.
T

he rise of the Islamic State in Iraq and the Levant (ISIL) and the Western coalition response is perhaps one of the most interesting, if under appreciated, developments in recent history. That an insurgent movement could seize and hold such a massive amount of territory, implement a pseudo-state, export its extremist ideology, attract would-be adherents as “immigrants”, and field a frighteningly capable conventional force is fascinating. Equally, that the West—largely America—was able to roll back the Islamic State’s gains by providing on-the-ground special operations support backed by massive airpower, could well be a model for future proxy war campaigns.

The West’s War Against the Islamic State: Operation Inherent Resolve in Syria & Iraq | Andrew Mumford | I.B. Taurus | February 2021.

Yet the lack of a resolution on both fronts, despite politicians’ claims, and the concomitant pivot toward great power competition has seemingly stymied serious exploration of the two elements in tandem. While there has been exceptional research into the former—the Islamic State’s rise and existence—there has been scant attention paid to the latter military campaign, and few at either subject at an operational level.

Andrew Mumford, a professor of war studies at the University of Nottingham, takes a first attempt at looking at the campaign in its entirety in “The West’s War Against the Islamic State.”  Mumford’s book is a notable contribution to the study of the campaign against ISIL and Operation Inherent Resolve. In the absence of a formal campaign analysis from the Department of Defense, or other comprehensive reviews, Mumford’s book is a good summary of the components of the anti-ISIL effort.

On this, it is interesting to note that there has not yet been a holistic study of the campaign. Discreet elements of the overall campaign have been explored—e.g. ISIL’ rise, the air campaign, and the Kurdish fight on the ground, etc.—but these have, expectedly, omitted other parts of the anti-ISIL effort.

There is also a surprising paucity of on-the-ground accounts from members of the special operations forces who took part in these campaigns (at least from an American perspective). Nearly all the major military engagements have yielded some form of “I was there” accounts of derring-do. “Shatter the Nations” by Mike Giglio and “They Will Have to Die Now” by James Verini are two journalistic looks at the fight on the ground, and “The Daughters of Kobani” by Gayle Tzemach Lemmon explores the heroism of the women of the Syrian Kurdish units fighting ISIL.

Perhaps the only book (at least thus far) with a ground-level U.S. military perspective is “Hunting the Caliphate” written by Wes Bryant and Dana Pittard—the former a a senior Special Operations Forces Tactical Air Control Party-Joint Terminal Attack Controller (SOF TACP-JTAC) and the latter a major general tasked with the initial campaign against ISIL. “Hunting the Caliphate” marries a direct on-the-ground perspective with a strategic look at the campaign, and while insightful, it has not received the readership it deserves.

Ultimately, the strength of Mumford’s book is also its weakness. It is a tightly packaged look at the overall campaign, but its brevity is also a limitation. Mumford rightly touches on the lesser appreciated elements of the anti-ISIL campaign such as the cyber campaign, drone operations, and efforts to limit the Islamic State’s finances. He also explores how the differing interests of Moscow, Tehran, Ankara, and the Western capitals were at cross purposes, while also discussing the notably similar policies by Presidents Obama and Trump—despite tone and style, and indeed outcome in the end. The challenge is that one wishes there were more depth and heft in each of these sections. It is not a lack of talent or argument on Mumford’s part. Far from it—all the pieces are there, it just needed more time to bake in the metaphorical oven, and for the policy yeast to rise.

In its short 176 pages, some 40 pages are bibliography and endnotes, leaving just 111 for analysis and commentary (the remainder being the index). It strikes me more like a very smart and sharp monograph that I hope is followed up with the lengthier exploration the subject demands and of which Mumford is absolutely capable.

The West’s War Against the Islamic State is not the definitive account of Operation Inherent Resolve. Rather, it is the first brush at attempting to provide a holistic overview of a multi-dimensional campaign that hitherto has only received treatment for its constituent parts, and more often than not, only on the rise, ideology, and practices of the Islamic State.

Where it shines strongest is in its illustration of the complexity of the campaign that often receives very scant attention. Too often, policymakers in Washington look at issues in isolation, victims of the adage of standing where they sit. Mumford rightly describes the anti-ISIL campaign as a collection of ideas masquerading as strategy, haunted by the ghosts of Iraq, and abutting the Syrian Civil War, to say nothing of a massive humanitarian crisis affecting Europe. While the United States tried to, and largely succeeded, in marshaling a “coalition of the willing”, the actual contributions of many of the partner states were limited or merely used to secure parochial interests. Poland, for example, used its participation in the anti-ISIL coalition to secure commitments for greater American involvement vis-à-vis Russia—sensible for Warsaw, but frustrating for Washington.

Moreover, the haunting specter of Clausewitz looms over Operation Inherent Resolve—the political leadership failed to articulate and resource viable strategic outcomes. Defeating or degrading ISIL is great in concept, but difficult to achieve in practice with the former arguably nigh impossible and the latter more tenable, but still insufficient. Operational outcomes were certainly achieved, but the follow-on activity in both Syria and Iraq was wanting. The survival of the Assad regime hamstrung the fight against ISIL. Here, the anti-ISIL fight was intertwined with Assad’s fight against the rebels and insurgents, only so much could have been done to support the latter without committing to toppling the former. Russian intervention on behalf of Assad was cloaked as an anti-ISIL effort, but the majority of Moscow’s activities imply targeted anti-Assad forces.

In any case, the ability of Baghdad and Damascus to clear, hold, and build on the former territories seized by ISIL was and remains severely limited. Does it presage a resurgence of the movement as a pseudo-state? This is unlikely as the conditions for such a resurgence are not the same today as they were in 2014 and the international community’s awareness of the threat of such a resurgence is markedly higher than when President Obama suggested that ISIL was merely the “jayvee team”. This is not to say it is impossible, but a greater risk is that in the instability in both Syria and Iraq, ISIL, its successor, or similar groups could not thrive, grow, spread its ideology, and plan attacks on the West. Indeed, as authors like Graeme Wood, Joby Warrick, Alexander Hitchens, Bennett Clifford, and Seamus Hughes have shown, the ideology of ISIL and its online reach today are just as, if not more so, threatening than any territorial gains.

The return of foreign fighters (particularly the so-called ISIL brides), the disposition of ISIL prisoners in Syria and Iraq, and the organization’s online presence all but ensure that the Islamist militant organization will remain a threat in some form or fashion for the foreseeable future. With various outgrowths in Africa and Afghanistan (to say nothing of the holdouts in the Middle East), ISIL is here to stay, degraded to be sure, but far from defeated.  

Rather, despite the notable shortcomings identified in Mumford’s conclusion, the operation against ISIL is perhaps the apotheosis of 20 years of the Global War on Terrorism—the maturation of the find/fix/finish model of special operations forces leveraging overwhelming airpower and local proxy forces against an unconventional adversary. Much like Operation Desert Storm was the pinnacle of Cold War planning and design (and that had a willing adversary modeled after the Soviet Union), Operation Inherent Resolve may be the last and best gasp of a way of war that is unlikely to be seen again.

About
Joshua Huminski
:
Joshua C. Huminski is Director of the Mike Rogers Center for Intelligence & Global Affairs at the Center for the Study of the Presidency & Congress. He can be found on Twitter @joshuachuminski.
The views presented in this article are the author’s own and do not necessarily represent the views of any other organization.

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The West’s War Against the Islamic State

Ruined side-street in Shingal (Sinjar) following war with the Islamic State. Photo by Levi Meir Clancy via Unsplash.

April 24, 2021

In the absence of a formal campaign analysis from the Department of Defense, or other comprehensive reviews, Mumford’s book is a good summary of the components of the anti-ISIL effort.

T

he rise of the Islamic State in Iraq and the Levant (ISIL) and the Western coalition response is perhaps one of the most interesting, if under appreciated, developments in recent history. That an insurgent movement could seize and hold such a massive amount of territory, implement a pseudo-state, export its extremist ideology, attract would-be adherents as “immigrants”, and field a frighteningly capable conventional force is fascinating. Equally, that the West—largely America—was able to roll back the Islamic State’s gains by providing on-the-ground special operations support backed by massive airpower, could well be a model for future proxy war campaigns.

The West’s War Against the Islamic State: Operation Inherent Resolve in Syria & Iraq | Andrew Mumford | I.B. Taurus | February 2021.

Yet the lack of a resolution on both fronts, despite politicians’ claims, and the concomitant pivot toward great power competition has seemingly stymied serious exploration of the two elements in tandem. While there has been exceptional research into the former—the Islamic State’s rise and existence—there has been scant attention paid to the latter military campaign, and few at either subject at an operational level.

Andrew Mumford, a professor of war studies at the University of Nottingham, takes a first attempt at looking at the campaign in its entirety in “The West’s War Against the Islamic State.”  Mumford’s book is a notable contribution to the study of the campaign against ISIL and Operation Inherent Resolve. In the absence of a formal campaign analysis from the Department of Defense, or other comprehensive reviews, Mumford’s book is a good summary of the components of the anti-ISIL effort.

On this, it is interesting to note that there has not yet been a holistic study of the campaign. Discreet elements of the overall campaign have been explored—e.g. ISIL’ rise, the air campaign, and the Kurdish fight on the ground, etc.—but these have, expectedly, omitted other parts of the anti-ISIL effort.

There is also a surprising paucity of on-the-ground accounts from members of the special operations forces who took part in these campaigns (at least from an American perspective). Nearly all the major military engagements have yielded some form of “I was there” accounts of derring-do. “Shatter the Nations” by Mike Giglio and “They Will Have to Die Now” by James Verini are two journalistic looks at the fight on the ground, and “The Daughters of Kobani” by Gayle Tzemach Lemmon explores the heroism of the women of the Syrian Kurdish units fighting ISIL.

Perhaps the only book (at least thus far) with a ground-level U.S. military perspective is “Hunting the Caliphate” written by Wes Bryant and Dana Pittard—the former a a senior Special Operations Forces Tactical Air Control Party-Joint Terminal Attack Controller (SOF TACP-JTAC) and the latter a major general tasked with the initial campaign against ISIL. “Hunting the Caliphate” marries a direct on-the-ground perspective with a strategic look at the campaign, and while insightful, it has not received the readership it deserves.

Ultimately, the strength of Mumford’s book is also its weakness. It is a tightly packaged look at the overall campaign, but its brevity is also a limitation. Mumford rightly touches on the lesser appreciated elements of the anti-ISIL campaign such as the cyber campaign, drone operations, and efforts to limit the Islamic State’s finances. He also explores how the differing interests of Moscow, Tehran, Ankara, and the Western capitals were at cross purposes, while also discussing the notably similar policies by Presidents Obama and Trump—despite tone and style, and indeed outcome in the end. The challenge is that one wishes there were more depth and heft in each of these sections. It is not a lack of talent or argument on Mumford’s part. Far from it—all the pieces are there, it just needed more time to bake in the metaphorical oven, and for the policy yeast to rise.

In its short 176 pages, some 40 pages are bibliography and endnotes, leaving just 111 for analysis and commentary (the remainder being the index). It strikes me more like a very smart and sharp monograph that I hope is followed up with the lengthier exploration the subject demands and of which Mumford is absolutely capable.

The West’s War Against the Islamic State is not the definitive account of Operation Inherent Resolve. Rather, it is the first brush at attempting to provide a holistic overview of a multi-dimensional campaign that hitherto has only received treatment for its constituent parts, and more often than not, only on the rise, ideology, and practices of the Islamic State.

Where it shines strongest is in its illustration of the complexity of the campaign that often receives very scant attention. Too often, policymakers in Washington look at issues in isolation, victims of the adage of standing where they sit. Mumford rightly describes the anti-ISIL campaign as a collection of ideas masquerading as strategy, haunted by the ghosts of Iraq, and abutting the Syrian Civil War, to say nothing of a massive humanitarian crisis affecting Europe. While the United States tried to, and largely succeeded, in marshaling a “coalition of the willing”, the actual contributions of many of the partner states were limited or merely used to secure parochial interests. Poland, for example, used its participation in the anti-ISIL coalition to secure commitments for greater American involvement vis-à-vis Russia—sensible for Warsaw, but frustrating for Washington.

Moreover, the haunting specter of Clausewitz looms over Operation Inherent Resolve—the political leadership failed to articulate and resource viable strategic outcomes. Defeating or degrading ISIL is great in concept, but difficult to achieve in practice with the former arguably nigh impossible and the latter more tenable, but still insufficient. Operational outcomes were certainly achieved, but the follow-on activity in both Syria and Iraq was wanting. The survival of the Assad regime hamstrung the fight against ISIL. Here, the anti-ISIL fight was intertwined with Assad’s fight against the rebels and insurgents, only so much could have been done to support the latter without committing to toppling the former. Russian intervention on behalf of Assad was cloaked as an anti-ISIL effort, but the majority of Moscow’s activities imply targeted anti-Assad forces.

In any case, the ability of Baghdad and Damascus to clear, hold, and build on the former territories seized by ISIL was and remains severely limited. Does it presage a resurgence of the movement as a pseudo-state? This is unlikely as the conditions for such a resurgence are not the same today as they were in 2014 and the international community’s awareness of the threat of such a resurgence is markedly higher than when President Obama suggested that ISIL was merely the “jayvee team”. This is not to say it is impossible, but a greater risk is that in the instability in both Syria and Iraq, ISIL, its successor, or similar groups could not thrive, grow, spread its ideology, and plan attacks on the West. Indeed, as authors like Graeme Wood, Joby Warrick, Alexander Hitchens, Bennett Clifford, and Seamus Hughes have shown, the ideology of ISIL and its online reach today are just as, if not more so, threatening than any territorial gains.

The return of foreign fighters (particularly the so-called ISIL brides), the disposition of ISIL prisoners in Syria and Iraq, and the organization’s online presence all but ensure that the Islamist militant organization will remain a threat in some form or fashion for the foreseeable future. With various outgrowths in Africa and Afghanistan (to say nothing of the holdouts in the Middle East), ISIL is here to stay, degraded to be sure, but far from defeated.  

Rather, despite the notable shortcomings identified in Mumford’s conclusion, the operation against ISIL is perhaps the apotheosis of 20 years of the Global War on Terrorism—the maturation of the find/fix/finish model of special operations forces leveraging overwhelming airpower and local proxy forces against an unconventional adversary. Much like Operation Desert Storm was the pinnacle of Cold War planning and design (and that had a willing adversary modeled after the Soviet Union), Operation Inherent Resolve may be the last and best gasp of a way of war that is unlikely to be seen again.

About
Joshua Huminski
:
Joshua C. Huminski is Director of the Mike Rogers Center for Intelligence & Global Affairs at the Center for the Study of the Presidency & Congress. He can be found on Twitter @joshuachuminski.
The views presented in this article are the author’s own and do not necessarily represent the views of any other organization.