Nearly one year after the ISIS hordes charged screaming over the Syrian border and sacked Mosul, they’ve repeated the feat in Ramadi – the capital of the restive Anbar province, and a city located just 70 miles from Baghdad. Simultaneously, ISIS forces launched an offensive to the north and captured the ancient Syrian city of Palmyra. In the face of this humiliation more than nine months after the start of renewed coalition bombing missions over Iraq, the White House dubiously continued to insist that everything was going according to plan. Except, there never was any plan.
“Look, there were several things that surprised us about ISIL,” outgoing Joint Chiefs of Staff Chairman Gen. Martin Dempsey told PBS reporter Martin Smith in a recent exit interview. “The degree to which they were able to form their own coalition, both inside of Syria — and inside of northwestern Iraq; the military capability that they exhibited — the collapse of the Iraq Security Forces. Yeah, in those initial days, there were a few surprises.”
The concession that the fall of Mosul was a source of astonishment for American military planners prompted former senior Iraq CIA officer John Maguire to demand Dempsey resign. While the Pentagon surely deserves some censure for the current state of affairs in the Middle East, it’s perhaps unwise to scapegoat Gen. Dempsey when it is the administration’s shortsightedness that merits criticism.
The New York Times revealed this week that the administration has steadfastly refused to shift tactics in response to ISIS’s shocking gains. The coalition air campaign over Iraq manages to conduct an average of 15 sorties per day; an embarrassingly small number of airstrikes compared to prior engagements that leaves the observer thinking that this war is being conducted in a perfunctory and halfhearted fashion. “The administration’s commitment or lack thereof sends a loud and clear signal to Iraqis: the US has little willingness to fight ISIS,” Max Boot noted. “And that message in turn undermines the fighting spirit of the Iraqis.”
By contrast, ISIS’s strategic approach to its war of conquest has been strikingly dynamic. “Islamic State commanders evaded surveillance and airstrikes to bring reinforcements to its front lines in western Iraq,” the Wall Street Journal reported. “The group displayed a high degree of operational security by silencing its social media and propaganda teams during the Ramadi surge.” The report added that the ISIS forces are converting captured American armored vehicles into “megabombs,” each with the destructive force equivalent to one of the devices used in the 1995 Oklahoma City bombing.
What’s more, ISIS forces operate with virtual impunity outside the frontlines. Beyond the occasional special forces operation — admittedly inspiring feats of derring-do by American servicemen that yield tangible benefits — ISIS operatives apparently have little to fear from U.S.-led coalition airpower.
“[T]he sorties flown so far have been minimal, and damage inflicted still less, even as ISIS held a parade in broad daylight in Rutba, Iraq, last week,” former CIA case officer Kevin Carroll revealed in a recent Journal op-ed outlining some of the tactical shifts the U.S. needs to contemplate. “That is the kind of target our aviators dream of. Rules of engagement need to be loosened, U.S. air controllers sent to the front to call in strikes, and more combat aircraft put into the fight.”
In a lamentably predictable display of political spinning from this administration when faced with adversity, the White House’s response to ISIS’s victories in Iraq and Syria has been utterly incoherent. In response to the fall of Ramadi, the president contended that he does not believe “we’re losing” the fight. Though dispiriting — “not losing” is a far cry from winning — this was perhaps an attempt by the president to raise ebbing morale. Days later, however, a variety of administration officials shifted blame for the collapse of the anti-ISIS effort back onto Iraqis which, some contended, lacked the will to resist ISIS’s advance.
Finally, after a considerable amount of blame shifting and reluctance to address suboptimal realities, the White House has conceded that it needs to consider a shift in tactics. On Wednesday, White House Communications Director Jennifer Psaki conceded that they do need to “adapt our strategy” to contend with the ISIS threat. It is, however, possible that this was merely Psaki veering wildly off message. She did, after all, note that that tactical shift would consist primarily of arming, training, and equipping Iraqi forces that she maintained in the next breath have neither the will nor the competence to successfully beat back ISIS. Still, this modest moment of self-critical awareness is worthy of praise, even more so if it presages some concrete policy adaptations from this administration.
In the meanwhile, ISIS has begun the familiar process of cementing its hold over its newly acquired territories by first executing the irreplaceable Iraqis who cooperated with the government in Baghdad. At least 500 were killed, and another 25,000 displaced in the immediate wake of the fall of Ramadi – the new tide of refugees all swarming on the increasingly beleaguered capital. And still the administration treats this grave security threat as though it were a domestic political issue that would disappear if only the White House could settle on the right messaging.