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Losing in Iraq Again

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Pentagon spin can’t hide that the U.S. strategy is failing

No matter how much the Pentagon and White House downplay it, the fall of Ramadi to Islamic State on Sunday shows that President Obama’s strategy is failing. The question now is whether Mr. Obama has the political courage to change or watch Iraq descend into more chaos and perhaps a Sunni-Shiite civil war.

For now U.S. officials prefer the sunny days school of military analysis. “Regrettable but not uncommon in warfare,” says Gen. Martin Dempsey, Chairman of the Joint Chiefs of Staff. Secretary of State  John Kerry added that “I am absolutely confident in the days ahead that [Ramadi’s fall] will be reversed.” This recalls the generals who said in 2006 that Iraq was making progress even as hundreds turned up in the morgues each night.

Foundation for Defense of Democracies Senior Counselor John Hannah explains the significance of the fall of Ramadi.

In reality, the fall of Ramadi is a military humiliation and humanitarian disaster with large political consequences. The city is the provincial capital of Anbar province, Iraq’s Sunni heartland. U.S. forces waged a block-by-block battle to reclaim Ramadi from insurgents during the 2007 surge because it is crucial to the sectarian geography of Iraq. Winning there proved that the U.S. could prevail anywhere, and it provided the psychological momentum to swing the Sunnis to America’s side.

So much for that. The Obama Administration strategy has rested on a plan to arm Sunni tribesmen friendly to the government in Baghdad to fight ISIS. That’s a good idea in theory, since the Iraqi army has proved mostly ineffective against ISIS while Iraq’s Shiite militias answer to Iran and are brutal and unwelcome in Anbar.

But wars aren’t waged in theory, and the effort to arm and train the tribes has foundered on Shiite resistance in Baghdad and America’s lack of commitment and urgency. A serious training program  began only days ago and Mr. Obama refused to deploy U.S. combat troops to bolster vulnerable Iraqi positions. In Ramadi, ISIS took advantage of a sandstorm that prevented the U.S. from supporting the Iraqis with air strikes. But that only underscores the limitations of relying on air power alone.

The larger problem is that Mr. Obama wants to wage a de minimis campaign against an enemy with maximalist ambitions. The Administration often insists that Iraqis must defend their own country, which is true. But after making the ouster of then-Prime Minister Nouri al-Maliki a condition of U.S. support, the least the U.S. can do is provide meaningful support to his successor, Haider al-Abadi.

That hasn’t happened. “Until now our feeling is that the international support is not convincing,” Selim al-Jabouri, the speaker of Iraq’s parliament, told Reuters in January. Mr. Obama promised Mr. Abadi no new weapons when they met last month in Washington. The number of air sorties flown by the U.S. and its coalition partners—about 3,800 in all since September—averages about 14 a day. The U.S. flew some 47,000 sorties in the first month of Operation Iraqi Freedom in 2003.

The White House and its military commanders have also grossly underestimated the resilience of Islamic State. “The enemy is now in a defensive crouch and is unable to conduct major operations,” U.S. Centcom Commander Lloyd Austin told Congress in March, sounding like White House spokesman Josh Earnest.

U.S. attempts to stand up a dependable Sunni fighting force have been seriously damaged. Ramadi’s fall has humiliated Mr. Abadi and discredited his strategy of trusting the U.S.Mr. Maliki and his Iranian backers are angling to return to power—and unleash Shiite militias armed and trained by Iran. The danger is that on present trend the country will soon be divided into a Shiite east dominated by Iran and a Sunni west controlled by Islamic State.

All of this matters far beyond Iraq, or even the Middle East. ISIS is a global threat, attracting more than 22,000 foreign fighters, including 3,700 from the West. A recent recording from ISIS leader Abu-Bakr Baghdadi, released in English, Russian, Turkish, German and French, called on Muslims to “migrate to the Islamic State or fight in his land.” Nearly all of the “lone wolf” terrorists in the West—including the May 3 attack in Garland, Texas—were inspired by ISIS.

The best way to diminish Islamic’s State appeal is to drive it as quickly as possible from the territory it holds. For all of their ferocity, Islamic State’s irregulars are not the Wehrmacht. A U.S. combat force of 10,000 or so combined with a vigorous air campaign in support of Iraqi and Kurdish troops could drive them out of the cities and into Syria. But with each passing month that task becomes harder, and the costs higher, as ISIS digs in and our potential allies feel increasingly betrayed.

Mr. Obama now faces a decision not unlike the one  George W. Bush faced in his final two years: Stick with a failing policy, or change course and empower his generals to do what it takes to defeat Islamic State and give Iraq a fighting chance of independence from Iran.

Source: www.wsj.com