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Revisiting the “ISIS Crisis”

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Last week a group of us assembled at the University of Ottawa to matrix-game the current conflict concerning the self-styled “Islamic State” in Iraq and Syria. For practical reasons and to limit the number of players/teams, the game largely focused on Iraq. The purpose, as with an earlier game held at the UK Defence Academy, was to explore the value and limits of matrix games as an analytical method.

Six actors were represented:

  • Iraqi government
  • ISIS (aka ISIL, Da’ish, or the Islamic State)
  • non-ISIS Sunni opposition
  • Kurds
  • Iran
  • US

ISIScrisismapMatrix games are not rules- and capabilities-based wargames, but rather a series of structured sequential arguments and debates. They can be conducted in several ways, but in this case outcomes were resolved as follows:

  1. The phasing player announces an intended action and the desired effect if successful (“The Iraqi Army will attack city X, defeating ISIS forces there and recapturing it.”). A base score of 7 or more on two six-sided dice is needed for success.
  2. The phasing player then identifies reasons why their action would be successful (“I have substantially greater forces available in this area than the defender. My forces are better armed. Iranian advisors are deployed with my forces. I enjoy US air support. In addition, my forces have been bolstered by Shiite irregulars rallying to the call-to-arms issued by Ayatollah Sistani.”) Each plausible argument gains a +1 to the dice roll.
  3. Other players may contribute arguments for or against the success of the proposed action. (“You will fail because your army is corrupt and your troops poorly led. In addition, the Sunni inhabitants of the city have been alienated by Shiite rhetoric and the excesses of Shiite militias, and will resist you. The morale of the ISIS defenders is high. The lack of forward air controllers means that US close air support is largely ineffectual.”) Each positive argument contributes +1, each negative argument -1.
  4. The dice are rolled, adjusted for arguments pro and con, and an outcome determined. The facilitator has some leeway both in accepting the validity of arguments, and in specifying results based on the dice: a very high score would mean a very successful result (“the enemy is destroyed and your morale bolstered”), while a very low score would mean a disastrous failure (“you suffer a catastrophic defeat, and will suffer a penalty to your next combat operation”).

The map and the various units and other markers on it are largely used to represent and help illustrate the unfolding narrative, rather than being an essential and central part of game play.

In this game (as it our previous experiment) players were assigned various initial characteristics. The Iraqi government suffered a -1 penalty to all dice rolls to reflect corruption and inefficiency, and an additional -1 when conducting combat operations outside Baghdad or Shiite-majority areas. The Kurds similarly suffered a -1 to all military operations outside Kurdish areas. ISIS gained a +1 bonus in Sunni areas, and a -1 outside. The Sunni opposition also gained a +1 bonus in Sunni areas, but suffered a -2 penalty acting against ISIL. The US suffered a -1 penalty to military actions, reflecting Washington’s unwillingness to get too deeply involved. Iran, should it take an unsuccessful action against ISIL or the Sunni opposition, provided that actor with a +1 to their next roll to reflect an anti-Iranian backlash among Iraqi Sunnis. Finally, the”Curse of Unforeseen Consequences and Second and Third Order Effects” mandated that any time a double was rolled ISIS would get an immediate free counter-action.

These initial conditions worked well in tilting players towards realistic behaviours without over-determining actions and outcomes. As we had done before, a seventh unaffiliated subject matter expert was able to take one action per turn so as to highlight the consequences of player actions, introduce actions by other unrepresented actors, or nudge the game back towards more realistic outcomes—again, without over-determing the course of events.

Our players and teams were well qualified: wargamers and operations research analysts from Defence Research and Development Canada, game designers, political scientists, and current or former Middle East intelligence analysts. How did it all work out?

The Game as Narrative

As one possible future narrative of the “ISIS crisis” it all went very well.

IMG_2634ISIS made initial efforts to expand its territorial control southwards closer to Baghdad, but was unable to do so. Consequently it embarked on a series of terrorist bombings in the capital, hoping thereby to pin down government troops. In the north the Kurds focused on building up their military strength, both to defend themselves from the ISIS threat and to bolster any future efforts to assert independence. Neither the US nor Iran would provide them with the heavy weapons they sought, such as tanks or tube artillery. The Kurds skirmished with ISIS forces around Mosul, but were reluctant to undertake a major offensive. Indeed, their one effort to infiltrate the outskirts of the city went badly.

Iran undertook a major build-up of troops along the Iraqi border, and sent additional military advisors to assit Iraqi and Kurdish forces. It coupled this, however, with extensive outreach to the United States. Over time, the two sides were increasingly successful in deconflicting their operations and actions.

IMG_2628The Iraqi Army launched a major offensive to clear ISIL and allied militias from Diyala province, as well as to secure Taji and Samarra and even push on towards Tikrit. They faced stiff resistance, however. Progress was slow, and even when areas were captured the Iraqi security forces were still subject to numerous IED and sniper attacks.

A second offensive was then launched to secure Falluja and press on towards Ramadi. Again, progress was slow. Efforts to reform the Iraqi Army and improve its  combat effectiveness were unsuccessful.

All this fighting created a growing humanitarian crisis as populations fled areas of combat. The US increased its contributions to the UN and other humanitarian agencies to help address the problem.

The US launched a high-risk special forces operation to rescue an American hostage held by ISIS in Raqqa, Syria. This was unsuccessful. ISIS retaliated by executing the hostage. Unable to capture additional terrain in Iraq, ISIS undertook a surprise raid against Jordanian border positions in an effort to project a sense of political momentum. This was initially more successful than anyone anticipated, but was soon driven back by Jordanian and American troops.

IMG_2633Throughout the game, both the US and Iran urged Baghdad to reach out to dissatisfied Sunnis and lure them away from the ISIS orbit. In practice, little of this happened. On the contrary, the Iraqi government increasingly relied on Shiite militias to bolster its strength, and offered little in the way of compromise or inclusion. The Sunni opposition—whose extensive demands were likely too much for the government in any case—only grew angrier. As Iran’s role grew, the Sunni opposition exploited this to secure some modest financial support from Saudi Arabia.

Finally, Tehran decided enough was enough, and pressed hard on Baghdad to open formal reconciliation talks with credible Sunni opposition leaders. The Iraqi government balked, then agreed provided the talks were held in Baghdad. The Sunni opposition insisted on a more neutral location. Tehran proposed Oman—and, when the Iraqi Prime Minister initially declined, made it clear that rejection was NOT an option. Prime Minister al-Abidi reluctantly agreed.

IMG_2636When the game ended, the talks were about to take place. ISIS, however, had begun to issue threats against the family or tribe of any Sunni leaders who attended…

The Game as Analysis

There two major ways in which the game functioned as an alternative analytical technique:

  • Players were required to develop strategies in a dynamic adversarial context. While we did not heavily instrument the playtest (two participants were tasked with taking notes), it would be quite simple to require players to record their actions and rationale as part of game play.
  • Game play generated long lists of factors that might enable or undermine particular actions. It also generated debates among players around the nature and importance of those factors.

To some extent game play is distorted by the limited number of teams (6-7 seemed a practical limit if a lively discussion was also to be maintained) and the consequence simplification of Iraqi and regional politics. Then again, players are not limited to arguments pertaining to their own actors, but can invoke those not represented in the game. The “seventh” player/subject matter expert also helped to assure that unrepresented issues, actors, and consequences could be brought into the game.

As suggested above, the trajectory of the game is certainly shaped by both the actors represented and any special rules or initial conditions assigned to them. However, this session also highlighted how important the social engineering of team assignments and roles can be. Players who were calm and calculating tended to play their roles in this way; others who were more likely to be confrontational tended to play their roles that way too. I suspect that, even with everything else held constant, the game outcome would have been quite different with different people in different roles.

One of the participants—a former senior intelligence analyst and manager, renowned for his skill at facilitating very productive conventional BOGSAT (“bunch of guys/gals sitting at a table”) discussions—offered these observations:

I found the Iraq simulation an interesting exercise. The methodology might be adaptable for the purposes of thinking about analytical issues related to Iraq. It is a good way to induce analysts to think about aspects of the situation that they might not consider otherwise or look at differently.

However, I wouldn’t see it an alternative to an analytical discussion session, but rather as a preliminary step. The model I would see is a two-part session, starting with 2-3 hours for the simulation and then continuing with another couple of hours of discussion revolving around lessons and insights inspired by the game.

The game by itself has limited analytical usefulness. Inevitably, players get caught up in the competitive game aspect of the simulation and take whatever steps they can think of to “win,” quibbling about the game mechanics, making unrealistic moves, etc. Some players might get too personally invested in the game and lose sight of the fact that the purpose is to get a deeper understanding of the situation and to think differently than they normally would about it. For example, the reasons put forward for the success or failure of a move are not necessarily well thought-out in the heat of the fray. One possible way around this would be to require the players to list in writing their arguments for and against a move: this would slow things down just a bit and hopefully inspire better arguments. It would also have the advantage of providing a record of the arguments for the later discussion.

The true value of the game would be to provide the basis for a structured discussion afterwards. This could include discussion of several things, including:

  • Insights from players on aspects of the simulation that surprised them: do they now have a different impression of the strategic situation of one or more sides, of the tactical options available to them (and the restraints they are under), a different understanding of the overall balance of forces, etc.
  • A more considered discussion of the pros and cons for each of the (major) moves during the simulation: were all of the relevant factors considered, were they given proper weighting, etc. This is where a written record of the arguments would be useful, recorded either by the players at the time and given to the umpire, or compiled by neutral observers.
  • Thoughts from the players on the goals being pursued by their side; their goals may well have shifted as the game progressed. The introductory notes outlining the situation for each side logically contain general guidance on what that side should be seeking to accomplish, but I must say that in my case I did not pay much attention to the notes and leaped in with my own views on what I wanted to achieve. I think a subsequent discussion of actual and game goals would have been useful.

Overall, a very interesting exercise, and one that has forced me to rethink my previous (rather negative) views of the potential usefulness of simulations in intelligence analysis.

Materials for an earlier version of the ISIS Crisis matrix game (including the map and counters seen above) can be found at Tom Mouat’s matrix game download page. The briefings used for the game described above can be found here. For more information on matrix games see also Matrix Games for Modern Wargaming, published by the History of Wargaming Project.

ISIL matrix game AAR

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Matrix games are a type of free-form game in which each player, in turn, makes an argument about a particular course of action and the effects they expect that action would have if successful. Additional arguments for and against this are then made by other players. The success of the proposed action is then either adjudicated by the umpire, or resolved by a dice roll and a series of modifiers reflecting the arguments for and against. The next player then takes his/her action on the basis of this new situation, and the game thus continues. Game play may take place around a map and pieces/counters/units as game aids, or may be entirely abstract. Because events unfold according to a series of successful actions, arguments, and effects, it unfolds very much as a narrative of the scenario being explored.

Main MapYesterday I had an opportunity to play a game a matrix game of the situation in northern Iraq, ably facilitated by Tom Mouat. Our ten players assumed the roles of the Islamic State of Iraq and the Levant (ISIL, also known as ISIS, Da’ish, or the “Islamic State”), the Iraqi central government led by Prime Minister-designate Haider al-Abidi, the Sunni opposition, the Kurdish Regional Government, Iran, and the United States. In addition I played the “spirit of inshallah,” who each turn could argue for a likely action or effect that other players had not proposed.

We used a pair of dice for adjudication, with 7+ required for success, with the dice modified by +/-1 for every plausible argument or counter-argument generated by players.

Each team was provided with a one page briefing that outlined their situation and major goals. One of the innovations in the game was that each also started with an “initial condition” that affected their play. Thus the Iraqi central government suffered penalties to its dice rolls to reflect the poor performance of its military forces as well as the absence of an agreed government/cabinet; the Kurds suffered a penalty to reflect PUK-KDP political rivalries; ISIL was able to take the occasional bonus move to reflect its political momentum; and so forth.

The game was intended solely for the purposes of giving players an opportunity to experience the methodology, not for any official or policy purposes. Nevertheless it was conducted under Chatham House rules. The players included a couple of scholars of Middle East politics, a foreign ministry official, some current or former intelligence or defence analysts, and quite a few experienced wargamers—an opportunity group of friends and colleagues, but a quite skilled and well-informed one. Gameplay itself took a little over two hours. The game map and generic pieces used in the game are reproduced at left and below (click images to expand).

The ISIL (or ISIS) Crisis

The game started off with Washington contemplating airstrikes in support of Iraqi troops fighting against the self-styled “Islamic State” near Tikrit, but ultimately choosing not to go ahead with these. Throughout the US team was cautious about becoming too deeply involved in an Iraqi quagmire. Later some US Special Forces were sent to the country, and—after some extended discussions with the Iraqi government—ended up conducting cautious reconnaissance of ISIL positions. A terrorist attack struck the US Navy in the Persian Gulf (for which ISIL claimed responsibility), but this has little impact on American policy.

ISIL itself decided to launch an offensive towards Karbala through the sparsely populated areas to the northwest and west. This was intended largely as a feint and diversion, but it caught the Iraqi Army by surprise, which quickly routed. Much to everyone’s surprise, ISIL then defeated the Shiite militias in the city, causing a massive out-flow of terrified refugees.

IMG_2290Prime Minister Abidi oscillated between efforts to form a national unity government and building up troops for a counter-offensive. Iran sent arms, advisors, humanitarian aid. At the request of the Kurds, some Iranian combat units also entered Iraqi Kurdistan. Secretly the Kurds had cut side deals with both Iran and ISIL which enabled the Peshmerga to recapture Mosul but also saw most ISIL units leave the city to battle elsewhere.

The Iraqi Prime Minister’s effort to broaden the base of the Iraqi government bore some fruit when the Sunni opposition—attracted by the offer of future political decentralization and an equitable share of oil resources—abandoned their erstwhile jihadist allies. Heavy fighting soon followed as local Sunni tribal militias and ISIL militants fought for control of the border crossings into Syria. US airstrikes and a covert supply of US weapons to the anti-ISIL tribal fights tipped the fighting slightly towards the latter, although ISIL reinforcements continued to arrive from Syria to keep the fighting going.

At the same time, Baghdad launched two major offensives, Operation Heavenly Sword and Son of Heavenly Sword. The first bogged down amid poor planning and logistics (ie, a poor dice roll). The latter, however, eliminated most of the ISIL fighters in Karbala amid widespread destruction and atrocities on both sides.

The game ended with ISIL weaker but still a significant threat. The Sunni opposition, although now allied with the Iraqi central government, remained deeply suspicious of Baghdad. The Iranians had gained greater influence in the country, and were stalling on a Kurdish request that they withdraw their forces from Kurdistan. The US had become more deeply involved in military action, but had remained cautious, had not deployed major ground forces, and had exerted only limited influence on events.

For its part, the Iraqi government called for major talks between all parties—including, indirectly, ISIL—on national reconciliation. This received a lukewarm response from some. It also split the Shiite community, with many Iraqi militia leaders arguing that it was pointless to talk with extremists and favouring instead stepped up military action against their Sunni jihadist foes.

Methodological Impressions

Although I had watched and dabbled with matrix games a few times, this was the first one I had fully participated in and played through until the end.

  • The methodology is very flexible, and games can be quickly designed and conducted. Effective game play is highly dependent on a skilled facilitator, however. (Tom, fortunately, is very good.) It also needs players who are willing to accept the lack of formal rules. As one observer noted, it probably would have helped to have had a trial turn before the proper game started.
  • Like most games—and, indeed, history itself—there is a significant degree of built-in path dependency. This can be a problem if players don’t roleplay well, try to get too clever, or manage to pull off an unrealistic or implausible action early in the game (possibly through a lucky dice roll if that system of adjudication is used), thereby skewing the game in a particular direction. In our game, I didn’t think that the ISIL conquest of Karbala—a large, religiously symbolic, and very, very Shiite city—was at all realistic. I also thought that the government strategy of allowing ISIL attacks of Karbala as a way of mobilizing Shi’ite outrage was too risky to be feasible.
  • Of course, an umpire can rule against actions that are thought to be too unrealistic. However, if the game is too directed it merely ends up reproducing the views and possible biases of the adjudicator. Moreover, it also risks excluding interesting “black swans” and other low probability/high impact events. After all, few if any analysts had predicted that (Sunni) Mosul would fall so easily to ISIL earlier this year.
  • I think it helped to have a neutral, subject matter expert player to periodically nudge the game back to a more “realistic” course or to try to make sure that various important consequences of actions are represented in the game. It would also be useful to have a discussion and consequence management phase at the end of each turn to address what had happened and what additional second and third order effects actions might have.
  • The physical layout of the game matters. In our case the map and proliferation of military unit markers may have predisposed some players to think in military rather than political terms.  On the other hand, the game did nicely illustrate the difficulty of undertaking political initiatives and reforms amid an ongoing security crisis.
  • The choice of roles and players matters a lot. We had deliberately chosen tow knowledgeable (and devious) participants to play ISIL. Had others been playing the role it might have all turned out rather differently. We had also limited the number of roles to six for practical reasons. The absence of the Syrian government and various Syrian opposition groups from the game had the clear consequence of biasing us towards an Iraq-centric focus on ISIL. The absence of a Turkish player may have also given the Kurds greater free rein than in real life.
  • Even where game play diverged from the most likely course of events in Iraq, it provided considerable material for discussion. Tocite just a few of the issues that arose during our two hours of play:
    • How decentralized is ISIL? How vulnerable is it to leadership casualties? Have its recent successes been part of an central campaign plan, or rather rapid exploitation of local successes by local commanders?
    • How cohesive and fanatical is ISIL? Could parts of the organization be lured away with promises of political decentralization in Iraq? (I think not, but in our game Baghdad clearly hoped to do so.)
    • How easily can ISIL mask major troop movements from allied ISR, or otherwise complicate targeting? To what extent can it support operations away from its Sunni population base?
    • What domestic constraints exist on US policy? Would an ISIL-linked act of terrorism deter greater American involvement, encourage it, or (as in the game) have little effect?

A critical question, of course, is whether two+ hours of matrix gaming provided more insight into these and other issues than would have been derived from a BOGSAT (“bunch of guys/gals sitting around a table”) of similar duration. I am not convinced that the game was better—indeed, having recently participated in an official/classified meeting on the topic, I thought the latter discussion was more productive. The game did, however, provide a different, and perhaps more enjoyable, perspective. Consequently, matrix gaming does have some value as a sort of alternative analysis exercise intended to shift analysts out of traditional and more comfortable thought processes. It can also serve to break up the monotony of a long seminar-type discussion, and encourage participants to interact and network in different ways.

Finally, the approach can easily be replicated and repeated. By doing so, more of the possible problem space be mapped. If key actions or questions repeatedly occur in games drawing upon different participants this would also suggest key questions, indicators, and potential courses of action worthy of additional analytical attention.

* * *

For more on this approach, see Matrix Games for Modern Wargaming, a newly-published booklet by John Curry and Tim Price. We’ll be reviewing it soon here at PAXsims. You also find a much more detailed write-uo of the game at John’s History of Wargaming Project website, and a very useful set of reflections by Ben Taylor elsewhere at PAXsims.

A recent version of the ISIS Crisis materials can be found on Tom Mouat’s website.

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