Are ‘body counts’ really the right measure of success or failure in the fight against ISIS?

Captured (defeated?) German soldiers

At the end of World War II, some ten million current and former members of Nazi Germany’s and Imperialist Japan’s armed forces survived the conflict.  Indeed, some Germans fought on for months, and the last Japanese soldier did not surrender until 1974.  Keep those facts in mind when considering recent estimates that 20-30,000 ISIS members are still alive in Iraq and Syria.

Does this mean that ISIS has not been “vanquished” or “defeated” as some in the media suggest?

Let’s start by looking at both the new UN Analytical Support and Sanctions Monitoring Team report, as well as the recent Pentagon Inspector General report that the press have been citing.  Actually, the UN team’s report only says that “some” Member States estimated the total current ISIS “membership” in Iraq and Syria to be “between 20,000 and 30,000 individuals.”

Obviously, until we know more about how “some” states arrived at their figures, and whether “membership” includes family members as well as fighters, there’s legitimate reason to be skeptical as to what the estimates really mean in terms of warfighting capability.

The Pentagon’s Lead Inspector General for Operation Inherent Resolve (OIR) report from June says that DoD estimates that “15,500 to 17,100 ISIS fighters remained in Iraq, although estimates of the numbers of ISIS fighters have varied sharply among sources and over time.” (Emphasis added.)

Regarding Syria, it says there are thought to be “roughly 14,000 fighters in the country, although estimates of ISIS force strength vary greatly depending on the source.” (Emphasis added.). However, only “4,000-6,000 of them remained in the U.S. military’s areas of operation in northeastern Syria.”

Both reports are soft and inexact on the numbers, but this is understandable given the continuing disorder in both countries.  Think about it: in places like Iraq and Syria how can you really count those who might have “melted” back into the population and are now laying low?  I doubt anyone knows – or even could know – the real numbers.

Still, if these kind of estimates matter to you, here’s some context in which to put them. Last year, Business Insider said that in 2014, “an observer group estimated the terror group had 100,000 fighters.” This week The Telegraph (UK) reported that:

At the height of its reign in 2015 I[SIS] counted as many as 100,000 jihadist in its ranks, controlling territory spanning Syria and neighbouring Iraq that was roughly the size of the UK.

Considered in that context, it would appear that ISIS has suffered 70% attrition, which jives with what Special Operations Command’s General Raymond “Tony” Thomas said at the 2017 Aspen Security Forum. Here’s an extract of his discussion (full text here) about Abu Bakr al-Baghdadi:

“[E]veryone who worked for him initially is dead or gone. Everybody who stepped to the plate the next time, dead or gone. Down through a network where we have killed in conservative estimates 60,000 to 70,000 of his followers, his army. They declared an army, they put it on the battlefield, and we went to war with it.”

So in rough figures, it’s not especially surprising that there could be 20-30,000 people of what was once a 100,000-person ISIS force still around.

I will tell you, however, that as a general rule “body counting” (living or dead) is shunned by the U.S. military.  Those in uniform typically seek to avoid becoming entrapped in such discussions, however popular they may be with journalists and pundits.  Such counts harken back to bitter Vietnam war controversies where the number of enemy dead was seen as the sine qua non of the war’s progress.  But it proved to be a very inaccurate yardstick and, indeed, a counter-productive way of thinking about whether or not an enemy had been “vanquished” or “defeated.”

Unfortunately, even international lawyers will sometimes still think in similar terms. They tend to conceive of war in the way the oft-cited St Petersburg Declaration of 1868 does, that is, “that the only legitimate object which States should endeavour to accomplish during war is to weaken the military forces of the enemy; [and that] for this purpose it is sufficient to disable the greatest possible number of men…. “

A military conception of war doesn’t necessarily depend upon a body count of men actually “disabled.”  Rather, as the eminent strategist Clausewitz puts, it, war “is an act of violence to compel our opponent to fulfil our will.”  While killing some number of the enemy may certainly be necessary to “compel our opponent to fulfill our will,” it is not an end in itself as ‘body count’ statistics and their aficionados suggest.

Thus, to a military person, the part of the UN report that acknowledges that ISIS only “controlled small pockets of territory in the Syrian Arab Republic on the Iraqi border” is much more significant than the number of “members” who might have melted “back into the local population and stay there.” (Emphasis added.)  Likewise, where the Pentagon report says that “ISIS is no longer in control of significant territory in Iraq [and that] violence declined in all but three Iraqi provinces” are facts that are vastly more indicative of what the military wants to achieve, as opposed to simply killing off any remaining ISIS members.

In determining the status of the operation, the hard facts that ISIS’s so-called ‘caliphate’ has collapsed, and that it’s unable to physically control any significant amount territory, are to me far more meaningful than speculations about ISIS’s membership.

Nevertheless it is, of course, true that even small numbers of ISIS fighters will be able to mount some attacks and terrorist strikes.  Moreover, in an article last May, Al Jazeera asserted that ISIS’ “ideology remains widespread” and that “it is premature to claim ISIS has been extinguished from the face of the Earth.”

Al Jazeera also noted that U.S. Army Lt. Gen Paul Funk’s said that ISIS’ “repressive ideology continues” and reported his belief that “the conditions remain present for ISIS to return, and only through coalition and international efforts can the defeat become permanent.” This is nothing new for those in uniform, as General Thomas pointed out last year that after dealing with “the physical aspects of the caliphate” it would be necessary to “deal with the harder parts, the…the ideological basis” for ISIS.

U.S. Army Soldiers with the 3rd Cavalry Regiment fire artillery alongside Iraqi Security Forces artillery at known ISIS locations near the Iraqi-Syrian border, June 5, 2018. (U.S. Army photo by Spc. Anthony Zendejas IV)

Accordingly, despite the success the U.S. and coalition effort has achieved against ISIS,  I would expect to see their military (and diplomatic) efforts against ISIS continue for the foreseeable future.  Let’s keep in mind that U.S. troops entered both Germany and Japan in 1945, and American forces are still there, some 73 years later – for mutual security reasons.

Here are some questions for you: is it necessary to “extinguish” every last ISIS follower in order to say the caliphate has been “vanquished” or “defeated”?  Did we somehow come up short after World War II simply because millions of enemy soldiers made it through the war without being “extinguished”?  Or were Japan and Germany still “vanquished” or “defeated” (even if forms of their hateful ideology have not yet been completely “extinguished from the face of the Earth”)?

Perhaps even more importantly, how useful (if at all) are terms like “vanquished” or “defeated” in the context of ISIS?

In my view, the nature of terrorism is such that it will always exist, and the fight against evil ideologies never ends.  While we have to continue to battle terrorists of all kinds, we should not fall into the trap of using ‘body counts’ as indicative of failure or, for that matter, success.  A better indicator is territory controlled and population liberated, and from that perspective the anti-ISIS coalition has done remarkably well in Iraq and Syria.

Still, as we like to say on Lawfire®, gather the facts, consider the arguments, and decide for yourself!

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