Wednesday, August 19, 2015

How Is The War Against The Islamic State Going? 10 Expert Opinions

In August 2014 the United States joined the war against the Islamic State (IS). The massacre and enslavement of the Yazidi population in the Sinjar district of Iraq’s Ninewa province prompted Washington to cobble together an international coalition and start air strikes on IS positions in Iraq and Syria. That was one year ago. That has given plenty of time for people to form their opinions on how the war against the militants has progressed. Collected together here are ten experts: Ahmed Ali of the American University of Iraq-Sulaimani, J.M. Berger of the Brookings Institution, Daveed Gartenstein-Ross of the Foundation for Defense of Democracies, Dr. Michael Knights of the Washington Institute for Near East Policy, Aron Lund of Syria in Crisis, Alex Mello of Horizon Client Access, Douglas Ollivant of the New America Foundation, Aymenn Jawad al-Tamimi of the Middle East Forum, Craig Whiteside of the Naval War College, and Aaron Zelin of the Washington Institute for Near East Policy all of which have been astute observers of the Islamic State, Syria and Iraq. Here are their personal opinions on how they believe the war against the Islamic State has gone.

Ahmed Ali is a senior fellow at the Institute of Regional and International Studies at the American University of Iraq-Sulaimani. He can be followed on Twitter @IraqShamel.

The war against ISIS is at a critical juncture. ISIS is on defense and this is a change from a year ago. This outcome was not achieved easily. In 2014, ISIS took control of many cities in northern and western Iraq almost uncontested. Today, ISIS is not on the march, is contained in Iraq, and is being pressured in Syria. These positive developments do not mean ISIS is about to be defeated and certainly should not result in accepting the status quo. The developments indicate there is a way forward to defeat ISIS that will include enhancing the military and political components. 

In Iraq, the Iraqi Security Forces (ISF), Popular Mobilization Units (PMUs), Iraqi Kurdish Peshmerga, and Iraqi Sunni tribes now know the enemy well. They have been fighting for over a year with successes and setbacks. These anti-ISIS forces are pursuing a strategy that is characterized by patience and a realization that ISIS can slowly be defeated even if it's a difficult responsibility. These forces still need a great degree of support to include strategic planning and air support. The anti-ISIS forces should avoid the pitfall of internal rivalries and turf-war. ISIS thrives in these conditions. Politically, Prime Minster Haider al-Abadi has launched an ambitious reform agenda. He should not exclusively focus on the political challenge while ignoring the immediate ISIS military challenge. In Syria, ISIS faces challenges on the ground and from the air. Last year, ISIS had complete freedom in Syria. 

The U.S.-led anti-ISIS coalition is in a different posture at the moment. Airstrikes are more frequent and ISIS has had to adjust its operational tempo in response. The airstrikes will enjoy more success if they are accompanied by revised sets of the rules of engagement (ROE). The current ROE have in some cases hampered ground forces from being more effective. The uber-restrictive ROE have in some cases allowed ISIS to achieve avoidable gains as we saw in Ramadi. The new Turkish role in targeting ISIS is a positive overall. Turkey can be even more serious and effective by ensuring it suffocates the ISIS fighter supply line that used to run through Turkish airports and borders. However, Turkish targeting of the PKK can have an adverse effect on the fight against ISIS. The PKK and the PYD are fighting ISIS in both Iraq and Syria. Targeting them will undoubtedly shift their focus and likely some resources from fighting ISIS. Turkish-PKK tensions will continue and they certainly make their own decisions. Both sides have to be cognizant of timing and priorities. For now, the priority has to be fighting ISIS. 

ISIS remains a threat despite its weakened posture. Its regional presence in Egypt and Libya is concerning. The U.S. cannot be in all of these places to counter ISIS. It will have to depend on partners and local allies. This task is easier in Iraq and Egypt, but more difficult in Syria and Libya. The U.S. should refrain from being a reactive actor. It should not wait for another Ramadi to be more aggressive with ISIS. The requirements and needs are clear on the battlefield. The U.S. and its partners do not have the luxury to contemplate decisions. Quick action and deploying hard power can secure the U.S. influence now and in the long-term.

J.M. Berger is Nonresident Fellow at the Brookings Institution and co-author of ISIS: The State of Terror. He can be followed on Twitter @intelwire.

While the war against ISIS has been full of sound and fury, the coalition has been largely stalemated in its efforts to force a meaningful change on the ground in Iraq and Syria. ISIS has lost some territory, but gained in other areas, particularly the international arena. With its annexation of Boko Haram in Nigeria, and its expanded terrorist operations in Yemen, Afghanistan, Tunisia and elsewhere, it’s difficult to make the case that ISIS is weaker today than it was a year ago. The major question now is whether a continuing stalemate is better for ISIS or for the coalition. If ISIS is forced to consume resources faster than it can replenish them with new conquests, it could suffer escalating setbacks given time. But if the center holds, its ability to project internationally and spark secondary conflicts among coalition members may tilt the advantage in its favor. 

Daveed Gartenstein-Ross is a Senior Fellow at the Foundation for Defense of Democracies. He can be followed on Twitter @DaveedGR.

Doyle McManus demonstrated in a recent L.A. Times column that the answer to how the war against the Islamic State (IS) is going depends in some small part on the metrics one uses. On the one hand, IS has lost about 10% of the territory it once held; but on the other, IS still controls a vast expanse of territory and can mount offensives, such as the one that captured Anbar’s capital of Ramadi in May. The reason I stress that an assessment of coalition efforts will only vary in a small way based on the chosen metrics is because these competing evaluations are a bit of a diversion. The overarching reality is that IS not only continues to control sizable territory after a year of fighting some of the world’s most powerful states, but also threatens to overrun even more ground. Given how difficult it is for violent non-state actors (VNSAs)—especially those with as many enemies as IS has—to control territory for sustained periods, it’s fair to assess IS as the winner thus far. Even if its “caliphate” ultimately lacks staying power, IS has shown that VNSAs can capture and control broad swathes of territory in regions of the utmost strategic importance. It has shown that jihadist groups can sustain these gains despite implementing an extraordinarily brutal form of sharia law, systematizing sexual slavery, and pursuing openly genocidal policies against religious minorities. While the United States was right to forego committing conventional ground forces, many coalition policies raise doubts about the current strategy. The strict rules of engagement imposed on U.S. air strikes have kept IS’s attrition rates lower than they might otherwise be. The coalition’s failure to meaningfully engage with Anbari tribes prior to Ramadi’s fall—the same tribes that successfully rebelled against IS’s predecessor—represents a missed opportunity. And Iraq’s decision to continue paying state employees who live in IS-controlled territory, while not altogether irrational, has certainly enriched IS. This is not to say all is going swimmingly for IS, which faces internal divisions, loss of supply routes, and challenges from Kurdish groups in its own capital of Raqqa. But IS’s continued ability to credibly claim that it is “remaining and expanding” despite the coalition assembled against it means the group is in a far better position than anyone should feel comfortable with—and other VNSAs are certainly watching, and will learn from its example.

Dr. Michael Knights is a Lafer fellow at the Washington Institute for Near East Policy. He can followed on Twitter @Mikeknightsiraq.

Speaking just about Iraq, which is clearly only one segment of the broader war, any assessment of the current level of progress has to take into account the perspective of the differing participants.

The Shia-led government in Iraq might be impatient but they will see the defense of Samarra, Baghdad and Karbala as major successes. The liberation of Jurf as-Sakr (which overlooks Shia pilgrim routes), Tikrit and other areas will likewise be viewed with pride. There will be optimism about the unfolding battles in Ramadi and Haditha. In Baghdad's view, Iraq's military is recovering but it remains too reliant on autonomous Shia politicians with military forces of their own. Thus one of Baghdad's key concerns about the war is not necessarily how slowly it progresses but what non-governmental Shia rivals are being enabled by the war. It also pays to look at the recaptured territories through Shia Iraqi eyes: to a Westerner much of Iraq still needs to be liberated, but to a Shia Iraqi politician almost all the Shia areas have already been liberated and remaining ISIL-controlled areas far away from Baghdad are a lower priority. Thus, from an Iraqi Shia perspective the war has seen an inspiring popular mobilization and secured most Shia areas from overrun, which looks like a qualified success.

The Iraqi Kurds share some similarities with the Shia-led federal government view. The defense of Erbil showed that America and the West cared a lot about Iraqi Kurdistan's survival, and subsequently an unprecedented level of international military support has been provided to the Kurds. This alone makes the war effort of the last year a diplomatic success of the first order. The Kurds recaptured most of the places they cared about and have established a very strong defensive line that incorporates most of Kirkuk. From the Kurdish perspective the job is not done, however: ISIL is simply too close for comfort. So the Kurds will say the war against ISIL is going OK but that it would be a disaster if it now shuddered to a halt and left them with ISIL-controlled Mosul just a half-hour's drive from their capital Erbil.

Most of the Sunni Arabs of Iraq would undoubtedly view the war against ISIL as going very badly. Those in safer areas like Baghdad fear backlash if ISIL starts to launch more bombings of Shia areas close to them. Those in liberated areas face a mammoth reconstruction challenge and many are being constrained from returning to their towns and villages. Those in ISIL-controlled areas or waiting to return to them from IDP camps are uncertain that anyone is really going to liberate the Sunni areas for them. If Sunni Hashd al-Sha'abi (Popular Mobilization) have to self-liberate the areas as the leading combat forces, a bloody road lies ahead for many of their sons. The war since 2014 has been a disaster of unprecedented scale and intensity for the Sunnis, even set against the Sunni Iraqi disasters of previous years.  

The international community, including the United States probably has a very varied view of whether the war is going well in Iraq. The U.S. leadership wanted to check ISIL's advance in Iraq without becoming an indispensable ground force provider again: it has succeeded in that narrow aim, which may give some satisfaction in the White House if not in many other places. The Iranians have gained a lot of influence at fairly low cost by being ungrudging and quick to act -- exactly what the U.S. could and should have done. But they are probably not satisfied overall: Iran is increasingly paranoid that the war is not going fast enough in Iraq, that Western involvement is (very) slowly escalating and that ISIL may spread and pose a direct threat on and within Iran's borders.  

Though it is harder to get inside the mind of ISIL's leadership I suspect they are very content with the last year in Iraq on a number of levels. First, they have appeared virile and aggressive for much of that period, even if they struggled to move much beyond Sunni-populated areas. Over the last year global media has boosted them into 10 feet-tall supermen based on their achievements in Iraq and this has sparked a wealth of opportunities for expansion elsewhere. Iraq is where they made their brand over the last year. But there have also been disappointments in Iraq: in particular running an oil industry and holding the requisite terrain and infrastructure proved to be too hard. But generally the ISIL view of the last year in Iraq can probably be summed up as: "I can't complain." 

Aron Lund, editor of Syria in Crisis, a website published by the Carnegie Endowment for International Peace. @aron_ld.  

The short answer to questions like these should of course always be "I have no idea", but a slightly longer version could go something like this.

Numerically and in terms of sheer firepower, the Islamic State is vastly outgunned in Iraq. (Syria is a slightly different story.) They seem to have great problems holding ground once they come under concerted assault that includes both Iraqi ground troops and airstrikes by the U.S.-led coalition. They're poorly equipped to rule and develop the areas under their control and will be forced to tune-up repression as this drags on, which can easily alienate the local population. But unless challenged decisively on their own turf and by Sunni rivals, they can probably remain indefinitely in many Sunni parts of Iraq as a Taliban style Quran-and-Kalashnikov warlord movement, bobbing up and down from subversive action to territorial control depending on the way their war is going at that moment and in that area. It's not the shiny new caliphate they've been dreaming of, but it's also not the Islamic State-free Iraq that the US is hoping for. It's certainly nowhere close to the ideology-addled hallucinations offered up by invasion proponents in 2003.

The fundamental problems that allowed the Islamic State to expand in the first place persist today and have in many ways hardened. The opponents of the jihadis are too badly divided -- along ethnic and religious and political lines, and also in terms of foreign allegiances and support -- to realize even a fraction of their collective might. It's an alliance that is much less than the sum of its parts. For example, the Kurds should be able to blast the Islamic State out of Sinjar fairly easily, with US and Iraqi support. Instead, they have been stuck up there for months because the PKK and KDP are both more interested in pulling the rug from under the others' feet than in actually pushing back the Islamic State. The protests in Basra and elsewhere highlight the cracks in the Shia bloc and show how brittle the Baghdad government remains, particularly with the onset of economic difficulties after the oil price drop.

I think at this point, people looking at the Iraqi war need to start thinking more seriously about what the benchmarks are, or should be. How do you usefully quantify Coalition success against the Islamic State? Is it to halt, contain, and pressure them until we see some rollback and internal fissures opening up? If so, I guess things are going pretty well, despite some hickups like Ramadi. But if the metrics are about building Sunni leadership able to displace the Islamic State more permanently, in alliance with Baghdad, there's been very little progress. I suppose a reasonable way of looking at it would be to accept the premise put forth by the US administration, that this is a multi-year engagement. If so, one could say that step one seems to have gone OK, but there's been no transit to step two yet and it's not clear that that's ever going to happen.

In the end, it's not obvious to me that this is a fixable problem, at least not given the level of resources that the US and others are willing and able to put in. Iraq is an incredible mess. Syria is beyond salvation. Action to affect the situation in these countries is constrained by real and serious costs, many other global and domestic priorities, by the public's war weariness, and much else. A first step should be for policy debate to line up with reality and look at what is achievable given the political situation on both ends of these interventions, instead of measuring success against the impossible standard of "if only". The sooner the better. I'm not sure the world can handle this many whining wonks indefinitely.

Alex Mello is lead Iraq security analyst at energy advisory service Horizon Client Access. He can be followed on @Alex_de_M.

The Islamic State is now on the defensive in Iraq—but this doesn’t mean the Iraqi government is on the path to winning the war. Until April I think you could say pretty accurately that the Iraqi Security Forces (ISF) were broadly on schedule to roll up insurgent gains. Several important insurgent strongholds where security collapsed in June 2014 had already been cleared; the southern Baghdad belts, northern Diyala, Tikrit, and an assault on Mosul was mostly on track for late 2015. The fall of Ramadi in May 2015 upset the entire ISF and Coalition strategy. The ISF are now going have to clear Ramadi, and probably also Fallujah, and it’s not certain that they can. As the fighting in Bayji and its refinery is showing, the ISF and Hashd have a fundamental problem with complex urban combat operations and clearing and holding urban terrain. Another point is that even with the Hashd al-Sha’abi providing a huge manpower reserve and backstopping security in cleared areas the ISF—especially the battle hardened “fire brigade” units, the Iraqi Special Operations Forces (ISOF), Emergency Response Brigades (ERB0, a few Federal Police units and Iraqi Army armored brigades—are badly attrited, exhausted and overstretched, with numerous brigades fixed in place or combat-ineffective. The ISF simply doesn’t have the strength to undertake simultaneous, coordinated operations in multiple areas—like the US corps-level surge offensives in 2007-2008—so they end up “squeezing the balloon”.  Insurgents are cleared from one area only to pop up in another—this is what we’re seeing in Diyala now. The worst case scenario is that if the ISF become bogged down in attritional urban fighting in Ramadi and Fallujah, the federal government may simply end up yielding control of large areas of Sunni Iraq—Mosul, the upper Tigris River Valley, Anbar—to the insurgents, and focus on holding areas that Baghdad considers vital to its security—the Baghdad belts, where most ISF strength is already tied up, Diyala province, and the Baghdad-Samarra corridor, and abandon the rest as permanent hunting ground for Coalition airstrikes and special forces raids. This is what an Islamic State victory could look like.

Douglas Ollivant is a Senior National Security Studies Fellow at the New America Foundation, and is a managing partner at Mantid International. He can be followed on Twitter at @DouglasOllivant.

The war on ISIL, despite setbacks (yes--Ramadi was a huge disappointment) and sputterings, is moving apace in Iraq (no, no one has a plan for Syria), despite disappointing support from some neighboring countries. Further, the arrival of U.S. equipment this summer, the emergence of fresh Iraqi troops from the U.S. training pipeline, the maturing of the U.S. intelligence effort in Iraq, and the opening of Incerlik as an air base, should magnify the effect of coalition assistance.  Success in Ramadi and/or Fallujah this fall/winter will be the barometer of whether the effort is moving fast enough.  But more can be done to assist the Iraqis on the front lines of this effort--not more as in something different, but more as in better and faster along the currently efforts (training, equipping, intelligence, airpower).  Further, providing monies to help the Iraqis (and others with front lines with or near ISIL--the Jordanians come to mind) defray the costs of fighting this transnational threat (and ameliorating the humanitarian crises it is creating) do not seem inappropriate.  The blood (lamentably) spilled to destroy ISIL must come from the region--but the treasure involved could be more broadly sourced.  

Aymenn Jawad al-Tamimi is a Shillman-Ginsburg Fellow at the Middle East Forum. He can be followed on Twitter @ajaltamimi.

Overall, the war against the Islamic State has reached a stalemate with ebb and flow. Though the Islamic State may have lost substantial border holdings in northern Syria to the Kurdish YPG, it has continued to make advances in the Homs desert against the Assad regime, while fighting with the rebels in north Aleppo countryside remains deadlocked. In Iraq a similar trend has emerged with the Islamic State's loss of Tikrit and all towns in Babil and Diyala provinces on the one hand but capturing important towns in Anbar such as Ramadi and Hit on the other. The stalemate aspect in Iraq is particularly evident with the continued fighting over Baiji district and the attempts to move on Ramadi and Fallujah in which government forces and Shi'a militias are taking heavy casualties, while Kurdish forces still cannot retake all of Sinjar town. Indeed, the endless claims in local media outlets of killing X number of Islamic State members in an operation or airstrike here and there can really irritate an analyst. Meanwhile the cities of Mosul, Tel Afar and the towns of far western Anbar show no sign of facing any serious challenge to Islamic State rule for the foreseeable future, and revenue streams have not been seriously hurt because airstrikes cannot dismantle the bureaucratic structure that finds so many avenues for taxation and fees, unless one wants to break all humanitarian boundaries and go for wholesale destruction of the areas the Islamic State controls.

I think there is not enough honesty in policy discussion about what 'defeating' the Islamic State would require: namely, years of extensive ground troop deployments and nation-building projects of the kind no one is prepared to tolerate, limited as the confines of policy discussion are by the legacies of the wars in Iraq and Afghanistan as well as ever more polarized, partisan and dysfunctional politics. For example, one can talk of giving a more proactive role for the U.S. troops currently stationed in Iraq and/or an increase in troop numbers by a few thousand but it will not tip the overall stalemate, leading instead to perceptions of mission creep and unnecessary troop casualties. So until one sees the willpower and consensus for what it would actually take to 'defeat/destroy' the Islamic State, the coalition should drop pretenses to realizing such objectives.

Craig Whiteside is an Associate Professor at the Naval War College, a retired Army Lieutenant Colonel, and a veteran of Operation Iraqi Freedom. He can be followed on Twitter @CraigAWhiteside.

A year has passed since the fall of Mosul, and yet the concerted forces arrayed against the Islamic State have had minimal impact.  It was in April 2007, around the advent of its darkest times, that emir Abu Omar al Baghdadi predicted that the “Islamic State will remain.” Whatever else its failings, the IS movement has a clear strategy, visible determination, and a realistic appraisal of the costs to achieve its goals.  The same cannot be said of our side. Our fear, hesitancy, and fecklessness stand out in all of our public statements. We are afraid the elimination of IS will empower both Assad and the Iranian militias, and that these same militias will target our soldiers in Iraq.  The reality is that IS must be defeated if the Syrian resistance is to defeat Assad, and only an IS loss can reduce Iranian influence in Iraq and create the trust necessary for national reconciliation. We are hesitant to help Iraqis and Syrians fight IS for fear of doing too much for them, yet our predecessors did the same for Europeans, Koreans, and Vietnamese once. We claim to uphold the standard of human rights, yet look away when confronted with incontrovertible, even self-admitted, evidence of genocide and sexual slavery. We have performed due diligence in exhausting diplomatic, economic, and other measures to defeat IS – and they have proven to be insufficient means. The fantasies about negotiating with IS or allowing it to socialize into the international order are detached from reality and demonstrate a lack of understanding of this revolutionary movement – which has expansionistic mandates and a culture that views negotiation as surrender. Finally, our preoccupation with terror attacks against our homeland as our only criteria for action blinds us to a slowly gathering threat which will undoubtedly and eventually bring war to us when the time favors their side. We must increase our efforts to destroy this nascent pseudo-state that poses an existential threat to our friends and allies in the region, before this cancer is untreatable.

Aaron Zelin is the Richard Borow fellow at the Washington Institute for Near East Policy. He can be followed on Twitter @azelin.

One year since the military campaign started in Iraq there have been mixed results. For The Islamic State (IS), one of its main slogans is 'remaining and expanding.' While IS has taken over places such as Fallujah and Ramadi, it has seen its territory in Iraq on the whole shrink, especially in Salah al-Din, Diyala, and parts of Anbar governorates. That said, IS has further entrenched, consolidated, and advanced in its governance in its western provinces Wilayat Ninawa, Wilayat Dijlah, and Wilayat al-Jazirah in particular. Beyond its hisba justice, just in the past week, IS has been involved with cleaning and repainting roads, working at the salt production factory, surveying the landscape for establishing new sidewalks and pathways, repairing sewage lines, running hospitals, running various markets in many cities and villages, running poultry farms, running sewing shops, providing zakat funds and food distribution to those eligible, repaving roads and sidewalks, decorating streets, running car dealerships, building a sports hall, resuming a water filtration plant, settling disputes and reconciling differences between clans, and starting the second round of tests in schools. Of course, this is just a one week sample, illustrating the increasingly sophisticated nature of how IS runs the territory it controls, it goes well beyond the executions that most people only associate IS with. That said, there is still a major humanitarian disaster in areas IS controls and its governance still is not that impressive, it's just that compared to prior jihadi governance, this is the most advanced we have seen as well as the fact that expectations are so low and IS is indeed trying on some level and because of this it might get the benefit of the doubt by some. Therefore, at least in the territories IS still controls and has a tighter grip on now, the military campaign should be viewed as a failure.

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