Iraq after the fall of Ramadi: How to avoid another unraveling of Iraq

The fall of Ramadi was an important setback for Iraq and the United States, but it does not have to be a catastrophe. Hopefully, it will prove to be a wake-up call for Baghdad and Washington, both of whom have become complacent in their approach to the civil war there.

A Step Back

I think it important to start by putting the fall of Ramadi in its proper perspective. Da’ish forces have been battling for Ramadi since December 2013, so while the denouement may have come somewhat suddenly and unexpectedly, this is not a new front in the war and it ultimately took Da’ish a very long time to take the city. Although Iraqi Security Forces (ISF) did eventually retreat from the town and abandoned at least some heavy weapons doing so, most reports indicate they fell back to defensive positions outside the town. They did not simply drop their guns and run pell-mell, as many did in June 2014.

Perhaps of greatest importance, it is highly unlikely that the fall of Ramadi will lead to massive additional gains by Da’ish as happened in June 2014. The city of Baghdad is not in any danger of falling to Da’ish. It is well-defended by tens of thousands of committed Shi’a militiamen and the most seasoned formations in the Iraqi army. Habbaniyah (the town lying between Ramadi and Fallujah) is certainly in danger—and is already under attack by Da’ish. However, it seems unlikely that Da’ish will be able to use Ramadi as a springboard for much more than that. 

Part of the shock that many appear to have suffered from this defeat seems driven by the sense that the fall of Tikrit in April was a turning point in the war and that from there on out there would be nothing but Iraqi-Coalition victories leading to the complete liberation of Iraq. We should not confuse the current campaign in Iraq with wars like World War II and the Gulf War where just such a reversal of tide occurred. Simply put, the United States has not committed anything like the resources it committed to those two wars, so there is no reason to expect that this conflict will follow that pattern. The United States has devoted far, far fewer resources to the waging of this war (and our many allies have very limited capabilities). Consequently, it was always likely to be much more of a tug-of-war, with gains interrupted by losses. The trick is to ensure that we are taking two steps forward for every one step back, and not one step forward for every two steps back.

The Importance of the Loss of Ramadi

The reason that the Coalition defeat at Ramadi is important is because of its potential impact on the psychology of both sides. As I noted at the time, the liberation of Tikrit was of outsized importance because it reversed a dangerous narrative that held sway among many Iraqis, particularly Shi’a Arabs, after the fall of Mosul. This was the notion that the United States was a paper tiger, only Iran was Iraq’s true ally, only Iran had come to Baghdad’s assistance when Da’ish threatened in June, and only Iranian assistance was necessary to liberate Iraq from Da’ish. Tikrit could have reversed this narrative because the Iranian-backed Shi’a militias were unable to conquer the city themselves even after a bloody month of fighting. However, when Baghdad finally asked for American air support, Da’ish was driven out in less than a week. That impressed upon many Iraqis that Iranian support was not enough, and that only with American help could they liberate major Sunni towns. 

Quite obviously, the fall of Ramadi threatens to reverse that narrative once again. This time, it was the American-backed Iraqi army that was unable to hold a major Sunni town on its own, even with American air support. Especially if the town is retaken by a force that includes Iranian-backed Shi’a militias, Iran’s allies will be able to make the case that Tikrit was a fluke — a product of understandable teething pains as the Shi’a militias mounted their first assault on a Sunni city, never to be repeated. It can only call back into question the necessity, even the utility, of American support. And that can only bolster Tehran’s influence in Baghdad at the expense of Washington’s. (I write this as someone who bristles at the simplistic argument that the geo-politics of the Middle East are a giant chess match between America and Iran. Unfortunately, when it comes to political influence in Baghdad today, it is a zero-sum competition between us.) 

While we make much of the appeal of Da’ish’s religious zealotry, the evidence strongly indicates that many (perhaps most) of Da’ish recruits…are young men drawn to the power and glamour of Da’ish’s revolt against the traditional Middle Eastern power structure. Da’ish is kick ass.

In addition, Ramadi can only help Da’ish’s recruiting efforts. While we make much of the appeal of Da’ish’s religious zealotry, the evidence strongly indicates that many (perhaps most) of Da’ish recruits…are young men drawn to the power and glamour of Da’ish’s revolt against the traditional Middle Eastern power structure. Da’ish is kick ass. They have conquered a vast swath of Iraq and Syria and put a heavy hurt on the conventional militaries of the regimes. Far too many angry, frustrated, and sexually-repressed young Sunni Arab men sign up with Da’ish to become the dangerous rebels-with-a-cause of the Muslim world. The more victories that Da’ish wins, especially against American air power, the more that they burnish that image of power and edgy glamour that is so important to their recruiting efforts. The fall of Ramadi (and Palmyra in the same week) can only help swing the psychological momentum back to Da’ish.

The Lessons of Ramadi

Why did Ramadi fall to Da’ish? For a lot of reasons. The Obama administration has decided to focus on the tactical—bad weather, an unexpected failure of morale, inadequate antitank weapons—and by doing so feels justified in making only minor “tweaks” to its overarching course of action. Unfortunately, the loss of Ramadi is far more important than that.

For their part, many of the administration’s critics contend that the fall of Ramadi demonstrates that its strategy is wrong or that it has failed outright. They are demanding a fundamentally different approach to Iraq, although predictably critics on the Left are suggesting that the U.S. do less by shifting to containment, while those on the Right are suggesting that the U.S. do far more.

I see the problem differently. I think that the strategy the administration outlined in September 2014 was a reasonable one, and still a viable one albeit increasingly more difficult with each setback. I just don’t believe that it is being pursued or resourced properly. I see an administration that became so frightened in August-September 2014 that Da’ish was going to overrun Kurdistan—which would have been a major domestic political problem for the president’s policy of disengagement from Iraq—that it reversed course and agreed to a major new commitment to Iraq, and eventually Syria. According to various senior administration officials, at that time, the president consciously signed up for a massive air campaign, a large-scale program to rebuild and advise the Iraqi armed forces, a concomitant project to arm and train Sunni tribesmen, all of it tied together by a determined effort to forge a new power-sharing agreement to reconcile Iraq’s warring Sunni and Shi’a factions.

Unfortunately, that commitment only seems to have lasted a few months. By late 2014, the United States was already falling short. The Syria piece of the policy, both military and especially political, was going nowhere. In Iraq, the air campaign has been impressive, but hardly pervasive, let alone suffocating. The U.S. is now retraining only a handful of Iraqi army brigades—4-6 based on various accounts. The effort to train and arm Sunni fighters would be a joke were it not so lethally frustrating to the Sunnis themselves. The American advisory effort has been curtailed, kept to trainers and advisers at division level and above. No advisors accompanying Iraqi units in the field. No one to call in airstrikes. And there simply is no U.S.-led political effort to bring about national reconciliation, which is not surprising given how senior Administration officials privately deride it.

The effort to train and arm Sunni fighters would be a joke were it not so lethally frustrating to the Sunnis themselves.

On many of these issues, the administration has tended to blame the Iraqis for the problems: the Iraqis are incapable of negotiating a new political agreement, the Iraqi government refuses to arm and train the Sunnis, the Iraqis can’t or won’t send more battalions for training. While there is truth in all of these claims, they are all excuses for American inaction. Frequently, the United States has shied away from doing more even when the Iraqis have wanted us to do so. For instance, U.S. military officials report that Washington refuses to attach American advisors or forward air controllers to Iraqi field formations because the White House is insistent that not a single American be killed in this fight. (And that despite poll after poll after poll showing that the American people wants to do more, not less in Iraq and Syria, and favors the deployment of American ground troops in both places by as much as a 2-to-1 margin).

Another canard deployed by the administration is that the U.S. lacks the leverage to convince Iraqis to do what we want them to do. They say it as if they believe that influence is something that falls from the sky, rather than something that is created by a commitment of resources and political will. Whenever the United States has made a determined effort to press the Iraqi government to do something, Washington has gotten exactly the result it wanted. At Tikrit (and again at Ramadi), we insisted that no Shi’a militias participate, and the militias were kept out.

An even more important example is what happened in August 2014 when, faced with the Da’ish assault on Erbil, Washington demanded that Nuri al-Maliki step down as prime minister and a new prime minister be chosen to head a national unity government. The U.S. backed up these demands with resources: Washington committed air power and announced that it would provide training, advisors and military equipment; the president appointed a highly-respected special envoy, General John Allen; the U.S. made a full-court diplomatic press with multiple visits by Secretary of State Kerry and enlisted the help of our Arab and European allies. The outcome: the U.S. got exactly what it wanted. Maliki stepped down in favor of a national unity government led by Haidar al-Abadi—and it is worth noting that Abadi was a much better choice than most of the names then being considered. In short, when the United States made an effort to get what we wanted, we got it. The problem has been that since then, we simply haven’t made the same kind of effort. 

Heeding the Warning

There is no reason that the loss of Ramadi has to be the start of yet another unraveling of Iraq. It is a politically alarming but militarily modest setback. But it is a warning that should be heeded. A warning that Iraq is not on a glide path to peace and stability. While such a path exists, like everything in Iraq, it will be long and hard and will require considerable American help for the Iraqis to follow it to the finish. 

In Iraq, there simply is no substitute for American assistance…Either the U.S. does enough to pull the Iraqis through to peace and stability or the country will descend deeper into chaos and civil war.

In Iraq, there simply is no substitute for American assistance, political and military (Iranian assistance will only push the country deeper into civil war) but there is no equilibrium points other than war and peace. Either the U.S. does enough to pull the Iraqis through to peace and stability or the country will descend deeper into chaos and civil war. And doing enough does not necessarily require 160,000 ground troops or $25 billion in annual aid. Just doing what the administration promised and considered back in September 2014 would be a terrific start and may be all that is necessary. At the very least, that would mean: 

  • Making a determined and sustained effort to engineer a new national reconciliation and power-sharing arrangement among all of Iraq’s factions, as the United States did in 2007-2008. Unfortunately, much as we and they wish it to be otherwise, history has demonstrated that the Iraqis cannot do this without American help.
  • Providing additional American and other Western military personnel to expand the training of the Iraqi army, advise and accompany Iraqi formations down to at least battalion level in the field, and serve as forward observers to call in air-strikes and other forms of fire support for Iraqi units.
  • Expanding the program to arm and train Sunni tribesmen as paramilitary adjuncts to the Iraqi armed forces. The U.S. may have to insist on this over the objection of many Shi’a Iraqis. 
  • Expanding military and non-military assistance to Iraq and the Abadi government as leverage for American diplomats and to reinforce Prime Minister Abadi’s own stature. The Iraqis may or may not have a military need for more weapons (although the decision to expedite the delivery of anti-tank weapons suggests that they do), but there is no question that the Abadi government needs these weapons for political reasons, to push back on his rivals who claim that Iraq can get everything it needs from Iran. Likewise, non-military aid (especially to deal with Iraq’s urgent financial crisis) would highlight America’s ability to provide Iraq with help that Iran simply can’t. 

Even if we do all of this, there is no guarantee that Iraq will all work out okay. The time when we had good, easy answers for the problems of Iraq are long gone. All that we are left with is finding the least bad among what remains. But pursuing these shifts will give the United States and Iraq the best possible chance to achieve enduring peace and stability. Of greater importance still, there is no other course of action that can. Certainly not continuing the half-hearted current approach.