When he was first asked about the danger posed by the Islamic State of Iraq and Syria, President Obama described it as a junior varsity team, and said that a JV team putting on the sweaters of the Los Angeles Lakers did not turn it into Kobe Bryant, the Lakers’ star player. With the success of ISIS since those comments were made, the JV remarks are being thrown back at Obama by his panicking critics. Nevertheless, those remarks remain true.
What a real Lakers team has done lately is use airstrikes to selectively suppress ISIS forces – individual artillery pieces – and then precision air-drop food and water that is enabling 40,000 Yazidis to escape from ISIS encirclement on Mount Sinjar. All from halfway around the world.
Before yielding to panic, a more balanced assessment of the threat ISIS represents is needed. One ought to do what Gen. Ulysses S. Grant used to do: look at the weaknesses of the enemy and seek ways to exploit them.
What are the weaknesses of ISIS? They can be reduced to three: ISIS is militarily overextended; it has come out of the shadows and, having done so, created hostages to fortune; and it has created new enemies in the Islamic world on account of having proclaimed a caliphate.
ISIS is said to comprise some 10,000 fighters, of which 6,000 are in Iraq. Of these 6,000, half are said to be “foreign” fighters, that is, Muslims whose primary residence is in Europe, Australia or North America. These foreigners fight for ISIS for the personal satisfaction of engaging in jihad and for the chance to indulge in the blackest of human desires. ISIS has posted on social websites the gruesome atrocities its members have committed against innocent victims. Members of ISIS have also demolished ancient structures of veneration of both Muslim and Christian faiths.
ISIS boosts the strength of its numbers by the terror it inspires. Like a stock market gripped with irrational exuberance, the prospects of ISIS get better and better.
The tough Kurdish peshmerga once showed reluctance to engage ISIS out of fear of a terrible death should soldiers be captured. Now that they believe America will stand by them, they have recaptured lost territory and are helping rescue the Yazidis.
The fact remains that there are only a limited number of ISIS fighters, who cannot be everywhere at once. Half of these are foreigners for whom home will eventually beckon. Each new recruit represents an untrained, undisciplined mouth to feed. With one serious, morale-breaking defeat, these foreigners will find home beckoning strongly, and will desert the cause.
After one serious, morale-breaking defeat, the myth of ISIS invincibility will be shattered, and with it the effectiveness of its use of terror. After a defeat, the employment of gruesome murder would be seen as a sign of desperation, not as a sign of holy rage. ISIS would collapse as rapidly as it grew.
Video clips of ISIS in battle have shown nothing except that fighters have mastered the art of driving pickup trucks in convoy. They have not demonstrated the capacity to maneuver substantial bodies of troops in a real battle. They lack the staff, the communications, the training and the discipline to do so. And by a “real battle” I mean a mere brigade-sized action, which would require the fielding of the majority of their fighting force in Iraq.
Between a pickup truck sporting a machine gun and an Abrams tank, there is no doubt about the outcome of a trial by battle. One reason for the utter collapse in morale in the Iraqi government forces when faced with the ISIS incursion was the pilfering of soldiers’ pay by the Iraqi officers. Few men are willing to fight for a man who stole his wages. At one time, the Iraqi army boasted of its fearsome Republican Guard divisions, which fought American troops tenaciously. But embattled Iraqi Prime Minister Nouri al-Maliki allowed the Iraqi army to rot from within.
In a conventional army, seven or eight men are needed to support one man in combat. Nearly all of the ISIS men are described as “fighters,” meaning few or none of them do what is done by the seven or eight men in a conventional army. ISIS will find it difficult, then, to replenish itself with ammunition and other necessities in the event of a major battle. It is also vulnerable to a battle of attrition.
Having proclaimed a caliphate and called upon all Muslims to “obey” him, the boss of ISIS, Caliph Ibrahim, created more weaknesses. With a caliphate and the naming of Mosul as its temporary capital city, ISIS has come out of the shadows. It has real property, and it pretends to govern. Upon the first act of terrorism committed or attempted against the United States by the caliphate, its cities are liable to a retaliatory strike. The hometown of Saddam Hussein, Tikrit, could easily be flattened by the U.S. Air Force in retaliation for another underwear bomber tied to the caliphate. If the caliph wants a war of terrorism, America has the power to fill his boots with it.
Like other terrorists, the caliph has made ferocious threats. “We will see you in New York,” he said. To get there under his own power, the caliph and his emissaries have to board a commercial airliner and pass through U.S. Customs before they can strike the homeland. Not exactly a Utah Beach-like threat of invasion.
By claiming to be the caliph, Ibrahim has said indirectly that the kings of Saudi Arabia and Jordan and the presidents of Egypt, Turkey and Iran are his vassals and their countries are under his suzerainty. I wonder how they feel about that? Perhaps Western diplomats should ask them about their diminished status in the world.
The caliphate is a crisis in the Islamic world. Only by having threatened to attack the United States has it deflected attention from the crisis it poses to the current Islamic order. A caliphate undermines the religious legitimacy of the governments of other Islamic countries. ISIS is far more a threat to the Middle East than it is to the United States.
If a means can be found to inflict casualties on ISIS in a continual way, or if it can be brought to battle by a serious military, ISIS will deflate like a broken balloon.
Vincent J. Curtis is a freelance writer on military affairs who has corresponded for The Buffalo News from Iraq, Guantanamo Bay, Cuba and Afghanistan, where he was embedded with U.S. troops in 2010.