Josh Marshall passes along an email from a “TPM Reader who’s former US military intelligence/counter-terrorism ops and has worked as a military contractor in Iraq”:
Why is ISIL so successful? Simply put they attack using simple combined arms but they hold two force multipliers – suicide bombers and a psychological force multiplier called TSV – Terror Shock Value. TSV is the projected belief (or reality) that the terror force that you are opposing will do anything to defeat you and once defeated will do the same to your family, friends and countrymen. TSV for ISIL is the belief that they will blow themselves up, they will capture and decapitate you and desecrate your body because they are invincible with what the Pakistanis call Jusbah E Jihad “Blood Lust for Jihad”.
I have worked the Iraq mission since 1987 and lived in and out of Iraq since 2003. TSV was Saddam’s most effective tool and there is some innate characteristic of the Iraqis that immobilizes them when faced with a vicious, assuredly deadly foe who will do exactly as they have done to others – and they will unsuccessfully try to bargain their way out of death by capitulating. The Kurds are not immune to ISIL’s TSV -90% of which is propaganda seen on Facebook, Twitter and al-Arabiya. The Kurds have not fought a combat action of any size since 2003 and like the Iraqi Army it will take the Americans to give them the spine to get them to the first hurdle – they need a massive win to break the spell of ISIL’s TSV.
But Jonathan Freedland contends that the Islamic State’s stunning success is mostly thanks to the weakness of the Syrian and Iraqi states:
The state structures of both Iraq and Syria have all but collapsed. The result is a power vacuum of a kind that would have been recognised in the lawless Europe of seven or eight centuries ago – and which IS has exploited with the ruthless discipline of those long ago baronial warlords who turned themselves into European princes.
“Islamic State are jihadis with MBAs,” says [Iraq scholar Toby] Dodge, speaking of a movement so modern it has its own gift shop. He notes its combination of fierce religious ideology, financial acumen and tactical nous. “It’s Darwinian,” he adds, describing IS leader Abu Bakr al-Baghdadi and his inner circle as those strong enough to have survived the US hammering of al-Qaida in Iraq between 2007 and 2009. But what has been crucial, Dodge says, is “not ancient hatreds but this collapse of state power”.
But Robert Beckhusen thinks ISIS has major vulnerabilities:
Here’s the problem for ISIS. Since ISIS fighters operate semi-conventionally, they are easy pickings for these warplanes. It’s easier to hit vehicles and fixed artillery sites from the air than it is to strike individual insurgent fighters.
It’s possible ISIS has limited anti-aircraft weapons, including shoulder-fired Stingers it took from the Iraqis. Indeed, the loss or capture of a U.S. pilot is a terrifying prospect for the White House. But the bulk of ISIS’s anti-aircraft weapons are DShK and ZU-23–2 heavy machine guns that the terror group has used with brutal effectiveness against Iraq’s dwindling helicopter gunship force—but which don’t stand much of a chance against fast, high-flying fighter planes.
Others disagree that the group is vulnerable to airstrikes:
The problem, some analysts point out, is that airstrikes tend to be most helpful against troops when they are massing. As it stands now, IS is “too big and too dispersed,” argues Christopher Harmer, senior Navy analyst at the Institute for the Study of War. “They aren’t vulnerable to air strikes the way the Republican Guard was with their armored tanks and artillery tubes,” Mr. Harmer says. “Yes, ISIS has some of that – and we can hit it and should – but, fundamentally it’s a light infantry terrorist organization. You can’t beat those guys by dropping a couple of bombs here and there.”
Another way to damage ISIS is to lower its cash flow. Britain is taking steps to do just that:
Britain hopes a diplomatic initiative it introduced in the U.N. Security Council on Friday will contain Islamic extremists in Iraq and Syria by curtailing their fundraising. The plan is to quash their illicit oil and gold exports, prevent ransom kidnappings, and hobble recruitment to stymie the establishment of an Islamic caliphate straddling the two Middle Eastern countries.