When I heard over the weekend that Defense Secretary Ash Carter had said that there was “no will to fight” ISIS, I was ready to applaud him for speaking an unfashionable truth, as his predecessor Bob Gates had done. But it seems that Carter was not indicting the Obama administration’s lack of will—he was talking about the Iraqis.
If Carter were intent on being honest—rather than attempting to blame the administration’s shortcomings on our allies—he would talk about the lack of will exposed in the administration’s inadequate response to the growing threat of ISIS. As the New York Times today notes: “The air campaign has averaged a combined total of about 15 strikes a day in Iraq and Syria. In contrast, the NATO air war against Libya in 2011 carried out about 50 strikes a day in its first two months. The campaign in Afghanistan in 2001 averaged 85 daily airstrikes, and the Iraq War in 2003 about 800 a day.”
The Times article also includes amazing quotes from an A-10 pilot who complains: “In most cases, unless a general officer can look at a video picture from a U.A.V., over a satellite link, I cannot get authority to engage. It’s not uncommon to wait several hours overhead a suspected target for someone to make a decision to engage or not.”
Senior military leaders justify such tight restrictions on the grounds that they want to avoid unnecessary civilian casualties. That is a real concern, but US aircraft would be able to drop a lot more bombs with a lot more precision if American forward-air-controllers were allowed to embed with Iraqi units on the front lines. That, however, is forbidden by this administration which has sent just 3,000 advisers to Iraq and imposed such tight restrictions on them that they are functionally forbidden from leaving their bases. Amazingly Canadian special operations forces operate with more freedom in Iraq than their American counterparts.
The administration’s commitment or lack thereof sends a loud and clear signal to Iraqis: the US has little willingness to fight ISIS. And that message in turn undermines the fighting spirit of the Iraqis.
Recall that the 2007 Anbar Awakening only happened once Iraqis saw that President Bush wasn’t going to cut and run; his surge catalyzed the Sunnis’ turn away from al-Qaeda in Iraq, predecessor of ISIS. As one tribal sheikh told the author Bing West, the Sunnis were willing to fight with the Americans once they concluded the Marines were the “strongest tribe.”
No one looking at Iraq today would conclude the Americans are the strongest force on the ground. Our commitment is dwarfed by that of ISIS and the Iranian-backed Shiite militias. Not surprisingly, then, Sunnis are not willing to stick their necks out to fight against ISIS when they know Americans don’t have their back and they are afraid that by vanquishing ISIS they will only subjugate themselves to sectarian Shiite domination.
The Shite militias, directed and armed by Iran, have, to be sure, shown more fighting spirit—but that is largely to keep ISIS and other Sunni groups out of the Shiite heartland. They have little desire to waste their resources conquering the Sunni heartland. In fact Iran is largely satisfied with ISIS continuing to hold domain over large parts of Iraq and Syria—this provides a convenient excuse for the Iranians to exert their domination over the Shiite/Alawite parts of those countries.
Most Iraqis, like most Middle Easterners (indeed most people around the world), will make an accommodation with whichever force appears to be strongest in their neighborhood rather than fight to the death against hopeless odds. Only if the US helps to tilt the odds against ISIS—and gives Sunnis a reasonable assurance that they will be able to defeat ISIS if they rise up, rather than be slaughtered as has happened so often in the past—will we see Iraqis showing more will to fight. But to achieve that will require President Obama to show a lot more will to fight than he has so far exhibited.