James Holmes

In Iraq, ISIS Channels Mao

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James Holmes

In Iraq, ISIS Channels Mao

Unlike al-Qaeda, ISIS seems to understand Mao Zedong’s classic Phase III battlefield struggle.

The situation in western Iraq is indeed dismaying. Let’s ransack the strategic canon for a few ideas that may help statesmen and commanders comprehend what has happened and what it all portends. First, scholar Timothy Lomperis reminds us that, at bottom, internal struggles such as the one raging in Iraq and Syria are contests for political legitimacy. Whichever contender best provides ordinary people the basics of life, makes a critical mass of the populace a stakeholder in its rule, and ultimately makes them believers in its right to rule is apt to prevail.

Which, second, makes the Iraqi forces’ collapse all the more disquieting. There is no way a U.S.-equipped and -trained military serving a legitimate regime — a legitimate cause — should throw down arms and capitulate to a vastly outnumbered enemy, no matter how motivated or well led. Iraqi soldiers, it seems never learned an elementary maxim from Chinese strategist Sun Tzu: when on death ground, fight. Or, if you prefer your wisdom from Dr. Johnson: the prospect of being hanged focuses the mind wonderfully. If that basic logic escapes the Maliki regime — if it has failed so catastrophically to win legitimacy and assert sovereign authority — its days may be numbered.

Third, ISIS, the Islamic State in Iraq and Syria, has proved itself a far more serious foe than al-Qaeda, the Taliban, or other adversaries of the post-9/11 years. It’s more Maoist in its operational and strategic outlook. Al-Qaeda seems to think it can bypass Mao Zedong’s classic Phase III battlefield struggle: it can win solely through terrorist action, and without a conventional victory. Doubtful. ISIS clearly understands it has to defeat its opponents to win — just as Mao knew he had to vanquish the Nationalists to bring China under communist rule.

ISIS also shows signs of understanding that it will have to govern should it win militarily. It is reportedly establishing shadow governments in occupied zones, collecting taxes, and starting to perform routine functions of government. It’s more like a Hezbollah or Viet Cong, which tries to win legitimacy, than an al-Qaeda, which is mostly interested in showy attacks and ideological purity. Few revolutionaries govern well, but ISIS may be an exception. Its ability to consolidate its territorial gains and make the transition to stable peacetime rule, whether over part or all of Iraq, is a revealing indicator to watch.

And fourth, Clausewitz (channeled by my late professor Michael Handel) may help us glimpse what comes next on the battlefield. Clausewitz observes that when one country invades another, it garners an initial advantage. It chooses where to strike along the frontier; it enjoys the element of surprise; early reverses dishearten the defender. At some point in the offensive, however, the invader reaches its “culminating point of victory,” its point of maximum military advantage. In turn this is the instant at which its leaders can strike the most favorable peace deal with the opponent. The defeated capitulate when things are worst.

Defense, though, is the stronger form of warfare. The defender may find itself on death ground and fight harder, partisans may rally to the cause, and so forth. The invader’s margin of military advantage starts to narrow. Unless the invader figures out how to extend its supremacy, it will reach a “culminating point of the attack” beyond which the defender has the upper hand. The attacker will have suffered what Edward Luttwak calls an ironic reversal of fortune. Its forces can dig in, cut the best deal they can, or risk losing big. Alternatively, commanders can figure out how to get their mojo back, regaining the initiative and bringing victory back within sight.

The Clausewitzian outlook: a mess. A seesaw dynamic tends to typify such struggles. Where does ISIS stand along the curve? As Sunni militants venture into predominantly Shia parts of Iraq, will their offensive culminate? Where?

And will the Iraqi military belatedly discover the logic of death ground, and stiffen its spine for battle? If so, Baghdad may be a worthy beneficiary of American support. Few leaders commit their nations to losing causes, or hitch their fortunes to allies who look like losing causes. The American colonists had to win at Saratoga in 1777 to court a French alliance. Maliki & Co. likewise need to show they’re a going concern.

One hopes Washington is asking searching questions like those raised in the classic works as it ponders whether and how to engage.