In War Against ISIS, Numbers Don’t Always Tell the Story

A member of militias known as Hashid Shaabi kneels as he celebrates victory while smoke rises from a clash with Islamic State militants, in the town of al-Alam, Iraq, March 10, 2015. REUTERS/Thaier Al-Sudani

Wars often degrade into numbers games of competing troop strengths, arsenals, territory held, bombing runs, and body counts. But judging an asymmetric conflict is complicated, and the battle against Islamic State involves militaries that are, in most respects, vastly different.

In Iraq, the battle for Tikrit reflects the imbalances and oddities. In Syria, the aftermath of the battle for Kobani shows how victories in this war are not always clean or decisive.

In Tikrit, some 30,000 have been fighting to retake Saddam Hussein’s home town. There are at least three disparate forces–the Iraqi army, an umbrella group of Shiite militias, and Sunni tribal fighters–with senior military advisers from Iran’s Revolutionary Guards providing strategy. They attacked ISIS simultaneously on three fronts.

ISIS had only hundreds of militants in Tikrit, according to Gen. Martin Dempsey, chairman of the Joint Chiefs of Staff, who visited Iraq this week.

By numbers alone, the first major Iraqi offensive against ISIS should have been a romp…