Friday, March 13, 2015

The Wall Street Journal

In War on ISIS, Numbers 

Don’t Always Tell the Story

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 the offensive.
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.


  1. Reading Rock the Casbah. Great book!

  2. Robin - it's Billy Buhr! Please email me at