Friday, March 25, 2016

Is the Islamic State Collapsing?

Liz Sly in the Washington Post:
As European governments scramble to contain the expanding terrorist threat posed by the Islamic State, on the battlefield in Iraq and Syria the group is a rapidly diminishing force.

In the latest setbacks for the militants on Thursday, Syrian government troops entered the outskirts of the historic town of Palmyra after a weeks-old offensive aided by Russian airstrikes, and U.S. airstrikes helped Iraqi forces overrun a string of Islamic State villages in northern Iraq that had been threatening a U.S. base nearby.

These are just two of the many fronts in both countries where the militants are being squeezed, stretched and pushed back.­Nowhere are they on the attack. They have not embarked on a successful offensive in nearly nine months. Their leaders are dying in U.S. strikes at the rate of one every three days, inhibiting their ability to launch attacks, according to U.S. military officials.

Front-line commanders no longer speak of a scarily formidable foe but of Islamic State defenses that crumble within days and fighters who flee at the first sign they are under attack.
According to the Pentagon, the IS has lost about half the territory it controlled at its peak in 2014; some of the people Sly consulted think Mosul could be retaken at any time.

If these accounts of decline are true, they are great news, although the IS seems to be compensating for its losses in conventional warfare by ramping up terrorism in Europe and across the Middle East. My hesitation is that all of the people putting out these optimistic assessments have strong interests in their being true – the Pentagon, the Iraqi Army, the Kurds – and they have all underestimated the IS before. We'll know soon enough.

4 comments:

David said...

To be fair, those putting out this information may be doing so with qualifications that don't make it into the reporting. I was struck that the NYT reported not only Ashton Carter's announcement that the Caliph's "heir-designate" had been killed, but also the grownup bits, so to speak, that Carter spoke afterward: "Striking leadership is necessary,” he said, “but as you know it’s far from sufficient. As you know leaders can be replaced. These leaders have been around for a long time — they are senior and experienced and eliminating them is an important objective and result. They will be replaced and we will continue to go after their leadership." Struck because reporters don't seem often to include that kind of thing.

It's true that officials have an interest in reporting progress, but journalists also have an interest in making announcements sound absolute and even overconfident. Cf. the problem with the way science news gets reported.

David said...

On the other hand, to be fair to your skepticism, I don't trust the formulation "Their leaders are dying in U.S. strikes at the rate of one every three days." We seem to have killed two leaders this week, yes. But the statement as formulated implies this is a trend that has been going on for some time. Have we killed 10 leaders in the last 30 days? I'd be surprised and impressed. Then again, it could be the reporter chose to word that way a statement that was more like, "This week we've killed two prominent IS leaders. If we can sustain something like that rate for several weeks, that would be a significant victory for our side, though not decisive."

Shadow Flutter said...

The question that needs answering is, are the converts to this apocalyptic ideology increasing or decreasing?

G. Verloren said...

As a somber aside, I can no longer read or hear the name Palmyra without feeling a terrible, overwhelming wave of sorrow at the thought of the destruction of so much history there.

Millenia of artifacts and ruins documenting countless incredible human experiences, preserved in the desert all this time, spared by every empire and regime since, finally summarily reduced to rubble by zealous and ignorant madmen and murderers. How can one respond to being so violently robbed of one's past? Who could possibly justify to themselves such crimes against collective humanity - against children yet unborn who will never have the chance to know those which came before?