One of the differences between states and non-state actors is a sense of permanence. Germany and Japan were completely defeated after World War II, yet today these states are important players in the international order. Even after the Syrian civil war and the fall of Mosul and other cities in 2014, the Iraqi government – and to a much lesser extent Syria - are still recognized as the sovereign power over the land that falls within their respective borders. Armed groups are not afforded this courtesy, and some world leaders seem confident that the successful campaign to dismantle the so-called ISIL caliphate translates into a much diminished future for the group known as ISIL.
People who don’t subscribe to this opinion are asking a series of questions. What will happen to ISIL after its hard-won caliphate collapses? Will they make the transition back to a clandestine network successfully? How effective will their subsequent guerilla warfare campaign be? Will the population shy away from ISIL influence, and will the bandwagon affiliates around the world find another patron?
As always, it is instructive to look at the past to try and come to grips with these questions – with the caveat that though history never repeats itself, it is as Mark Twain once said “often constructed out of the broken fragments of antique legends.” ISIL is under tremendous pressure and has lost tens of thousands of fighters and most of its territory since its high-water mark in early 2015. There are signs of defections, infighting, and the migration of large sums of money out of the remnants of the caliphate into the dark corners of finance. In sum, the Iraqi government’s strategy to regain sovereignty of its territory seems to be working.
With every strategy, however, there are risks that lurk in the background and are shaped by the path taken to achieve the desired ends. The Abadi Administration made the difficult decision to rely on its highly professional forces, primarily the Counter Terrorism Service (CTS) and to a lesser extent - the Federal Police - to retake Mosul. This self-limitation, designed to improve the perception of government legitimacy and prevent sectarian passions from tainting the successful liberation of Iraq’s second largest city, has shown excellent results in the polling of Sunni Iraqis, who in some cases support the government more than parts of the Shia population – a dramatic turnaround.
The risk of this strategy is that the forces available for the mission have not been enough to wage a wider war on ISIL’s strongholds, forcing the Iraqi government to reduce them piecemeal. This allows the government to mass resources, and limit government casualties, but the downside is that ISIL was able to dictate how each of the battles played out since 2015. In some cases, they withdrew forces early in the battle, leaving behind a booby-trapped wasteland. In others, they have stood and fought with stay-behind forces to make the battle endure and cause casualties and destruction. This flexibility, for irregular forces like ISIL that operate on both sides of the conventional forward line of troops, is a major factor that could impact the future of the movement as it transitions from holding territory back to wide scale guerilla warfare.
This dynamic, often referred to as the balloon effect, was seen frequently in the previous war against Al Qaeda in Iraq (AQI)/Islamic State of Iraq (ISI) from 2004-2013, albeit in a much smaller scale. Early in its history, AQI repetitively tried to occupy urban areas but were forced out by US and Iraqi forces every time. Pushed out of Fallujah, they moved to Mosul and Baqubah; evicted there, they popped up in Ramadi, until the Sunni Sahwa movement (in conjunction combined forces) created a hostile environment that forced the ISI to retreat completely away from populated areas and possible informants.
Still, they survived. Even when deceased ISIL spokesman al-Adnani said that the movement moved “out in the desert” in order to survive, this sometimes meant just outside of the Euphrates and Tigris river valleys. When Abu Omar and Abu Hamza, the predecessors to Abu Bakr al Baghdadi, were killed in 2010 after years of being hunted, they were found in a rural farmhouse not more than a dozen miles from Tikrit – close to the center of Iraq. This tells us that even with a large U.S. special operations task force, an intact Sahwa movement watching for the return of their foes in the ISI, and a maturing Iraqi security force – it was still impossible to entirely extinguish the movement. Furthermore, current descriptions of “expelling” ISIL from Iraq are simple and dangerous fantasies. Within two years of its 2010 nadir, ISIL’s predecessor the ISI was on the move in most of the Sunni provinces of Iraq and expanding into Syria as well.
Does the Iraqi government have as much capacity now as it did in 2010? Despite the tremendous success we have seen in Anbar and Ninewa, the decision to defeat ISIL in detail indicates that it does not. The slow and deliberate campaign allowed ISIL to react like a balloon and simply shift its forces, and its focus, to different areas with better chances of success. Even a rapid acceleration of the campaign at this point, as the number of ISIL territories shrink, is less about catastrophic success and more about the end of a phase in which ISIL fights in a hybrid manner, with some conventional forces and the remainder unconventional. In the near future, ISIL will adopt a uniformly irregular warfare style throughout Iraq. As Mao wrote decades ago, insurgents should retreat when the enemy is strong, and conserve and generate strength before moving forward when the government is weak, or distracted by more formidable problems.
There are indications that the CTS, which is the ideal unit to be used in the post-caliphate fight against ISIL, suffered very high attrition during the liberation of Mosul. Losing special operators in this manner is not sustainable, considering the time it takes to train them to do the following high skilled counter-terrorism tasks: developing and vetting intelligence from multiple sources, executing efficient targeting cycles, special weapons training and room clearing, and hostage rescue.
Furthermore, their misuse as shock infantry in the urban meat grinder of combat is not reinforcing their specialized training as a counter-terrorism unit – a skill that is desperately needed now against the reforming ISIL networks in liberated areas. This is a crucial transition point, and the bill for overreliance on special operations forces will come in due time.
The successful liberation of Mosul is an important political victory, one that will buoy the fortunes of an Iraqi government that has problems other than ISIL. Only time will tell whether the misuse of the CTS, and a failure to reset them in time to work against regenerating ISIL networks will have been worth it from this perspective. There is no denying that soon, the CTS will have to be taken offline for retraining by U.S. Special Forces before returning to a true counter-terror role against the clandestine ISIL networks in Diyala, Salahuddin, Anbar, Kirkuk, North Babil, and Ninewa. What we might realize, belatedly, is that the success in reducing the caliphate might be eventually overshadowed by a reinvigorated ISIL that remains a challenge to the sovereignty of Iraq and Syria for well into the future.
Dr. Craig Whiteside is an Associate Fellow at ICCT and an Associate Professor for the Naval War College Monterey and teaches at the Naval Postgraduate School. He is a senior associate with the Center on Irregular Warfare and Armed Groups at the Naval War College in Newport, Rhode Island and lectures at the U.S. Air Force Special Operations School. Whiteside’s current research focuses on the doctrinal influences of the leadership of the Islamic State movement, the evolution of its political-military doctrine since 1999, and the tribal engagement strategy that fuelled its return since 2008. His doctoral research investigated the political worldview of the Islamic State of Iraq (2003-2013). He is a graduate of the United States Military Academy at West Point and Washington State University.