A hard rain is a’gonna fall.

datePosted on 14:16, May 22nd, 2015 by Pablo

Although I am loathe to prognosticate on fluid situations and current events, I have been thinking about how the conflict in Iraq has been going. Although I do not believe that the Islamic State (IS) is anywhere close to being the global threat that it is portrayed to be in the West, I do believe that it is an existential threat to Syria, Iraq and perhaps some of their Sunni neighbours. Unlike al-Qaeda, which has limited territorial objectives, IS is political-religious movement with serious territorial ambitions that uses a mix of conventional and unconventional land warfare to achieve them. Given that difference, below is an assessment of the situation in Iraq after the fall of Ramadi into IS hands.

Iraq’s Anbar Province, a Sunni stronghold, is now under IS control. Tikrit was occupied a few months ago, Falluja and Haditha fell some weeks ago and Ramadi was conquered a week ago. To the northeast, Mosul remains in IS hands, while Baiji (site of major oil processing facilities) and Samarra remain under siege. With dozens of smaller towns in Anbar and elsewhere under IS rule, to include a front extending south-southeast from Tikrit to the eastern Baghdad suburbs along the Tigris River basin, the advance on the capital appears inevitable. Or is it? In this post I attempt to outline the strategic situation that the NZDF has thrust itself into.

28D32BC000000578-3087517-image-a-9_1432030518818Map courtesy of the DailyMail Online (http://www.dailymail.co.uk).

First, let’s look at the positives (from the West’s perspective). There is no way that IS can physically take and occupy Baghdad. A city of nearly four million people, most of them Shiia, Baghdad is a fortress when compared to what IS has tackled so far. It has concentrated military forces, is the seat of national government and is the location of numerous foreign military and diplomatic missions. It is therefore a strategic asset that Iran, the West and Iraqi Shiites cannot afford to lose. Moreover, IS is stretched too thin on the ground in Iraq to have the numbers to engage effective urban warfare against a determined and concentrated enemy, has no air power and does not have enough Sunni support in Baghdad to make up for the lack of numbers on the ground (A digression here: IS has a Salafist ideology buttressed by Ba’athist political and military organisation. Much of its leadership is drawn from the ranks of displaced Sunni Ba’athist officials in the Saddam Hussein regime, and it enjoys considerable support in Sunni Iraq. This accounts in significant measure for its success in Anbar).

Although not located in Anbar, Mosul, Samarra and Tikrit also have Sunni majorities, so the trend has been for IS to target and conquer urban areas where its sectarian support is matched by demographic numbers. The question remains as to whether its military campaign can be equally successful in Shiia dominant areas to the east and south of Baghdad, where Iranian forces also have a presence. That appears unlikely.

On the negative side from the West’s perspective, IS appears to be engaging in a pincer movement designed to surround and isolate western and northern Baghdad from the rest of the country. If it able to control the land routes in those areas it can cut off not only supply lines between Baghdad and its allied forces in the north and west, including Camp Taji where the NZDF is supposed to be stationed (I say supposedly because I have read an unconfirmed report that the NZDF deployment are stuck in Baghdad because of the increase in IS hostilities), but it can also proceed to apply a chokehold on supplies entering Baghdad via the north and west. As part of this strategy IS will target the power grid that supplies Baghdad, the majority of which comes from its north (including the power plant at Baiji, now under siege) as well as water supplies drawn from reservoirs in the northwest and piped to Baghdad. This will not be fatal if the Baghdad government can keep its land lines of supply in the south and east open, but it certainly will hinder its ability to keep some (more than likely Sunni) neighbourhoods stocked with life essentials, which will only exacerbate their alienation from central authorities and perhaps contribute to their support for IS.

Moreover, if more difficult to achieve, IS does not need to control all of the territory to the east and south of Baghdad in order to choke it off. All it has to do is establish a thin mobile front that can gain and hold intercept points on the major highways surrounding the city (and relatively close to the city limits at that, which obviates the need to fight Shiias further afield). This includes targeting power and water supplies coming from the south and east.

In other words, IS does not have to achieve strategic depth in order to choke the arterial routes leading into the city from the south and east. Coalition airpower may be able to stave off this eventuality for a while but without ground control that allows unimpeded re-supply, Baghdad will be operating on a scarcity regime within a few months. Resupply by air, while significant, cannot substitute for land supply, and it is worth noting that Baghdad airport as well as the infamous Abu Ghraib prison (where many Sunni militants are held) lie west of Baghdad and have recently been the subject of IS attacks. In fact, in the last year both Abu Ghraib and the prison at Taji have been the scenes of major prisoner jailbreaks orchestrated by IS, with many of the escapees now thought to have joined its ranks in an effort to increase its knowledge of the local fighting terrain.

A microcosmic version of this scenario involves the city of Taji, location of Camp Taji, the huge military base that is the destination point for the NZDF contribution to the anti-IS coalition. Straddling national highway one 20 miles northwest of Baghdad west of the Tigris river, Taji is the last significant town on the run south into Baghdad. With the old Saddam-era and later US military base capable of housing a mix of 40,000 Iraqi and foreign troops (although in reality there are far less on base), and home to a 1700 meter runway and Iraqi’s armoured corps, it is now the focal point of foreign training of Iraqi troops. As such and because of its location, it is a major target for IS, which controls the territory immediately east of the Tigris (about 11 miles away from the base). Since Taji is only 30 miles from Falluja, the presumption is that IS will mass it’s force to the east, west and north of Taji, then launch offensives designed to gain control of the town and highway. That would leave the base cut off from land routes and force it to rely on air re-supply and/or fight its way out of containment. If that happens it is doubtful that the NZDF troops will hunker down “behind the wire” and do nothing else. Whatever the scenario, isolating Camp Taji from Baghdad is a primary IS objective in the next months and will be essential to any move to surround and squeeze the capital city. The good news, from the West’s perspective, is that in order to isolate the base and sever its land link to Baghdad, IS will have to mass significant numbers of fighters, artillery and armour, something that makes it vulnerable to coalition air strikes.

The bottom line is that a successful pincer movement will slowly strangle and starve Baghdad, something that it turn will force the Iraq government to seek a political settlement on terms favourable to IS. That will entail the ejection of foreign forces and partition of Iraq. IS will claim Sunni-dominant areas and merge them with the territory it holds in Syria (IS controls roughly half of Syria’s territory) to establish its caliphate. It has no real interest in Iraqi Kurdistan because it cannot defeat the Peshmerga and other than the oil facilities on its western flank, Kurdistan has no strategic assets. Likewise, Shiia dominant areas of Iraq are too large and populated for IS to occupy, plus any incursion into Iraqi Shiia border territory with Iran will invite a military response from the latter. But where IS is in control, it has already begun to provide the basic services that the Iraq and Syrian governments no longer can, which raises the possibility that partition is already a fait acompli. As stated in The Economist:

“The danger is that the IS caliphate is becoming a permanent part of the region. The frontiers will shift in the coming months. But with the Kurds governing themselves in the north-east, and the Shias in the south, Iraqis question the government’s resolve in reversing IS’s hold on the Sunni north-west. “Partition is already a reality,” sighs a Sunni politician in exile. “It just has yet to be mapped.” (“The caliphate strikes back,” The Economist, May 23. 2015 (http://www.economist.com/news/middle-east-and-africa/21651762-fall-ramadi-shows-islamic-state-still-business-caliphate-strikes-back, May 23, 2015).

Thanks to the Iraqi Army abandoning their positions and leaving their equipment behind, IS has captured significant amounts of modern US made weaponry, including the equivalent of several armoured columns. It now has anti-aircraft munitions that eventually will score hits on coalition aircraft. Its fighters are a mix of seasoned veterans and unprofessional jihadis, but IS field commanders have been judicious in their use of each (for example, employing  inexperienced foreign jihadists in first wave assaults or in suicide bombings using construction vehicles to breach enemy lines, followed by artillery fire and hardened ground forces). What that means is that IS has the realistic ability to cut off Baghdad’s land access to its near north and west, which will force the Iraq military and coalition partners to stage a counteroffensive to reclaim those lines of supply.

IS relies on mobility, manoeuvre and the selective application of mass force to achieve it ends. The fall of Ramadi was accomplished by rapidly surrounding it from the north and east and focusing firepower on one garrison in it. IS also has relatively unencumbered supply lines coming from Syria, and many suspect that supplies also come from Saudi Arabia and Turkey (Iraq has land borders with those states as well as Iran, Jordan and Kuwait. There is a strong belief–which could well be confirmed by the document retrieval made during the US Special Forces raid on a senior IS financier’s hideout in Syria– that the Saudis in particular are doing more than just financing IS as a hedge against Iran). The best check against its advances is demographic density in Shiia dominant parts of the country and the fact that any adventurous move in the east or south will be met by serious Shiia militia and Iranian military resistance (Sadr City, a bastion of Shiia militias, lies on the northeast of Baghdad and Basra, a major oil refining centre and home of the so-called (Shiia) marsh Arabs, is the capital of the south).

Sanctuary

Source: Institute for the Study of War, September 26, 2014.

For those who believe that coalition air power is enough to stem the tide of IS advances, let me simply point out that history has shown that air power alone cannot determine success in a territorial conflict, especially an irregular or unconventional one. Vietnam is a case in point. In the battle for Ramadi the coalition conducted 275 air strikes and still saw the city fall to IS in the space of days. Thousands of coalition air strikes have been launched against IS and while they slowed down many IS advances and were decisive in battles between Kurdish peshmurga and ISIS forces in Syria and northeastern Iraq, they have not proven so when the forces they are supporting are too few or lack the will to fight when things get ugly. Since IS prefers to move quickly between urban areas and stage assaults from within them, the fear of civilian casualties hampers the coalition’s ability strike surgically at them in urban settings. That leaves the coalition with the task of trying to target IS convoys and garrisons, something that has proven hard to do given the dispersed nature of their campaign outside of urban areas.

It would seem that the best way to counter IS advances is to pre-emptively launch counter-offensives using a mix of foreign and Iraq troops and militias. That involves accepting Iranian military participation in concert with Western forces and requires moving sooner rather than later to at least stall IS’s progress southward. But if we take standard basic training as a guideline, then the Iraqi Army forces that have begun to be trained by the coalition troops will not be ready to fight until mid July. That may be too late to stop IS before it reaches Taji and the western Baghdad suburbs. Thus the conundrum faced by the coalition is to commit group troops and accept Iranian military help now or wait and hope that IS will slow down its advance due to its own requirements, thereby allowing training provided to the Iraqi Army by foreigners like the NZDF enough time to strengthen it to the point that it can take back the fight to IS with only marginal foreign assistance.

At worst, the latter is a pipe dream. At best, it is a very big ask.

44 Responses to “A hard rain is a’gonna fall.”

  1. Phil Sage on May 22nd, 2015 at 23:01

    Interesting analysis. I chuckled when I noted that the man who has such disparaging views of wikipedia sources maps from the Daily Mail.

    I completely agree with your point that Baghdad is impenetrable to IS as things stand. Surely also the opposite applies. The Shia coalition will not be able to effectively occupy Sunni positions. They do not have the support of locals. That will not stop IS trying. They need to continually expand if they are to succeed. That seems to suggest that NZDF have placed themselves right into the heart of where the action will take place. The fact that Western forces are being placed in such places seems as much of a signal to IS that they will not be allowed to go into Baghdad as the likelihood that “training” will be successful.

    Given that the Iraqi army had over 10 years to rebuild it seems there is something far greater than simply “training”. If the will to fight is not there it cannot be achieved by more training. America moved from being at peace to leading the success of the Allies in WWII in under 3 1/2 years. That says to me that Iraq as a country is finished. The Kurds do not want to be dominated by the heavily Iranian influenced Shia any more than the Sunni.

    The ability of IS to choke supplies Baghdad is mixed. All international imports will come from Basra. There is little of real value that would have come from Syria for a very long time. On the other hand the ability of IS to limit or poison water to Baghdad is reasonably obvious and with massive implications.

    It seems stalemate to me in Iraq. I am curious as to whether you think IS will head south to Yemen and Saudi or head back to Syria to try to complete its overthrow of the regime there. I read elsewhere that IS were financially self sufficient having enough weapons seized from Iraqi bases and generating income from oil. That does not seem to indicate a need to be bought off by the Saudi. Do IS have the same ideological aversion to the ruling Saudi regime as UBL?

  2. Pablo on May 23rd, 2015 at 08:00

    Ha ha Phil:

    I looked at dozens of maps and that one just happened to capture the IS advance the best. I think that IS will turn its attention back to Syria when it has conquered all or as much of Sunni Iraq as possible and forced the Baghdad government to sue for peace. There will be sectarian conflict along the line of demarcation but the borders of the new (Shiia) Iraq and the caliphate will be be pretty clear. The best the coalition can hope for is to roll back IS as far north and west as possible, preferably back into Syria. But I am not sure that it can be completely removed from the scene as a political nd military actor.

    I believe that IS leadership hates the Saudis and other Gulf oligarchies but will use them for support as needed. The Sunni petrocacy is so fearful of Iran that it cannot see that if they could, the first people IS would seek to destroy is them.

  3. Sanctuary on May 23rd, 2015 at 12:44

    143 western soldiers in an isolated camp just ripe for the gobbling up in a lighting strike? I know that is the sort of thing I would be thinking if I were an IS commander. The potential for a first grade military disaster are frightening.

  4. Pablo on May 23rd, 2015 at 15:58

    Sanctuary:

    I could not get exact numbers on the troops stationed there, but know that there are 300 US troops (2 companies) and a similar number of Ozzie troops, and from what I have read about the NZDF detachment they will be training a battalion of Iraqis at a time (300-800 troops). Since there are only 16 “real” trainers in the NZDF detachment who are supposedly going to the training, I am getting the sinking suspicion that the whole deployment has been an exercise in bullshit distribution, but still cannot quite fathom why a company of NZDF infantry, intelligence and logistics people was considered adequate for a place like Taji.

    Assuming that each company of foreign troops is responsible for a battalion of Iraqi troops, that means that at least 2000 Iraqi troops will be trained simultaneously, presumably for the six weeks minimum that I mentioned in the post. That is the equivalent of a brigade’s worth of trainees per cycle. Coupled with permanent Iraqi Army units stationed at the camp, I would estimate that there are between 10-20,000 total coalition troops stationed on it.

    Camp Taji is huge (36 square kilometres) and, in order to avoid green-on-blue attacks, is divided into Iraqi and foreign troop barracks (the joint training grounds are located outside of these two heavily wired camps). Responsibility for guarding the outer perimeter was normally assigned to the Iraqis, but I get the feeling that the main role of the foreign complement will be to take over that role (as well as train). The camp receives regular mortar fire from the east and has been the subject of sapper attacks as well as a suicide bombing attack just a few weeks ago.

    Interestingly, Brig. Peter Kelly, chief of the NZDF told RNZ that it would be “a big ask” for IS to roll into Baghdad because of the Shiia majority there. That much may well be true but what he did not say was that Taji lies in the middle of the so-called Sunni Triangle and the western and northern fringes of Baghdad are predominantly Sunni. Being the last line of defense to the north of Baghdad, Taji is a strategic objective for IS regardless of the demographic, which favours them (there are approximately 400,000 people in the Taji district).

    I sense that a reality check is imminent.

  5. A Question on May 23rd, 2015 at 19:38

    While I agree with you that airpower cannot determine a war (or even a battle), I think it is more will rather than a technical deficiency in this case.
    ISIS fights a conventional battle. They are not a guerilla force. A B-52 at full load can carry, I believe, 51*750lb bombs.
    During the breakout from Normandy in WW2, carpet-bombing of the St Lo position destroyed the Panzer Lehr division – a division of skill and technique far, far superior to anything ISIS could put in the field – using bombers of far, far less payload than a B-52.
    If the USAF put every single bomber it had, B-1, B-2, B-52, and anything else that they could strap a Mk 82 to, against identified ISIS positions, bombing solely during daylight hours, for the next month, ISIS would be gone. End of topic.

  6. Phil Sage on May 23rd, 2015 at 21:23

    A question – The reaper and hellfire could achieve very similar. Probably cheaper too.

    The problem being that IS embed within the urban area and the solution would simply destroy that which is trying to be saved.

  7. Phil Sage on May 23rd, 2015 at 21:27

    Pablo – Sounds like Taji is the tethered goat. IS would be forced to mass in order to attack and it then becomes vulnerable to air.
    Which party is going to get the reality check?

  8. Phil Sage on May 23rd, 2015 at 21:35

    Pablo – Going back to the wider regional issues and taking a very realpolitik stance do you think that other than humanitarian reasons it is in Western interest to get rid of IS soon. The common enemy is an obvious incentive to rapprochement for both Iran and the West. Having spilled so much blood and treasure in a naive belief that Iraq and Afghan would be interested in peace and development it seems clear that a different approach was needed. Getting out of the way and letting Shia and Sunni fight themselves to exhaustion seems like the best of bad options. Islam still needs its enlightenment. Thoughts?

  9. Korakys on May 23rd, 2015 at 22:00

    Very good write up Pablo.

    Seems to me though that as soon as Iran, Baghdad and Assad accept that a new Sunni Arab (and separate Kurdish) states can exist then IS will be on the road to defeat.

    As soon as the borders that already exist are recognised by Tehran it will become much, much easier to defeat IS. The Sunni Arabs support IS because they (rightly) fear the Shia militias and militaries more. Once that threat is alleviated the population will be much less co-operative with IS. This is when you find a popular alternative movement and support that (it’s a bad idea for the West to create it’s own allied group).

  10. Pablo on May 24th, 2015 at 08:29

    Phil:

    The problem with the tethered goat scenario is that the goat usually dies My preference would be to let the principals fight it out but that risks a direct Iranian-Saudi confrontation. I do not trust the Saudis to not reinforce and back IS is an attempt to use the new Sunni state as a buffer zone against Iran. That would leave the Baghdad regime as a puppet of Tehran, or the latter may decide to dispense with the formalities and assume direct control of what is now Shiia Iraq. That may seem implausible but the strategic vacuum of the movement invites bold moves.

    Should something along these lines eventuate then we have the makings of a regional sectarian war. Thus I am hoping that what Korakys has outlined above becomes the more plausible scenario, which certainly seems reasonable and should satisfy all parties, at least over the short term (since any move from within the caliphate to displace the IS leadership will result in mass scale repression and once again invite foreign intervention).

  11. Phil Sage on May 24th, 2015 at 09:48

    I get the potential for Iran Saudi conflict direct. That is my point. Iran is smart enough to figure out that IS are an existential threat that US is not. Obama and Iran appear to be moving towards peace. Petraeus and McChrystal and their less public ilk are smart enough to figure out that Saudi oil money is the financial core of Islamic Jihad. In the long term it is Wahhabism that must be defeated.
    If IS is defeated through a populist alternative that results in genuine self determination that would be wonderful. Unlikely though. They will get what they deserve.

  12. Michael on May 24th, 2015 at 22:28

    Great write up, i had no idea about all this. Im surprised that there isnt more tracking of the finances of IS and getting it shut down. Surely dealing with a terrorist organisation is still banned by anyone who wants to ever deal with the US.
    As for our defence force getting put at the fire front, i hope that their is some good intel as to where all the heavy equipment IS has is. Surely they must have fuel depots and other installations for forward supplies. And their oil facilities should of being strafed long ago.

    So in summary, surely the coalition has infiltrated IS and knows about their intentions and their means of communication

  13. Michael on May 24th, 2015 at 22:38

    Ive no idea why that came up with a warning.
    Im using Google Canary

  14. Pablo on May 25th, 2015 at 07:20

    Michael:

    My understanding is that the coalition intel on IS is pretty poor, especially tactical human intelligence on real time movements. Among other things, that is why several coalition partners have sent SAS troops out on recon as well as search and destroy missions (although not all acknowledge this). But there are limits to what the coalition can do if they cannot penetrate Daesh ranks and that has proven very difficult to do.

    As for imagery, communications and the like, there has been more success there, but even then IS is adept at using the terrain and its local knowledge to its advantage. For example, when sandstorms ground coalition aircraft and make visibility near impossible, IS is believed to use the opportunity to move troops and equipment because of its age-hold adaptation to those conditions (including literally traversing by feel the land lines between reference points, etc.). Likewise, field instructions are often sent by hand via messenger dressed in civilian garb posing as a normal tradesman, farmer, vendor etc., so the electronic signals intercept technologies employed against them are often useless.

    Your point about fuel dumps and equipment storage sites is a valid one and there have been successes in identifying and targeting them. But remember that IS basically controls most of Anbar and is dispersed throughout it, and there is no meaningful Iraq Army or coalition presence on the ground in most of it. So it can move relatively unimpeded and hide in amongst civilian concentrations within it. Even if the coalition can identify where it is hiding its stores, it could well be the case that it is impossible to attack them without civilian casualties. I do not think that would bother Iraqi commanders that much, but it is a no-go for coalition bosses.

    The main problem for the coalition is that the IS commanders in Iraq are hardened, experienced (having not only historical knowledge of age-old conditions as I described above but also having fought the US-led occupiers for nearly a decade after the 2003 invasion), and are fighting on their home turf with majority support of those living in the territory that they control and seek to control.

  15. Michael on May 25th, 2015 at 10:40

    Thanks Pablo, im very pleased to now have this perspective on it. I live in rural nz and i would back myself to find my way around here in a storm too if i needed to out manoeuvre authorities with air surveillance.
    I suppose sand getting into air intakes might limit combustion engines in sand storms but id imagine more inline filters would negate that or even application of old technology like in my Massey ferg 1956 which uses kinetic energy of the dust particles to get them trapped in an oil bath instead of turning the 180degrees like clean air and on into the engine.
    Ive read that a lot of new weaponry is designed to inflict grevious injuries but not to kill people, with the intention being to overload the adversaries supply line with medical demands. I suppose that strategy might not be effective with religious fanatics who might just be left to die by their own forces instead of them taking on that liability. So the weapon of choice would then thus be more conventionally lethal by the coalition

    Another thing ive being thinking about was whether they always fight in the black we see in the media or if that is just an image they use for their propaganda and that when they are launching offenses they are still in indistinguishable outfits
    cheers

  16. Michael on May 25th, 2015 at 10:48

    Thinking about it, ive seen many dead bodies of opposing forces to Daesh in the media, but ive never seen dead Daesh bodies, well none at least in the black garb. Perhaps they are removed by IS to ensure potential recruits dont see that

  17. Daniel on May 25th, 2015 at 12:35

    Great write up.

    I am reminded of Decent Interval by Frank Snepp while reading it.

    And as for the person who thinks that using bombs, bombs and more bombs (@ A question) will make any difference. Get real! The US bombed far greater and far more intensely in Vietnam (and other conflicts)and still lost the war. Your analysis ignores so many factors.

  18. Pablo on May 25th, 2015 at 13:14

    Michael:

    I would imagine that Arabs have pretty much figured out how to move and fight during sandstorms, with or without modern technology. I do wonder about how much can be moved about, but if there is support in the territory over which supplies must be transported, then it is not an insurmountable task. And if the enemy cannot see or move in equal measure during what sometimes are 4-6 hour storms, then that gives time to resupply in some depth.

    That is just one reason why I was alarmed by the interview with the NZDF officer at Camp Taji who said that they avoid training during the heat of the day because the temps are now reaching 40C. Since the locals should be used to the weather and the enemy certainly is and does not stop to take breaks when it gets hot, I cannot help but feel that someone has not thought this thing through. And since sandstorms are product of hot conditions such as those that propel the Sirocco winds, that means that the northern summer (which has just begin) is the time when local fighting knowledge can best be brought to bear.

    Anyway, one old adage in the spy business is that when confronted by high tech espionage it is best to go low tech. Hence the use of messengers rather than cell phones.

    As for what IS fighters wear. They are mostly using desert cammo taken from Iraqi and Syrian (as well as US) stores. The black robes appear to be more ceremonial or symbolic than real fighting gear.

  19. Michael on May 25th, 2015 at 16:18

    That reminds me of a quote from Enemy of the State (1998) which i watched last week about these two guys Brill and Robert who were trying to hide from big brother.

    Brill: In guerrilla warfare, you try to use your weaknesses as strengths.
    Robert Clayton Dean: Such as?
    Brill: Well, if they’re big and you’re small, then you’re mobile and they’re slow. You’re hidden and they’re exposed. You only fight battles you know you can win. That’s the way the Vietcong did it. You capture their weapons and you use them against them the next time.

    Thanks Pablo

  20. Pablo on May 25th, 2015 at 17:49

    Michael:

    If you have not already read it I highly recommend Sun Tsu, The Art of War. It was required reading for every special operations trooper during the time I worked with them. Too bad their bosses then and most of those today did and do not read him.

  21. Seb Rattansen on May 25th, 2015 at 17:54

    Very helpful write-up Paul, thanks.

    It seems like the best strategy in 2003 for long term stability would have been to just split Iraq into three from the outset. But then I suppose there would have been mass ethnic cleaning of Sunni/Shia in each region until the populations were relatively homogenous. What a horrible and tragic situation Iraq has become.

  22. Michael on May 25th, 2015 at 22:03

    Thanks Pablo, ive just ordered Sun Tsu book (translated!).
    Winter reading shall be good this year

  23. Convex on May 26th, 2015 at 08:15

    @Seb: Neither the Sunni nor Shia want independence – they both want to dominate a unified Iraq. The only group that would be happy with that situation would be the Kurds, but an independent Kurdistan would be vetoed by Turkey, one of the USA’s key local allies.

    But even presuming that a division could be imposed by the USA (and it would definitely have to be imposed) and that Turkey’s fundamental objections could somehow be bought off (god knows how, but let’s assume), it would just mean that the conflicts we are now seeing about the extent of Shia and Sunni control would be interstate wars, rather than civil wars.

  24. Seb Rattansen on May 26th, 2015 at 14:36

    I’m guessing that’s because of the oil? I just did a google and found that it’s concentrated in the south-east and north. But going by Paul’s analysis, the Shia will not “lack the will” to fight in the south-east, and the Kurds have already pushed ISIS out of the north. So it seems like an eventual stalemate, one where ISIS controls less oil than it would like.

  25. Michael Stevens on May 26th, 2015 at 15:08

    My understanding is that for IS to really become the Caliphate, it needs to become Guardian of the Two Holy Cities, Mecca and Medina. Until it does that it is not the Caliphate. Look out Saudi Arabia.
    And Turkey might come to rue the support they have given them in time as well – IS are functioning with impunity there.

  26. Convex on May 26th, 2015 at 19:04

    @Seb: I’m sure a desire for access to oil wealth is part of it but I think it’s mostly because they are genuine Iraqi nationalists.

    If you only just found out where Iraq’s oil wealth lies forgive me if I do not take you seriously as somebody with knowledge of Iraqi affairs.

    This is a blog for informed commentary, not amateur idiocy. Perhaps you should try Kiwiblog, you would get a warm welcome from the bottom feeders there.

  27. Seb Rattansen on May 26th, 2015 at 22:27

    Convex: Suggest you grow up, if you can, and learn some manners. Unsurprisingly you’re anonymous so I’m guessing you’re just trolling. Unfortunately this blog doesn’t have an ignore function, but you can be sure I’ll be ignoring any other posts from you.

  28. Seb Rattansen on May 26th, 2015 at 22:29

    BTW try reading the comments policy – it’s in the top right.

  29. Pablo on May 27th, 2015 at 08:17

    Seb and Convex:

    No need to go feral just because you disagree on an issue. Let’s keep it clean. Oil obviously has a role to play but there are many other factors involved. The relative weight of each in IS strategic thought is a matter of conjecture and hence debate.

    For the record, I believe that both of your original comments were good for the discussion. The last exchange? Not much.

  30. Pablo on May 27th, 2015 at 17:51

    It is a sad state of affairs when the Herald’s half-weekly political news roundup–complied by a political scientist!–devotes its entire coverage to the end of Campbell Live instead of the NZDF in Iraq or various budget issues. I may like JC but geez, a media talking head, no matter how Quixote-like he may be in his pursuit of the good, is not a significant political story.

  31. Convex on May 27th, 2015 at 23:37

    I’m sorry Pablo. I know civility is something you prize highly. I’ve always admired that you keep a high standard of civility here. It makes this blog stand out from others.

    But I also know that those who are not informed are not welcome here, and it seemed pretty clear to me that Seb knows very little about Iraq.

    But I will agree to be civil if Seb will make the same commitment.

    Anyway, Seb, it isn’t just about oil. It’s because the Sunni and Shia communities are intertwined. There’s no clear border, and there are a lot of areas which were historically Sunni majority but are now Shia majority, and vice versa. However the border between the Sunni state and the Shia state was defined, there would inevitably be disagreement about it, and it would inevitably become violent. The oil only adds to the equation, but we would see the same dynamic if there were no oil.

    This is why the division of Iraq is not the panacea it’s often made out to be.

  32. Greg on May 28th, 2015 at 11:20

    Singapore and HongKong were also seen as impregnable, where the guns were pointing the wrong way, and loss of its water supply saw the city capitulate overnight.
    Its clear that PonyTails Keys folly was to rush these troops to Iraq when he was on his Saudi Arabia jaunt was a publicity stunt that failed.He probably had a planned quick visit to behind the wire Camp Taji.
    However IS saw this publicity ploy fail utterly.
    Key is too spineless to follow up on his visit latter in the year.

  33. Pablo on May 28th, 2015 at 13:16

    I may not have made it clear in the post but IS does not have to attack the Taji base in order to achieve tactical victory. In fact, it would be stupid to do so. Instead, IS will try to cut off the route south to Baghdad (National Highway One). If it can do so they will have surrounded the base (since it is already in place on the North, East and West of the base). It can then choke the land resupply routes to the base and, more importantly, draw out the Iraqi and foreign forces stationed inside of the base (who will need to break the blockade by force). Having to leave their fortified positions and attack IS in the open will expose the latter to more risk than if IS attacked the base, and it could well depend on the amount of armour and CAS the coalition can provide that will determine if they can break the blockade.

    The good news, again, is that IS is stretched relatively thin on the ground between Falluja, Ramadi and Taji, and should they try to erect a blockade they will be vulnerable to air power.

    The bigger political question is this: why was the government not grilled about stationing troops at Taji, in the middle of the Sunni Triangle, back in October when it became clear that it was going to join the coalition or at the latest in February, when it announced the deployment? That is a failure of the Opposition, which could have anticipated much of what I have outlined above.

  34. Convex on May 29th, 2015 at 03:53

    Pablo, this might be a subject change and if so I apologise, but have you ever approached the Greens and offered your expertise as a foreign policy advisor on an informal basis? As you say the Opposition could only benefit from the level of foreign policy analysis that is dispalyed here.

    I would say approach Labour but I think we all know Labour would not be interested.

  35. Pablo on May 29th, 2015 at 08:26

    Ha Ha, Convex, that is an interesting thought. I am not a pacifist and have a bit too much much realist in me to suit the Greens, although I have spoken informally with some of them on matters on intelligence and security. Plus more than a few of their members believe that I am a CIA plant or simply distrust me because I am a Yank.

    I happen to know some Labour people but have been told that they hate me almost as much as National does because of my critiques over the years. Plus, those critiques have to do with failures shared by both major parties so even on a policy level I wouldn’t be welcome. It is a pity because I believe that I have insights to offer but hey, that is how the cookie crumbles.

    Crazy as it may sound the one politician who I have often (not always) agreed with is Ron Mark. I could never bring myself to vote for his party but when it comes to military matters he seems to be the most on to it and forthright in his pronouncements.

  36. Convex on May 29th, 2015 at 13:14

    Not at all crazy Pablo. Ron Mark is a military man with extensive security experience so it only makes sense he would have a superior perspective. Too bad it doesn’t seem to inform his party’s policies.

    It is a shame there is so much entrenched anti-American prejudice among the Greens. I think there are some realists there, hopefully they will get the upper hand. Both James Shaw and Kevin Hague seem to be pragmatic men, although they lack intelligence experience, but with some luck they will be able to detect and utilise it in others… although there is almost nobody in NZ with that experience so perhaps I’m being optimistic.

  37. Kumara Republic on May 29th, 2015 at 14:27

    I’d have to agree that Iraq & Syria were shoe-horned into being nation states to begin with, after the Ottoman Empire crumbled and the British & French divided up the Middle East between them by way of Sykes-Picot.

    All the training in the world won’t fix the Iraqi military for as long as the underlying sectarianism and corruption remain unfixed.

    And it’s pretty telling that the Saudi military is bombing the hell out of the Houthi Shi’ites in Yemen, but at the same time keeping well out of Iraq and Syria.

  38. Kumara Republic on May 29th, 2015 at 14:32

    And I’ve just heard that we’ve opened a new embassy in Baghdad. What if it sees a hostage scenario just like Tehran in 1979-80?

  39. Greg on May 29th, 2015 at 18:17

    Baghdad might want it not to look like its fighting a sectarian war, but IS is fighting one.
    The Shia mosque bombing & border attack sound like a inside job.
    Key isn’t a statesman, he’s a glove puppet with a degree in accounting & management.
    Hopefully he will get a knighthood on Monday and retire by the end of the week.
    His creditability took a massive hit with the pony tail pulling, maybe not so much in NZ,
    but world wide, a leader can be incompetent & survive, but never a embarrassment & the butt of jokes.

  40. Phil Sage on May 29th, 2015 at 21:56

    Greg – Carry on misunderestimating, its great to see the left continue to do that.

    Give the Greens time, they have only just moved Locke and Bradford on. A strong contender for next female co leader is American and another has American extended family.

    Back on track. The tenor of the thread above seems to conclude that Baghdad cannot reassert dominance over the rest of Iraq. Then what next? The conclusion of Pablo’s post requires Western will to act.

    The idea that a Sunni alternative populist movement will arise from within area controlled by IS seems like wishful thinking to me. I would agree with Korakys that any Western initiated populist movement would be self defeating. Iran is just as tarnished in Sunni areas as the US.
    What is striking about the IoW map above is how little of the area IS occupy but how much they control. Their strength seems fragile at present.
    It seems extremely unlikely to me that Obama will feel compelled to commit anything in the way of ground forces in the twilight of his presidency. He will currently go down in history as the guy who got UBL and withdrew from Iraq and Afghanistan. Why would he become the guy who went back into Iraq, however sensible that might be to some in the West? He will however do his best to make peace with Iran.

    Afghanistan seems out of (or more accurately, less in) the news. Meaning it seems more relatively stable. Taliban attacks continue but they seem fewer and further apart. Ardent jihadists have Iraq to head to.

    The Kurds will probably attempt to cement their control of Kirkuk. They effectively have self rule now. Nationalist Iraqi’s will likely weaken and disappear. If the Sunni of Iraq prefer IS Sunni lead rule to Baghdad Shia that is their right of self determination.

    I don’t see much call in the Western media for governments to “do something”. Cameron is preoccupied with Europe. He is no Thatcher or Blair.

    I read somewhere that people on the ground are happier to have IS rule because it means the bombs stop.

    All of which suggest there will be little change over the next few years. Iraqi’s will be encouraged by Iran and the West to beat back IS but will likely have limited success.

  41. Korakys on June 2nd, 2015 at 01:55

    http://www.vox.com/2015/5/26/8659859/ramadi-ash-carter

    Here is an interesting perspective not heard in the mainstream propaganda channels. I heard Jon Stevenson say a similar thing on RNZ the other day too.

    I’m starting to like Vox more and more. They have great maps too.

  42. Phil Sage on June 2nd, 2015 at 03:35

    Similar commentary about the performance of Iraqi forces here. http://www.telegraph.co.uk/news/worldnews/islamic-state/11616516/The-US-cannot-defeat-Isil-Iran-cannot-defeat-Isil.-They-need-to-come-together-against-a-common-threat..html

    Makes you wonder why they were not resupplied. Perhaps the Americans assumed they would be overrun and did not want to resupply IS.

    Both articles make Carter’s comments on Ramadi inexcusable.

  43. Phil Sage on June 13th, 2015 at 01:34

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