The fall of Ramadi and Palmyra to the Islamic State (ISIL) has rekindled the debate in Washington over the viability of the Obama Administration’s strategy for defeating ISIL. What was already a behind-closed-doors criticism has mushroomed into a very public debate, following Defense Secretary Ashton Carter’s May 24 appearance on CNN, where he admonished the Iraqi government and Army for lacking the “will to fight.”
Critics of the Obama strategy have put forward several proposed revisions. One of these revisions called for an acceleration of the train and equip program, to include embedding US trainers into forward-based Iraqi combat units, to better assess unit commanders’ skills and refine the training. A more detailed version of the proposal, circulating at the Pentagon and National Security Council, would boost the number of American trainers in Iraq to 5,000, effectively integrating American troops as advisers into combat units of the Iraq Army.
Another, more pessimistic proposal, containing some of the same expanded train and equip plans, calls for a long-term containment of ISIL, until either the US becomes much more directly engaged in the military campaign, or the Iraqi Army goes through several more years of intense re-training.
President Obama, however, is not about to entertain such an expanded direct American combat role, with 18 months left in his presidency. His military advisers and National Security Council team have argued that the existing strategy is working, but will require more time for the Iraqi Army to be properly trained and equipped. The US strategy, from the outset, he was assured, was based on a 3-5 year timetable to hold Iraq together, rebuild the Iraqi Army, and contain ISIL through American air operations.
While the flaws in the Iraqi Army have proven to be real, the combat capabilities of the Islamic State, and their effective intelligence operations, identifying strengths and weaknesses of the Iraqi Army, as well as the Shia and Kurdish militias, has been proven to be more than the US bargained for.
Recent Pentagon assessments, delivered to President Obama, have concluded that the Iraq Army remains too isolated, which translates into poor operational intelligence and a lack of understanding of the political dynamics in the country. The interaction between the Iraq Army and the Sunni tribes is particularly lacking, and the assessment warned that so long as the Baghdad government is branded as a “Shia regime” there will be a lack of cooperation by the Sunni tribes.
In the aftermath of the fall of Ramadi, there are some tentative agreements for cooperation between some local Sunni tribes with Shia militias, which have been deployed into Anbar Province. The US has agreed to cooperate in this “pilot project” by carrying out selective bombings.
The Administration is not totally averse to modifications in the overall plan, while maintaining a public posture of maintaining a “steady course.” While agreeing to the need to deploy Shia militias into the Sunni dominated Anbar province, the Obama Administration is well aware of the danger of “long-term collateral damage” if Sunni versus Shia tensions are exacerbated or outright ethnic cleansing occurs. The Administration is attempting to rationalize this increased reliance, in the near-term, on the Shia militias, by claiming that they are under the control of the central government in Baghdad, a dubious claim at best.
The dramatic fall of Ramadi has had one clear consequence, back in Washington. The Obama Administration can no longer underplay or ignore, altogether, the defeats of the Iraqi forces at the hands of ISIL. The argument that “it doesn’t matter” is no longer credible.
The Obama Administration’s dilemma becomes even more evident when the situation across the border in Syria is taken into account. In Syria, the US lack of effective on-the-ground intelligence has stymied the targeted bombing campaign against ISIL; and the screen, train and equip program has so far produced 300 graduates. Saudi Arabia, Turkey and Qatar are the dominant backers of the Syrian opposition, and all three countries believe that the first priority is the removal of Bashar Assad from power—not the defeat of ISIL. While these issues were discussed at the recent Camp David summit, they were not resolved.
In Secretary of State John Kerry’s recent visits to Russia and China, he discussed the Iraq-Syria situation with Presidents Vladimir Putin and Xi Jinping. He told Putin that the US does not object to Russia providing more weapons to the Iraqis, but shared Washington’s frank assessment of the weaknesses of the Iraq Army. The fact that the Obama Administration is once again engaging with Moscow and Beijing in search for fresh options against ISIL is yet one more indication that, despite the “stay the course” rhetoric, the Obama Administration is now very much worried about the direction of events on the ground.