Could ISIS be a victim of their own success?

Conventional power / Photo: Spc. Richard Del Vecchio, U.S. Army photo, U.S. Government Works license
Conventional power waiting for ISIS / Photo: Spc. Richard Del Vecchio, U.S. Army photo, U.S. Government Works license

WASHINGTON, June 24, 2014 — The radical Islamist group, the Islamic State of Iraq and Syria, continues to gain territory and threatens to lay siege to Baghdad. So far this year they have captured Fallujah, Mosul, Takrit, and Tal Afar. The Obama Administration announced their takeover of Saddam Hussein’s old chemical weapons depot, a place that was not supposed to exist.

ISIS has swept eastward out of Syria, where they have a foothold carved out the chaos of the Syrian civil war, partly with weapons provided by the U.S. for the Syrian opposition. They have gained strength in numbers and assets, and with each new city they take they gain both recruits and fighting experience. They are picking up armored vehicles, helicopters, and any other equipment the Iraqi army leaves behind or abandons when they surrender.

READ ALSO: Malaysia bolsters ISIS with praise and child suicide bombers

But their strength and their growing size could begin to slow their success. Radical Islamic terrorist groups such as al-Qaeda, al-Shabaab, al-Nusra, and Boko Haram rely on insurgent tactics. They succeed in small numbers of experienced fighters conducting operations aimed to weaken and terrorize their enemy, usually government forces.

ISIS started as such a group, but now it is also a militia.

Government forces are for the most part trained to fight other conventional forces, which is why many world militaries rely upon special counterinsurgency (COIN) in order to address those particular threats. The United States belongs in that category; while we have substantial COIN abilities, such operations are not the intended role of the American military.

The American military have been masters of modern conventional warfare since WWII. Against a formal military, using formal conventional tactics, few powers in the World could stand up to an American armored column and their overwhelming air superiority. However, Iraq and Afghanistan presented different problems. Both wars required conventional military strategy to gain territory and defeat each nation’s military forces, but both required advanced COIN operations to maintain control of the territory won by conventional means.

In Iraq for example, once Saddam’s forces were defeated, the U.S. had to deal with the various insurgency operations. In Afghanistan, once the Taliban was pushed out, the U.S. had to deal with their efforts to destabilize the region and find a way back into control.

In order to strengthen their forces, the U.S. trained Iraqi and Afghani troops to fight like Americans, heads up brawlers who struck fast and struck hard using superior technology and numbers. However much as the U.S. found in Vietnam, training foreign soldiers to fight like Americans is not always the best way to approach an active insurgency.

READ ALSO: As Ramadan looms, so does greater violence in Iraq

As we saw in Vietnam and the Bay of Pigs, Iraqi soldiers trained and organized to fight as Americans are unable to deal with the rising insurgency and the threat of radical Islam. Fighting insurgents like a formal American fighting force is like trying to swat flies with a giant hammer, the flies simply scatter and reform to pester you again.

However, it looks like that might be changing.

ISIS is moving towards Baghdad; they have acquired more weapons, more men, and with the capture of an oil refinery they now have a revenue source. As their numbers grow, they and their objectives become grander, and they will be forced to organize. They will have to have a command structure, they will need logistical support for the vehicles they captured, they will need supply routes, and they will need to coordinate all of this with their overall mission strategy. They will be able to hire advisers with their oil revenue, and they will be forced to reform into a more organized combat entity.

ISIS has already transformed from terrorist group to militia. The militia must be an army if it is going to take Baghdad.

That is when they will be at their most vulnerable. Supply routes can be severed, logistics can be disrupted, and command posts can be destroyed. Their greatest strength up until this point was their ability to be the mosquito, everywhere and anywhere, constantly attacking and retreating. But as their forces grow, and they acquired new assets, they will be forced to fight more like a conventional military unit than a group of insurgent cells working together towards a common goal. And when they reach that point, where they move and act and fight like a conventional army, they can be destroyed by a conventional army.


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  • Cory

    I must disagree with Col. West on this analysis. First, as long as ISIS continues to behead & shoot large numbers of people whom they do not trust, they will continue to be terrorists.
    Second, If & when ISIS establishes itself as a well-organized militia (or, heaven forbid a politically controlled army), its leaders will have achieved the status of a defacto nation state (whether U.N. approved or not) with hostile intentions toward any & all others not in agreement with them, at which point it will be in a solid position to export its violence across the world….modern conventional warfare tactics are, and will likely continue to be, irrelevant to them.

  • Bill Sullivan

    I trust Allen West. This does not happen all at once. It is the transition period referred to in this article and if Allen West was of the same mind, I agree even more so. He has live it and defeated it in both cases.