The thing to keep in mind about Islamic State is that it doesn’t flee in terror; it makes tactical adjustments.
This is not because ISIS is particularly courageous. It’s because ISIS is systematic and driven by a vision and a plan. The plan is both territorial and apocalyptic; what it is not is bound by a calendar full of deadlines. Islamic State will give up territory where it is too hard to hold, with the idea of winning it back again at a later date, from a stronger position.
These points will matter in the coming days, as a confused public tries to make sense of what it’s being told about the battle to counter ISIS. And it introduces the brief points I want to make here – an extended treatment will have to wait a few days – in conjunction with a new report about which enemy ISIS fears the most.
Today’s mainstream media haven’t had a real war to report on for so long that the most popular outlets have lost the conceptual framework and lexicon to do it with. They rely on governments to announce what their forces have achieved on the battlefield, but often fail to check those claims with facts on the ground or other sources (both “objective” sources and those who oppose the governments making the statements).
Media in a tail-chase with the ISIS phenomenon
So we get reports like the one this week that Iraqi forces have retaken the city of Ramadi, which forms key terrain in what I call the “Euphrates Corridor” – Islamic State’s core territory running from Raqqah to central Iraq, west of Baghdad.
What has actually happened is that Iraqi forces have retaken the government complex in Ramadi. ISIS still controls about 30% of the city, according to the Iraqi forces commander in Anbar Province. His forces have been in control of parts of the city for some time now; regaining the government complex is a signal event, and will bolster the Iraqi brigades’ beachhead in the city. It moves them forward in being able to wrest control back from ISIS. But they haven’t completed that task yet, and it remains a formidable one.
That’s one point to keep in mind. Media reports about the success of various forces against ISIS have frequently been overblown. (The same happened with early claims that ISIS had been driven out of the Syrian border city of Kobane, for example, and is endemic with media reporting on the achievements of pretty much everyone’s air strikes on ISIS – including Russia’s and the U.S.’s.) This is partly because many in the media don’t know how to parse what they’re being told.
Overstating the significance of tactical losses
Another point is that tactical losses are not strategically devastating for ISIS. They haven’t been yet, and there is no sign that they will be any time soon. ISIS is losing some ground in parts of Syria and Iraq – but, as others have pointed out, it’s also growing quickly outside the Syria/Iraq theater, in Libya and Afghanistan as well as points in between.
Unless ISIS is annihilated in its core territory, it will continue to adjust to tactical losses in Syria and Iraq by boosting its flanking presence and activities on either side of its enemies’ declared battle fronts.
It’s not a random accident that ISIS is increasing its presence in a way that outflanks its nearby enemies. ISIS moves systematically, both in accordance with its vision for conquering a caliphate, and for the purpose of thwarting its enemies. Metastasizing in Libya is a major step for ISIS toward a guerrilla-terrorist “invasion” of southern Europe, for example. Islamic State sees itself as a new army on the model of Mohammed’s and his successors’, and envisions finally achieving, among other things, the Islamic reconquest of Spain long sought by Islamist extremists.
But beyond that, flanking its nearby enemies is a way of gaining operational leverage against them. A radicalized Libya can be a most inconvenient strategic problem, not only for Egypt and Israel but for the entire Mediterranean littoral.
An Afghanistan thrown into chaos can sow similar instability to the east, which is thought by the media to be why Russia is reportedly working with the Taliban now to gain intelligence on ISIS’s activities there. (There’s more to it than that: Moscow intends to have a hand in, with whoever comes out on top in Afghanistan, and by treating with the Taliban, the Russians make clear that they don’t expect the winner to necessarily be the current, U.S.-backed government. But the common opposition to ISIS does figure in.)
ISIS closing in on an exposed U.S. “rear”
Americans should not make the mistake, however, of thinking that Russia is ISIS’s only or even main target in the push into Afghanistan. The systematic, strategic thinking characteristic of ISIS can be seen in the location of its main area of influence and build-up: Jalalabad, in Nangarhar Province. General Campbell, our NATO commander in Afghanistan, disclosed in mid-December that ISIS is trying to establish a base in Jalalabad.
ISIS has been active in Afghanistan and Pakistan since late 2014 (ISW has a good summary in this report), but a significant element of its support in Pakistan was probably pushed over the border into Nangarhar Province in a Pakistani operation in early 2015. To some extent, ISIS’s base of support has been gathered where its most likely supporters are.
But Jalalabad, the capital of Nangarhar Province, lies along the road that now represents NATO’s main logistics route into Afghanistan. As the map shows, Jalalabad is a chokepoint in the mountainous terrain between Peshawar, the Khyber Pass, and Kabul.
And since NATO’s Northern Distribution Network, the logistics route through Russia, was closed by Moscow in May 2015 (see here as well), the road through Jalalabad is the only ground game in town for NATO logistics. The road is extremely vulnerable and has been closed on a number of occasions since NATO operations in Afghanistan began (see my last link) – sometimes because of how easy it is for terrorists to attack convoys from the local mountains.
If you want to menace the United States and NATO, this one of the highest-payoff and most accessible places for a guerrilla-terrorist entity to do it.
The point here is that ISIS doesn’t run around in circles, fleeing from randomly placed obstacles or merely getting its kicks with random attacks. It doesn’t get spooked like a paranoid entity looking over its shoulder, misreading cues or reacting to sudden terrors. It is always acting with a geostrategic vision.
The enemy ISIS “fears the most”
So that perspective of Islamic State’s should color our understanding of which enemy the guerrilla-terrorists “fear the most.” In the estimation of a German journalist who spent 10 days in ISIS-controlled territory this year, that enemy is Israel.
The Washington Free Beacon cites a report in the British paper Jewish News:
“The only country ISIS fears is Israel,” Jurgen Todenhofer told the British newspaper Jewish News. “They told me they know the Israeli army is too strong for them.” …
Todenhofer, the German journalist, obtained permission from the ISIS leadership for his visit to the city of Mosul and interviewed many fighters. “They think they can defeat U.S. and British ground troops who they say have no experience in urban warfare or terrorist strategies,” he said. “But they know that the Israelis are very tough as far as fighting guerillas and terrorists. They told me the Israeli army is the real danger. ‘We can’t defeat them with our current strategy. These people (the Israeli army) can fight a guer[r]illa war.’”
Taking the long view, Israel’s success at fighting a “guerrilla war” has been as limited by political constraints as America’s or Britain’s. It might be more accurate to say that Israel has been adept at keeping guerrilla enemies off balance and holding them at bay, in regional situations over which Israel doesn’t have decisive political control.
But that’s more than the U.S. or Britain has accomplished in the last six-odd years, since President Obama decided to give up the gains made with the post-2006 surge in Iraq.
And ISIS is undoubtedly looking at Israel’s ability to hold on for nearly 70 years in a hostile region, administering the tactical defeats necessary to avoid a catastrophic loss of her geographic security conditions. That record stands in stark contrast to America’s revulsions of political will in the same period: in Vietnam, in Lebanon, in Somalia, and Iraq – and soon, we must fear, in Afghanistan.
ISIS has no respect for the West’s political leaders. The constraints they have laid on the use of force have at times made even U.S. forces ridiculous, instead of allowing them to project power in the formidable and decisive way Americans imagine. Political constraints imposed by Western decision-makers are the tiebreaker in ISIS’s career of success – not tactics or unique facility with guerrilla warfare. Guerrillas can only be defeated asymmetrically, after all; not by fighting them as they themselves fight.
What ISIS is ultimately certain of about Israel is that Israel’s leaders, in contrast with the other leaders in the West, will pull no punches unnecessarily.
Israelis who remember the failures of the 2006 campaign in southern Lebanon might be dubious of this certainty. But in ISIS’s circumstances, it is one that makes sense. Islamic State’s leader, Abu Bakr al-Baghdadi, broadcast an audio message for Christmas with a warning to the West, and a specific warning to Israel that ISIS would “soon be in Palestine”:
Islamic State of Iraq and [al-Sham] would soon be in Palestine to establish an Islamic state there. “Jews, soon you shall hear from us in Palestine which will become your grave,” the voice, purporting to be Baghdadi, is heard saying.
ISIS isn’t just crowing about the prospect of killing Jews. Islamic State needs to get rid of Israel to accomplish its apocalyptic goals – in part because the apocalyptic vision itself calls for a conquest of Jerusalem, but also for the very practical reason that the IDF is what ISIS sees as the main obstacle to its vision.
ISIS doesn’t fear to try to hold Obama’s America hostage to a coup against our logistics pipeline into Afghanistan. But Israel? That’s another story. Get used to these emerging, unsettling factors. A world war is already underway.