October 28, 2016

TSG IntelBrief: The Importance of a Costly Islamic State Loss

• U.S. military officials have estimated that between 800-900 Islamic State fighters have been killed since the Mosul campaign began less than two weeks ago.

• The need to kill as many Islamic State fighters as possible is an uncomfortable necessity for Iraq’s future.

• Before reforms and rebuilding can occur in Mosul and Iraq more broadly, the Islamic State must be dealt a costly and bloody defeat.

• Iraq’s deep political and sectarian divisions already threaten its prospects for long-term stability; any possibility of a stable Iraq will first require a significant depletion of the Islamic State’s membership.

As the Mosul campaign carries on, the battle’s regional and international participants continue to discuss the critical need for a plan ‘after Mosul’. While a tactical defeat of the so-called Islamic State in Mosul is the near-term priority, achieving a long-term strategic victory for Iraq and the region will be a far more daunting task. There has been a great deal of focus on the many negatives that could arise during and after the military campaign to retake Iraq’s second largest city. Lost in the commentary is an uncomfortable necessity for the ongoing and future battles against the Islamic State—the need to kill as many of the group’s fighters as possible while retaking the territory it currently controls.

While body counts are usually the last metric of a counterinsurgency campaign that is failing rather than succeeding, in the case of Mosul, such counts hold importance for longer-term trends in Iraq. On October 27, U.S. military officials estimated that 800-900 Islamic State fighters had been killed since the beginning of the Mosul campaign less than two weeks ago. It has been reported that 5,000 to 6,000 Islamic State fighters are inside Mosul, ready to defend against at least 50,000 Iraqi forces and several hundred U.S. advisors. The importance of U.S. and coalition air support in the battle for Mosul is difficult to overstate, as well as artillery and advanced multiple-rocket launch systems. If the reports of casualties are accurate, then the Islamic State has lost almost 20% of its estimated fighting force in Mosul—before the assault on the actual city has even begun. 

Depleting the Islamic State’s ranks is vital for the prospects of stability in Iraq. It is important that the battle of Mosul not just represent a symbolic and embarrassing defeat for the Islamic State, but a bloody one as well. Before needed political and social reforms in Iraq can be enacted, the group has to be beaten down from its current proto-state incarnation back to a terror organization. In between those two stages of the asymmetric life-cycle is ‘insurgency’, which Iraq is ill-equipped to counter. To ensure the Islamic State is weakened enough to revert directly back to a terror group—without pausing on insurgency—the coalition and Iraqi forces must engage in brutal mathematics, killing as many of the group’s members as possible. 

This cold calculation does not run counter to the longer-term needs for reform—rather, it enables it. If the Islamic State ‘loses’ Mosul but does not lose its military capabilities, then the ebb and flow cycle between the central government and a resurgent terror group will continue. Meaningfully breaking that cycle in the long-term will require dramatic political, social, sectarian, and regional reforms. In the short-term, however, breaking the cycle requires a literal ‘breaking’ of the Islamic State by inflicting serious losses on the group while minimizing civilian casualties—a task that will undoubtedly be easier said than done.


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