A body count is not a strategy
12 Jun 2015|


Last week US Deputy Secretary of State Antony Blinken said in a French interview that the American-led coalition had recorded more than 10,000 deaths of ISIS combatants since fighting against the group commenced last year. The linkage of operational success to a body count was roundly condemned by some commentators (see here and here, for instance).

This was followed by a statement by President Obama at the G7 Conference that ‘we don’t yet have a complete strategy against ISIS’. Both are staggering comments.

First, regardless of whether this approach as a valid metric of success, the body count comment does raise two questions: what is the real strength of ISIS, and how are the battle damage assessments conducted? The open source numbers are interesting and almost impossible to verify.

What we do know from open sources is that in late 2014 the commonly quoted figures for ISIS fighters were between 12,000 and 15,000. In early 2015 the US Director of National Intelligence James Clapper in testimony to the Senate Armed Services Committee estimated that ISIS’ strength had increased to between 20,000 and 30,000—and they had lost some 3,000 fighters in the Kobani fight. While plausible, it’s difficult to reconcile ISIS operational performance with rates of losses above 20%.

The Director of US Air Operations over Iraq and Syria has estimated that coalition forces ‘are taking the enemy off the field of battle in significant numbers and at a fairly consistent rate of about 1000 per month’.

But the Institute for the Study of War which does identify its sources calculated that over two days in June 2015, some 292 deaths occurred and the Syrian Observatory for Human Rights assesses the combined Islamist faction’s losses in May to be approximately 2,897.

The estimated number of new foreign fighters flowing into ISIS is around 1,000 per month and while this continues to worry governments globally it’s becoming less of the problem. The larger challenge is that the base of the Caliphate in Syria and Iraq is changing. While the Pentagon’s graphics demonstrate the ebb and flow of the battle, what’s important to understand is the population base from which ISIS can now draw is some 6.5 million people. Back in February, on War on the Rocks, Daveed Gartenstein-Ross brought some transparent analysis to this issue. In particular, he attempted to draw some conclusions from the raw body count approach and what’s being seen on the ground. His conclusion is that the real strength of ISIS is likely to be closer to 100,000 than 30,000 and while the quality of the force is problematic a body count of 10,000 or 10% loss would seem more plausible as ISIS seeks to govern as well as fight.

At the end of the day where does this leave us? ISIS is growing in both numbers and influence. There’s no doubt that they’re also building the trappings of a state. The refugee problem in neighbouring states—particularly Lebanon and Jordan—is increasing in severity every day. The reality is that this is no longer a military problem. It’s a problem demanding a pragmatic political strategy. President Obama’s statement about a lack of strategy isn’t just a sad indictment on his administration, it’s a sad indictment on the political games that now seem to absorb a self-indulgent US Congress.

What should absorb global leaders is the urgent need for a comprehensive political strategy. As I said in an earlier post here, the US isn’t good at strategy, and it continues to reinforce this point of view. While Russia and Iran remain on the outside politically, the underlying issues which continue to destroy Syria from within and thus push Iraq to the inevitable point of dismantlement ensures that a solution to ISIS and a stable Middle East in the mid-term will never be achieved.

The numbers tell the story—and it isn’t a successful one. ISIS is continuing to grow and a narrow military approach alone is no solution at all. If we continue to follow the US strategy of convincing ourselves that we are being successful, we will achieve nothing. As we have from the beginning, we need a political strategy—and we need it urgently.