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Irregular war, and how to reverse it

A military-led response to violent movements such as ISIS and al-Qaida misses the wider global forces that are triggering their rise.

A member of Iraq's elite counterterrorism forces pauses as they advance towards the city of Mosul. 20 October 2016. Khalid Mohammed/AP/Press Association Images. All rights reserved.The long-awaited military assault on ISIS in Mosul began on 16 October, two years and four months since the movement seized the city in its advance across northern Iraq. Its initial moves were accompanied by much hype from western broadcasters, though this eased within a day amidst some confusion over the pace of operations. Iraqi government officials reported that Kurdish elements were seeking more time to complete the first phase of their operations, whereas Kurdish sources said that they had achieved their objectives and were waiting for Iraqi army units to advance. At the same time, sources point to extensive ISIS use of mortars, car- and truck-bombs and roadside devices, all of them capable of hampering the attackers' progress. 

ISIS, with at most 6,000 fighters at its disposal in Mosul, faces much larger numbers – around 80,000 in all – arrayed against it. That imbalance could yet be a factor in the decision of the movement's leaders about whether to abandon the city. When Ramadi was retaken in 2015, the Iraqi attackers numbered around 10,000, while 15,000 were deployed in the battle for Fallujah earlier this year. Yet the early indications are that many of the ISIS paramilitaries will stay. If so, a pattern may emerge similar to Ramadi. There, a battle expected to last little more than a fortnight extended for four months, with much of the city severely damaged in airstrikes and artillery bombardments.

Some indication of the tenacity of ISIS paramilitaries is shown by what has happened in the much smaller stronghold of Sirte in northern Libya. The war to oust ISIS from Sirte started in May with high expectations, but quickly slowed to a crawl leading to extensive use of American airpower in August to support the government forces. That was expected to tip the balance markedly in favour of the United Nations-backed government of national accord (GNA), and by September it was reported that ISIS was making its final stand.  

That has not happened, and the GNA forces have now lost hundreds of troops in their attempt to retake the city. Indeed the situation remains so fraught that American forces have increased their attacks, mounting 36 airstrikes over last weekend alone. Sirte may well be lost to ISIS in the coming days but there are already indications that many of its fighters have slipped away from the city to other parts of Libya.

Beyond Mosul

The experience in Sirte gives some indication of a potential 'worst case' outcome for Mosul – months of fighting, high levels of civilian casualties and widespread destruction. Against that prospect, the best hope is that ISIS evacuates the city at an early stage. But whether that is feasible also depends in part on the performance of the extraordinarily mixed and complex nature of the attacking forces (see "ISIS's squeeze, al-Qaida's return", 13 October 2016).

That mixture begins with Iraqi government regular troops and special forces allied with Kurdish militias, and includes US regular troops in a range of roles including artillery support, target acquisition, reconnaissance and integrated advisory actions with Iraqi units. The United States also has large numbers of forward-based special forces, and there are reported to be French forces also involved in artillery support as well as French and British special forces on the ground.

There are also Iraqi Shi’a militias, elements of the Iranian Revolutionary Guard Corp and even some Sunni militias prepared to support the Baghdad government, as well as Turkish army elements said to be 'advising' some of the Kurdish units. Beyond that are the US, Iraqi, French, British, Australian and other air units, which might even include, though operating independently, elements of the Iranian airforce.

To further complicate matters, if Mosul does fall quickly and with little bloodshed – the best that can be hoped for in a terrible conflict – several of these groups have rivalrous post-conflict agendas. The Kurds want to retain territory they take during the fighting, the Shi’a militias are determined to consolidate control, the Sunni militias equally intent on ensuring the security of their own people, and Iranian and Turkish elements are each vying for influence in a post-war northern Iraq.

Thus, after ISIS is suppressed, an outcome by no means assured, great political skill will be needed to steer a more peaceful way between the different factions. And this would still leave a further hard strategic issue which is no nearer being resolved. As ISIS declines, so a range of paramilitary groups allied to the original al-Qaida banner are making surprising progress, especially in Syria. Indeed it is beginning to look as though the supplanting of al-Qaida by ISIS in the early 2010s is now being superseded by the reverse trend: al-Qaida taking over from ISIS as the core focus of a widespread Islamist movement.

But even if both movements were eventually to be overcome in strict military terms, that is unlikely to be the end of the long 'war on terror'. The problem here, as suggested in many previous columns in this series, is that the direct military action to combat movements such as ISIS and al-Qaida cannot reach the underlying reasons why such movements thrive. These transcend religion, and relate not just to autocracy and repression but to the widespread marginalisation of increasingly educated and knowledgeable populations.

The phenomenon is not confined to one region, as is shown by the neo-Maoist Naxalite rebellion in India or the largely unreported but large-scale reactions from the margins in China. And it draws on the increasingly obvious failure of the global neo-liberal economic model and the growing societal risks posed by climate disruption.

Such factors may seem to exist beyond the immediate agenda of Mosul, al-Qaida, ISIS and the rest. But adjust the lens, and it becomes clear that this is the hot core of an interconnected reality that is about inequality as much as militarism. If this is understood and seriously addressed, the violent eruptions may cool and eventually wither. If not, then a destructive era of irregular war will stretch into the next decade and beyond.

About the author

Paul Rogers is professor in the department of peace studies at Bradford University, northern England. He is openDemocracy's international security adviser, and has been writing a weekly column on global security since 28 September 2001; he also writes a monthly briefing for the Oxford Research Group. His latest book is Irregular War: ISIS and the New Threat from the Margins (IB Tauris, 2016), which follows Why We’re Losing the War on Terror (Polity, 2007), and Losing Control: Global Security in the 21st Century (Pluto Press, 3rd edition, 2010). He is on Twitter at: @ProfPRogers

A lecture by Paul Rogers, delivered to the Food Systems Academy in late 2014, provides an overview of the analysis that underpins his openDemocracy column. The lecture - "The crucial century, 1945-2045: transforming food systems in a global context" - focuses on the central place of food systems in human security worldwide. Paul argues that food is the pivot of humanity's next great transition. It can be accessed here


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