Willpower and Warfare: Limitations of the Campaign against Islamic State

Stefan Ellender

U.S. Air Force F-15E Strike Eagle aircraft fly over northern Iraq Sept. 23, 2014- US Department of Defence via Wikimedia Commons

U.S. Air Force F-15E Strike Eagle aircraft fly over northern Iraq Sept. 23, 2014. Photo Source: US Department of Defence via Wikimedia Commons.

The campaign against the Islamic State of Iraq and the Levant (so-called Islamic State or I.S.) has become the newest and most high profile front in the War on Terror. Since the summer of 2014 a coalition of some fourteen nations from the Middle East and the ‘West’ has been engaged in a campaign of airstrikes against I.S. in Iraq and Syria. This campaign has had two linked objectives, firstly to destroy I.S., secondly to provide support to those forces fighting I.S. on the ground. While a diverse range of national and sub-national armies have been engage in a ground war against I.S. this article will focus on comparing the performance of the Iraqi Army and the various allied Kurdish armed forces.

The performance of the Iraqi Army against the so-called Islamic State has been inconsistent to say the least; the most well-known incident being the Iraqi Army’s retreat from Ramadi, in the face of a numerically inferior I.S. force. In other offensive and defensive military operations the Iraqi Army have shown time and time again a distinct unwillingness to engage in heavy combat with I.S. There are obvious exceptions to this but given the secrecy surrounding military operations it is hard to determine whether there are particular regiments that are more inclined to engage in combat, or whether it is more a matter of particular circumstances. While some commentators, particularly in the American press, may have implied that Iraqi soldiers, or their officers, were cowards I would suggest that this is in fact symptomatic of a far greater problem.

The performance of the various Kurdish armed forces fighting I.S. has been remarkably successful. The Siege of Kobani from the 13 September 2015 to the 15 of March 2015 became one of the highest profile flashpoint of the war against I.S. Due to the high level of coverage in international media, the strategic nature of the town and the sheer length of the battle the Siege of Kobani became a symbol of Kurdish defiance of I.S. Although information about the battle is limited and often contradictory it appears that the forces of I.S. significantly outnumbered the defenders of Kobane and their allies from the other Kurdish Cantons and the Syrian Free Army. In months of heavy fighting the Kurdish forces, supported by coalition airstrikes were able to drive I.S. from Kobani, inflicting heavy casualties. Kobani was not an isolated event, more recently a joint offensive of the Peshmerga (forces of Iraqi Kurdistan) and Syrian Kurdish YPG forces liberated the city of Sinjar and the surrounding area from I.S.; rescuing an estimated 50,000 Yazidis who had fled into the Sinjar Mountains.

This brings us to the question of why the Kurdish forces seem to be winning their war against so-called Islamic State and the Iraqi Army, if not necessarily losing, are certainly not winning their war?

The importance of willpower is widely recognised by theorists and practitioners of war. Whether it is the concept of the hurting stalemate or the will power focused practices of guerilla warfare the will to fight is just as importance as the ability to fight. It is a recognised fact of warfare that there is always a point where one, or both, sides in a conflict do not have the will to continue the war; it is simply no longer worth the cost. Insurgencies and civil wars in particular are a battle of willpower as both sides are trying to convince the same population to support them and to fight for them.

The contrast between the performance of Kurdish forces and the Iraqi Army could be explained as a contrast of willpower. The Kurdish forces seem willing to fight and die. The Iraqi Army seems to lack the willpower to fight, and potentially die. More precisely it could be explained as a contrast of motivation. I.S. fighters have a cause, the Kurdish forces have a cause, the Iraqi Army’s cause is obviously not strong enough. The narrative established by I.S. is one of global jihad and the struggle to establish the caliphate. It is a narrative that has evidently proved successful in attracting and motivating fighters. While the narrative motivating the Kurdish forces is not so monolithic the general trends seem to show fighters motivated by a desire to defend their homes, to recapture lost territory and possibly for ideal of a greater Kurdish Nation. The motivating factor for the Iraqi Army should be one of defending the Iraqi State against I.S., quite clearly this is not proving enough of a motivator.

How can this problem be addressed? Firstly the Iraqi Government must offer a positive narrative, they must seek to convince the Iraqi Army, and the wider population that the Government is the best choice to rule Iraq. Secondly a negative narrative must be offered, the Iraqi Government must convince their population that an Iraq ruled by I.S. would be worse for the average Iraqi than an Iraq ruled by the current government. Thirdly and most importantly the Iraqi Government must engage in what theorist of counterinsurgency call “propaganda by deed”. The Iraqi Government must prove through their actions that the positive narrative is more than just propaganda. The precise way in which this is done will vary depending on the locality but can be broadly described as providing security, services and good governance.

These are evidently major challenges, and success will require the Iraqi Government to govern in the interest of the entire nation in a way which has not yet been seen. But until the Iraqi Government can convince their own people that not only is I.S. worth fighting against but also that the Government’s vision of Iraq is worth fighting for so-called Islamic State will not be defeated, not matter how many airstrikes are launched.

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