Isis on the run? The US portrayal is very far from the truth

The map issued by the Pentagon to prove that Isis had lost territory shows how false optimism dominates the actions of the outside powers towards the Middle East

A graphic illustration of Western wishful thinking about the decline of Islamic State (IS) is a well-publicised map issued by the Pentagon to prove that the self-declared caliphate has lost 25 per cent of its territory since its big advances last year.

Unfortunately for the Pentagon, sharp-eyed American journalists soon noticed something strange about its map identifying areas of IS strength. While it shows towns and villages where IS fighters have lost control around Baghdad, it simply omits western Syria where they have been advancing in and around Damascus.

The Pentagon displayed some embarrassment about its dodgy map, but it largely succeeded in its purpose of convincing people that IS is in retreat. Many news outlets across the world republished the map as evidence of the success of air strikes by the United States and its allies in support of the Iraqi army and Kurdish forces in Iraq and Syria. The capture of Tikrit after a month-long siege is cited as a further sign that a re-energised Iraqi state is winning and one day in the not too distant future will be able to recapture Mosul in the north and Anbar province in the west.

How much of this comforting news is true? Recall that the loss or retention of territory is not a good measure of a force such as IS using quasi-guerrilla tactics. Good news from the point of view of Baghdad is that its forces finally retook the small city of Tikrit, though its recapture was primarily the work of 20,000 Shia militia and not the Iraqi army, which only had some 3,000 soldiers involved in the battle. It was not a fight to the finish and General Martin Dempsey, chairman of the US Joint Chiefs of Staff, said IS only committed a few hundred fighters to holding the city.

What emerges from the latest round of fighting is not only that IS retains the ability to launch offensives over a wide area, but that the Iraqi army very much depends on rushing a small number of elite combat units like so many fire brigades to cope with successive crises. One source in Baghdad told me that the number of troops useable for these purposes was about five brigades or some 15,000 soldiers. Other published reports suggest the number may be even smaller at 5,000 men drawn from the so-called Golden Brigade, an Interior Ministry Swat team and a unit known as the Scorpions. When these small but effective forces succeed in repelling an IS attack there is nobody in the regular army to hold the positions they have defended.

The Pentagon’s misleading map shows the degree to which false optimism dominates the thoughts and actions of the outside powers in Iraq, Syria and rest of the Middle East. It reminds me of the situation early last year when President Obama, in receipt of the best information US intelligence could give him, dismissed IS as being the equivalent of a small-time basketball team whose actions were of no importance.

Full article: Isis on the run? The US portrayal is very far from the truth (The Independent)

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