The saying 'you have the watches but we have the time' is often attributed to the Taliban (or Mauritanian immigration officials), but it is representative of the fact that indigenous armed groups understand that occupations are temporary, while the population is permanent.
The UK and France learned this in their post-World War II colonial campaigns, the Soviets in Afghanistan, the US in Afghanistan, Iraq and Vietnam. It is a truism of counter-insurgency of course, but not necessarily a law. In some counter-insurgency campaigns the government does win.
In Iraq, the US finds itself in the rather unusual situation where ISIS has all the watches but the Coalition has all the time. While ISIS consists mostly of Iraqis, it also has a growing number of foreign fighters in its ranks. If the Shi'a-dominated Iraqi forces who were in charge before ISIS swept in were seen as occupiers in the Sunni heartlands, the rule of ISIS is now starting to be viewed as something similar, and perhaps worse.
The US has adopted a deliberate campaign to stop ISIS's momentum through the use of air power and then to assist in the retaking of key terrain using Iraqi Government, Kurdish and Shi'a militia forces. At the same time, it has placed pressure on Iraqi politicians to change the prime minister, while assembling a coalition that relieves Washington of the burden of being seen to be going it alone.
Thus far the campaign plan appears to be working. Granted, with a deliberately light footprint in the air and on the ground, and an Iraqi military that requires significant re-training, the roll-back was always going to take time. And a government reasserting its sovereignty will always fall short of what is expected. Moreover, ISIS remains capable of achieving tactical victories in Anbar province.
That said, one of the more noteworthy things about the US-led campaign has been Washington's appreciation of time. Once ISIS's momentum was halted, the immediate crisis forced by the disintegration of Iraqi formations and an enemy generating fear and panic through seemingly unchecked advances was over, and a more deliberate approach was possible.
So the last thing anyone in Washington wants is a major reversal that would re-ignite the ISIS campaign and allow it to regain momentum. Hence the desire to tamp down any attempts to rush precipitously to retake Mosul before the Iraqi forces are capable of doing it. This recent article suggests Baghdad is already pushing for just such a move.
Time is on Washington's side in part because, for ISIS, administration of areas under its control becomes more difficult the longer the conflict goes on. Already there are reports of rising prices in Mosul as winter sets in. The problem for the residents of Mosul is that as pressure on ISIS increases, its rule will likely become more brutal and intolerant.
One thing Washington will need to be alert to is that media organisations don't share its patience. Degrade missions are rarely media-friendly. They are the military equivalent of water dripping on a rock. There are few spectacular images of the action, as the attacks are against individual targets such as fighting positions and vehicles or logistics facilities, while the advising and assisting is normally conducted in small groups in base locations or at formation level or higher. This US media report is one of many likely to emerge that shows how frustrating a degrade campaign can be for the media. It appears to express concern at the lack of hard data the US military is giving out so that the media can judge mission success.
Another danger is that media commentators will begin to equate any ISIS tactical victories with strategic success, and criticise Washington for 'dragging the chain' without appreciating the nature of the social and political terrain in which the Coalition and the Iraqi Government operates. The last thing Washington wants is be forced to rush into things before it or the Iraqi security forces are ready.
Time is a resource as much as ammunition, personnel and finances. Only this time in Iraq, time favours Washington and Baghdad rather than the insurgents.
Photo courtesy of Flickr user United States Forces Iraq.