The Buzz

We’re Losing the War Against ISIS in Iraq

My last post examined Islamic State as a global terrorist entity—a complex and constantly evolving threat. This two-part post focuses more tightly on the unfolding war against ISIS in Iraq. Here things are much clearer: we’re losing.

Anyone reading this already knows much of the history, but to recap: ISIS exploited Iraqi government ineptitude and sectarian division after US forces left in 2011, and used the sanctuary created by the Syrian civil war to grow from an urban guerrilla group—small cells, civilian clothes and vehicles, light weapons, operating mainly by night with asymmetric (i.e. terrorist) hit-and-run tactics—into something more like a conventional light armored cavalry.

By late 2013, when ISIS fighters mounted a major push against the Iraqi cities of Tikrit and Fallujah, their tactical style had settled into a pattern. A main force, often comprising dozens of trucks and troop-carrying technicals, would move in compact formation on highways and secondary roads. Ahead of it, and to the flanks, a swarm of gun trucks—technicals with anti-armor weapons, heavy machine guns, radios and a few dismounts—ranged widely across the landscape, scouting routes, securing chokepoints, and looking for targets of opportunity or soft spots. When they spotted one, they would either “bounce” and overwhelm it with their own resources, or pull the main column onto it using radio and cellphone messages. Teams of two to three technicals, each carrying six or eight fighters ready to dismount, would swarm onto a target, coordinating their fire to overwhelm it. This is classic maneuver warfare—in the business, it’s known as “recon pull”—and it looked a lot like Soviet-style mission tactics, which was unsurprising given the number of Ba’athist officers now on the ISIS payroll.

But there were a couple of variations. First, ISIS columns at this time (we’re talking early 2014 now) operated in much tighter formations than a western armored force would do, clumping together in relatively large columns. They had little to fear from Iraqi air power or artillery: instead of dispersing to protect against these kinds of threats, their formations were optimized for mutual support against a ground-based enemy. Second, unlike conventional troops (or, even, many guerrilla organizations) they made extensive use of suicide bombers, often in improvised armored vehicles, as primitive guided weapons—leading assaults, clearing roadblocks and obstacles, and creating shock effects that could be exploited by the main column to bypass strongpoints or seize defended locations.

Beyond the main force, ISIS maintained a guerrilla capability in and around Iraqi cities, with a network of intelligence sources, safe houses, bomb-makers, snipers and terror cells. These guerrillas fought alongside the main force when it was in their area. But their primary task was harassment, intimidation, reconnaissance, intelligence gathering and propaganda (including information warfare and “propaganda of the deed” killings).

In the first half of 2014, ISIS used these tactics to seize and hold a huge swathe of ground, applying a flexible, mobile defense to defeat Iraqi government counter-attacks. They also captured and put into service increasing numbers of Iraqi armored vehicles including tanks, Bradley fighting vehicles, MRAPs, up-armored Humvees and self-propelled artillery. They also captured numerous heavy and medium towed artillery pieces, mortars and other equipment (mostly of US origin), which was supplemented with Syrian equipment including heavy artillery and Russian-manufactured armored vehicles. This allowed them to create large formations supported by tanks and artillery, making them an extremely formidable adversary. By mid-June, they’d captured Mosul, threatened the outskirts of Baghdad and Ramadi, seized Tikrit and most of Fallujah, and were pushing against the Kurdish capital, Irbil.

This success—which amounted to a conventional blitzkrieg-style offensive across most of western Iraq—prompted the US and its allies (including Australia, Canada and the UK) to intervene with airstrikes in August-September 2014, followed by advisors, trainers and certain special operations capabilities come October. The initial goal was to blunt the ISIS advance, and this succeeded. The Kurdish front stabilized into a form of trench warfare north and west of Irbil, Mosul Dam was recaptured, and Iraqi forces (a combination of demoralized regular troops and increasingly well-armed and assertive Iranian-backed militias known as the “Popular Mobilization”) retook ground around Baghdad, relieving pressure on the capital.

US leaders spoke confidently at this time of rolling back ISIS, rebuilding the Iraqi army, and then recapturing Mosul with the support of international airpower and advisors. In response, ISIS dropped back an evolutionary stage into guerrilla mode. It went back to small teams in civilian clothes, blending into the population and employing night operations and asymmetric attacks. The large formations dispersed into smaller, platoon-sized combat groups, each comprising a few vehicles and 20-40 fighters, and its leaders went underground.