The other day, Twitter user @eqloprtntyhtr asked me a question:

Tweet 1This question prompted a bunch of Twitter responses from me, a bunch of deleted Twitter responses, and this rather rough-and-ready article you’re reading.

I asked him to define ‘holding off’ and he suggested:

Tweet 2So that gives two questions to ask in each of three scenarios.

Based entirely on open source material I’ve consumed by today, 1 July 2014, giving percentage chance without using any structured methods apart from the techniques of turf bookmaking I prepared the following books:

Tweet 4Book 1 

Taking a six month time horizon and assuming that the Iraqi government must act with the resources currently acknowledged as deployed to their assistance (300 Special Operations Forces (SOF) advisors and intelligence liaisons but no SOF operators), I allocate percentage probabilities to outcomes as follows:

  • Iraqi government maintains control of Baghdad with no interruption    65%
  • Iraqi government loses control of Baghdad for fewer than 30 days but regains control     10%
  • Iraqi government loses control of Baghdad for more than 30 days but does not regain control within the time horizon 5%
  • Other outcomes     20%

Note that the book adds up to 100%.  If I were taking bets, I would make it add up to a bit more, about 110% to ensure I could make a bit of money off of it.  If I were contemplating committing my own troops  betting lives  I’d make the book add up to a bit less than 100% to ensure I weren’t sending people to die on a false premise.

Because I know comparatively little about ISIS capability, the ‘other outcomes’ box, where I express my uncertainty, is large.

Here I’ve assessed ISIS as lacking the combat power and logistical infrastructure required to mount a credible attack on Baghdad, a large city which over the last decade has been ethnically cleansed of many of its Sunni Arab residents.

This judgement of mine dominates my assessments of probabilities for all three of these scenarios.  In replying to these questions, I wrote and deleted a few tweets for the following two books.  In those tweets my bookmaking went over 100% (erring on the side of my making money off of the book, but making my assessments less accurate).  Throughout that process, my assessments of the Iraqi government’s ability to hold onto Baghdad remained about the same.

This assessment also becomes a lynchpin:  if I’m wrong about this, the rest of my judgements fall apart.

Now, @eqloprtntyhtr changes the scenario and I open a second book.

Tweet 5Book 2

Taking a six month time horizon and assuming that the Iraqi government must act with the resources currently acknowledged as deployed for their assistance, plus an unspecified but small number of SOF operators conducting reconnaissance, designating targets, doing dirty tricks and blowing people up, I allocate percentage probabilities to outcomes as follows:

  • Iraqi government maintains control of Baghdad with no interruption    65%
  • Iraqi government loses control of Baghdad for fewer than 30 days but regains control     20%
  • Iraqi government loses control of Baghdad for more than 30 days but does not regain control within the time horizon 5%
  • Other outcomes     10%

I assess that a plausible commitment of US SOF capability is not going to make it more likely that the Iraqi government can keep control of Baghdad over the next six months.  I do, however, assess that this capability makes it more likely that they can regain control of significant (Shi’a-majority) proportions of the city if they lose it.  The total-loss scenario in which ISIS maintain control of Baghdad for longer than six months remains at a low 5%.

In this book I don’t know anything more about ISIS capabilities, but the deployment of well-supported, experienced, highly qualified SOF troopers to disrupt ISIS operations adds to my understanding of the anti-ISIS side of the equation, so I drop my uncertainty down to 10%.

In summary, I think that SOF wouldn’t so much help Maliki’s government hold on to Baghdad as make the city harder for ISIS to hold.

For the third question I open a third book:

Tweet 6Book 3

Taking a six month time horizon and assuming that the Iraqi government must act with the resources currently acknowledged as deployed for their assistance, plus an unspecified but small number of SOF operators doing dirty tricks and blowing people up, plus a well-supported US or US/UK air component tasked to conduct full-spectrum operations against ISIS using robust rules of engagement (similar to those in force in support of the Libyan insurgency) co-ordinated by US/UK air control cells attached to Iraqi forces at various levels, I allocate percentage probabilities to outcomes as follows:

  • Iraqi government maintains control of Baghdad with no interruption    85%
  • Iraqi government loses control of Baghdad for fewer than 30 days but regains control     5%
  • Iraqi government loses control of Baghdad for more than 30 days but does not regain control within the time horizon 5%
  • Other outcomes     5%

That is to say, the requirements for ISIS to take control of Baghdad, especially the logistical requirements, would be severely degraded by US/UK air power making it much more likely that the Iraqi Government could maintain control of Baghdad, would make a short-term loss of control less likely, and keep a longer-term loss of control just as unlikely.  Also, my understanding of ISIS capability is still pretty vague; but my understanding of US/UK air power is much better than my understanding of US SOF capability so I have given myself the luxury of dropping other outcomes to 5%.

What I think is most interesting at the completion of this rather impressionistic and imprecise exercise is that the most significant effect of the two proposed interventions is reducing the uncertainty of my predictions and making it marginally more likely that the Iraqi government can hold Baghdad.

This is not to say that Baghdad is an Iraqi centre of gravity:  that losing Baghdad would mean the downfall of whatever remains of the Iraqi state.  It might well be, but I’m not making that assessment here.  I’m looking at the narrower question assigned by @eqloprtntyhtr:  can Maliki’s government hold Baghdad.

@eqloprtntyhtr went on to ask a much bigger question:  can ISIS hold on to its existing gains with each of these three levels of US support?

Tweet 7Book 4

Taking a six month time horizon and assuming that the Iraqi government must act with the resources currently acknowledged as deployed to their assistance (300 Special Operations Forces (SOF) advisors and intelligence liaisons but no SOF operators), I allocate percentage probabilities to outcomes as follows:

  • ISIS maintains control of what it holds today     5%
  • ISIS loses control of only some contested areas in Iraq and Syria    75%
  • ISIS loses control of most or all of the territory it currently controls 5%
  • Other outcomes     15%

The scenario is the same as it was in Book 1.  All that has changed is the question, so the uncertainty factor about other outcomes remains 20%.

Look at the chance that ISIS will lose some of what it controls:  75%! If  you were to bet money that ISIS would lose some territory over the next six months, you’d have an 80% chance of winning.  You wouldn’t get great odds, so you’d win bupkis; but you’d win.

I’ve assessed it as more than likely that ISIS will lose control of some of the areas it controls, but very unlikely to completely disintegrate within six months.  I think that the ISIS has reached a high-water mark and that holding all that it holds today for the next six months is very unlikely.

Tweet 8Book 5

Taking a six month time horizon and assuming that the Iraqi government must act with the resources currently acknowledged as deployed for their assistance, plus an unspecified but small number of SOF operators conducting reconnaissance, designating targets, doing dirty tricks and blowing people up, I allocate percentage probabilities to outcomes as follows:

  • ISIS maintains control of what it holds today     0%
  • ISIS loses control of only some contested areas in Iraq and Syria    80%
  • ISIS loses control of most or all of the territory it currently controls 5%
  • Other outcomes     15%

Special forces operations could chip away at what is now ISIS-held territory, especially around Kirkuk and Mosul, so the chance increases that they’d lose control of something.  This reduces, proportionately, the chance that they’d hold everything they currently hold.

In Book 2, when I assessed the chances of holding Baghdad I didn’t consider SOF likely to make a big difference.  Here they make a bigger difference:  they make it much more likely that some chunks of ISIS control can be chipped away.  In fact, I’ve assessed that a deployment of Special Forces operators would make it impossible for ISIS to keep everything.  The only question is whether they would lose a bit (very likely) or a lot (very unlikely).

Tweet 9Book 6

Taking a six month time horizon and assuming that the Iraqi government must act with the resources currently acknowledged as deployed for their assistance, plus an unspecified but small number of SOF operators doing dirty tricks and blowing people up, plus a well-supported US or US/UK air component tasked to conduct full-spectrum operations against ISIS using robust rules of engagement (similar to those in force in support of the Libyan insurgency) co-ordinated by US/UK air control cells attached to Iraqi forces at various levels, I allocate percentage probabilities to outcomes as follows:

  • ISIS maintains control of what it holds today     0%
  • ISIS loses control of only some contested areas in Iraq and Syria   85%
  • ISIS loses control of most or all of the territory it currently controls 10%
  • Other outcomes     5%

Here the air power makes it, in my estimation, slightly less unlikely that the ISIS might suffer a serious collapse within six months, and only marginally more likely that the ISIS would lose only some of their territory over the next six months.

Now, I haven’t taken any bets based on these six books.  There was a time when Intrade might have used online betting to create a prediction market to crowdsource the answers to these questions, but Intrade is no more.  So apart from answering the question from @eqloprtntyhtr and potentially making an ass of myself in public, what’s the point?

Here’s one point.  If you accept my assessment, and you think it’s important for the Maliki government to keep control of Baghdad, and if you want to significantly improve their prospects; sending SOF isn’t going to do it.  Significant application of air power will.

Here’s another.  If you accept my assessment, and you want to make ISIS disappear; you’re not going to do it from the air.  If you want to get ISIS out of Kirkuk, Mosul or both; then air power and SOF would help, but not a lot.  The only way to take a lot of territory from the ISIS will be with joint air, land and SOF operations.  The only way that sort of operation will happen in these scenarios is a significant, co-ordinated effort between the Iraqi Army and the Kurdish Peshmerga.

How would I sharpen up these predictions? I would get a group of people together to work on them, and get them to focus on developing a better list of possible outcomes.  I would take advantage of all-source intelligence (including secret intelligence and open-source information).  I would get the group of people to vote on the percentages.  I would conduct systematic analysis of each of the possible outcomes.  All these things would make the probabilities I’ve suggested less of a set of WAGs (wild-ass guesses).