From a longtime TPM Reader who’s former US military intelligence/counter-terrorism ops and has worked as a military contractor in Iraq pretty since the invasion …
Let me take a shot at your question. You might recall that I have some expertise in the area of the Iraqi terror groups and their strategies, particularly al-Qaeda in Iraq. I also wrote for Small Wars Journal and published three books on al-Qaeda. I have only just completed the second edition of my 2007 book The Terrorists of Iraq. It is due out in October and give quite a bit of details into the rise of ISIS from al-Qaeda in Iraq and why their operational combat strategy against the Iraqi army and Kurds is successful.
Let me be the one to tell you the bad news. The Peshmerga were always considered great fighters in Iraq, but that was based principally on a myth of invincibility that arose during the 1991-2003 American no-fly zone operations in Iraq. US airpower combined with a unified Kurdish population, mountainous terrain and a very cautious Saddam Hussein led to the defeats of Iraqi forces by the Peshmerga. From that point Kurdistan operated as an autonomous governorate with its own Ministries and forces. The assumed fighting prowess of the Peshmerga was also bolstered in 2003 when Army Rangers and the 173rd airborne troops jumped into Kurdistan and linked up with SF/CIA backed Kurdish Democratic Party (KDP) and the Popular Union of Kurdistan (PUK). These forces quickly moved into and defeated the Kurdish Islamic extremist group the Supporters of Islam Ansar al-Islam (AAI) in the mountains near Biyarah and Halabja. The fact that they fought well, knew the terrain and did not run at the first shot was enough to seal the belief that they were fierce fighters. Which they were, when the Americans had their back. No matter that the AAI had defeated both the KDP and PUK militia groups in major clashes the year before the American invasion.
As for ISIS, they are just a resurgent and re-named al-Qaeda in Iraq. They have the same combat capability they have always had. They fight with suicide bombers, AK-47s and RPG-7 rocket launchers, single vehicle long range battlefield rocket launchers and are mobile in what we call TTFs – Toyota Task Forces. They use extremely simple Taliban inspired “complex attack’ tactics. First they collect intelligence, covertly move into position, launch a wave of suicide bombers to breach gates and soften the objective up, then they bombard with battlefield rockets and launch a multiprong “Allahu Akhbar” infantry attack supported by heavy machineguns on Toyotas. That’s it. They have been doing this successfully since 2003 in both Iraq and later Syria. ISIL has many combat veterans but a determined force with heavy weapons and skill should be able to stop them simply by knowing how they will attack and being ready for them. AQI/ISIL quickly learned to never use these tactics on the Americans. They regretted it in 2005 when they carried out a complex multi-prong attack on Abu Ghuraib prison – it was a virtual slaughter of all the attackers. On the other hand local Arab forces respond poorly these tactics.
Why is ISIL so successful? Simply put they attack using simple combined arms but they hold two force multipliers – suicide bombers and a psychological force multiplier called TSV – Terror Shock Value. TSV is the projected belief (or reality) that the terror force that you are opposing will do anything to defeat you and once defeated will do the same to your family, friends and countrymen. TSV for ISIL is the belief that they will blow themselves up, they will capture and decapitate you and desecrate your body because they are invincible with what the Pakistanis call Jusbah E Jihad “Blood Lust for Jihad”. I have worked the Iraq mission since 1987 and lived in and out of Iraq since 2003. TSV was Saddam’s most effective tool and there is some innate characteristic of the Iraqis that immobilizes them when faced with a vicious, assuredly deadly foe who will do exactly as they have done to others – and they will unsuccessfully try to bargain their way out of death by capitulating. The Kurds are not immune to ISIL’s TSV -90% of which is propaganda seen on Facebook, Twitter and al-Arabiya. The Kurds have not fought a combat action of any size since 2003 and like the Iraqi Army it will take the Americans to give them the spine to get them to the first hurdle – they need a massive win to break the spell of ISIL’s TSV.
ISIL has now progressed from local victories to a regional strategy. They have moved from what is referred to in Counterinsurgency warfare as Phase II to Phase III operations, or transformation from fixed covert insurgency to an overt war of mobility. This is when a terrorist group grows strong enough to come out of the shadows to transform into a mobile “liberation army”. ISIL are now seizing the lines of communications (roads and trails) between the location of each victory and holding that terrain by using the Iraqi Sunnah militia as local guards under supervision of ISIL forces. Their trusted members are advancing and doing it in a bold manner that would normally be done with caution. ISIL is successful because they understand that Iraqis will run in the face of boldness and brutality. If it’s a small outpost they defeat it, hold the site and link up with resupply from Mosul. The spear head forces now fighting the Kurds are the best of their group. A massive defeat on ISIL could decimate their professional spearhead of veterans and break the image of invincibility. Just one drone and a Special Forces forward control team with a B-1 bomber package with could do that with ease. However, absent US airpower on the offensive, it’s up to the Iraqi air force to strike as they cluster.