Cover: Assessment of the Politico-Military Campaign to Counter ISIL and Options for Adaptation

Assessment of the Politico-Military Campaign to Counter ISIL and Options for Adaptation

Published Apr 19, 2016

by Linda Robinson


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Research Questions

  1. What are the results of the U.S. strategy against ISIL in its first 18 months of implementation?
  2. How capable are the military forces countering ISIL?
  3. What are the principal gaps in capability that the United States or other partners would need to fill in order to achieve a successful counteroffensive?
  4. What are the political intentions and conflicting interests that impede a successful counteroffensive?
  5. What shortcomings exist in the overall conception or implementation of the current strategy?
  6. Are other approaches more likely to succeed at lower cost and/or lower risk?
  7. What measures might produce greater results in the near term?

This report assesses the campaign against the Islamic State (ISIL), focusing on the military and political lines of effort. The capabilities and motivations of the various counter-ISIL forces on the battlefield are assessed, as well as the U.S.-led efforts to provide training, equipment, advice, and assistance, including air support. While the campaign has degraded ISIL by targeting leadership and retaking a portion of territory, achieving lasting defeat of ISIL will be elusive without local forces capable of holding territory. Successful conclusion of the campaign will require significantly increased effort on two fronts. First, more-comprehensive training, advising, and assisting will be required to create more-capable, coordinated indigenous forces of appropriate composition and enable them to regain and hold territory. Second, political agreements must be forged to resolve key drivers of conflict among Iraqis and Syrians. Without these elements, resurgent extremist violence is likely. Many factors complicate the prospects for success, including sectarian divisions in Iraq, Iranian support for Shia militias in Iraq and Syria, the Syrian civil war, and Russian intervention to support the besieged regime of Syrian President Bashar al-Assad. However, the Syrian regime also lacks sufficient competent local forces and is heavily reliant on external militia support. The government in Iraq, led by Prime Minister Haider al-Abadi, has pledged decentralization efforts to address Sunni concerns, but lacks sufficient Shia support to enact them. This report offers recommendations for a more comprehensive advisory approach, emphasizing the political line of effort, and achieving synergy between the military and political efforts.

Key Findings

U.S. Efforts to Bolster Counter-ISIL Forces Have Achieved Limited Results

  • The advisory effort was circumscribed by location, unit, and function. Lack of advisers at the operational level in Iraq and lack of support to Syrian opposition fighters limited effectiveness of indigenous forces.
  • The training effort was also limited: Some 20,000 Iraqi army and Peshmerga forces were trained in 18 months, including 2,000 Iraqi special operations personnel. Efforts to arm and train Sunni tribes were halting.

Anti-ISIL Forces Suffer from Capability Gaps and Lack of Coordination Among Disparate Forces

  • Iraqi's military crumbled after the 2014 ISIL offensive due to cumulative weaknesses.
  • Iraq's Counter Terrorism Service carried the brunt of the fighting, suffering extensive casualties and materiel losses.
  • Shia militias, some of them advised and supported by Iran, were not integrated with the overall military effort. Effective command and control of the overall effort was lacking.
  • In Syria, most territory was retaken by the Syrian Kurdish militia, and other efforts such as the New Syrian Forces were inadequate in numbers and capability. Coordination was also lacking among Syrian forces.

Detailed Political Strategies to Resolve Underlying Conflicts Were Not Developed and Not Synchronized with the Military Effort for Maximum Effect

  • The Iraqi government under Prime Minister Haider al-Abadi articulated proposals to address Sunni concerns, but insufficient Shia support was provided to implement them. U.S. senior-level engagement with Abadi was also limited.
  • No overarching Syria strategy was developed. Relying on Syrian Kurds has escalated tensions with Turkey dramatically and created concern among Syrian Arabs.


  • More comprehensive advisory support from senior echelons through the brigade level to increase coordination of forces, morale, and leadership.
  • A long-term training and equipping effort will be required to create capable indigenous security forces that incorporate sufficient Sunnis.
  • The successful support to Iraq's Counter Terrorism Service provides a replicable model.
  • An unconventional warfare approach may regain Mosul and Raqqa from ISIL with less material damage by leveraging internal discontent and underground forces.
  • Syria's counter-ISIL effort cannot succeed in seizing and holding key terrain without Syrian Arabs; their support may require unified effort with the counter-Assad campaign.
  • Increased materiel aid to anti-Assad forces including tube-launched, optically tracked, wireless guided weapon systems and surface-to-air missiles may preserve the moderate opposition and create leverage in negotiating a transition under the Geneva terms.
  • The Abadi government and Shia parties should craft proposals with international support to resolve the political drivers of conflict in Iraq. Visible, high-level U.S. support to such detailed political proposals may include linkage with military support.
  • The United States should elevate its focus on advisory support to indigenous forces, not just eliminating ISIL leadership and resources. It should, above all, prioritize the political line of effort, backed by military measures. Syrian opposition fighters may become increasingly radicalized in the absence of greater U.S. commitment and coordination. U.S. allies have backed disparate opposition groups, increasing the fragmentation and ineffectiveness of the Syrian opposition.

The research was conducted within the International Security and Defense Policy Center of the RAND National Defense Research Institute, a federally funded research and development center sponsored by the Office of the Secretary of Defense, the Joint Staff, the Unified Combatant Commands, the Navy, the Marine Corps, the defense agencies, and the defense Intelligence Community.

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