Herbert London: The Debacle In Ambar Province
The Islamic State dealt a crushing blow to the Iraqi army in Iraq’s largest province (Ambar), including the city of Ramadi – once home to nearly half a million people. What this victory revealed is the fragility of the Iraqi army, despite vigorous U.S. efforts to train it.
The deterioration in Ramadi was so rapid, Prime Minister Haidar al-Abadi was left flat-footed. He immediately called in the Shiite paramilitary force to recapture lost territory, but altering the situation on the ground seems fruitless.
President Obama – in his what me, worry stance – indicated this setback will not change the tempo of U.S. operations, i.e. large scale response by American troops is unlikely. Nonetheless, the White House signaled last month that it is coordinating a plan to reclaim Mosul, Iraqi second largest city. Certainly that plan would have to be reevaluated on the basis of current events.
So complete was the Islamic State victory that Iraqi police and security forces were ordered to withdraw completely in order to prevent massive casualties. Naseer Nori, head of the defense ministry’s media office, suggested that deeper U.S. involvement is the only way to save Iraqi sovereignty. At the moment, there are 3,040 U.S. personnel in Iraq.
Colonel Steve Warren, speaking in behalf of the Pentagon and obviously the present administration, said, “ISIL seems to have the advantage. They will use this for their own propaganda purposes, but it doesn’t give them a significant tactical advantage.” Yet most of the support for ISIL terrorists comes through Ambar.
This overwhelming defeat put Mr. Abadi in a ticklish position: He could have either called the Shia militia forces that were critical to stability elsewhere in the country or he could have reinforced Ramadi with regular forces. He chose to do the former which may undermine his hold on significant parts of the country and even control of the government.
What this situation reveals is that despite the White House assertion that ISIL is being pushed back and the situation is improving incrementally, there is scant evidence to back up the claims. Airstrikes targeting extremist positions have been ineffective, in large part because there are relatively few sorties and, in most instances, ISIL forces are notified when U.S. plans are about to take off.
U.S. Special Forces have engaged in successful raids such as the one that killed Abu Sayyef, Islamic State’s finance leader. But as talented as our forces have proven to be, they are hampered by constrained rules of engagement and by fighting against an army of more than 100,000.
While most field officers contend a dramatic increase in Special Forces is the only way to win, Mr. Obama is reluctant to get “bogged down” in another Middle East war, to use the vernacular of the president’s spokesmen. There is the hope that with the president’s accommodative position on Iran’s nuclear weapons program, Iran will land major support to the Iraqi cause thereby stabilizing the region.
Of course an Iran more deeply involved in Iraq than is presently the case, also means Iraq will be converted into a full blown pawn in the Shia empire. Sometimes it is best to not get what you wish for. But there are very few options if President Obama retains his recalcitrant position. There is also little doubt that Iraqi officials wish openly for real U.S. engagement in their dissembling nation.
Iraq may turn out to be a troubling example of what happens to hundreds of thousands of victims slaughtered by terrorists when the U.S. turns its back on a nation that was once an ally. Abraham Lincoln once said, “If destruction be our lot we must be its author and finisher.” Lincoln could not have imagined a present situation where we are neither author nor finisher, but rather observer from the sidelines.
Herbert London is President of the London Center for Policy Research, a senior fellow at the Manhattan Institute and author of the book The Transformational Decade (University Press of America). You can read all of Herb London’s commentaries at www.londoncenter.org
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