Rear Admiral Michael J. Dumont is the Deputy Director for Politico-Military Affairs at the Joint Staff, J-5. He has served combat tours in Central America, the Middle East, and Central Asia. His previous assignments have included deputy chief of staff for Stability Operations at the International Security Assistance Force Joint Command in Kabul, Afghanistan. Most recently, he served as the Principal Deputy Assistant Secretary of Defense for Special Operations and Low-intensity Conflict.

Brigadier General Michael E. Kurilla is the Deputy Director for Special Operations and Counter-Terrorism, J-37 at the Joint Staff. He recently spent time in Erbil for Operation Inherent Resolve and has previously served in Afghanistan and Iraq. He was previously Deputy Commanding General (Maneuver) for the 1st Infantry Division at Fort Riley, Kansas .

Colonel Stephen L. A. Michael is the Deputy Director, Pakistan, Afghanistan, and Transregional Threats Coordination Cell at the Joint Staff. He has been deployed in a variety of assignments in Europe, the Middle East, and Africa, as well as serving tours in Iraq. He was deployed for 15 months to al-Doura in Baghdad during the “Surge” and previously helped to liberate Kirkuk.

CTC: How does the Islamic State challenge compare to other military challenges you’ve faced?

Dumont: I don’t think they have a playbook. I think they’re very opportunistic. They’re not constrained by the “rules,” and that can make them respond in unpredictable and dramatic ways. There are a lot of internal dynamics that we don’t understand in groups like this. That complicates our jobs as military professionals—to try to understand them, outthink them, get ahead of them, and outmaneuver them on the battle space. The other thing is they have a large ability to manipulate people on the internet using social media and using online recruiters. We need to understand this and we need to take steps to counteract that. Because that is a source for them of recruitment, revenue, and ideas.

Kurilla: During the Iraq insurgency we all dealt with al-Qa`ida in Iraq [AQI], the father of ISIL, but ISIL is a different creature. Back in the day, AQI operated very much in the shadows. They carried out high-profile attacks, but they would not present themselves as a fielded force. By contrast, ISIL is a fielded force. ISIL fighters want to go out there and actually engage. If you will, it’s the “Call of Duty” generation that is out there. And that’s part of the recruitment message they convey—that they’re going to go out and fight, whether it’s Americans or Shia or Kurds, etc. This has been part of the lure for recruits. But when ISIL fighters mass, that presents much larger targets. Another challenge they’re going to have is that when they take over cities and villages, they have to govern. ISIL governs through terror and fear, but they’re also going to have to provide basic services for the people. However, remember this is a Sunni-Shia fight. Some Sunnis say they would rather serve under an ISIL government than under Shia leadership. So to maintain some measure of support, ISIL merely has to be better than the alternative. But sustained life under this kind of rule can change one’s point of view.

Michael: Unlike al-Qa`ida, ISIL has seized territory and declared a so-called Caliphate. This is a strength which has helped recruitment. But it has also created vulnerabilities because they have a geographically defined core which can be degraded, even though their command and control provides them with a certain amount of resilience. The other thing that gives them strength is the fact that they’re unconstrained: they don’t have to worry about consequences.

If you look at it narrowly you can say ISIL is doing well. But long-term, if you look at five years from now, ten years from now, I think part of what’s going to defeat them is the fact that they’re holding terrain, the fact that they’re utterly ruthless, and the Sunnis, especially in Iraq are very moderate. During the Iraqi insurgency, they held on to al-Qa`ida because they saw them as protectors against the Shia. But they were looking for an opportunity to throw them off. It’s why they aligned with us during the “Anbar Awakening,” and I think ultimately, ISIL’s heavy-handedness, especially against Arabs and against Sunnis, is going to be their own undoing.

Kurilla: AQI were terrorists. ISIL is a terrorist army. Part of their center of gravity is the Caliphate. That’s what’s driving the recruits. So when you have the second-largest city in Iraq, Mosul, as their Iraqi capital, you have Raqqa in Syria, they control Ramadi, that draws recruits. If you can take that away from them and you break up the idea that they no longer have a Caliphate that can start to break the recruiting. You have to challenge that ideology.

Dumont: The other thing that will help change public perception of them is if the local/regional/provincial/national government—however you want to quantify it—can be just a little bit better at governing than ISIL is. It’ll just be a matter of time before ISIL can’t deliver or goes too far in terrorizing the local population, at which point the local population will throw them out. But to do that, the government’s just got to be a little better than ISIL in governing.

ISIL doesn’t have anything to back up their governance. Their resources are stolen and pilfered and taken at the end of a gun. So their margins are razor thin, and I think at times they’ll be holding on by a thread. Our challenge, as a military, a government, and a coalition, will be identifying where they’re vulnerable, and then taking action.

The Islamic State still controls the border area between Killis and Jarabulus.
The Islamic State still controls the border area between Killis and Jarabulus.

CTC: In the campaign against the Islamic State, what’s been the biggest success of the last year, from your perspective? And the biggest challenge?

Kurilla: The biggest success has been keeping the coalition, the strength of the coalition together and then I think the taking of over some 20,000 square kilometers of terrain back from ISIL, both in Iraq-Kurdistan and then northern Syria.

Dumont: The biggest challenge is probably synchronization. We’re talking about a huge coalition and in addition to this military effort there are all these other pieces from governance to financing, so it’s a very complex problem. It is a challenge to synchronize our efforts to make sure we’re complementing each other, maximizing the effects.

CTC: What do you believe are the most important and potentially fruitful aspects of the U.S. military strategy for degrading and ultimately destroying the Islamic State?

Dumont: I think first is the partnerships and coordination that we do with international partners. That is probably the most important aspect. I think the second most important aspect is understanding ISIL, what drives them, what motivates them, and how they operate.

Kurilla: Concur. I think the most important piece is really the coalition, which is over 60 nations right now. The other key aspect is the whole-of-government approach.

Michael: If you look at how ISIL started, it’s really a political problem, and the military is only one component to the solution. We need to understand that this is not something that can be solved overnight and most likely is better solved when it’s folks in the region that are part of the solution versus us coming in and trying to impose a solution.

CTC: In terms managing a coalition like this, how do you mitigate some of the challenges of command, control, and coordination for military effort across that breadth of different partnerships?

Dumont: Probably one of the first things is making sure everybody involved has the same operational picture, that they’re looking through the same lens and that they see the problem set the same way. That ensures that the energy that’s being brought to bear against ISIL is appropriately focused, deconflicted, and then complemented by the efforts of some of the other international organizations and even from some of the other parts of the United States government.

Kurilla: I think the command and control is very good. I was up in Erbil, where we had a multi-nation coalition and those that wanted to do certain things did them—for example, on building partner capacity. When you look at the air coalition, everybody’s operating off the same command and control lines on that, but each country still has boundaries regarding what they can and can’t do and where they can and can’t operate, based on what their country is capable of doing militarily and willing to do politically. Coordination would be much more challenging if it involved ground combat, which would cause more friction points. But because the focus is on coordinating air strikes and building partner capacity, it is manageable.

Dumont: And our international partners are very good at sharing with us their own national caveats about what’s permissible and not permissible for them. And I think given that we’ve been a part of combined coalition task forces in other parts of the world, that experience helps us understand the national caveats for these other nations, but it also allows us to build in capabilities and redundancies to make up for any limitations that a country may have. And don’t forget, we, the United States, have our own national caveats.

CTC: What are the key challenges in the operating environment when it comes to the campaign against the Islamic State in Syria and Iraq?

Kurilla: Poor governance. Marginalization of the Sunni population in Mosul by the Iraq government results in no support from the people. When you talk about Kurdish forces—whether that’s Peshmerga or the YPG in Syria—they move to the sound of the guns. At the same point, remember they were fighting for their own survival up there when ISIL first came in and they were reacting against some of the atrocities that were committed against the Yazidi. In Syria, I think you can see what the YPG has been able to do—their expansion—but they’re now approaching a point where they can’t go any further. It’s the same thing in Iraqi Kurdistan. The Kurds won’t go another foot further in Iraq, otherwise they’d be viewed as encroaching into Arab lands.

CTC: Is there a sense of encouragement about the YPG push towards Raqqa?

Dumont: I think there is. But Raqqa is an Arab area. So it can’t be a Kurdish force that does anything in Raqqa. It’s got to be an Arab coalition of forces that goes into Raqqa.

CTC: Turning to metrics in the campaign against the Islamic State: how do you set benchmarks for progress in this effort?

Kurilla: When we look at progress, one of the worst things you can use is any type of body count. If you’re killing 1,000 a month in strikes and they’re replacing them at 2,000 a month, that’s not good math. When you use metrics like number of strikes or body count, that’s just activity, you can’t measure that against anything.

The one thing that I think is a very strong metric is terrain retaking. That is something you physically control and measure. Behind the establishment of the coalition, the second greatest success over there is what you see the Kurds doing in Iraq. They’ve retaken approximately 4,000 square kilometers of terrain, particularly up at Sinjar Mountain. In addition, the YPG has had success in Syria, both in Kobane and all the way back to the Iraqi border. In the area known as the Kurdish Rojava—western Kurdistan—they’ve retaken approximately 17,500 to 18,000 square kilometers. The only portion that is not controlled by the Kurds right now is the gap between Jarabulus and Killis, that’s the only place that ISIL still has access to the Turkish border for the flow of personnel along with the Afrin pocket up in the northwest. So, to me, terrain retaken is very tangible.

I would also look at population centers and places like the Baiji oil refinery. As long as large population centers like Mosul and Ramadi remain in control of ISIL that goes against the narrative of progress. And it supports the ISIL narrative of a strong caliphate. Those places will need to be taken back by Iraqi forces and the same thing will have to happen over in Syria.

Michael: The other metric is governance. When you look at Iraq specifically, this is why I think the political effort has got to be as hard or even harder than the military effort. The Shia government has to be inclusive. The Iraqis have to feel that they’ve got a stake because if not, then there will be more room for ISIL. One promising thing here is that some of the local police are actually being integrated into the security services. These are the kind of things that are crucial to long-term success.

CTC: Given our understanding of how the Islamic State is structured, what impact do you think successful leadership targeting will have on the organization’s viability?

Kurilla: I think they have a deep bench at the mid-level. At the very top level, you can have more success, as only certain people have the bona fides to be at that top rung. A Haji Mutazz (editor’s note: Mutazz’s real name was Fadel al-Hiyali. He was Baghdadi’s second-in-command and was killed in a U.S. strike near Mosul in August 2015) is very difficult to replace. When you take out that top rung, those are the hard ones to replace.

CTC: How well does the U.S. military understand the Islamic State?

Kurilla: Being that many of them were detainees at some point during their time with AQI, I think we know some of them. But I think one of the challenges is that in this conflict we don’t have the detention exploitation capabilities that we had at the height of the Iraq War. That gave us tremendous insight into every aspect of their organization, from leadership command and control to communications to ideology to recruitment. We have some of that through our partners, but it’s just not at the level which we had back in the day.

CTC: How have our current efforts impacted the foreign fighter flow? Are we able to assess that?

Kurilla: It’s widely known we have not stemmed the recruitment.

CTC: Are you able to comment on the impact foreign fighters have on the battlefield, in terms of how are they used militarily. Are they essential to the Islamic State’s military composition?

Kurilla: I absolutely think they’re essential to ISIL’s composition. The number of fighters that are being recruited to come to Iraq or Syria is staggering.

CTC: And they’re able to sustain that in terms of replacing those that we have been able to take off the battlefield?

Kurilla: Right now they are.

Dumont: I’m also concerned about ISIL’s ability to redirect fighters to other areas. That, in my mind, is a problem that we need to be focused on also, because I think we are going to see over time that they’re going to be redirecting people to other areas where they have interests, beyond Iraq and Syria.

CTC: Such as Libya, where reports suggest several senior leaders have gravitated and they’ve taken control of Sirte.

Kurilla: I think Libya is the strongest external branch of ISIL anywhere in the world. We’ve seen the people and leadership that have gone down there. That is where they are looking at for their primary expansion.

Dumont: My concern about Libya is that we don’t have a government of national unity there yet, and that’s not coming together as quickly as we would like. We think that’s going to be key for developing public support for a government, a military force, and a police force that will take hold and allow them and us to counteract any effect of ISIL inside Libya. My own view is that it’s imperative to quickly stand up some form of national unity government.

CTC: Getting back to Iraq, one of the challenges appears to be getting Iraqi forces to move away from Baghdad in order to take the fight to the Islamic State in Anbar and other provinces.

Kurilla: When you look at the number of Iraqi forces and the number that are right around Baghdad, I think it is a challenge: what they can achieve outside Baghdad as essentially an expeditionary unit in an area they’re not predominantly from. When you have a majority Shia army that goes out fighting in a Sunni Arab area against Sunni extremists it presents a whole different challenge from being back in Baghdad defending your Shia stronghold.

Michael: The other dimension of the will to fight is to believe in what you’re fighting for. The reason Iraqi forces in the past crumbled under pressure was they weren’t willing to fight and die for something they didn’t believe in. So, ultimately, when we look at this long term, you have to address the core problem. There’s still a challenge with political leadership and still a very sectarian government. This creates risk aversion. Nobody’s going to be willing to be the one that pays the price because they don’t fundamentally believe in what they’re fighting for.

CTC: How has the recent Russian intervention in Syria complicated the challenge?

Kurilla: It has not made it easier. The Russians have not only reached out to help the Syrian regime. They’ve reached out to the YPG and other entities to offer to arm them, and the YPG have said they will accept that. The appeal for the Kurds is the Russians are not concerned about the Turkish reaction. So that is attractive to them given the larger context of their goal to create an autonomous or semi-autonomous region. Right now, we have shared goals with the Kurds. But that could change when someone else is partnered with them. In terms of our military effort, I think one of the biggest challenges is going to be the de-confliction piece, making sure we truly have de-confliction with the Russians. One errant mishap has strategic consequences.

Dumont: And trying to coordinate with the Russian government is difficult because of the nature of that bureaucracy, and due to the amount of control exercised over the government by its senior leadership; decision-making takes times and permission to de-conflict with anybody takes time. So they wouldn’t be as responsive as we would like, no matter what the conditions are.

CTC: One concern about the Russian intervention is that it will create a backlash in the Sunni Arab world and lead to a surge in the number of foreign fighters.

Dumont: It’s entirely possible, especially since some take the view that the Russians regard anybody against the Assad regime as a terrorist. For the Russians, that means a free-for-all and a target-rich environment, if you will, and that will just incite even heavier recruiting.

CTC: And some have even talked about how this could be the one thing al-Qa`ida and the Islamic State share some common ground on again, going after the Russians.

Dumont: That’s entirely possible.

CTC: One of the explanations why the Russians are stepping up their act at this time is because they view the Assad regime as being under a lot of pressure. Was this really a crisis moment these last few months for the Assad regime?

Kurilla: I think the Syrian regime falls if you don’t have Iranian and Russian support. That’s what keeps them viable.

Dumont: I think with the Russians, it’s also a calculation that they want to prop up the Assad regime because of the alliances that they’ve had with them historically. But it’s also a method for the Russians to check, if you will, U.S. presence and U.S. influence in that part of the world. By check I mean attempt to emplace an obstacle or speed bump or make things difficult for the West in the Middle East. I think this is part of a Russian attempt to push back against American and Western influence.

CTC: If you were to speak to the American public regarding the campaign against the Islamic State, what’s the one thing you want them to understand about what you’re doing?

Michael: The campaign is not perfect, but I think we have the right approach in that it’s got to be people from the region coming together to solve it, with our support. If you make it primarily an American problem you change the problem and you make it infinitely worse. So I think that while the problem is complex and challenging, maintaining this regional approach is pushing us in the right direction.

Kurilla: I don’t think it can be ignored. You can’t just say, “It’s a Middle East problem.” I think it is absolutely a threat, but it’s also a ten-year campaign or more.

Dumont: In my mind, the thing that’s important for the American public to understand is that there are no military solutions to the political problems that we are seeing in Iraq, Syria, Libya, and other parts of the Middle East. These are regional issues that need to be resolved regionally and politically. But what the military piece does is allow us to defend our own national security interests. We can buy time for the political process to make headway. But as General Kurilla says, these are not problems that can be ignored, due to the security threats that are involved. But again, it’s important to realize that military power alone will not solve the threats that we face.

Stay Informed

Sign up to receive updates from CTC.

Sign up