Analysis 02-28-2015


Is America’s New Strategy on Iraq and ISIS Viable?

It has been said that those who don’t study history are doomed to repeat it.  It’s a piece of advice that needs to be taken seriously by Obama.  And, he should start by studying the military and political history of WWII.

After weeks of being accused by critics of not taking the threat of ISIS to Iraq seriously, the Obama Administration is suddenly moving.  This week, the new defense secretary, Ashton B. Carter, met with senior American military and diplomatic officials in Kuwait in order to outline a strategy to defeat ISIS in Iraq and Syria.  This follows up on an announcement last week that the Iraq army, with the assistance of the US would retake Mosul.

To a large degree, the sudden movement is driven by politics as recent polls indicate that Americans are becoming more worried about ISIS’s advances and want something done to defeat them.  A Gallup poll released this week indicated that 84 percent of people in the US consider ISIS and international terrorism in general the most critical threats to American security.  Iran’s nuclear ambitions and North Korea’s military strength follow with 77 and 64 percent respectively.

Unfortunately, military strategy based on politics is costly in terms of blood.  In World War Two, Hitler made the political decision to focus on capturing Stalingrad.  The result was a long bloody house-to-house battle that bled the German Army dry and contributed to Germany’s eventual defeat.

In many ways, the current Iraqi strategy is based more on political issues, as seen by Obama, rather than realities on the ground.

The Kuwait Meeting and Reformulating US Strategy

The Kuwait meeting on future strategy was based on an upbeat assessment of Iraqi military capability – a necessity if America is to avoid sending American ground forces into the area.  However, that assessment, while politically palatable, is militarily flawed.

Much of the optimism is based on an ongoing battle between the Iraqi army and ISIS in Anbar Province, where about 800 members of the Iraqi security forces are staging a counterattack against ISIS forces that had taken the town of Baghdadi, on the Euphrates River.

Lt. Gen. James L. Terry, the commander of the international coalition fighting the ISIS said he was optimistic about the Iraqi forces’ operation.  Terry said he was, “Pretty confident the Iraqis will retake this. I think they have the right forces out there to do it.”

Terry also sees what he perceives as growing weaknesses in ISIS.  “The capabilities that we are seeing in the Iraqi security forces are growing. At the same time what I think we are not seeing on the part of Daesh (ISIS) is as important also — we are not seeing these broad counteroffenses.”

ISIS “is not using the same tactics, techniques and procedures they used in the past when we first started this” in the summer, he said.

In what is seen as a major military mistake, the Obama Administration has announced that it will focus on retaking Mosul.   In preparation for that offensive, General Terry said Kurdish security forces in Kisik Junction, a city west of Mosul, successfully repelled an attack by ISIS fighters there.  With the help of US Special Forces who helped coordinate air strikes between the US Air Force and the Kurds, the US killed at least 127 ISIS fighters.

General Terry noted that Kisik Junction is a critical objective in the upcoming battle for Mosul because it controls critical supply lines that would allow ISIS to move troops and supplies into the battle.

Retaking Mosul

The key to this new offensive is retaking Mosul according to a briefing by the Obama Administration last week.  The briefing was seen as a political move as it showed a resolute president and a way to prepare the American people for a greater ground presence in Iraq in the near future.

However, there were many critics of the briefing.  Some considered the briefing foolhardy as it allows ISIS to fortify the city in advance of the offensive.  Others asked how effective the Iraqi army will be without significant American support.  They noted that General Martin Dempsey, the chairman of the Joint Chiefs, had previously stated, “We may need to ask to have our advisers accompany the troops that are moving on Mosul.”

To military experts, there is no question that although the offensive will mainly be launched by the Iraqi Army, it cannot succeed without American forward air controllers and advisers, plus thousands of backup U.S. troops, or the participation of regional effective troops like the Iranian or Syrian forces or other special forces>

There is also a serious political risk for Obama if the two battles for Fallujah are an indication of what can happen in Mosul.

In April of 2004, President Bush ordered the Marines, against their advice, to seize Fallujah. Within days, the ferocity of the battle sparked a public outcry.  Bush lost his nerve and ordered the Marines to pull out.

After the Marines pulled out of Fallujah, the rebels took control, forcing a second assault in November. Some 18,000 buildings were damaged or destroyed by 540 air strikes and 16,000 artillery and tank shells.  Seventy Americans were killed and 600 wounded.

An Iraqi attack on Mosul could be bloodier.  It also has a troubling similarity to Operation Market Garden that took place 70 years ago in Holland and led to the near destruction of the British 1st Airborne Division.  The operation, which was to allow a flanking attack around Germany’s Siegfried Line required capturing several major cities and moving up one road that was vulnerable to German attacks along its whole length.  While the British XXX Corps slogged up that one road, two American airborne divisions were forced to cover the exposed flank and repeated German counter attacks.

The American plan to attack Mosul appears to be Operation Market Garden II.

In order to attack Mosul, which is 200 miles north of Baghdad, the Iraqi Army has to launch a major offensive to take and hold five cities along the way.   Once that is done, troop replacements and supply will be forced to move up a single highway that will be vulnerable to IEDs and suicide-bomber attacks. Since, between 30,000 and 50,000 tons of munitions, water, fuel, and equipment must be delivered to the frontlines every day, either the supply convoys will be vulnerable to ISIS attacks or a large number of troops will be forced to guard the route.

The fight in Mosul would likely be just as bloody as the fight in Arnhem in Operation Market Garden – the battle that cost 75% of the elite British 1st Airborne Division’s manpower.  In fact, it will probably be worse, since the western part of Mosul is mainly uncooperative with the central government and the population may prefer to fight rather than surrender to what is perceived a dominant Shiite Iraqi army.   ISIS will hold tens of thousands of civilians as human shields, while hundreds of thousands will flee, guaranteeing confusion.  Many ISIS fighters will probably hide among 150,000 buildings, determined to fight to the death.

As with Operation Market Garden, this operation to retake Mosul will not be quick or bloodless.  ISIS’s strength and reputation will crumble if Mosul falls.  If ISIS were to retreat, what happened in Anbar Province in late 2006 would be repeated: namely, the local populace would point out every ISIS supporter and every ISIS hiding place.  This is especially true for the part of Mosul on the east side of the Tigris, which is mostly Kurdish.  The terrors meted out to the local populace would be repaid with interest.

Since the Iraqi Army isn’t as skilled as the US Marines, the chances that they will successfully engage ISIS in house-to-house fighting is unlikely.  Instead, they will probably rely upon artillery and US air power to reduce the city to rubble – a tactic that proved to be totally unsuccessful during WWII, especially in the Battle of Stalingrad.

While the Iraqi army is expected to be hesitant, ISIS will fight for every square foot for good reason.  A retreating ISIS army would also become a highly vulnerable target to the allied air forces.  Every identifiable enemy vehicle would become a target and the chances of a viable force surviving a retreat from Mosul are unlikely.

There is every indication that the battle for Mosul will be a killing ground for Iraqi forces.  At best, it represents a costly victory for Iraq and the US.  At worse, it represents a potential military catastrophe for the US and Iraq.  The fight for Mosul could bleed out the Iraqi army so much that it loses it cohesiveness, which could lead to a total collapse that the US could not stop.  At best, the loss of Iraqi forces would force the US and other allied nations to commit ground forces to the battle – something that none are anxious to do.

As in all military operations, the cost must be weighed against the political and military benefits.  As was seen in the recent fighting in Kobane, ISIS is a tough fighter in urban warfare.  Will the time, manpower, and supplies needed to recapture Mosul be worth it?

There are other options.  In WWII in the Pacific, MacArthur went around major Japanese bases and left them to wither as he moved nearer to Japan.  With US mastery of the Pacific, these bases were reduced to starvation and posed no threat to the Americans.

A military maxim is to, “Hit the enemy where they ain’t.”  This holds true for Iraq too.  Rather than focusing on the costly capture of Mosul, the US and Iraq should carry out their offensive against vulnerable ISIS targets – especially ones that allow the US to make the best use of their overwhelming air power. A strategy focusing on creating conditions leading to stripping ISIS of popular support in the area they occupy mixed with effective and selective military operations could have better outcome.



Transition in Afghanistan: Losing the Forgotten War?

By Anthony H. Cordesman

Center for Strategic and International Studies

February 23, 2015

The Burke Chair has previously circulated a report on the Transition in Afghanistan. It covers the civil and military lessons of the war, the trends at the time of transition, and the risks inherent in the current approach to supporting Afghanistan in 2015. We have since received further comments on the revised edition, and an update is being circulated in final draft form before becoming a CSIS E-book. This report is entitled Transition in Afghanistan: Losing the Forgotten War?

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Middle East Notes and Comment: To Fight Jihadi Violence, End the Wars

By Jon B. Alterman

Center for Strategic and International Studies

February 20, 2015


The spread of jihadi violence in the Arab world is as obvious as it is painful. Syria, Iraq, Egypt, Yemen, and Libya all have groups that use the slogans and symbols of Islam to recruit, to radicalize, and to justify violent campaigns against the status quo. The distribution of another cinematic video last week, showing the grisly murders of more than a dozen Egyptian Christians in Libya, suggested that these groups share more than an ideology across borders. Making the video required an international collaboration among cameramen, editors, and scriptwriters.  Western governments have concentrated on ways to wipe out the groups—first al Qaeda, and more recently Daesh, or the Islamic State. These governments focus on airstrikes, intelligence cooperation, financial countermeasures, and ideological delegitimization. They have focused less on the fact that each of these groups thrives in the midst of a proxy war—one that is often conducted between U.S. allies.

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On Extremism: Stop Talking About Strategy and Start Talking About Execution

By Nathaniel Myers

Carnegie Endowment

February 17, 2015

Defense One

With the White House preparing for this week’s international conference on violent extremism, Secretary of State John Kerry recently warned the threat represented no less than “a challenge to the nation state.” It was a thoughtful speech, in its diagnosis and prescriptions: it recognized the magnitude and complexity of the threat, the need for both military and civilian response, and the greater investment of resources and time required. As a former U.S. Agency for International Development, or USAID, staffer who specialized in programming in places like Yemen and Libya, I was heartened to see that the secretary got it.

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Why the Victory in Kobane Matters

By Aron Lund

Carnegie Endowment

February 13, 2015

In late January, the Kurdish forces of the People’s Protection Units, or YPG, declared that they had recaptured the northern Syrian city of Kobane, known in Arabic as Ein al-Arab.  The Kobane enclave has long been under siege by the jihadis of the so-called Islamic State, who were operating out of the surrounding Sunni Arab countryside. For months, the conflict rarely rose above low-level skirmishing. But in mid-September, after its victories in Iraq and eastern Syria, the Islamic State suddenly struck in force and threw the Kurds back to the border. As tens of thousands of Kurdish civilians fled in panic across the border to Turkey, the enclave seemed doomed to fall under complete Islamic State control—but then things turned around.

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Watch Africa in fight against ISIL
By Ilan Berman
American Foreign Policy Council
February 26, 2015

It’s a truism of broadcast media that “If it bleeds, it leads.” The field of counterterrorism functions much the same way, which is why in recent months the Islamic State terrorist group have become the overwhelming focus of Western law enforcement and intelligence. Yet an equally significant security challenge is incubating in Africa, where local conditions have sown the seeds for the next stage of global terror.  That was the main theme of this year’s Marrakech Security Forum, which brought together military officials, counterterrorism professionals and government representatives from Europe, Africa and the United States in Morocco on February 13 and 14. The high-profile event focused on the explosive population growth, stagnant economies, pervasive corruption, ineffective governments and rampant criminality plaguing the continent: factors which have helped make Africa a “laboratory” for radical groups.  The scope of the problem is far broader than commonly understood in the West.

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Netanyahu’s True Electoral Rival

Caroline Glick

Center for Security Policy

February 24, 2015

Officially, the election on March 17 is among Israelis. Depending on how we vote, either Prime Minister Binyamin Netanyahu will remain in office and form the next government led by his Likud party, or Isaac Herzog and Tzipi Livni will form a government.  But unofficially, a far greater electoral drama is unfolding. The choice is not between Netanyahu and Herzog/Livni. It is between Netanyahu and US President Barack Obama.  As the White House sees it, if Herzog/Livni form the next government, then Jerusalem will dance to Obama’s tune. If Netanyahu is reelected, then the entire edifice of Obama’s Middle East policy may topple and fall.

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Seven Problems with John Kerry’s Iranian Nuclear Clock

By Gary C. Gambill

Foreign Policy Research Institute

February 2015

US Secretary of State John Kerry has repeatedly pledged that the prospective nuclear agreement being hammered out between the P5+1 world powers and Iran will extend the Islamic Republic’s “breakout time” – how quickly it can produce sufficient fissile material for an atomic bomb should it make a rush to build one – from “about two months” to “a minimum of a year.”  While U.S. officials have been tight-lipped about details of the talks, this seemingly tangible metric is clearly going to be the big selling point when Kerry seeks to win support for an agreement from a skeptical Congress.  Kerry gets his numbers by calculating how long it would take Iran to produce a bomb’s worth (around 25 kg) of weapons grade uranium (WGU) given the number and types of centrifuges it currently has installed (18,458 first generation IR-1s and 1008 IR-2s) and operating (around 10,180 IR-1s) at its two enrichment plants, and the amount of under 5% low enriched uranium (LEU) it has on hand to use as feedstock.  Cap these variables at whatever levels are needed to lift the other side of the equation to a year, put in place an augmented inspections regime to make sure Iran isn’t cheating, and voila … ten months back on the clock.  Well, not exactly.  A multitude of “ifs”, “ands”, and “buts” render Kerry’s pledge all but meaningless.

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When Islamic State Starts Hitting Ships

By Seth Cropsey

Hudson Institute

February 24, 2015

The slaughter of 21 Egyptian Christians by Islamic State militants on Feb. 15 took place on the Libyan shore of the Mediterranean. Former Libyan Prime Minister Ali Zeidan recently told the Times of London that unless order is restored in his country, ISIS will secure territory on Libya’s Mediterranean coast within two months. This would increase its potential for attacks in Italy, Greece and elsewhere in Europe. An October ISIS publication pictured St. Peter’s Square under a black flag, and ISIS’s sentiments about Christians are clear.  Greater ISIS access to the Mediterranean would be deeply troubling to the region and a large strategic advance for the terrorist group. ISIS’s prospects for significant naval power are remote. But small boats, fishing vessels, smugglers, and merchant craft that carry concealed weapons could hijack, sink, or rake commercial shipping including cruise liners in the central Mediterranean. This would divide the eastern part of the inland sea from its west and expose Europe’s southern littoral to attacks and kidnappings.

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Mounzer A. Sleiman Ph.D.
Center for American and Arab Studies
Think Tanks Monitor