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How Many Islamic State Fighters Are There?

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Reprinted from Consortium News

Army Gen. Martin Dempsey, Chairman of the Joint Chiefs of Staff.
Army Gen. Martin Dempsey, Chairman of the Joint Chiefs of Staff.
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Why was I reminded of Vietnam on Saturday when Gen. Martin Dempsey, Chairman of the Joint Chiefs of Staff, visited Iraq to "get a firsthand look at the situation in Iraq, receive briefings, and get better sense of how the campaign is progressing" against the Islamic State, also known as ISIS or ISIL?

For years as the Vietnam quagmire deepened, U.S. political and military leaders flew off to Vietnam and were treated to a snow job by Gen. William Westmoreland, the commander there. Many would come back glowing about how the war was "progressing."

Dempsey might have been better served if someone had shown him Patrick Cockburn's article in the Independent entitled "War with Isis: Islamic militants have an army of 200,000, claims senior Kurdish leader."
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Fuad Hussein, the chief of staff of Kurdish President Massoud Barzani, told Cockburn that "I am talking about hundreds of thousands of fighters because they are able to mobilize Arab young men in the territory they have taken."

Hussein estimated that Isis rules about one-third of Iraq and one-third of Syria with a population from 10 million to 12 million over an area of 250,000 square kilometers, roughly the size Great Britain, giving the jihadists a large pool of potential fighters to recruit.

While the Kurdish estimate may be high -- it certainly exceeds "the tens of thousands," maybe 20,000 to 30,000 that many Western analysts have claimed -- the possibility that the Islamic State's insurgency is bigger than believed could explain its startling success in over-running the Iraqi Army around Mosul last summer and achieving surprising success against the well-regarded Kurdish pesh merga forces, too.

So, on his flight back to Washington, Dempsey will have time to ponder whether he has the courage to pass on this discouraging word to President Barack Obama about ISIS or whether he will put on the rose-colored glasses like an earlier generation of commanders did about Vietnam, where Westmoreland insisted that the number of enemy Vietnamese in South Vietnam could not go above 299,000.

Unfortunately, those obstinate Vietnamese Communists would not observe that artificial, politically inspired limit. Westmoreland was aware of the troubling reality but knew that acknowledging it would have undesired consequences in the United States where many Americans were souring on the war.

The inconvenient truth finally became abundantly clear during the Tet offensive in late January and early February 1968, but still the misbegotten war went on, and on, ultimately claiming some 58,000 U.S. lives and millions of Vietnamese.

Westmoreland's gamesmanship with the numbers was known to some CIA officials -- first and foremost, a very bright and courageous analyst named Sam Adams -- but CIA Director Richard Helms silenced them out of fear of political retribution. "My responsibility is to protect the Agency," Helms told them, "and I cannot do that if we get into a pissing match with a U.S. Army at war."

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Today's CIA Director John Brennan is similarly at pains to protect the Agency on a number of fronts. Is he likely to tell the truth about ISIS if it means the prospects for a renewed war in Iraq and a new war in Syria are especially grim? If not, are there no Sam Adamses left at the CIA?

Honest Analysts?

Honest intelligence analysts played a key role in the November 2007 National Intelligence Estimate, "Iran: Nuclear Intentions and Capabilities," which helped thwart Bush/Cheney plans to apply Iraqi-type "shock and awe" to Iran during their last year in office. The NIE concluded, unanimously and "with high confidence," that Iran had stopped working on a nuclear weapon in late 2003.

In his memoir, Decision Points, President George W. Bush called the NIE's findings "eye-popping." He openly bemoaned how the estimate deprived him of the military option, writing "How could I possibly explain using the military to destroy the nuclear facilities of a country the intelligence community said had no active nuclear weapons program?"

The NIE on Iran was issued seven years ago. One has to hope that a few honest analysts on the Near East have survived the CIA directorships of Michael Hayden, Leon Panetta, David Petraeus and John Brennan and have the courage to tell the truth about ISIS -- including how U.S. military intervention now is swelling ISIS's ranks, much as the Bush/Cheney invasion of Iraq in 2003 created the conditions for the group's birth, then called "Al-Qaeda in Iraq."

If honest intelligence analysts are silenced, as Sam Adams was 47 years ago, they need to plumb their consciences and see if they have the guts to make public both the undercounting of enemy forces AND the fillip given to their multiplication by further U.S. military involvement.

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Ray McGovern works with Tell the Word, the publishing arm of the ecumenical Church of the Saviour in inner-city Washington. He was an Army infantry/intelligence officer and then a CIA analyst for 27 years, and is now on the Steering Group of Veteran Intelligence Professionals for Sanity (VIPS). His (more...)
 

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