THE OBAMA administration has responded to the recent gains by the Islamic State in Iraq with several remedial measures, including accelerating a shipment of antitank weapons to Iraqi forces and pledging to push harder for the delivery of arms to Sunni tribes. But some senior administrative officials have adopted a defensive crouch, blaming the Iraqis for failing to defend the city of Ramadi and insisting that there is no alternative to current U.S. strategy.
The response has angered senior Iraqi officials, who point out that Iraqi soldiers and tribal fighters defended Ramadi for 18 months. It may have accentuated what has been a renewed turn by the government of Haider al-Abadi toward Iran, which sponsors the Shiite militias that have been dispatched to retake Ramadi. Above all, the blame-shifting has substituted for an honest and searching reexamination by Mr. Obama of his plan for defeating the Islamic State.
As the White House has pointed out, the effort has recorded some successes, including the recapture of about a quarter of the territory in Iraq occupied by the terrorists last year. The president is also right in saying that the best U.S. approach is the one he has adopted: to help foster an Iraqi government and armed forces willing and able to defeat the extremists, rather than returning large numbers of U.S. ground forces to the country.
The problem is that Mr. Obama has offered only halfhearted support for his strategy. While 3,000 U.S. trainers and other support troops are now in Iraq, they are not allowed to accompany Iraqi forces to the front lines or identify targets for airstrikes — crucial tasks that proved decisive when the United States helped local forces overthrow the Taliban government in Afghanistan.
The administration boasts of 3,000 strikes carried out by U.S. planes since last summer. But as the New York Times recently reported, the pace of air operations is far below that of the 2001 Afghan campaign, when there were nearly six times as many daily strikes on average, or even the more recent NATO air operation in Libya, which recorded more than three times as many daily attacks. Military analysts say Islamic State military convoys have been able to move unimpeded across the desert from Syria to Iraq, while Iraqi officers say U.S. planes failed to hit key targets in Ramadi.
The military lapses are matched by political failings. The Obama administration has been unable to induce the Abadi government to deliver desperately needed arms deliveries to the Sunni tribes and Kurdish forces. Yet it simultaneously refuses to deliver materiel directly to those fighters, on the grounds this might undermine the Abadi government. Meanwhile, U.S. officials watch as Iran continues to provide massive direct support to Shiite militias, including forces the United States has designated as terrorist organizations.
Rather than blame Iraqi troops, Mr. Obama should bolster them with more U.S. advisers, including forward air controllers, and more air support. He should insist that Mr. Abadi open a weapons pipeline to Sunni and Kurdish units. Perhaps most important, Mr. Obama should make his priority eliminating the Islamic State — as opposed to limiting U.S. engagement in Iraq.
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