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The war in Iraq: tactical success, strategic ambiguity

Posted By on November 8, 2017 @ 11:08

With the recent fall of Raqqa, Dair ez-Zor and now al-Qaim, the military defeat of Islamic State (IS) is at hand. For strategists, it is thus timely to question whether the three years of war against this adversary have yielded strategic victory—and the answer is vague indeed.

The significant attrition experienced by IS in Mosul may have overwhelmed the idea of the caliphate. Rapid capitulation in Tal Afar and Hawijah suggests either a loss of morale or a change in strategy towards posturing for an insurgency. Evidence of the latter has been seen in Europe, where attacks by IS increased in frequency despite its losses of terrain and senior leadership in the Middle East and North Africa. The IS leadership may be purposefully choosing to transition to a global insurgency paradigm—akin to a Maoist latent/incipient phase of guerrilla warfare—leveraging an IS-affiliated diaspora across the globe. Alternatively, IS may be rejecting a territorially based identity that would understand defeat via this Westphalian norm. It must therefore be expected that the group will continue to inspire terrorist activities to create instability, progress global insurgency, and grow the virtual caliphate.

There are numerous indications that Iraq remains politically and militarily fragile. At a tactical level, Shia-oriented Popular Mobilisation Forces (PMF) are seemingly filling the security void that followed the clearance operations conducted by Iraqi Security Forces (ISF), enabled by the coalition. There are indications that the Iranian Revolutionary Guards Corps Quds Force (IRGC-QF) influenced PMF actions during recent operations against Kurdish-controlled regions in October. In this context, the current coalition support being provided to accelerate ISF clearance operations may paradoxically be enabling Shia PMF and Iranian objectives. PMF operations in historically Sunni-dominated regions may also signal a shift in power ahead of the coming elections in April–May 2018. This road of increasing Shia dominance has been walked before—and it led to the emergence of IS after the US withdrawal in 2011.

In the process of liberating Mosul, coalition airpower delivered more than 5,075 weapons in support of ISF over the month of August 2017 alone. That’s an average of one aerially delivered weapon every 10 minutes. A total of 98,532 weapons have been delivered in Operation Inherent Resolve, in Syria and Iraq. For a force estimated to consist of around 30,000 fighters in 2015, that is both frighteningly inefficient and has devastated Iraq’s Sunni and Turkomen populations.

The current short-term focus on the military defeat of IS belies the reality that Iraq will retain fragile governance, making it vulnerable to violent extremism. In 2035, the median age in Iraq will be 21.9 years. That median is today’s infants and children, who will grow up in a war-scarred environment, likely to lack schooling, adequate health care, and employment opportunities. There are indications that the government of Iraq will fail to be capable of providing such opportunities to its Sunni population, more than a million and a half of whom are now resident in Iraqi refugee camps.

It must be expected that the elections of 2018 and the military defeat of IS will bring a political imperative for the Iraqi government to constrain coalition freedom of action. Concurrently, the government seems limited in its abilities to constrain the actions of the PMF, which in recent months has seized three of the four major border-crossing points into Syria. A land bridge stretching from Tehran to Beirut is thus a reality. Iran is well positioned to sustain its support to Lebanese Hezbollah as a proxy force against Israel or the Free Syrian Army. Iran is likewise well postured to sustain its support to the PMF groups Kata’ib Hizbollah (a foreign terrorist organisation), Asa’ib Ahl al-Haq (an IRGC-QF proxy) and the Badr Organisation (a Shiite militia that is unabashedly pro-Iranian), currently conducting what might be viewed as counter-insurgency operations across Ninewa and Anbar provinces in Iraq.

When Western nations finally leave Iraq, it might be reasonable to ask whether it was they or the Iranian regime that benefited most from the campaign against IS. As Bernard Fall cautioned over half a century ago in Street Without Joy, ‘liberation’ is a subjective term:
To a village which has been occupied by a VC platoon against its will and whose only suffering at the hands of the Communists was the murder of a rather unpopular village chief, ‘liberation’ through massive napalming and attendant losses of innocent inhabitants (not to speak of all property, stored rice, and even farm animals) will be a hollow joke, indeed.

The combination of battle damage, disaffected youth, and the potential for sectarian and political misrepresentation suggests that the seeds have been sown for the next war in Iraq. This ‘not quite war’ had no obvious end point, and required a nuanced strategy beyond that of ‘placing warheads on foreheads’. Iran has seemingly recognised this subtlety; it is ambiguous as to whether the coalition will do so as well.

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[1] despite its losses of terrain and senior leadership in the Middle East and North Africa: http://iswresearch.blogspot.com.au/2017/09/isiss-expanding-campaign-in-europe.html?utm_source=ISIS+in+Europe+&utm_campaign=ISIS+in+Europe&utm_medium=email,

[2] territorially based identity: https://warontherocks.com/2017/10/defeat-as-victory-how-the-islamic-state-will-rely-on-hijrah-to-claim-a-win/

[3] virtual caliphate: https://www.cnas.org/publications/reports/virtual-caliphate

[4] influenced PMF actions: https://www.theguardian.com/world/2017/oct/16/iraq-kurdish-forces-army-us-military

[5] Operation Inherent Resolve: http://www.afcent.af.mil/Portals/82/Documents/Airpower%20summary/Airpower%20Summary%20-%20August%202017.pdf?ver=2017-09-07-104037-223

[6] 21.9 years: http://www.dni.gov/nic/globaltrends

[7] a million and a half: http://www.unhcr.org/en-au/iraq-emergency.html

[8] a foreign terrorist organisation: https://www.state.gov/j/ct/rls/other/des/123085.htm

[9] an IRGC-QF proxy: https://web.stanford.edu/group/mappingmilitants/cgi-bin/groups/view/143

[10] a Shiite militia that is unabashedly pro-Iranian: https://foreignpolicy.com/2014/11/06/breaking-badr/

[11] not quite war: https://www.aspistrategist.org.au/fresh-thinking-deal-not-quite-wars-part-2