14 February 2017

War On ISIS Continues

To date, U.S. coalition military efforts have resulted in the deaths of more than 60,000 Islamic State militants over the course of a two-year campaign, the commander of U.S. Special Operations Command said Tuesday. 
That figure is 10,000 troops higher than was reported in December, when U.S. officials said 50,000 of the extremist fighters had been killed. Speaking at the National Defense Industrial Association's annual Special Operations/Low Intensity Conflict conference near Washington, D.C., Army Gen. Raymond Thomas said that figure should signal to Americans how successful the fight has been. 
"I'm not into morbid body counts, but that matters," Thomas said. "So when folks ask, do you need more aggressive [measures], do you need better [rules of engagement], I would tell you that we're being pretty darn prolific right now." 
What makes the number of militants killed difficult to put into context is the wide variance between estimates of how many Islamic State fighters there are to begin with. The Syrian Observatory for Human Rights estimated in 2014 that there were 100,000 ISIS fighters in Iraq and Syria, while the Pentagon announced last summer that there were only 15,000 to 20,000 militants remaining in those countries. 
Thomas pointed to major military gains on ISIS strongholds, including U.S. and partners "on the verge" of toppling the capital of the group's caliphate in Raqqa, Syria, and advances in efforts to take back Mosul, Iraq. Some 1,500 ISIS fighters were killed when coalition forces claimed a recent victory in Sirte, Libya, he said.

The body count continues to rise. By U.S. military estimates, at least three-quarters of ISIS soldiers have been killed over the last two years. Yet, they are still a potent force. They have fought block by block for week after week of Mosul, holding back coalition forces trying to retake the city in northeast Iraq and continuing to slaughter local civilians with abandon. They have done so despite the fact that coalition airstrikes have nearly completely wiped out of all their heavier weapons systems.

It has been an incredible military accomplishment to kill so many enemy soldiers and to destroy so much of their equipment and so many of their bases with so relatively little loss of coalition lives. But, it is also humbling that a force that is so vastly inferior in resources and technology can be such a formidable military opponent. There have been more ISIS soldier deaths since 2014 than U.S. forces suffered from all causes in the entire Vietnam War.

But, a body count is only one data point of many. It doesn't count coalition casualties. It doesn't count civilian casualties caused by each side. It doesn't count the misery of those living in the ISIS regime. It doesn't inquire into how many of those ISIS fighters really care about the cause. Failing to become an ISIS soldier means immediate death for many, joining at least allows you to role the dice and defer that fate. It doesn't count the economic cost of fighting the war or the eventual economic costs of rebuilding. It doesn't reckon how the manner in which the war is fought will impact the legitimacy of a successor civilian regime. It doesn't count the global impact on personal freedoms, on how Islam is viewed, of global terrorism, or in the form of refugees (who not infrequently die trying to flee and almost always lose everything they own).

In order to secure the victory that comes with a surrender you have to give the other side a palatable option. So far, that hasn't happened. They see surrender to Iraq or Syria as death or an eternity of oppression and humiliation. It also takes a strong leadership to negotiate a surrender, and, it isn't obvious that ISIS has a strong leadership as coalition forces have killed a succession of senior figures in the regime.

The international community is capable of killing ISIS soldiers almost to the last man. And, few regimes in history have made such a great effort to provoke such attacks in a manner that provides it with no material gains of its own. But, no one is talking state building, even though without it, all of the military efforts will be wasted as the people ISIS once ruled rise phoenix-like from the ashes of their predecessors.

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