How Many Islamic State Fighters Are There?

Exclusive: As the United States slides back into war in the Middle East, the specter of Vietnam hovers over the endeavor with some observers wondering if wishful thinking will again replace hardheaded analysis about the risks and the costs, writes ex-CIA analyst Ray McGovern.

By Ray McGovern

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.”

Army Gen. Martin Dempsey, Chairman of the Joint Chiefs of Staff.

Army Gen. Martin Dempsey, Chairman of the Joint Chiefs of Staff.

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.”

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 overrunning 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.”

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.

Though having worked within the system to get the real enemy troop estimates to senior U.S. officials, Sam Adams went to an early, remorse-filled death, unable to overcome the thought of what might well have happened to shorten the war if he had broken with the CIA’s demands for secrecy and made the actual enemy numbers public.

Possibly, the armed conflict might have ended in 1968. Or, to put it another way, the Vietnam Memorial in Washington would have no need for a western wall since there would be no names to chisel into the granite.

If Gen. Dempsey decides to ape Westmoreland and dissemble about the realistic obstacles to military success against the Islamic State fighters and about the counterproductive effects of U.S. intervention, well, our country will need a new Sam Adams willing, this time, to blast the truth into the open.

Sam Adams Associates for Integrity in Intelligence

Sam Adams’s memory is invoked each year as Sam Adams Associates for Integrity in Intelligence make their annual award for integrity. SAAII is a movement of former CIA colleagues of former intelligence analyst Sam Adams, together with others who hold up his example as a model for those in intelligence who would aspire to the courage to speak truth to power.

SAAII confers an award each year to a member of the intelligence community or related professions who exemplifies Sam Adam’s courage, persistence and devotion to truth, no matter the consequences.

It was Adams who discovered in 1967 that there were more than a half-million Vietnamese Communists under arms, roughly twice the number that the U.S. command in Saigon would admit to, lest Americans learn that claims of “progress” were bogus.

Gen. Westmoreland had put an artificial limit on the number Army intelligence was allowed to carry on its books. And his deputy, Gen. Creighton Abrams, specifically warned Washington that the press would have a field day if Adam’s numbers were released, and that this would weaken the war effort.

A SECRET/EYES ONLY cable from Abrams on Aug. 20, 1967, stated: “We have been projecting an image of success over recent months,” and cautioned that if the higher figures became public, “all available caveats and explanations will not prevent the press from drawing an erroneous and gloomy conclusion.”

The Communist countrywide offensive during Tet made it clear that the generals had been lying and that Sam Adams’s “higher figures” were correct. Senior intelligence officials were aware of the deception, but lacked the courage to stand up to Westmoreland. Sadly, Sam Adams remained reluctant to go “outside channels.”

A few weeks after Tet, however, former Pentagon official Daniel Ellsberg rose to the occasion. Ellsberg learned that Westmoreland was asking for 206,000 more troops to widen the war into Cambodia, Laos, and North Vietnam, right up to the border with China, and perhaps beyond.

Someone else promptly leaked to the New York Times Westmoreland’s troop request, emboldening Ellsberg to do likewise with Sam Adams’ story. Ellsberg had come to the view that leaking truth about a deceitful war would be “a patriotic and constructive act.” It was his first unauthorized disclosure. On March 19, 1968, the Times published a stinging story based on Adams’s figures.

On March 25, President Lyndon Johnson complained to a small gathering, “The leaks to the New York Times hurt us. … We have no support for the war. This is caused by the 206,000 troop request [by Westmoreland] and the leaks. I would have given Westy the 206,000 men.”

On March 31, 1968, Johnson introduced a bombing pause, opted for negotiations, and announced that he would not run for another term in November.

Sam Adams continued to press for honesty and accountability but stayed “inside channels”, and failed. He died at 55 of a heart attack, nagged by the thought that, had he not let himself be diddled, many lives might have been saved. His story is told in War of Numbers, published posthumously.

Ray McGovern works with Tell the Word, a publishing arm of the ecumenical Church of the Saviour in inner-city Washington. He was a close colleague of Sam Adams; the two began their CIA analyst careers together during the last months of John Kennedy’s administration. During the Vietnam War, McGovern was responsible for analyzing Soviet policy toward China and Vietnam.


14 comments for “How Many Islamic State Fighters Are There?

  1. Robyn Ryan
    November 16, 2014 at 10:18 pm

    As many fighters as there need be for their purposes. We are there for one of 2 reasons – oil, or religion. If we are there for oil, switch to solar. Problem goes away. If we are there for religion, stop. Problem goes away.

    Then they can fight each other in peace, as they always have,

    • david
      November 17, 2014 at 12:26 pm

      Robyn, the middle east mess is no more than a civil war between two sections of one religion. If people under orders from their religious and state leaders are willing to kill other humans then there is no chance of the west changing that, except to incite both sides to hate and kill us in turn.
      Unless the middle east is rebordered to separate the two only MIC will continue to prosper. The mid-terms have increased that likliehood.

  2. Abe
    November 17, 2014 at 12:02 am

    Truly honest ex-CIA intelligence analysts would speak truth to power by reporting about CIA training, Saudi and Qatari funding, and Jordanian and Israeli support for al-Nusra and ISIS.

    Perhaps they are unable to plumb their consciences because they are too busy receiving awards for integrity.


    While the US desperately attempts to disown responsibility for ISIS’ creation and perpetuation through an unconvincing propaganda campaign, false flag terror strikes against the “homeland,” and a series of increasingly ludicrous, orchestrated strawman victories in Iraq and Syria – Damascus, Baghdad, and Tehran are leading the real fight against ISIS.

    The US apparently plans on protecting ISIS for as long as possible under the guise of being the sole force “fighting it,” while ISIS consolidates and moves on Western designated targets. In the process of “fighting” ISIS, the US is managing to destroy Syrian infrastructure and defenses. The US, however, has failed in attempts to exclude Syrian, Iraqi, and Iranian forces from countering the ISIS threat and now the region is witnessing a race between ISIS’ inevitable destruction and America’s attempts to topple Damascus before ISIS vanishes from its geopolitical toolbox.

    ISIS is America’s Dream Rebel Army
    By Tony Cartalucci

  3. Zachary Smith
    November 17, 2014 at 12:21 am

    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.”

    With all due respect to Mr. McGovern, Fuad Hussein is hardly an unbiased observer. He wants to be given all sorts of heavy weaponry to fight the immense strength of ISIS. Tanks, artillery, and attack helicopters. A huge overestimate of ISIS strength could improve his chances of getting those and other items.

    The failure of the enormous US-trained army in Iraq proves that mere numbers mean nothing.

  4. Abe
    November 17, 2014 at 12:50 am

    The ISIL are the foot soldiers of the Western military alliance. Their unspoken mandate is to wreck havoc and destruction in Syria and Iraq, acting on behalf of their US sponsors. The endgame is to transform countries into territories.

    Political leaders present at the UN Security Council session applauded the US counter-terrorism initiative. France’s President Francois Hollande pointed to the fact that “terrorism has taken on another dimension, and it wants to conquer territory now.”

    Several US allies including Jordan, Turkey, Saudi Arabia and Qatar which are currently involved in supporting ISIL and Al Nusrah are now involved in the US sponsored air raids allegedly targeted against the ISIL inside Syria.

    Turkey and Jordan have borders with Syria. Saudi Arabia and Turkey have borders with Iraq. The direct military involvement of these countries points to a scenario of escalation and sectarian warfare extending from the Mediterranean to Central Asia.

    “The Terrorists R Us.” The Islamic State “Big Lie”
    The Criminalization of the United Nations
    By Michel Chossudovsky

    • david
      November 17, 2014 at 12:33 pm

      It would be helpful to readers add the predominant religion of a state (sunni/shia/christian/jewish) when you mention the country. The underlying problem quickly becomes self-evident.

    • Abe
      November 17, 2014 at 8:29 pm

      Islam is the second-largest religion and one of the fastest-growing major religions in the world.

      Sunni and Shia are branches of Islam. About 75–80% of the world’s Muslims are Sunni and 11–12% are Shia.

      Sunni Islam is the world’s second largest religious body and the largest religious denomination for any religion in the world.

      In a special interview broadcast on Al Jazeera on February 14, 2007, former Iranian president and chairman of the Expediency Discernment Council of Iran, Ayatollah Akbar Hashemi Rafsanjani and highly influential Sunni scholar Yusuf Al-Qaradawi, “stressed the impermissibility of the fighting between the Sunnis and the Shi’is” and the need to “be aware of the conspiracies of the forces of hegemony and Zionism which aim to weaken [Islam] and tear it apart in Iraq.”

      Does the underlying problem of the United States quickly become self-evident when you mention that the predominant religion of the US is Christianity?

  5. Abe
    November 17, 2014 at 2:54 am

    The ethical General Dempsey, highest-ranking officer of the second most moral army in the world, will no doubt continue going to “extraordinary lengths” by “calling out” to ISIS before the US destroys more of Syria’s oil infrastructure.

    After over 3 and a half years of US-backed terrorist war in Syria, one wonders how many roofs are left to “knock” on.

    Chairman Says Israel Acted Responsibly in Gaza Operation

    • Zachary Smith
      November 17, 2014 at 11:54 am

      Darn it, I’ve been scooped! Oh well, the post took a bit of time to compose so I’m adding it to yours.

      Beheadings of hostages are designed as a big provocation, aimed at pushing the US to come into the region and not at warning it to keep out of Syria and Iraq, Jeremy Salt, professor of Middle Eastern history and politics, told RT.

      I can’t disagree with this conclusion. ISIS is currently a 2-bit outfit which is trying to make the big time. Enlarging on the old saying “A man’s greatness can be measured by his enemies”, if ISIS can become identified as an enemy of the US, it becomes very great indeed.

      In that event the prospects of recruiting effective troops from the populations it currently controls are greatly improved.

      I’m in favor of ‘whacking’ ISIS, but not in the BHO Administration fashion. Reserve the missiles for large and/or concentrated targets, and mostly wage the conflict against the backers of the outfit.

      As for General Martin Dempsey, he is no longer a fellow I trust the least bit. Here is what the 4-Star professional ass-kisser said about Gaza:

      Chairman of Joint Chiefs Martin Dempsey says IDF went to ‘extraordinary lengths’ to save innocents; America studying methods


      I didn’t know kneepads were THAT important for the upper level promotions.

    • Abe
      November 17, 2014 at 2:53 pm

      Yes, Zachary. The enhanced tibial-patellofemoral protective system (ETPFPS), er, kneepads have a unit cost of $7,622 per knee, and have to be recalled and replaced every three years. Israeli officials refer to the ETPFPS as Shabbos goy kippas.

  6. November 17, 2014 at 5:44 am

    I appreciate the history lesson (and always will) and the info, but Ray doesn’t state the obvious and, in doing so, he frames the discussion. War is business. And a racket. You could be forgiven for thinking, from reading this, that the war Ray is discussing here is noble, albeit conducted by imperfect people.

  7. Abe
    November 17, 2014 at 2:38 pm

    The US and its regional allies are “the backers of the outfit” variously known as ISIS/al Nusra/al Qaeda.

    Based on what I has appeared on Consortium News for the past eight months, Messieurs Paul Pillar, Ivan Eland and yes, Ray McGovern have been quite consistent in their failure to “state the obvious” about the regime change project that has swept over Iraq, Libya and Syria.

    Belgian journalist and author Michel Collon has outlined how mass media and governments apply the “Five Principles of War Propaganda”:
    1. Obscure economic interests.
    2. Invert the victim and the aggressor.
    3. Hide history.
    4. Demonize.
    5. Monopolize the news.

    Paradoxically, Pillar, Eland and McGovern’s failed analyses translate into war propaganda “success” directly aimed at Consortium News’ center-left political audience.

    • Abe
      November 17, 2014 at 5:36 pm

      I offer these remarks with great respect for Consortium News as a progressive news outlet.

      My concern is that Eland, Pillar and McGovern’s contributions have tended to be conspicuously aligned with the basic premises and narratives advanced by the intelligence agencies who had previously employed them.

      Robert Parry’s journalism does truly qualify as “independent.”

      However, in my view, far too much vital information is missing from the contributions of these defense and intelligence analysts for them to be described as “independent.”

    • Abe
      November 17, 2014 at 5:48 pm

      As a case in point, Eland’s latest screed endorses the long-stated US and Israeli goal of partitioning Iraq.

      With friends like these…

      “The United States should accept the reality that Iraq has now been effectively partitioned and recognize the autonomous governance of Sunni areas, much as such Kurdish autonomy has been recognized in northeastern Iraq. Then the Sunnis will be much less threatened by the Shi’ite central government, because it will be very weak or even nonexistent. Then the Sunni tribes would have no incentive to support ISIS and thus would be more likely to turn against it – as they did before. The recognition of Iraq’s partition is the only hope for the United States to avoid escalation into another quagmire on the ground in Iraq.”

      Revealed US Strategy to Battle ISIS Is Wanting
      By Ivan Eland

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