Analysis of international affairs and current crises
Friday, March 13, 2015
The Wall Street Journal
In War on ISIS, Numbers
Don’t Always Tell the
By ROBIN WRIGHT March 13, 2015
Wars often degrade into numbers games of competing
troop strengths, arsenals, territory held, bombing runs, and body counts. But
judging an asymmetric conflict is complicated, and the battle against Islamic
State involves militaries that are, in most respects, vastly different.
In Iraq, the battle for Tikrit reflects the imbalances and oddities. In
Syria, the aftermath of the battle for Kobani shows how victories in this war are not
always clean or decisive.
In Tikrit, some 30,000 have been fighting to
retake Saddam Hussein’s
home town. There are at least three disparate forces–the Iraqi army, an
umbrella group of Shiite militias, and Sunni tribal fighters–with senior
military advisers from Iran’s Revolutionary Guards providing strategy. They
attacked ISIS simultaneously on three fronts.
ISIS had only hundreds of militants in Tikrit,
according to Gen. Martin Dempsey,
chairman of the Joint Chiefs of Staff, who visited Iraq this week.
By numbers alone, the first major Iraqi offensive
against ISIS should have been a romp.
Yet the fight to retake this city 90 miles north of
Baghdad has been a slog, partly because of such immeasurable factors as motive,
incentives, and ideological commitment. Sunni militants loyal to ISIS have
repeatedly demonstrated more discipline and greater devotion, in Iraq and in
Syria, than their rivals.
At this point, ISIS seems destined toretreat from Tikrit. Iraqi Prime MinisterHaidar al-Abadi declared Thursday that victory was near,
despite suicide bombings and booby-trapped roads and buildings that have slowed
Although the Iraqi army nearly collapsed last
summer, ISIS is now outnumbered and outgunned in Iraq. The Iraqi military has
48,000 effective forces–about a quarter of its peak strength of 210,000 troops in
2009. A handful of Shiite militias, operating under the umbrella of Hashd
al-Shaabi, or Popular Mobilization Forces, made up two-thirds of the fighting
forces in the Tikrit campaign. Between 1,000 and 3,000 Sunni tribal fighters also took part in the battle.
Yet Islamic State militants have proven their
willingness to fight, whatever the cost in human life or urban destruction. And
insurgencies always have the edge of stealth. As it ceded turf in Tikrit,
ISIS intensified its assault on Ramadi, a city nearly twice the size of
Tikrit and only 60 miles west of Baghdad.
On Thursday, ISIS fighters blew up an Iraqi army headquarters in Ramadi, killing
more than 40 soldiers. ISIS militants had dug a tunnel below the headquarters
and set off homemade bombs, according to local officials.
In Syria, the first and biggest success against
ISIS illustrates the complexities of this asymmetric war. On Jan. 26, ISIS was
forced to retreat from Kobani, the little Kurdish town on the Turkish-Syrian
border. With the help of more than 600 airstrikes since August by the U.S.-led
coalition–at a cost of hundreds of millions of dollars–a Kurdish militia with
vintage arms pushed the militants out. It was a costly defeat for ISIS: More
than 2,000 of its fighters were killed, U.S. officials said at the time.
Yet since that victory, the U.S.-led coalition has
bombed “near Kobani” 175 times, according to a tally of U.S. Central Command’s
daily press releases. That’s 67% of the coalition bombings in all of Syria
since the win in Kobani. In other words, ISIS is still a threat “near Kobani,”
just as it may be near Tikrit even if it pulls out.
In short, numbers don’t always tell the whole story
of any battle.