Best Defense

Metrics Watch: If the Dog Don’t Bark, How Do We Know We Are Winning Against ISIS?

Some of our intelligence services think that the Islamic State is on the verge of collapse.


By Col. Gary Anderson, USMC (Ret.)
Best Defense guest columnist

Some of our intelligence services think that the Islamic State is on the verge of collapse. They cite a drop-off in recruiting and deep financial problems due to coalition airstrikes on economic targets as well as some key senior leaders.

Sometimes intelligence gets things wrong. In 1968, Gen. William Westmoreland and President Lyndon B. Johnson were under the impression that the Viet Cong and North Vietnamese were on the ropes. Instead, the Communists launched the Tet offensive, which struck nearly every city and province in Vietnam. Our measures of effectiveness were way off. How then do we gauge the effectiveness of our war effort?

It hard to measure military effectiveness in a place without good human intelligence. Instead, intelligence agencies have to resort to things like body counts, bomb damage assessment, and electronic intercepts. All of these can be spoofed by a thinking and adaptive enemy. The Islamic State is a complex and adaptive system. It has no fixed center of gravity. When key leaders are killed, it seems that smarter and more agile subordinates rise to replace them.

However, I believe that there is one good measure of effectiveness — the amount of offensive striking power the organization displays. Let me explain.

If they have the ability to do so, the Islamic State’s commanders will attack perceived weak spots to lure the Iraqi security forces away from their queen economic crown jewel at Mosul in northern Iraq and simultaneously distract anti-ISIS Syrian forces away from the Islamic State’s political capital in Raqqa, Syria. The Islamic State did this last spring by attacking and taking Ramadi in Iraq with very few forces. At nearly the same time, the would-be caliphate’s forces seized Palmyra in Syria, forcing anti-Islamic State Syrian forces to pay attention to that city rather than moving on Raqqa. These twin pieces of maneuver warfare bought the Islamic State a year’s reprieve with a fairly small expenditure of manpower.

No doubt, the Islamists would like to do the same thing again to diffuse Syrian and Iraqi offensives on the Islamic State’s two key cities this year. If they cannot mount offensives during the spring-summer fighting season, it will be a fairly definitive indicator that they have been badly weakened and that the Obama strategy is working, albeit excruciatingly slowly.

But if ISIS does launch a series of successful spoiling attacks, it will mean that Central Command and its supporting intelligence structure have been over-optimistic in their evaluation of the situation. In other words, our best indication of success will be a “dog that doesn’t bark.”

The fact that the Islamic State has launched only suicide attacks so far this spring has been a hopeful omen. Horrific as they have been, if suicide bombs are the worst the Islamic State can do, it will be a good sign for the Obama war strategy. If, however, there is a series of strategically significant ground counteroffensive successes by the Islamic State in the coming months, the president’s war strategy and legacy in foreign affairs will be in serious trouble. A serious thrust toward north toward Turkey in Syria or south toward Abu Ghraib/Baghdad International Airport area in Iraq would be a sign that it retains offensive striking power.

None of the forces facing the Islamic State are agile. It takes them a long time to amass combat power, and they cannot sustain an attack once one is launched without Russian or American airpower. If they are forced to break off an attack and respond to an existential threat in another direction, it can take them months to get back on the offensive against either Mosul or Raqqa. The Islamic State does not have to win militarily to win strategically. If it can keep its forces in the major cities it controls intact long enough for Syria and Iraq’s Shiite/Alawite controlled governments to collapse, creating failed states, no-one will be left to do the hard dirty ground fighting necessary to dig the Islamic State army out of its urban strongholds and destroy them. The United States and Russia show no desire for ground combat.

Although their jihadist dogma calls for an apocalyptic final battle, realpolitik would favor a long, drawn-out battle of attrition that will psychologically wear down its enemies, particularly the United States. Some intelligence analyses indicate that Islamic State recruits are drying up, making attrition a much more difficult jihadist strategy to maintain, but that is a hard statistic to prove. In 1944, U.S. intelligence told Eisenhower that German forces had suffered unacceptable attrition — and then the Wehrmacht roared through the Ardennes in what became known as the Bulge offensive, giving the Americans the biggest battle they have ever fought.

If the dog doesn’t bark by August, we may really be winning. I’m not counting on it.

Gary Anderson is a retired Marine Corps colonel who served as a civilian advisor in Iraq and Afghanistan. He is an adjunct professor at George Washington University’s Elliott School of International Affairs.

Photo credit:

Thomas E. Ricks covered the U.S. military from 1991 to 2008 for the Wall Street Journal and then the Washington Post. He can be reached at @tomricks1
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