There seems to be a perception in the West that the war against the Islamic State of Iraq and the Levant (ISIL) is stalemated on the main battlefields of Iraq and Syria. That’s probably true in northwestern and central Syria, where ISIL and the Russian- and Iranian-backed Assad regime are containing and eroding progress by rebel forces. By contrast, there has been a mixture of frustrations and solid achievements in Iraq and eastern Syria. ISIL still holds Mosul, Raqqa, Ramadi and a number of other major Iraqi and Syrian towns. But Baghdad, Erbil, Samarra, Kirkuk and Haditha were denied to the enemy. And Mosul Dam, Jurf as-Sakr, Kobane, Tikrit, Tal Abyad and Bayji were recaptured alongside scores of less well-known settlements.
I just returned from three weeks visiting various coalition headquarters and training bases for anti-ISIL forces in and around Iraq. I came back with a strong sense that the campaign was not stalemated, at least not in Iraq and eastern Syria. With access to each major coalition headquarters and many Iraqi units, I gained a picture of the campaign that was complex and granular, and I emerged more optimistic about the prospects for the battlefield defeat of ISIL in Iraq and eastern Syria. Speaking privately to senior commanders — as well as the young troops with a nitty-gritty, fingertip feel for the front line — it was clear that more is going right at the tactical level of battles and airstrikes than many observers, myself included, might have suspected.
Progress is happening, but there is growing impatience to increase the impetus of the campaign. Fifteen months into the war, the web of battlefield alliances against ISIL are showing signs of strain. Many of the coalition nations are growing restless: When will momentum be sustained across a sequence of successful battles? Are the coalition nations able to sustain their commitment to match the uncertain pace of the campaign? At the same time, Iraqi actors are growing tired of the apparently stingy rationing of military support that they get from the coalition. They know the United States can do so much more but is seemingly choosing not to, in what looks to Iraqis like a strategy to contain, not defeat ISIL. Iraqi Shia militia leaders are pressuring Prime Minister Haider al-Abadi with growing insistence to trade the coalition for a Russian-Iranian-Syrian alliance against ISIL. Many Iraqis cannot see why this is necessarily a bad idea.
This is because the coalition’s positive impact on the war against ISIL somehow remains the best kept secret of the war. When ISIL begins to critically weaken around Bayji we cannot expect Iraqis to somehow adduce the truth: Our airpower has been invisibly ripping apart a network of networks that feeds ISIL recruits and suicide bombs and car bombs into that battlefield, and that this is why a relatively small infusion of Iraqi government reinforcements were able to tip the balance against ISIL in that embattled city. The coalition can and should do more by loosening our rules of engagement (ROE), accompanying Iraqi and Syrian troops closer to the front line to firm up their units and directly delivering weapons and supplies to friendly Iraqi and Syrian units committed to key battles. But just as importantly, we need to do a much better job of publicizing what we already do, and then leveraging the kudos into a much tighter planning relationship with our Iraqi and Syrian allies based on strategic conferences where we can honestly discuss commitment levels, timelines and operational objectives. We have to take these steps quickly in order to blunt the increasingly aggressive Iranian and Russian efforts to undermine the coalition’s relationship with our key allies in Iraq and eastern Syria.
The reality of proxy warfare against ISIL
Visit any coalition headquarters and you will be struck by the dominant reality of the campaign against ISIL: This is a proxy war in which Iraqi and Syrian actors are the key players. This shapes everything that the coalition attempts to do: Our plan is their plan, our timeline is their timeline. One of the most jarring impressions I gained in Iraq recently was the strange disjointedness between coalition and Iraqi thinking. The coalition is fighting the war “by, with and through” the Iraqis, yet we don’t seem to have sufficiently candid communications with the Iraqis. Both sides seem to spend an inordinate amount of brainpower guessing what the other partner really plans to do next, how committed they really are to specific ventures and why they did or didn’t meet specific commitments.
The Iraqi Security Forces (ISF) are once again grinding forward on key battlefields in Ramadi and Bayji. As in previous attritional struggles, like the First World War, even the smallest advances take on great significance. But scratch the surface of these battles and there are still many disturbing indicators about ISF capabilities and the state of Iraqi operational leadership. In Ramadi, for instance, the ISF enjoyed a 100-1 numerical advantage over ISIL’s thin defensive screen on key fronts, and the ISIL forces were under daily air bombardment from highly lethal coalition strikes. So why couldn’t Iraqi forces advance the short distances needed to occupy lightly defended terrain?
Here’s why. An average Iraqi army brigade musters around 1,000 men at the best of times. In practice, on the front line, a brigade’s strength is half that. The soldiers are frequently thrown into battle with little or no idea where they are headed, pulled out of training or refitting prematurely to meet the latest emergency. Ammunition, food, shelter and fuel are always in short supply. Soldiers are justifiably scared of being abandoned by their officers and overrun by a ruthless enemy: This is why the vaguest hint of retreat causes collapses. If a jundi (soldier) receives a minor wound he knows there is no casualty evacuation and no combat-lifesaving to help him, and that he may be left behind for the enemy to torture to death, or may simply bleed out from a survivable wound. The armored suicide vehicle-borne IED (VBIED) is a terror weapon that every unit has met on the battlefield: The skeleton-crewed Iraqi brigades have no depth and their command posts are never far from the center of the unit front, right where the VBIEDs hit. ISIL liberally seeds all lines of advance with booby-traps, another terror weapon.
Some of these weaknesses are being offset as the campaign progresses. ISF units fighting in Ramadi are now being equipped with specialized mine-clearing equipment to clear the fields of IEDs. Combat bulldozer units are being built to help Iraqis quickly consolidate their defense of newly won terrain, an important way to blunt ISIL’s armored suicide VBIED counter-attacks. New coalition-trained ISF brigades are performing well when they are allowed to complete their training, and when the United States directly equips them instead of relying on the vagaries of the Iraqi logistical system. I met a lot of young soldiers who want to fight if they can be given the support that most soldiers get in modern militaries. I also met predominately Sunni Arab divisional and brigade command staffs who wanted to wipe away the humiliation the Iraqi army suffered at Mosul in 2014 and Ramadi earlier this year. If Iraqi formations can be properly prepared and supported, “will to fight” will not be the real problem.
How to accelerate the war against ISIL
The coalition — and let’s honest here, I mean the United States in this case — spent the first year of the anti-ISIL fight trying to do this war “on the cheap.” For much of the conflict Combat Support Agencies like DIA and NSA have only been called on to give nine-to-five weekday support to a 24/7/365 war. The lack of a dedicated three-star headquarters in Iraq was only remedied in September 2015 with the deployment of the U.S. III Corps staff. With the step up to a dedicated corps-level headquarters for Operation Inherent Resolve much can be done to increase the level of coalition commitment to the fight, and not necessarily at much greater risk or expense. Coalition forces could extend the training program to intensify advise, assist and accompany activities to Iraqi and Syrian Democratic Forces units in key offensives where a little extra reassurance and planning support might tip the balance against an exhausted enemy, and, ultimately, get us out of this war months earlier. Units that the coalition directly equipped — such as the 73rd and 76th Iraqi army brigades — have achieved much better battlefield performances than units equipped via the black hole of the Iraqi logistical system. At Taji, one of the bases I visited, the coalition could feed equipment directly from the coalition-run airstrip to the units it is training, but instead the equipment often sits in Iraqi warehouses somewhere else on the base, unreachable by the units. This is madness. We should be issuing equipment directly to the government troops that need it. Better for Iraq, and better for us.
Though the air campaign is having a devastating impact on key battlefields, it is doing so with at least one hand tied behind its back. The ROE for the air campaign are without doubt the most obsessively restrictive of any air campaign ever fought by a U.S.-led coalition, and probably by any nation in any war. If the ROE can be loosened in smart ways it will still be by far the safest air campaign in history, but our numbers of strikes against well-qualified enemy targets will go through the roof, hitting ISIL much harder and freeing up a lot of intelligence, surveillance and reconnaissance assets that are currently tied up in obsessive platinum-standard target vetting. Without breaking a sweat, we will show the Russians (and more importantly our allies) what a real air campaign looks like.
We should be increasing the visibility of our air campaign in whatever ways we can. Part of this is better publicizing what we already do, but we also need to focus on what our allies need to see. Deep strikes on ISIL rear areas are valuable and fit with our doctrine of dissecting the enemy as a target system. But they are invisible to the Iraqis, as are their effects. We need to recognize that tactical targets in the front line are strategic targets because of the effect such strikes have on Iraqi unit morale, the consequent increased chance of making operational breakthroughs and the Iraqi public recognition of the coalition’s importance. This recognition can save coalition lives because the more indispensable an ally we appear, the more public and elite pushback Iranian-backed Shia militias will risk by attacking us.
Greater Iraqi recognition of the critical role of the coalition could open the way for a more open strategic dialogue, in much the same way that the disparate allies of the Second World War gathered for great planning conferences. There could be bruising affairs, but at least they cleared the air and allowed the allies to outline and better harmonize their differing priorities, limitations, near-term objectives and timelines. The coalition has a legitimate stake in understanding Iraqi thinking on the future conduct of the war and vice versa. It will help to sustain international commitment to the war if force contributors and the Iraqis can reach a common position on timelines. As Iranian-backed militia leaders levy increasingly aggressive demands for a reduced U.S. role, Abadi and his backers need to send a clear signal of mutual commitment.
We also need a more relevant, updated war plan. A strategic dialogue could reset the campaign plan for Iraq and eastern Syria, which might collectively be reframed as an integrated Jazira campaign focused on the ISIL heartland between Mosul, Raqqa and Ramadi. (Jazira is the Iraq-Syria area between the Tigris and Euphrates, which encompasses Mosul, Raqqa and most of the ISIL-controlled areas where the coalition operates.) Much of the last 15 months has been an improvised response to ISIL’s repeated seizure of the initiative. After Ramadi is cleared, the anti-ISIL forces should consolidate, to break the pattern of ISIL punching back and retaking the initiative, and should then move forward with a deliberate military plan for the entire Jazira area. If the coalition’s commitment is viewed as deepening, our Iraqi and Syrian allies are more likely to work closely with us to develop a joint plan. A new consensus plan would aid coalition partners in planning the sustainment of the international effort. It would produce an operational concept that synchronized and integrated action on the various battlefronts. If a more deliberate pace is chosen this could guide the coalition’s train, equip, advise and assist program, allowing proxy forces to be armed and prepared for specific tasks and permitting these forces to finish longer, more effective training programs. A joined-up plan could finally draw Iraqi, Kurdish and Syrian stakeholders into discussion of how to plan for the under-scrutinized risk of “catastrophic success” in case of the early collapse of ISIL control in Mosul or Raqqa.
Contingency planning for unexpected success is important because our impression of events in Iraq is often out of date by a few months. Just as the impression forms that the war is stalemated, something is liable to change and quite possibly for the better. The U.S. government has made a point of stressing that the war against ISIL is a slow-burn affair, but the reality is that we’re not fully in control of the timeline. Our Iranian-backed and Russian rivals want to knock us out in the near term before we help our allies win more victories. We need to better support Abadi and gain greater leverage now.
Michael Knights is the Lafer Fellow at the Washington Institute for Near East Policy. He has worked in every Iraqi province and most of the hundred districts, including periods spent embedded with the Iraqi Security Forces and the Peshmerga.
Photo credit: Cpl. Jonathan Boynes, U.S. Marine Corps