The Spy Who Told Me: Islamic State's Deadly Tactical Strategy - OZY | A Modern Media Company
Kurdish protesters gather and block Parliament Square during a demonstration against the group calling themselves IS (Islamic State) on October 8, 2014 in London, England.


Because we’re a long way from ending this war — and yes, we said war.

John McLaughlin

John McLaughlin

John McLaughlin is the former deputy director of the CIA. He writes a regular column on OZY called “Global Eye: Foreign Affairs Through an Intelligence Lens,” and teaches at the Johns Hopkins University’s School of Advanced International Studies (SAIS).

After more than 400 coalition airstrikes, the countries opposing the Islamic State have gained a fighting chance, but they have yet to slow the group’s momentum or to markedly diminish the threat it presents to Iraq and its neighbors. In fact, Islamic State advances now present a real threat on the outskirts of Baghdad, a possibility flagged in OZY pieces over the last month. All of this confirms that the months ahead will see us confront a series of challenges — which I laid out in my last column — on the road ahead. Let’s take a look at where we stand on those. 

Haider al-Abadi of the Republic of Iraq

Iraqi Prime Minister Haider al-Abadi

Can the Iraqi Government Pull Together? Islamic State advances in the last two weeks have increased the stakes for the new Iraqi government under Haider al-Abadi and lent urgency to the task of uniting Iraq’s diverse elements under a common cause. If al-Abadi fails, three things will happen: The coalition’s military effort will rest on a shaky political base, watchers will raise questions about the purpose of the campaign, and the U.S. will have a more difficult time revitalizing the Iraqi army. 

Al-Abadi must in particular get cozy with the Sunni population that felt so disenfranchised under his predecessor, Nouri al-Maliki. Al-Abadi has made scant progress, and Iraq’s parties remain deadlocked over who gets pivotal jobs, especially the key Defense and Interior ministries.  Sunnis continue to see gaining at least one of these spots as the test of al-Abadi’s seriousness about closing Iraq’s political fissures.

The multinational alliance against the Islamic State group is not without its troubles. There is Turkey’s hesitation, for one.

Keep the Coalition Together. The coalition, composed of about 10 countries including usual suspects (United Kingdom, Australia, Canada) and more unusual ones (Qatar, Egypt, Saudi Arabia), is the most diverse grouping the United States has ever pulled together for such a long-term mission. And so far, it’s working fairly well. Why? Because all members continue to see a common threat in the Islamic State. This unity is striking, in large part because the Middle Eastern members of the coalition live in a neighborhood roiled by other fault lines, such as the Sunni-Shia split, ongoing debates over democracy versus autocracy, splits over secularism versus religiosity in government, and the tensions between Persians and Arabs. Cracks are almost guaranteed to reopen in the group if decisive progress is ever made against the Islamic State or if fighting leads to greater coalition casualties. But for now? The center is holding.


Yet the alliance is not without its troubles. There is Turkey’s hesitation, for one, which contributes to what could still turn into a coalition defeat in Kobani, the town straddling the Turkey-Syrian border. The Islamic State has continued a relentless pounding of the city despite weathering more airstrikes, close to 50, than the coalition has delivered on any other target. And although Ankara yesterday granted US use of Turkish airbases near Kobani, it still refuses to intervene with ground troops it has nearby and is preventing resupply across its border to beleaguered Kurds defending the city.

Turkey’s reluctance stems from two things. One, it believes that the coalition’s focus on the Islamic State is short-changing what it sees as the more important goal of toppling the Assad regime in Syria. And it is fearful that weighing in on the side of the Kurds, the dominant group in Kobani, would prod Kurdish minority elements in Turkey, Iraq and Syria, maybe even those in Iran, to unite in an independence drive. But Turkey may ultimately regret its stand because the reality is almost certainly the opposite: failing to help the Kurds is even more likely to produce that result.

Turkish army forces tightened security measures in Turkey's border province Sanliurfa as the clashes between the Islamic State of Iraq and the Levant (ISIL) and Kurdish armed groups continue in Ayn al-Arab city, north of Syria, on October 8, 2014.

Turkish army forces tighten security measures in Turkey’s border province Şanlıurfa.

The Turkey question is certain to be on the table when military officials from about 20 countries, some in the coalition and some still weighing participation, gather for the first time on Monday and Tuesday in Washington. They will evaluate progress in the air war and reportedly also consider whether a ground force, presumably from troops already in the region, can be put together to consolidate gains.

Islamic State fighters are proving adaptable in the face of air attack.

Here Come the Boots, Again. Talk of a ground force underlines the main deficiency of the coalition campaign so far: the lack of sufficient eyes and ears on the ground to help laser in on targets for the air war. The U.S. Army’s use of Apache helicopters in recent days to help push back Islamic State fighters near Fallujah and some approaching Baghdad airport is an early indication that it’s increasingly difficult to find obvious targets for combat aircraft to shoot. The air war needs to be augmented with more close-in weaponry. Helicopters, of course, are more vulnerable to ground fire, increasing the chances of a combat loss, the need for rescue missions. Which means eventually we will need more ground forces backed by augmented ground combat power. 

The Terrorists Are Good at Hiding. So far, Islamic State fighters are proving adaptable in the face of air attack. They are dispersing their forces, integrating more with the civilian populace, moving mainly at night, and tightening their communications; terrorists have learned over the last dozen years that they are most vulnerable when they move openly or communicate electronically.

Most importantly, the Islamic State has been able to continue advancing, taking still more territory, even beyond Syria at Kobani. Its fighters have overrun several small towns such as Hit on the approach to a major dam in Anbar province, west of Baghdad. In fact, the Islamic State now appears to control about 80 percent of this strategically important province butting up against Baghdad.

The Pentagon has been scrupulously honest and careful in not overselling the effectiveness of the air campaign. At this point, the most that can be said is that it has partially disrupted some Islamic State operations and possibly cut into its oil producing capacity — it had earlier seized a number of key oil refineries — but it has not yet halted the terrorist group’s territorial leapfrogging.

Kurdish troops rest and play a game of cards in between skirmishes with ISIS forces bases less than 200 meters away. Soldiers cycle out throughout the day

Kurdish troops rest and play a game of cards in between skirmishes with Islamic State forces with bases less than 200 meters away.

Strategic Surprise? American officials have said it could take as much as a year before the coalition is able to retake a major Iraqi city such as Mosul. That gives the Islamic State plenty of time to plot and to prepare larger surprises that could change the course of the fight. 

Just as the North Vietnamese developed infiltration corridors into Saigon, the Islamic State has maneuvered into Anbar province.

For weeks, most observers have argued that Baghdad, as the most heavily defended real estate in Iraq and as a predominantly Shia city, cannot be hit by a Sunni terrorist offensive.  Having recently been to Vietnam and reviewed the 1968 Tet Offensive on Saigon by the North Vietnamese, I’m not so sure. Just as the North Vietnamese developed secret infiltration corridors into Saigon, the Islamic State has gradually maneuvered more deeply into Anbar province and is now just a few kilometers away from Baghdad’s airport. The terrorist group would not have to take the city to be successful; it would only have to penetrate it and cause some destruction or carry out a widespread coordinated series of bombings to change the tenor of the battle and challenge the cohesion and staying power of the coalition.  

In other words, Islamic State leaders, brutal as they are, appear able to think and plan strategically. To win in what is shaping up to be a very long war, we will have to be several steps ahead of them strategically as well as tactically on the battlefield. 

John McLaughlin

John McLaughlin

John McLaughlin is the former deputy director of the CIA. He writes a regular column on OZY called “Global Eye: Foreign Affairs Through an Intelligence Lens,” and teaches at the Johns Hopkins University’s School of Advanced International Studies (SAIS).

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