The United States and other countries fighting to push back and ultimately destroy the group known as Islamic State are being forced to confront an unpleasant quandary: an enemy unafraid of death and seemingly undeterred by a mounting death toll.
"We have seen enormous losses from Daesh, more than 10,000 since the beginning of the campaign,” U.S. Deputy Secretary of State Antony Blinken told French radio Wednesday, using an Arabic acronym for the terror group.
The estimated number of deaths would seem to be staggering, eliminating 30 percent to 45 percent of the Islamic State fighting force, thought by U.S. intelligence services to range from 22,000 to 32,000.
U.S. officials refused to explain exactly how they arrived at that number, although the White House said the military has a number of sources, including surveillance and reconnaissance equipment that has “flooded” the area, as well as information from Iraqi Security Forces.
“We see that ISIL, time and time again, has essentially directed their foot soldiers to be sacrificial lambs in some instances,” said White House spokesman Josh Earnest, using a different acronym for the group.
On the offensive
Yet despite such massive losses, Islamic State has refused to back down, finding ways to launch successful campaigns to take objectives such as Ramadi, the provincial capital of Iraq’s Anbar province, and the historic Syrian city of Palmyra, with analysts suggesting that new offensives may be in the works.
“The U.S. has grossly underestimated both the Islamic State’s strength and its strategic ability in both Iraq and Syria,” said Bill Roggio, a senior fellow at the Foundation for Defense of Democracies who has long questioned the official U.S. estimates on Islamic State’s size.
“It was a tactically sound and strategically sound organization because of the way it was conducting concurrent operations on multiple fronts,” he said via Skype.
Roggio believes IS had to have at least 50,000 fighters in its ranks around the time U.S. and coalition airstrikes began last August. Other analysts have suggested even higher numbers.
Perhaps more worrisome for U.S. and coalition officials is that high casualty rates are not deterring new fighters from joining the fight.
“ISIS, because of its conspicuous successes over the last year and a half, has continued to attract an unfortunate steady flow of recruits from Western countries, including Europe and in some cases the United States,” said Paul Pillar, a former U.S. intelligence official.
Now at Georgetown University’s Center of Security Studies, Pillar says IS is able to use those numbers to its advantage, using inexperienced or poor fighters as “cannon fodder.”
Intelligence officials and analysts say new recruits who survive have the chance to gain more experience, becoming hardened veterans capable of more advanced battlefield tactics.
Still, U.S. officials believe the body count is taking a toll, even though IS remains “a potent force.”
“Coalition pressure against ISIL has forced the group to change its tactics and blunted their momentum in many areas,” a U.S. intelligence official told VOA on condition of anonymity. “The number of ISIL fighters killed since August underscores the coalition’s impact in degrading and disrupting its efforts.”
Aymenn Jawad Al-Tamimi, a fellow at the U.S.-based Middle East Forum, agrees that the types of massive land grabs IS won last year may be a thing of the past.
“ISIS does not have unlimited military resources to wage an intense fight on every front,” he said via Skype. “What leads to a more intense focus on one front has to mean less effort devoted to another, in some cases just holding the front line, preventing the enemy from trying to advance.”
U.S. officials also say they are under no illusions and that body counts are not the same as victory against a resilient foe.
“This is just one fact and figure,” State Department spokeswoman Marie Harf told reporters Wednesday. “This is certainly not the metric by how we judge the effectiveness of the military action.”