July 12, 2020

Can Iraq Contain the Islamic State Alone?

By Jonathan Burden

Although the Islamic State (IS) no longer represents an existential threat to the state of Iraq, it is still highly active and remains committed to its radical ideological goals. Reflecting its enduring commitment to baqiya (“remaining”), the first half of 2020 has seen a spike in Islamic State activity.

Data from US CENTCOM

This increase in activity has been partly attributed to three consequences of the COVID-19 pandemic. First, it has served as an inspiration to the group with ideologues calling for its fighters to ‘show no mercy and launch attacks in this time of crisis’. Second, personnel from the Iraqi Security Forces (ISF) were diverted away from countering IS and towards enforcing lockdowns. Third, the virus has forced the US and its coalition partners in Operation Inherent Resolve (OIR, the international anti-IS coalition) to reduce its activities. The US plans to drawdown its presence to between 2500-3000 troops, whilst the pandemic has caused the other constituents of the alliance to reduce its presence to just 1,200 troops. This third trend seems likely to have the most serious long-term effect on Iraq’s fight against IS.

The ongoing strategic dialogue between the US and Iraq will specify the extent to which American involvement in Iraq continues. Early indicators suggest that a further reduction in direct international support for the anti-IS mission is likely. After the first round of talks were concluded on June 11, the US released a statement that read that ‘in light of significant progress towards eliminating the [Islamic State] threat, over the coming months the US would continue reducing forces from Iraq and discuss with the Government of Iraq the status of remaining forces’. This process could be sped up by Iraqi opposition to the presence of American troops on Iraqi soil. In January the Iraqi Parliament passed a non-binding resolution to expel US troops in the aftermath of the targeted strike on the IRGC’s Qassem Soleimani and Abu Mahdi al-Muhandis, leader of Iraq’s Popular Mobilization Forces (PMFs).

Although General McKenzie, Commander of USCENTCOM, recently insisted that the ISF has the capacity to contain ISIS at a local level, it is likely that the withdrawal of American forces will undermine the strategic aim of suppressing the Islamic State. As Seth Frantzman recently argued: ‘If the U.S. were to withdraw from Iraq or Syria, the fight would likely devolve into several smaller battles involving groups that don’t coordinate with one another. They would fight IS locally with varying degrees of success, but the terrorists would move back and forth across borders’.

Barriers to Containing the Islamic State

Since the turn of the year, ISIS’s activity has mainly focussed on the areas in and around the north of Baghdad known to the West as the ‘Sunni Triangle’.

All incidents involving the Islamic State, with at least one fatality in 2020. Data from The Armed Conflict Location & Event Data Project

The PMFs have a strong presence in these areas and could be expected to protect the population against IS. However, whilst these groups are extremely hostile to the Islamic State, they may lack legitimacy and support amongst the Sunni population in these areas. Several PMFs have been implicated in violently suppressing the protests that took place in October 2019. Nationalist minded Iraqis are also suspicious of their alignment with Iran. Despite technically being under the control of the state, parts of the PMF act independently and have been accused of launching rocket attacks against coalition troops. Allegations of human rights abuses, stretching back to at least 2017 remain salient today. As the experience of the ‘Sunni Awakening’ in 2007 showed and subsequent research has corroborated, bringing local populations onside is the most important factor in reducing IS’s ability to operate within an area. Unfortunately, it is unclear if the PMFs have the capacity or willingness to fulfil this role.All incidents involving the Islamic State, with at least one fatality in 2020. Data from The Armed Conflict Location & Event Data Project

How Capable are the Iraqi Security Forces Without International Support?

From a military-capability perspective, the withdrawal of direct American support would restrict the ISF’s ability to counter the threat from IS in three key areas:

First, the ISF remains reliant on America for intelligence, surveillance and reconnaissance (ISR). These are integral parts of an effective counter-insurgency campaign. To underline the impact of losing this support, Michael Knights recently explained how the ‘four Iraqi military “clearance” operations undertaken in March were half as many as in April, and they lacked the coalition intelligence and air support that can focus such operations more effectively, instead falling into the less efficient category of unearthing arms caches but not catching enemy fighters’. Consequently, the withdrawal of direct military assistance will reduce the rate at which IS fighters can be located and neutralised.

The second area to suffer is in the aerial domain. US technical support is integral to maintaining Iraq’s fleet of F-16 fighters. However, rocket attacks on the Balad Airbase, where many of the squadron are based, forced American contractors to leave the country. In addition, Iraq’s Air Force only numbers 5000 personnel. According to the IISS’s Military Balance database, Iraq only has 10 of its own Unmanned Vehicles (UAVs) which is insufficient to replace the coverage provided by OIR. Consequently, the Air Force is currently unable to patrol the large Anbar province which borders Syria, compounding the lack of ISR capabilities. This provides IS with strategic depth beyond Iraq’s borders and reduces the vulnerability of its communication and logistics networks.

Finally, the ISF also remains highly dependent on external support for specialist training. COVID-19 has already forced US trainers to reduce their contact with the ISF. Although this feature of US involvement in Iraq is probably the safest, a drawdown in numbers could have a long term impact on the fighting effectiveness of the ISF.

Iraq’s Capabilities

So what tools does Iraq have at its disposal? The Counter Terrorism Services (CTS) fields approximately 10,000 highly competent troops. It also enjoys almost universal admiration having taken the lead role in recapturing territory from the Islamic State. One of Prime Minister Kadhimi’s first actions when he took office was to reinstate the hugely popular Lieutenant-General Abdul-Wahab al-Saadi whose demotion in October helped ignite the protest movement in October 2019, signalling government support for the force.

However, its combat effectiveness has suffered from the prolonged anti-IS campaign and it has lost many of its most experienced, elite personnel. More importantly, it is estimated that IS have around 20,000 active fighters across Iraq and Syria. Given that conventional counterinsurgency doctrine typically recommends a force ratio of 10:1, then the CTS falls well short of the necessary manpower needed to contain IS and secure Iraq.

Iraq’s large conventional army could be the answer. From the US perspective, a strong Iraqi Army is important for balancing against Tehran. However, it could also be the key to preventing a resurgence of IS. Surveys typically report that public confidence in the institution of the Iraqi Army is between 63-83%.

However, the army lacks the combat effectiveness of the CTS. It melted away in 2014 in the face of ISIS’s advance on Mosul, although it played an important supporting role in the campaigns to reclaim territory from the group. However, the political issues that severely undermined the army’s moral and ability to fight also seem to be absent in 2020. Despite recent analysis that recommends supporting the Iraqi Army over other armed groups within the complex network of the Iraqi state, reform will be tempered by two significant barriers.

Firstly, the spending is unlikely to be available.  Government expenditure on defence spending has showed no signs of increasing over the past few years.

Data from IISS’s Military Balance

Crucially, it seems unlikely to dramatically increase in the short term and may well decrease. Baghdad remains at the mercy of the global oil market to raise revenue. Analysts have predicted that oil prices would need to remain stable at $76 per barrel to finance its budget for 2020, which sits well above the current market rate. The fiscal position has also been damaged by the COVID-19 pandemic. This has led the credit rating firm Fitch to predict that overall government spending will fall by 30% in response to lower revenue and the limited availability of financing.

Given the impeding fiscal crisis caused by the twin shocks of COVID-19 and low oil prices, reforming the state to prevent corruption and managing the competing interest of the US and Iran strengthening and equipping the Iraqi Army may be low on Prime Minister Kadhimi’s to-do list.

The second barrier stems from the political contours of the state. The complex relationships between the various militias within the Iraqi security complex and politicians in Baghdad and Tehran present a significant structural barrier which will likely prevent the Army from benefitting from a normal civilian-military relationship. In an ideal world, Iraq’s four main armed groups: the Army, the CTS, Kurdish Peshmerga and PMFs would be unified under a conventional civilian administration. This is highly improbable at this time and any efforts in this direction will require careful and diplomatic navigation. The state’s ability to direct force is therefore likely to be at least partially influenced by the incompatible political objectives of the Kurdistan Regional Government (KRG), Iran and the US.


Given the competing demands being made on Prime Minister Kadhimi’s government, Baghdad’s best approach might be to follow the advice of the late British strategist Colin Gray and formulate a defence policy that is just ‘good enough’. In an uncertain, restrictive and changing environment, preventing IS from gaining a political or territorial foothold whilst the state grapples with the other challenges it faces may constitute success, given the likelihood of a drawdown in international support.

Fears of an IS ‘resurgence’ regularly feature in security diagnostics of Iraq and are often overblown. There is little chance of the Islamic State controlling significant territory in the short term. However, the group has proven remarkably adept at developing long term strategies and sowing the seeds of future success during its lowest points. Therefore, the priority for the short to medium term is to present the state as the legitimate authority in Iraq and not allow IS to establish political roots amongst the often-maligned Sunni population. In the absence of a comprehensive military solution this may be Kadhimi’s best course of action.

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