
6.2
5.9
Salahaddin
6.7
7.7
6.5
7.3
6.4

Avg. Number of Attacks Per Day In Iraq And By Province Post-Mosul June 2014-June 2015
Province
Jun
2014
Jul

Aug

Sep

Oct

Nov

Dec

Jan 2015
Feb

Mar

Apr

May

Jun

Iraq
30.1
30.2
26.2
23.7
24.3
20.1
22.2
26.3
23.3
22.2
21.1
18.6
20.7
Anbar
5.2
4.7
4.6
3.5
5.8
3.7
4.1
5.1
4.3
3.6
4.7
4.8
5.2
Babil
1.9
2.0
2.2
1.5
1.4
1.2
0.8
0.9
1.2
0.7
0.6
0.4
0.8
Baghdad
6.0
7.0
5.5
6.2
5.0
5.9
6.6
6.6
7.6
7.5
7.2
6.8
7.6
Diyala
4.4
4.8
3.0
1.8
1.9
1.4
1.7
1.7
1.8
1.9
1.9
1.5
1.4
Kirkuk
2.1
2.0
1.8
1.4
0.8
0.8
1.0
1.7
0.4
0.8
0.7
0.9
0.6
Ninewa
3.4
2.6
2.4
2.0
2.0
1.8
1.9
4.1
3.1
3.2
1.8
1.4
1.6
Salahaddin
6.5
5.9
5.5
6.2
6.6
4.7
5.3
5.2
4.3
3.9
3.8
2.4
3.1



First when security incidents are looked at overall, it shows that they have been steadily going down since the start of 2014 with a spike as the new year approached. Rather than building up to its summer offensive, the Islamic State and other insurgent groups at that time actually carried out fewer and fewer attacks before the fall of Mosul. In January 2014 the militants took the first city in Iraq, which was Fallujah in Anbar. The anti-government forces didn’t attempt to expand upon that success and did the opposite with fewer operations. In January 2014 for example there was an average of 32.7 attacks per day. By June 2014 there was 30.1. Again, instead of spreading more violence across the country there was a dramatic fall off in incidents to 20.1 per day in November 2014. Before, Fallujah, Mosul and Tikrit were major targets of the insurgents, so taking them could account for some sort of decline, but at the same time the militants could have pushed ahead to new cities like Samarra or Baquba or Kirkuk. Instead, it appeared that the Islamic State, which had taken over most of the other militant groups after the summer, was saving up for another big offensive, this time in the winter of 2014-2015 when they attacked the Kurds in Ninewa, and to a lesser extent in Kirkuk. That led to a jump in incidents from 22.2 in December 2014 to 26.3 in January 2014 before going back down afterward. That campaign was turned back by the dug in positions of the peshmerga and close cooperation with Coalition air strikes that devastated IS attacks across mostly open ground. In June 2015 there were 20.7 incidents per day, a 36% decline in violence since the start of 2014. Overall, the numbers show that IS is no longer pushing for any more big territorial gains in Iraq. Rather the fighting has settled into a rough stalemate.

When the numbers are looked at province by province, they reveal that Anbar has been one of two main focuses of the Islamic State. Unlike other areas violence in Anbar has remained relatively steady over the last year. In June 2014 there was an average of 5.2 attacks per day there and in June 2015 there were 5.2 as well. That governorate has also been the only one where IS has continued to gain ground. In June 2014 it took the towns along the Syrian border. In October it seized Hit, and then in May 2015 Ramadi fell. Each one of those resulted in a spike in incidents. Anbar was where IS’s predecessors Al Qaeda in Iraq and the Islamic State of Iraq had some of its greatest successes during the U.S. occupation. It is the most solidly Sunni province in Iraq as well. After the Anbar Awakening the group spent years trying to win back popular support there by assassinating its opponents, driving off others, and playing divide and conquer with the tribes. Anbar was also easily accessible to its bases in Syria allowing it to tap into its resources there. That has all allowed IS to keep up steady pressure upon the province and continued to win victories there.

Baghdad has been the group’s other major target. That’s shown by the fact that there has been a sharp increase in attacks there since the winter of 2014. In October 2014 there was a low of 5.0 incidents per day, but by June 2015 there were 7.6 the highest amount over the time period covered. While a march on Baghdad is probably not in the cards, it appears that the Islamists are focused upon sowing s much terror as possible there. It also undermines the government since the steady reign of bombs and shootings shows that it is incapable of securing the seat of authority in the country.

After the fall of Mosul Baghdad was most concerned with the northern front, especially Salahaddin. The insurgents seized Tikrit right after Mosul and there was fear that Samarra and its Shiite shrine there would be next. If that city were taken the capital could have been next. The result was that the government launched some of its earliest offensives there such as the unsuccessful attempt to take back Tikrit, and the relief of the besieged town of Amerli in the northeast. A look at the attack numbers however, shows that the province has not been a priority for the insurgents. Incidents have been going down there since the start of 2014. In January of that year there were 6.7 attacks per day, and by June 2015 there were less than half of that at 3.1. Much of the fighting there appears to be diversionary to pin down as many government forces as possible, while IS moves on its real target Anbar, which Baghdad did not prioritize until recently. A perfect example of this was shown in May 2015. That month IS seized large parts of the Baiji refinery and surrounding towns. Prime Minister Haider Abadi responded with a major counter attack to take back the territory. When Ramadi fell that same month, IS began pulling out its fighters from the refinery, while trying to destroy as much of the facility as they could. This was a major victory for the Islamists, and showed that their strategy was working out better than the government’s. That continues as the government is still focusing upon the Baiji area despite IS having already achieved its goal.

In Ninewa and Kirkuk violence has been going down since the spring of 2014 with a surge during the winter of that year. As mentioned before at the end of 2014 IS began an offensive against the Kurds, which failed. That led attacks to jump from 1.9 in December 2014 to 4.1 in January 2014 in Ninewa, and from 0.8 in November 2014 to 1.7 in January in Kirkuk. Since then there has only been a negligible amount of IS attacks. While the insurgents continue to make probes in force into the Kurdish territory to the north and east of Mosul, most of the incidents in Ninewa are actually executions. Since April 2014 there has been less than 2 attacks per day there. In Kirkuk there has been less than one incident per day. That points to IS probably using both governorates as staging and supply bases for its operations in other places.

A similar situation has played out in Diyala. During the summer the militants attempted to storm the provincial capital of Baquba. When that failed attacks completely leveled off to a very low level afterward. In September 2014 there was an average of 1.8 incidents per day and in June 2014 there were 1.4. Again, Diyala looks like it is being used as a support area.

Finally, there is Babil where it can be said the government has had one of its few lasting successes. The Islamic State was firmly entrenched in Jurf al-Sakhr in the northwest of the governorate and was using it to launch attacks into Baghdad and southern Iraq. It was the main car bombs factory in that region of the country. Like most of Iraq, after the summer offensive incidents there were going down. However in October 2014 government forces took Jurf al-Sakhr after over a dozen failed attempts. Security greatly improved not only it that province but in southern Iraq as well. There is now less than one attack per day in Babil, and there has also only been one successful car bombing in the south since then, which might have been the work of gangs or other groups in Basra rather than IS. No other offensive like the clearing of Sadiya and Jalawla in Diyala in November, the claim that all of that governorate was liberated in January or the re-taking of Tikrit in April 2015 has had such an affect so far. Then again, southern Baghdad has been the scene of some of the most consistent attacks in that province so IS might have just adjusted its forces there.

Today, outside of Anbar, the Islamic State is no longer seizing territory in Iraq. More cities and towns could fall in that province, but otherwise IS is going to be focused upon blunting new government offensives, while carrying out diversionary attacks in Salahaddin to try to tie up as many government forces there as possible. This strategy has had great success so far. Its defense in depth with IED fields, snipers and a small group of fighters can’t stand up to a determined push by Baghdad, but its shown it can drag out fighting for weeks as recently shown in Tikrit and currently in Baiji and Garma in Anbar. IS also faces no serious threat to its main strongholds in Syria meaning that it can continue to shift its men and material back and forth across the two countries. That will also give IS plenty of time to entrench itself more into the areas it already controls and move towards its goal of becoming a real state. This all adds up to years more fighting in Iraq before the Islamic State can be defeated.

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