Islamic State is a large, well-trained force; it’ll be hard to beat
The militant group is now believed to have 200 000 fighters – many of them recruits from the considerable territory it has seized – and it has learnt to use the US artillery it has captured
ISLAMIC State has recruited an army hundreds of thousands strong and far larger than previous estimates by the CIA. And its ability to attack on many widely separated fronts in Iraq and Syria at the same time shows the number of militant fighters is at least 200 000, seven or eight times bigger than foreign intelligence agency estimates of up to 31 500 men.
Fuad Hussein, the chief of staff of the Kurdish President Massoud Barzani, said in an exclusive interview with The Independent on Sunday: “I am talking about hundreds of thousands of fighters because they are able to mobilise young Arab men in the territory they have taken.”
He estimates that Islamic State rules a third of Iraq and a third of Syria with a population of between 10 and 12 million living in an area of 250 000km , the same size as Great Britain. This gives the jihadis a large pool of potential recruits.
Proof that Islamic State has created a large field army at great speed is that it has been launching attacks against the Kurds in northern Iraq and the Iraqi army close to Baghdad at the same time as it is fighting in Syria. The high figure for its combat strength is important because it underlines how difficult it will be to eliminate it even with US air strikes.
In September, the CIA produced an estimate of Islamic State numbers which calculated the movement had between 20 000 and 31 500 fighters. The underestimate of the size of the force Islamic State can deploy may explain why the US and other foreign governments have been repeatedly caught by surprise over the past five months as it inflicted successive defeats on the Iraqi army, Syrian army, Syrian rebels and Kurdish peshmerga.
The US and its allies are beginning to take on board the obstacles to fulfilling US President Barack Obama’s pledge to degrade and destroy Islamic State. General Martin Dempsey, the chairman of the American Joint Chiefs of Staff, arrived in Baghdad on Friday on a surprise visit. He said he wanted “to get a sense from our side about how our contribution is going”.
Earlier in the week, he told Congress that to defeat Islamic State an efficient army of 80 000 men would be necessary. Few in Iraq believe the regular army is up to the task, despite winning a success last week by retaking the refinery town of Baiji and lifting the siege of the refinery, the largest in Iraq.
In a wide-ranging interview, Hussein spelt out the new balance of power in Iraq in the wake of the Islamic militants’ summer offensive and the military re-engagement of the US. The Kurdistan regional government now faces Islamic State units along a 1 046km front line cutting across northern Iraq between Iran and Syria.
Hussein said the US air intervention had enabled the Kurds to hold out when the unexpected Islamic State assault in August defeated the peshmerga and came close to capturing the Kurdish capital Irbil.
As well as terrifying its opponents by publicising its own atrocities, Islamic State has developed an effective cocktail of tactics that includes suicide bombers, mines, snipers and use of US equipment captured from the Iraqi army such as Humvees, artillery and tanks. To combat them, Hussein says the Kurds need Apache helicopters and heavy weapons such as tanks.
The Kurdish leaders are now much more relaxed about Islamic State because they have a US guarantee of their security. The grim experience of the US in seeing the collapse of the government and army in Baghdad, which the Americans had fostered at vast expense, also works in favour of the Kurds.
Hussein does not like to talk about it, but the Kurdistan regional government got a nasty surprise in August when it asked the Turkish government for help in stopping Islamic State only to be told Ankara planned no immediate assistance.
It was only then that the Kurds turned to Iran and the US, both of which immedi- ately acted to prevent a complete victory by the Islamic militants. Iran sent some officers, military units and artillery while the US started air strikes on August 8.
Hussein speculates that the CIA and US intelligence agencies may only have been speaking about “core” fighters in claiming the jihadis had at most 31 500 men under arms.
But the fighting over the past five months has shown Islamic State has become a formidable military force.
“We are talking about a state that has a military and ideological basis,” said Hussein, “so that means they want everyone to learn how to use a rifle, but they also want everybody to have training in their ideology, in other words brainwashing.”
A sign of the military professionalism of Islamic State is the speed with which they learnt to use US tanks, artillery and other heavy equipment captured after the fall of Mosul on June 10.
The same thing happened in Syria where Islamic State captured Russianmade arms which it rapidly started using. The most likely explanation for this is that Islamic State’s ranks contain many former Iraqi and Syrian soldiers whose skills it has identified. Hussein says the peshmerga has been impressed during the fighting by Islamic State’s training and discipline.
“They will fight until death and are dangerous because they are so well-trained,” said Hussein.
“For instance, they have the best snipers, but to be a good sniper you need discipline in staying put for up to five hours so you can hit your target.”
There is supporting evidence for Hussein’s high estimate for Islamic State numbers. A study by the National Security Adviser’s office in Baghdad before its offensive showed that, when 100 jihadis entered a district, they would soon recruit between five and 10 times their original number. There are reports of many young men volunteering to fight for Islamic State when they were in the full flood of success.
In an impoverished region with few jobs, Islamic State pay of $400 (R4 442) a month is also attractive. Moreover, Hussein says that in the places they have con- quered, Islamic State is remodelling society in its own image, aiming to educate people into accepting its ideology.
The Kurds have recovered their military self-confidence in the knowledge that they are backed by the US and Iran.
The peshmerga have taken back some towns lost in August. But there are limits to how far the Kurds are willing to advance. Hussein says the Kurds can help an Iraqi army, supposing a non-sectarian one is created, but “the Kurds cannot liberate the Sunni Arab areas”.
This is the great problem facing a counter- offensive against Islamic State by Baghdad or the Kurds: It will be seen by the 5 or 6 million Sunni Arabs in Iraq as directed against their whole community.
Hitherto, the US has been hoping to repeat its success between 2006 and 2008 in turning many Sunni against al-Qaeda in Iraq. Hussein ticks off the reasons why repeating this will be difficult: The Americans then had 150 000 soldiers in Iraq to back up anti-al-Qaeda tribal leaders. Islamic State will savagely punish anybody who opposes it.
Overall, Hussein says he does not see any convincing sign of resistance from the Sunni Arabs. Many of them may be unhappy, but this is not translating into effective opposition. Nor is it clear what outside force could organise resistance. The Iraqi army might be acceptable in Sunni areas but only if it is reconstituted so that it is not dominated by the Shia.
Hussein did not say so, but it may be too late to establish a competent cross-confessional regular army in Iraq. The counteroffensive by Baghdad is led by the three main Shia militias which have almost the same ideological fervour and sectarian hatred as Islamic State. Any advance on the battlefield leads to the population deemed loyal to the losing side taking flight so the whole of northern Iraq has become a land of refugees. – The Independent on Sunday
A RESILIENT ENEMY: A Kurdish man holds a flag during a religious service for two fighters killed in the Syrian town of Kobani, in Caykara, on the Turkey-Syria border on Sunday. Kobani, also known as Ayn Arab, and its surrounding areas has been under assault by Islamic State extremists since mid-September and is being defended by Kurdish fighters who may stem the bleeding, says the writer, but Islamic State will be hard to defeat.