The Iraqi defeat at Ramadi is a warning, but no more of a warning than the supposed Iraqi “victory” at Tikrit last month – or all of the other signals that are coming out of the U.S. engagement in Iraq and Syria.
The U.S. urgently needs to reappraise its current strategic posture in both Iraq and Syria. It needs far more realism in shaping its military efforts and far more honesty and transparency in assessing the risks of those decisions. The current level of U.S. military intervention may be too limited and too constrained to succeed, but the risk of failure will be high even if the U.S. uses added force more effectively.
A major defeat like Ramadi is only part of the problem. The U.S. cannot focus on the Islamic State, or ISIS, as if Iraq and Syria were not failed states with far deeper problems. The divisions in Iraq between the Shiite-led, Arab central government, Arab Sunnis, and Kurds remain critical.
Tikrit was not a victory, simply because ISIS was driven out at great cost. It was as much a defeat because it was fought by an Iraqi Army that had to rely on Shiite militias that most Sunni Iraqis fear, have ties to Iran, show limited concern for civilians and collateral damage, and can take revenge on the innocent. The Tikrit battle was one more case where the Iraqi Army was committed too soon. It showed that Iraq requires a far larger and more effective U.S. train-and-assist effort. Such an effort, in which U.S. advisors are embedded in forward combat units, could help develop Iraqi leaders, help make the supply and reinforcement system work, and use U.S. and allied air power effectively.
The Obama administration’s limited U.S. effort did keep Americans from suffering casualties, but they also did more in Iraq to empower Iran than win support for the U.S. Worse, Tikrit was a campaign that failed to give Iraq’s Sunnis the reassurance they needed that the central government would support them in resisting ISIS or following-up an ISIS defeat with immediate efforts to secure Tikrit and allow its Sunni Arab population to return.
The defeat at Ramadi simply should not have happened. Key Iraqi political leaders like Prime Minister Haider al-Abadi did try to bring Iraqi Sunnis into the fight and gave them support and arms. It seems clear that there was an effort to provide Iraqi Army reinforcements and U.S. air support. But Abadi and his government face serious if not fatal problems in making the efforts to build and support Sunni forces effectively. The many media warnings that the Iraqi Army and Ministry of Defense are still broken, unmotivated, and incompetent proved all too true.
The collapse and near panic of the Iraq Army’s 8th Brigade and the Iraqi police again showed that a far stronger and forward-deployed U.S. advisory effort is needed and U.S. advisors should be put in critical positions where they can help assure that competent Iraqi commanders are given proper supplies and reinforcements and incompetent ones are removed. It is brutally clear that the warnings senior U.S. officers gave in the spring of 2014 that former Prime Minister Nouri al-Maliki had left the Iraqi Army so broken it would take two to three years to fix – even to the level of 12 effective brigades – were all too true.
At the same time, a U.S. military effort cannot work unless Abadi’s government becomes strong enough to heal the gap between Arab Sunni and Arab Shiite, limit the role of Shiite militias and Iran in dividing the country. It also can’t work if Iraq’s Sunnis have lost faith in the central government, will not provide local forces, and are largely bypassed with the Iraqi Army.
A stronger U.S. advisory effort can at best help Iraqi forces inflict tactical defeats on ISIS. It cannot win on a strategic level without far more Iraqi unity, it cannot create secure areas in the west where Sunnis can live a secure and normal life, and it cannot bridge the growing sectarian gap between them.
The U.S. also cannot help Iraq recover Mosul and the lost areas in Ninewa unless it can create an equally effective forward-based advisory presence for both the Iraq Army and Kurdish forces and can do so in a political and economic climate where Iraq’s Arab and Kurds cooperate in recovering the north, and are willing to compromise over how to govern the liberated areas and restore some kind of normal life and economy.
The areas ISIS holds in the north are far more populated than Anbar in the southwest, and largely by Arab Sunnis that have sharply competing claims from the Iraqi Kurds. At the same time, they are populations that will never be loyal or stable if they feel Iraq’s central government and oil wealth are dominated by Shiites and Iran at their expense. As a recent Crisis Group report on the Iraqi Kurds shows, the Kurds themselves are deeply divided, and present major problems in creating some kind of stable government and life in the north.
Mosul and Ninewa, not Ramadi and Anbar, are the strategic prize that is the key to Iraqi unity, and creating some form of federalism that gives Iraq’s Sunnis status and security. But, this fact reveals a gaping hole in U.S. strategy. No one in the Obama administration has ever explained how the Iraqi Army can both liberate and secure Mosul and Ninewa if the civil war in Syria continues just across the border, and if ISIS or some other form of Sunni Jihadist movement remains active. There is no solution to Iraq without a solution to Syria, and sporadic bombing and training up to 15,000 volunteers over the next three years is scarcely going to do anything to provide such a solution.
And this brings us to a far broader problem in the Obama administration’s approach. As is the case with Afghanistan and earlier with Yemen, the administration has failed to provide any honest transparency about the impact of the limits to its present strategy, the train and assist mission, the real world course of the fighting, and the risks and cost benefits of the present form of U.S. military intervention. There have been no substantive plans, risk assessments, or progress reporting – just spin, positive claims and vacuous reports like that of the lead inspector general over the conflict, which totally failed to say anything meaningful about the progress of the war.
It is all too clear that the present U.S. air and train and assist campaigns are not enough. What is totally unclear is that administration has a viable strategy, that the risks of becoming involved in Iraq’s deep divisions and the Syrian civil war can be overcome, and that the administration is prepared to be honest in presenting the cost-benefits and risks to either the American people or the Congress.