A recent Associated Press headline trumpets “IS militants drawing steady stream of recruits” is bad news for the Obama administration; it says the ongoing bombing campaign against the Islamic State of Iraq and Syria (ISIS) isn’t working. The article, sourced to “U.S. intel” and the chief of the National Counterterrorism Center, says ISIS has now 20,000 fighters, up from 19,000 a year ago. Moreover, 3,400 people fighting in Syria hail from Europe, Australia, and North America.
Those numbers are scary — but they’re probably also, to put it charitably, a scientific wild-ass guess. Common sense tells us there is no reliable way to estimate ISIS’ total manpower, which even just inside Syria is flat and decentralized. It’s a far different endeavor to measure its size than, say, the size of a military of a nation-state. Even ISIS almost certainly lacks the command and control to have any idea how big it is.
The article notes intelligence on the group is poor. The U.S. has no embassy in Syria, and virtually no military presence. Even excellent intelligence rarely gives a full, constant picture of troop sizes. For example, documents captured in Sinjar, Iraq in late 2007 gave a comprehensive view of foreign fighter transiting through Syria into Iraq—a very helpful snapshot, but only of one area, and not one that gave the entire picture of the foreign killers streaming in to fight U.S. and Iraqi forces.
The estimate also appears to skip over the pointy-headed but necessary question of defining what exactly is an “ISIS fighter.” ISIS is not a monolithic organization whose fighters are contractually obligated to fight for the group. Furthermore, motivations for someone to join ISIS, or fight alongside ISIS, vary widely. For example, ISIS’s predecessor group saw its base of support and fighters melt away in Iraq in 2007-08 when the Iraqi Sunni tribes turned on the group, demonstrating variable dedication and motives of its “employees.”
Yet policymakers would ask the intelligence community for specific estimates of the overall manpower for our adversaries, especially in nations where we maintained a large military presence. However, for most of the time, our efforts to develop granular numbers felt much like throwing darts at a dartboard—we just didn’t know. The intelligence community likes to pat itself on the back because we “speak truth to power,” yet stating truthfully “we don’t know” is not a career-enhancing answer. Hence we usually felt compelled to come up with something.
It’s understandable that policymakers ask the question. Militaries throughout history have traditionally planned for wars based on estimates of enemy size and composition. Numbers help scope the problem and are an easy way to track progress, but unreliable numbers assist no one. Of course, policymakers also ignore the associated caveats about such estimates and reserve the luxury of blaming the analysts when additional information reveals the estimate was wrong.
That said, there are other ways to tackle an organization such as ISIS, even though every metric will be problematic. For example, attacks, especially high profile attacks, are often easier to track, as is territory that is controlled or contested by the enemy.
Putting any metrics in context is extremely important as well, especially in assessing the motivations of fighters. In the effort to confront ISIS, the US’ top priority is preventing them from establishing a safehaven to spread terror to the homeland and our allies. Of the fighters we know something about—which admittedly won’t be many—why are most of them fighting? Is it to gain military skills to use against the West, or simply because they hate Bashar al-Assad?
There’s really no right way to analyze a situation as complex as the insurgency in Syria, but relying on old-fashioned military analysis does little service for decisionmakers formulating a strategy to defeat the group. Policymakers love numbers — and so does the Pentagon — and analysts need to recognize that the estimates they put forward, regardless of any caveats and uncertainties, will become anchors in a debate. At the same time, policymakers ought to be skeptical of any “false-precise” estimates.
Kevin Strouse ran for Congress in 2014 in Pennsylvania’s 8th District after serving as an analyst for the CIA and as an Army Ranger who deployed Iraq and Afghanistan. Kevin lives in Bucks County, Pennsylvania, with his wife Amy and two young children, Walter and Charlotte.
photo: screenshot from ISIS’ “Flames of War” video.