The fall of Ramadi has led to lots of recriminations in both Iraq and in the United States. Prime Minister Haider Abadi, the Iraqi Security Forces, and the Obama Administration have each been blamed for the loss. In Iraq, the role of the Hashd al-Shaabi has also been a major issue as they were in Anbar fighting the Islamic State, but not in Ramadi in part because the premier and the U.S. were reluctant to fully deploy them out of fear that they might cause a backlash amongst the locals. Back in Washington, there are growing criticisms of the White House’s Iraq policy. Many are questioning how effective it is, with some talking about the futility of aiding a failed state while others are calling for a major escalation including sending back ground forces. To help dissect this on going debate is Ahmed Ali. He is a Visiting Senior Fellow at Educating for Peace in Iraq (EPIC). He can be followed on Twitter @IraqShamel. These are Ali’s views and do not represent those of EPIC’s.
1. The Islamic State’s victory in Ramadi was a long time coming. They had been attacking the city and making steady progress since December 2013. Still, when the city finally fell Prime Minister Haider Abadi was blamed. Just a month before he announced that Anbar would be the next focus of the government’s forces and he went to the province to hand out guns to volunteers. Instead, IS seized the initiative. Who was attacking the premier and what were their main complaints?
Prime Minister Haidar al-Abadi was attacked by Iraqi Shi’a and Iraqi Sunni politicians in the aftermath of Ramadi’s fall. Those attacks, however, have to be put in context given the Iraq Abadi came to govern. He inherited a complex military and political environment. It is the worst hand any Iraqi Prime Minister has had to work with since 2003. His predecessor Nouri al-Maliki handed him over an Iraq that is without a strong military, ISIS in control of almost 40 % of the country, and a hostile political environment. Abadi has also had to contend with a financial crisis and no U.S. troops to shore up the country’s security. Still, he enjoyed a successful political and military start to his tenure. The fall of Ramadi is the first major security setback Abadi has to manage. For his opponents, it is an opportunity to score political points and to deflect blame. From the Iraqi Shi’a side, the critique centers on Abadi’s long-standing decision not to deploy Iraqi Shi’a components within Hashad al-Shaabi, or Popular Mobilization Units (PMUs) which had played a major in anti-ISIS operations in many parts of the country. For the Iraqi Sunnis, the fall of Ramadi provided them with the opportunity to renew their position that Abadi is distrustful of arming Iraqi Sunnis tribes. Even if the tribes are armed, they will still face an enemy in ISIS that is well-organized and well-armed militarily. All in all, Abadi is weakened by the fall of Ramadi. But his political fortunes are not in a free fall and he can rebuild them if he strengthened the Anbar tribes.
2. Elements of the Hashd al-Shaabi were fighting in parts of Anbar before the fall of Ramadi, and are now leading the charge to retake the city. There were concerns in both Baghdad and Washington about what kind of reactions they might cause amongst the Sunni locals. What kind of impact do you think they will have?
The upcoming Anbar operations are a make or break phase for the PMUs and their role in future anti-ISIS operations. The PMUs are now a fact of security and political affairs in Iraq. The PMUs are poised for the Ramadi operations after the Anbar government invited them. This local support provides legitimacy and illustrates that the PMUs’ military effectiveness is well-respected by the Anbari tribes. The PMUs achieved this status at a high human cost. Their behavior in the Ramadi campaign will be key to maintain this status. The Iraqi Shi’a formations of the PMUs will have to closely coordinate operations with the Iraqi Sunni tribes in Anbar. This cooperation will be a recipe of success and can inspire other local governments in predominantly Iraqi Sunni areas to invite PMUs in future operations. This particularly pertains to future Mosul operations. The PMUs should use the Ramadi operations to enhance the Iraqi Security Forces (ISF) not only militarily but through confidence-building actions. Some PMUs and their leaders have demonstrated a tendency to state that they are superior to the ISF and to also be critical of the Iraqi government. This description demoralizes the ISF and diminishes the public trust in the Iraqi government. Anti-ISIS operations will clearly be more successful if PMUs refrain from these statements.
3. There is an internal debate within the Shiite parties over who should be leading security operations in the country. On the one hand you have the prime minister who wants the Iraqi Security Forces to be in command versus elements of the Hashd who have demanded that they should be in control. There is an international element to this as well with the United States backing the ISF and Iran supporting its friends within the Hashd. How do you think that political struggle will play out?
This is certainly a question for the long-term and the dynamics highlighted in the question will likely continue. For now, there has to be an understating of the priority. The fact on the ground is that ISIS still has to be defeated. It will be a mistake to already write ISIS’ obituary. It is on defense overall but is still a major threat. The political atmosphere pre-Ramadi showed that many Iraqi leaders started to prioritize political ambitions while disregarding the military threat. Ramadi has woken them up.
4. The fall of Ramadi has had a big impact in Washington as well. There are widespread questions about the Obama administration’s Iraq policy, which is focused upon air strikes, training and rebuilding the Iraqi Security Forces, and has called for Baghdad to work with local Sunni groups. Can you break down how each one of those elements has worked out so far?
The fall of Ramadi woke Washington up as well. The United States has more influence in Iraq now than it did in 2010 with the presence of 50,000 American soldiers. It has to know how to utilize the influence. The airstrikes have been effective when the U.S. decided to use them with high volumes. Multiple Iraqi figures I interviewed in March told me that there could not be progress against ISIS without the airstrikes. Their only critique was that there were not enough airstrikes. This is partly due to the strict rules of engagements set by the U.S. in addition to the fact that ISIS adapted its military movement with the commencement of the air campaign. There certainly has to be partners on the ground to capitalize on the airstrikes. The pace of ISF and Iraqi Kurdish Peshmerga training and arming is necessary but clearly has been slow. For example, it is not clear why ISF units in Ramadi did not possess U.S.-provided anti-armor missiles to neutralize ISIS VBIEDs and SVBIEDs. The presence of those weapons would have resulted in a different battlefield dynamic.
5. There is a growing body of critics of the White House’s policy. Some like Senator John McCain are now calling for American troops to be sent back in to Iraq in a combat role. Others like Washington Institute for Near East Policy’s Michael Knights have called for increased air power and sending in Special Forces to advise Iraqi units out in the field, work as ground controllers for bombing runs, etc. What is your policy suggestion, and more importantly do you think President Obama is willing to make a larger commitment to Iraq or will he simply stay the course?
President Obama made an intellectual and ideological sacrifice by ordering the deployment of 3000 American soldiers to Iraq. His decisions since post-Mosul suggest that he has no redline for deploying more U.S. troops. Nonetheless, it will be difficult for him to consider deploying U.S. combat troops. Iraq is simply not his war. And there is enough manpower in Iraq. These anti-ISIS forces need robust U.S. air support aided by U.S. forward air controllers, U.S. weapons, and U.S. military planning. A large U.S. military footprint cannot take place quickly either. It will require building an intelligence infrastructure almost from scratch. Additionally, it will require reestablishing networks in a changing hyper-local social and political terrain. It is not easy to clear ISIS even with a large presence. The 2003-2011 U.S. military campaign in Iraq is the best evidence to show that fact. In Anbar, the U.S. military launched two expansive military operations to reclaim Fallujah from ISIS in 2004. Anbar was the second province in terms of U.S. military casualties. The United States lost 1,335 soldiers in the province out of 4,491 soldiers nationwide representing one third of U.S. military fatalities.
6. Finally, after Tikrit was taken there seemed to be widespread thinking in both Iraq and America that the tide had turned and that IS was going to be defeated sooner rather than later. That was shown in all the talk about taking Mosul this year. What do you see as the future of the war against the Islamic State?
This continues to be a long-term war with momentum changing continually. It is important not to consider Ramadi the defining episode of the anti-ISIS war. It has no similarities to the fall of Mosul. After the fall of Ramadi, ISIS did not waltz into other cities and the Iraqi military did not disintegrate. ISIS now seeks to consolidate in Anbar as it has done in Mosul. The campaign in Mosul is now delayed but pressure on ISIS has to be applied in Ninewa. In the north as well, ISIS likely prioritizes Kirkuk as a next campaign target. As the Iraqi government and anti-ISIS coalition gear up for Ramadi, they should continue to devote resources and assets to keep ISIS on the defense elsewhere in Iraq.