A Frontline Account Of The Fight Against The Islamic State
12:13 AM 10/24/2014
ERBIL, Iraq — We are now approximately four and a half months into the Islamic State (IS) military campaign to expand their self-declared caliphate across Iraq. And it’s more than two and a half months since they moved against Iraqi Kurdistan, attacking the Kurdish Peshmerga forces who were securing the disputed territories claimed by the Kurdistan Regional Government.
Since the start of this campaign, we’ve been on a bit of an operational rollercoaster as the IS attacks have ebbed and flowed, answered by counter-attacks from the Peshmerga, the Iraqi Security Forces and the Coalition airstrikes.
After the initial push by IS into Kurdistani-controlled areas, and then the responding U.S. airstrikes which started on 8 August, the Peshmerga have been able to gradually push the IS terrorists back all across the front line. The combination of additional airstrikes, replenishment of low ammunition stocks and a fresh shot of morale were significant in allowing these gains by the Peshmerga.
However, the counter-offensive has been slow mainly for three reasons. First, IS has changed its tactics. Due to the airstrikes, they have changed their methods of moving so that they are moving in smaller, harder to detect convoys. Second, in every area that IS has planned a withdrawal, they have saturated the area with IED’s and booby-traps. Advancing Peshmerga have had to painstakingly clear these areas – sometimes with hundreds of bombs in a single village area – before proceeding to completely secure a recaptured location. Third, the Peshmerga are still lacking in the kinds of heavy weaponry and armored protection they need to conduct major offensive operations.
One might ask, “How could the Peshmerga still be short in arms and equipment after weeks of supplies going to them?” Although the Peshmerga have very gratefully received the arms and equipment that have arrived so far, most of the arms are a replenishment of the existing Warsaw Pact-era weapons they have. In fact, most of their existing weapons are older than the soldiers wielding them.
There have been some other new weapons provided — such as machine guns, mortars and a small number of anti-tank weapons — but that is all. Certainly not a sufficient or diverse assortment of equipment to conduct a significant and sustained offensive campaign, especially since IS continues to be equipped with significant amounts of American -made equipment captured from the Iraqi Army.
Certainly, the combination of U.S. – and later allied – airstrikes against IS in the north of Iraq, in combination with the invigorated fighting spirit of the Peshmerga, put IS back on their heels. We saw the recapture of Mosul Dam; of Makhmour and Gwer near Erbil City; and a variety of other places along the 1,000 kilometer long frontier.
Logically, IS redirected their major attention to other areas where they were not sustaining the same kind of pressure. In Syria, that led to their major push on the Syrian Kurdish town of Kobani. In Iraq, they broadened their campaign in and around Anbar province. This did not mean IS stopped all operations against Kurdistan, as daily skirmishing and probes at various places continued along the front line, but it did mean the major sweeping operations we saw in early August were curtailed.
After a lull of several weeks from major combat along the Kurdish front line with IS, on Monday we saw a renewed push by IS all along the line with attacks occurring in multiple places from Sinjar down to areas south of Kirkuk around Qara Tapa. Again, we are likely seeing a refocus of the IS offensive operations since their attacks have been slowed against Kobani and to a lesser degree in Anbar.
Importantly, we have seen IS reverting to some of the same tactics they have used before when they have been unable to conduct the sorts of conventional attacks we saw two months ago. For example, in their assault on Monday near Mosul Dam, they used a truck bomb which exacted a heavy toll on the Peshmerga defenders with as many as 15 killed, including a brigadier general.
In the past, we have seen IS provide homemade armor to such vehicles to increase their chances of success, since the Peshmerga still lack significant numbers of anti-tank weapons. And in the IS assault around Qara Tapa, the attackers disguised themselves in Peshmerga clothing and were able to gain some initial success during the ruse before reinforcements were deployed to blunt the assault. Again, the operation did not occur without significant casualties on both sides. In other areas, IS conducted in direct fire attacks.
So what are the takeaways from this rollercoaster of operations we’ve seen from IS?
IS is still able to refocus its forces at multiple places along the front lines to choose the time and place of its attacks. They still have sufficient reserves of personnel and equipment to replenish their loses and initiate new or restored operations. They have time. As long as their bases of support and pool of resources exist, they will continue to attack everyone and everything they perceive as enemies. And for IS, it doesn’t matter if it takes two weeks, two months or two years. They have the will and commitment to conduct those operations.
Naturally, this means that if the coalition that is being assembled to face this very real threat is to have any chance of success, they must have the same determination, drive and patience to achieve victory that IS has. Otherwise, we must frankly admit we are only trying to swat vultures with a fly swatter. Not a very realistic prospect. Hopefully the allied leaders understand this reality and will ensure their people do as well.
Harry Schute is a retired US Army Reserve Colonel. He commanded an Army Civil Affairs Battalion in Kurdistan in 2003-04 and was later Chief of Staff for the Coalition Provisional Authority-North. He currently is a senior security advisor to the Kurdistan Regional Government.