ISIS On The Run?

Andrew Sullivan —  Jan 7 2015 @ 5:58pm

Daveed Gartenstein-Ross lays out the evidence that the jihadist group is losing steam:

The most obvious sign of ISIS’s decline is that the group is no longer conquering territory, seizing no major towns or cities since Hit (and this hasn’t been for lack of effort on its part). ISIS continues to capture villages from time to time; for example, on December 27 it gained control of 14 villages in Anbar after Iraqi security forces withdrew from the area. But those villages aren’t equivalent to a major urban area and had been taken from ISIS by Iraqi forces just two days earlier. In October, ISIS advanced ominously on the Syrian city of Kobane; the French philosopher Bernard-Henri Levy declared in The New Republic that “Kobane will fall. In a matter of hours.” It has yet to fall, and Kurdish forces now appear to have the advantage, though the town remains contested.

ISIS has even been losing ground, albeit unevenly. In December, the group pulled its forces from Iraq’s Sinjar district, home to one of ISIS’s main resupply routes from Syria into Iraq (the other being Tal Afar). This has threatened to isolate ISIS-held Mosul.

But Lina Khatib doubts ISIS will disappear any time soon:

What is likely to change in the coming year is the way the organization operates.

The year 2014 saw a number of terrorist attacks in countries outside Syria and Iraq that were linked to the Islamic State by the assailants, even though the attacks were not necessarily directed by the Islamic State itself. In many of these cases, the Islamic State gave its blessing to the attacks after the fact, with the latest example being the lone terrorist attack in Australia in December 2014. These scenarios are likely to lead to more copycat incidents across the globe, especially by groups and individuals pledging allegiance to the Islamic State in a bid to gain power, notoriety, and resources. As the Islamic State embraces more and more such entities, it will be forced to change from a centralized organization into a franchise. Transformation rather than extinction, then, is the likely scenario for the Islamic State in the coming year.

And even if ISIS’s fortunes have taken a turn for the worse, that alone doesn’t necessarily mean America’s war against them is going well. Nancy A. Youssef points out that the Pentagon doesn’t know how many ISIS soldiers, or civilians, it has actually killed. What’s more, they don’t seem all that concerned about it:

[P]rogress in this war continues to be measured on fluid standards—where ISIS is trying to go, whether it can go there, and if local forces can fend them off. It is not a decisive war, with a single, signature victory, but a war of attrition. But there is no consensus about what the attrition of ISIS looks like. Success—and failure—is in the eye of the beholder. In the northern Syrian city of Kobani, for example, which, according to TheWall Street Journal, has seen 31 percent of U.S. and coalition strikes, Kurdish and local forces appear to be taking back parts of the city. But how much they have regained or how durable their hold is remains unclear. Kirby said that while the Kurdish forces control the majority of the city, it “remains contested.”

Breaking the will of ISIS, the military argues, is not a statistic. And too much of a focus on numbers can obscure strategic truths. Take the chief metric of the war in Vietnam—body counts, which ultimately did not answer whether the strategy was working.