The Washington PostDemocracy Dies in Darkness

Ramadi falls

Saturday’s news of a successful commando mission in Syria to kill a senior leader of the Islamic State was welcomed news, but the fundamental problem with our strategy remains. The Post reported on Friday, “Islamic State fighters on Friday seized control of key parts of Ramadi, the capital of Iraq’s largest province, in what appeared to be a significant blow to a U.S.-backed military campaign to retake territory from the insurgents.” The media may have been fixated on Jeb Bush’s difficulties to explain whether he would have gone into Iraq in 2003, but the evident failure of the president’s current approach to fighting the Islamic State is the real and far more troubling development.

Max Boot remarks, “Ramadi was really where the Anbar Awakening began — the movement, started by Colonel Sean MacFarland in Ramadi in 2006, to mobilize Sunni tribes against AQI. After having lost hundreds of American soldiers in Ramadi and its environs since 2003, US efforts finally appeared to have paid off. AQI had been routed of the capital of its self-proclaimed caliphate, and would soon be routed out of the rest of the Sunni Triangle. Victory was in sight.” He adds, “It is all the more heartbreaking, therefore, to read now that the Islamic State — AQI’s successor organization — has seized the government center in Ramadi.”

As one might expect the White House spokesman on Friday tried to downplay the loss, accusing those concerned with the setback of wanting to “reoccupy” Iraq:

Q    Well, one of the things that the President has been talking about with his strategy is to get the Iraqi government to enlist the Sunnis and to provide them what they need to defend themselves.  This looks like an example where that failed.  This is the capital of Anbar Province.  Is there a failure here by the Iraqi government to take the steps they need to take?  And does the White House need to step up either its assistance or its pressure on the Iraqis themselves?
MR. SCHULTZ:  You asserted a lot of facts that I’m not sure are quite in evidence.  I will tell you that in conjunction with Anbar tribal forces, the Iraqi security forces have indeed been confronting ISIL fighters in Ramadi and around Anbar Province for several months now.  Today, ISIL is once again attempting an offensive in the city of Ramadi, but the coalition is supporting the Iraqi security forces and the brave citizens of Anbar Province to help protect the people of Anbar and support their efforts to force ISIL from Ramadi and other cities.  Coalition forces continue to provide air support in ISIL-held and contested areas throughout Iraq.
But I am going to refer you to the Iraqi government on the latest status of their forces, and to the Department of Defense for more on the United States support there.
Q    There’s no broader reexamining right now in the White House of the broader strategy of we’re going to let the Iraqis take the lead, we’re going to be mostly doing airstrikes?
MR. SCHULTZ:  No, Steven.  There may be others who are suggesting a reoccupation of the country of Iraq.  That’s not something the President has said he’s been open to.  But the President has been clear that this is going to be a long-term proposition, that there will be ebbs and flows to this fight, but he is committed to making sure we’re successful.

Nothing to see here. Carry on. The State Department’s spokesman was just as dismissive:

QUESTION: And do you consider what happened as a blow for the Iraqi Government and the Iraqi forces?
MR RATHKE: Well, look, we’ve said before that there will be good days and bad days in Iraq. ISIL’s trying to make today a bad day in Ramadi. We’ve said all along we see this as a long-term fight in conjunction with our Iraqi partners against ISIL. We are confident that Iraqi forces with support from the coalition will continue to push back ISIL where they’ve tried to gain advantages on the ground. So our policy and our engagement remains the same.
QUESTION: So is it the U.S.’s view that Ramadi is falling to ISIL, is under ISIL control, or would you say that it’s contested?
MR RATHKE: Well, I would – I’m not in a position to confirm reports that – I know there have been several reports out there – about the situation in the city center. I’d refer you, again, to the Iraqis for up-to-date information. We have said in the past that Ramadi is and the areas around it have been contested for months, and – but as to the situation in Ramadi right now, we’re working with the Government of Iraq to get a clearer picture of the situation.
QUESTION: (Inaudible) consider keeping Ramadi out of ISIS’s control a strategic priority, or is this going to be like Kobani where it’s not a strategic priority unless you win, and then it becomes a strategic priority?
MR RATHKE: Well, no. I think what we said about Kobani was that it was a strategic priority for ISIL. . . . Well, this is a fight that’s being led by the Iraqis, so it’s the Iraqi Government’s job to set priorities. So that would be their – it’s their country and they need to set those priorities and we support them. Clearly, Ramadi is important and it’s a large city. It’s been contested for some time. And Anbar province – we’ve talked a lot about other actions in Anbar province in recent weeks and months, so Anbar is important, Ramadi is important. I’m not going to place labels on them to try to suggest a prioritization.

Let’s put it bluntly: There is little evidence the president’s minimalist approach to fight the Islamic State is working. (Boot says bluntly: “The fall of Ramadi is a sign of the abysmal failure of the misnamed Operation Inherent Resolve launched by President Obama in August 2014 to ‘degrade’ and ultimately to ‘destroy’ ISIS.  Operation Uncertain Resolve is more like it.”) Rather than recognize realities on the ground, acknowledge the Islamic State is gaining in strength and recruits and then reassess our strategy, the White House poses another false choice — do what we are doing or reoccupy the country. The alternative of course is what the military has consistently recommended — a more substantial U.S. ground force to provide training, intelligence, forward spotting, etc. Instead, Iraqi militias are cementing their relationship with Iran, which is becoming dominant in Iraq.

Boot argues, ” The real debate we should be having is not what we should have done in 2003 but what we should do now, today, to defeat ISIS and Iran — the twin forces, mirror images of one another — that are ripping the Middle East asunder. All of the candidates, including the silent Hillary Clinton, need to tell us what they would do.” But it’s so much easier to second guess a decision made 12 years ago than to set forth a workable plan to defeat the Islamic State and to stem Iran’s aggressive moves throughout the region.