I remember walking down the ruined streets of Ramadi in the spring of 2007. The vista resembled pictures of Berlin in 1945: ruined buildings everywhere, water bubbling in the streets from water mains damaged by too many explosions. But what was most remarkable was not the evidence of violence but, rather, the fact that no insurgents were shooting at my military escorts or me.
“A few weeks ago you couldn’t drive down this street without being attacked. When I went down this street in February, I was hit three times with small-arms fire and IEDs,” Army Colonel John W. Charlton told me as we drove into town in his up-armored Humvee. But now Ramadi was eerily quiet; by the time I visited in April, not a single American soldier had been killed in Ramadi for weeks. Everywhere there were Joint Security Stations and Observation Posts where American and Iraqi security forces worked side by side to keep the peace.
Ramadi was really where the Anbar Awakening began—the movement, started by Colonel Sean MacFarland in Ramadi in 2006, to mobilize Sunni tribes against AQI. After having lost hundreds of American soldiers in Ramadi and its environs since 2003, US efforts finally appeared to have paid off. AQI had been routed of the capital of its self-proclaimed caliphate, and would soon be routed out of the rest of the Sunni Triangle. Victory was in sight.
It is all the more heartbreaking, therefore, to read now that the Islamic State—AQI’s successor organization—has seized the government center in Ramadi. Islamic State extremists detonated a series of suicide car bombs on Thursday to punch their way through fortifications protecting the government headquarters. Reports were that, after the headquarters fell, black-clad fanatics were going to door-to-door, executing tribal fighters who opposed their onslaught. Government security forces and many civilians were fleeing in panic. As Michael Auslin of the American Enterprise Institute points out, it’s as if the Marines, having taken Iwo Jima, had abandoned it and the Japanese had lowered the stars and stripes on Mount Suribachi.
Just a month ago, when the ISIS offensive against Ramadi began in earnest, Gen. Martin Dempsey, chairman of the Joint Chiefs of Staff, tried to reassure the world that it was no big deal. Ramadi, he claimed, “is not symbolic in any way…. I would much rather that Ramadi not fall, but it won’t be the end of a campaign should it fall.”
We can only watch and wait to hear what spin General Dempsey—who has increasingly defined his role as telling the president what he wants to hear, not what he needs to hear—will put on this latest catastrophe. It is, in fact, unspinnable. The fall of Ramadi is a sign of the abysmal failure of the misnamed Operation Inherent Resolve launched by President Obama in August 2014 to “degrade” and ultimately to “destroy” ISIS. Operation Uncertain Resolve is more like it.
There is no doubt that US bombing has succeeded in slightly degrading ISIS—Central Command helpfully puts out a long laundry list of all the buildings and vehicles its aircraft have blown up. But there is scant sign that ISIS is on the path to destruction. True, its offensive toward Baghdad has been blunted and it lost control of Tikrit. But the fact that the assault on Tikrit was led by Shiite militiamen under the effective control of Gen. Qassem Suleimani, commander of Iran’s Quds Force, indicates the self-defeating nature of this offensive. Sunnis will never turn on ISIS, as they turned on AQI in 2007, if by doing so they will open themselves to domination by Shiite militias.
A reminder of what that would mean was delivered earlier this week in Adhamiyah, a predominantly Sunni neighborhood of Baghdad. Shiite mobs, with Shiite militiamen allegedly in the lead, rampaged through the area on a pogrom. As terrified Sunni families cowered in their homes, a number of homes were burnt and at least four people were killed. The security forces of a Shiite-dominated government were nowhere to be seen.
“Leading from behind” is a bad enough strategy when America’s allies take the lead. It is an utterly ruinous strategy when America’s enemies take the lead. But that’s what is now happening in Iraq.
Obama has sent fewer than 3,000 trainers and they are confined to base and prohibited from going out and directly recruiting, training, and arming Sunni tribesmen. Nor, of course, are they allowed to personally call in air strikes from the frontlines; they have to depend on Iranian-dominated Iraqi security forces and aerial imagery to tell them what to bomb. US aid flows through the government of Baghdad, which, despite a change of prime ministers, remains for the most part dominated by Iran and its proxies. Instead of trying to rebuild the Iraqi army, shattered by the fall of Mosul nearly a year ago, the Baghdad regime is encouraging the recruitment of Shiites into sectarian militias closely aligned with Iran. In the guise of fighting ISIS, Iran is taking over most of Iraq.
The fight against ISIS is in even worse shape in Syria where there is no credible ground force—none—that can challenge Islamic State, which is why its domains have actually expanded since US bombing began last August. The US is only now training a company—i.e., roughly one hundred men—from the Free Syrian Army in the hope that somehow they will be able to defeat Islamic State’s army, which is estimated to number more than 20,000. That kind of thing happens in action flicks like “The Expendables” or “The Dirty Dozen,” not in real life.
Far from being on a path to defeat, ISIS appears stronger than ever notwithstanding the anemic American assault. And yet all last week presidential candidates have been forced to opine on a historic question—whether or not they would have authorized the invasion of Iraq given all that we now know. The real debate we should be having is not what we should have done in 2003 but what we should do now, today, to defeat ISIS and Iran—the twin forces, mirror images of one another — that are ripping the Middle East asunder. All of the candidates, including the silent Hillary Clinton, need to tell us what they would do.
And President Obama, who remains commander in chief, needs to go on television and explain to the American people where the war effort stands and what if anything he is going to do differently. If the answer is “things are going fine” and “we’re not going to do anything differently,” he will be repeating the very mistake that President George W. Bush made from 2003 to 2007 when he was lulled by over-optimistic reports from PowerPoint-happy military commanders. A losing war effort only began to reverse itself in places such as Ramadi once Bush acknowledged that we were on the edge of the abyss.
Today we are fast falling into an ever worse abyss—and it is one to which, by all indications, President Obama and his senior military commanders and civilian aides are utterly blind. Perhaps we should be talking about that rather than about what happened 12 years ago.