Comedian and social commentator Bill Maher, in a Feb. 10 essay for The Hollywood Reporter, wanted to know why the terrorist group ISIS is doing so well in the Middle East when so many nearby countries with big militaries want it gone.
"Why don't they fight their own battles? Why are Muslim armies so useless against ISIS? ISIS isn't 10 feet tall. There are 20,000 or 30,000 of them. The countries surrounding ISIS have armies totaling 5 million people. So why do we have to be the ones leading the fight? Or be in the fight at all?"
We were wondering if Maher's numbers were correct and Islamic State fighters are potentially outgunned by as much as 250 to 1 in the region.
In the past, we've found reliable estimates of the strength of ISIS, also known as ISIL, are hard to come by. United States intelligence data from May to August of 2014 put the number at 20,000 to 31,500 fighters. Media reports at the time, based on unnamed sources, put the number at anywhere from 40,000 to 100,000.
Maher’s spokesman, Adam Schiff, said the comedian was going by that widely available U.S. estimate.
The latest U.S. estimate is 19,000 to 25,000 released by the White House on Feb. 4. The Obama administration contends that the fight against ISIS has brought the number down. White House spokesman Josh Earnest said the numbers show ISIS is finding it increasingly harder to find replacements for the thousands of fighters who have been killed.
So Maher is still in the ballpark.
But what about the militaries surrounding ISIS?
We turned to the World Bank's website and its tally of armed forces personnel in various countries. The most recent counts listed are for the year 2013. The website says its source is "The Military Balance," published by the International Institute for Strategic Studies in London.
If you consider the countries bordering Iraq and Syria — Iran (with 563,000 armed forces personnel), Jordan (115,500), Kuwait (22,600), Lebanon (80,000), Saudi Arabia (251,500) and Turkey (612,800) — you get a total of 1.6 million.
Add in Iraq (177,600) and Syria (178,000) themselves and that brings the total to 2 million. That's less than half of Maher’s figure.
When we heard back from Maher's spokesman, he said the comedian was also including the armies of Bahrain, Egypt, Oman, Qatar and the United Arab Emirates.
He's obviously using a broader definition of "surrounding" countries. Oman is about 560 miles from its closest border with Iraq.
Putting that aside, if you add those five additional states into the mix, you're still 2 million soldiers shy of the 5 million cited by Maher.
Schiff said Maher was relying on numbers from Wikipedia, specifically the "List of countries by number of military and paramilitary personnel" page. It lists the 2014 edition of "The Military Balance" as the source.
Maher took the totals for those 13 countries and came up with 4.95 million.
We wondered how both Wikipedia and the World Bank could cite the same data source and still be so far apart. The difference comes down to reservists.
The World Bank total includes both military and paramilitary personnel on active duty serving full time. The totals on the Wikipedia page add in reserve forces who are not active military but are available for mobilization if necessary. If they're included as part of a country's army, the total for those 13 countries Maher wants to include rises to 4.95 million, as Maher said.
If you don't include the reservists, the number of troops in the countries cited by the comedian only rises to 3.6 million.
It all boils down to two questions.
First, whether five countries cited by Maher, none of which share a border with Iraq and Syria, should be considered "surrounding" countries.
Second, whether reservists should be considered part of a country's army. On that point, we will note that about half of the U.S. troops in Iraq in 2005 were reservists.
All of the countries Maher is counting except Syria and Iran (which are waging their own efforts against ISIS) are part of a 66-country coalition that has pledged to eliminate the threat posed by the terrorist group. However, some may be doing little more than letting the United States use their country as a staging point for airstrikes. Surrounding countries have not played a major role in the campaign.
Michael Desch, co-director of the international security program at the University of Notre Dame, said the Arab states either have inept armies or are preoccupied with domestic threats (or both). In addition, counter-insurgency operations typically require 10 to 20 as many troops to succeed.
"Given all that, it is no mystery ISIS has proven to be a tough nut to crack despite its relatively small numbers," he said.
Maher said, "There are 20,000 or 30,000 (ISIS fighters). The countries surrounding ISIS have armies totaling 5 million people."
Maher based his ISIS estimate on a widely reported estimate, though the White House has downgraded the official estimate a bit.
It’s Maher’s tally of surrounding armies that needs more explanation. He's including reservists — not just active military and paramilitary — in his definition of "army."
The question of which nations to include as "surrounding" countries is more subjective. Maher is folding in five that don't share a border with ISIS' strongholds but nonetheless play key roles in Arab affairs.
We think the statement needs that kind of clarification, so we rate it Mostly True.