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After suffering a new debacle in Iraq where the Islamic State captured Ramadi, the capital of the Anbar Province, last week, the U.S. administration announced today it is “trying to fine-tune its strategy to oust Islamic State from Iraq.”
While on a trip to Asia, Defense Secretary Ash Carter told reporters he had ordered senior military officers at the Pentagon to come up with ideas to improve training and equipping, particularly of the Sunni tribes in Iraq.
Leaders of the Sunni tribes have complained that the Shiite-dominated government in Baghdad is dragging its heels on helping them.
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“I can’t describe to you what the possibilities are because folks are looking at them right now,” Carter said.
A Pentagon spokesman, Col. Steve Warren, said later that the focus is on fine-tuning the strategy, not rewriting it.
The Times of Israel reported that the U.S. military strategy in Iraq is built on airstrikes to degrade the Islamic State forces while rebuilding Iraqi security forces to eventually regain the vast swaths of territory in the north and west that were lost over the past 18 months. The current focus is on retaking Ramadi and other parts of the predominantly Sunni Anbar Province.
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“The Obama administration insists it will assist the Sunnis only through the Shiite-dominated central government in Baghdad because it wants to foster a multi-sectarian government, rather than directly arm and organize the ethnic tribes for combat. It was unclear whether Carter might recommend scrapping the indirect approach or adjust it in some way in the days ahead, but the tenor of his remarks and comments by other officials suggested that dramatic changes were unlikely,” TOI reported.
There are several problems with this approach.
First of all, the Sunni tribes don’t trust the U.S. or the Shiite-dominated central government in Baghdad.
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The same strategy of enlisting the Sunni tribes did succeed a decade ago when the Sunnis sided with the U.S. and were pivotal in turning the Iraq War around when it seemed headed for the abyss in 2006. Ultimately, the U.S.-Sunni coalition succeeded in wresting control of large swaths of western Iraq from Al-Qaeda.
But the situation has changed dramatically since then. The Sunni tribes are now mostly under ISIS control and they will always bet on the strong horse, which today is the Islamic State and not the United States. They know the United States has changed its policy in Iraq and elsewhere in the Middle East and do not trust the Obama administration to ensure their security.
Furthermore, the Sunnis still view the Shiite-dominated government in Bagdad as a puppet of Iran that will do little to protect them from Islamic State or to protect their interests in light of Iran’s aggressive drive for control in Iraq and for hegemony in the Middle East.
The second important issue is that the U.S. strategy of airstrikes alone to degrade Islamic State forces or to prevent the group from expanding the territory under its control has proven be a failure.
This year there were on average 15 airstrikes per day in Syria and Iraq in the war against Islamic State, compared to 800 daily airstrikes in Iraq in 2003. Senator John McCain, the chairman of the Senate Armed Services Committee, said last week only one in four air missions actually results in airstrikes in the current war.
Dave Deptula, a retired general who was the first deputy chief of staff for the Air Force for intelligence, surveillance, and reconnaissance, told Bloomberg’s Eli Lake that airmen flying sorties in Iraq “have to call back and ask, ‘mother may I’ before they can engage.”
“If the administration is only going to use airstrikes, they are going to have expand what constitutes a target,” Representative Devin Nunes, the chairman of the House Permanent Select Committee on Intelligence, told Lake. “I have been concerned for a long time that the limited number of targets would ultimately lead to the fall of many cities in Iraq. This didn’t come as any surprise to me that Ramadi fell.”
Deptula agreed. “The current rules of engagement are intentionally designed to restrict the effectiveness of air power to prevent potential collateral damage,” he told me. “That results in ISIS getting the freedom of action so they can commit genocide against civilians. Does this make any sense?”
The small number of effective coalition airstrikes on Islamic State targets has also been noted by Hezbollah leader Hassan Nasrallah.
He said last week that the number of sorties conducted by forces of the U.S.-led coalition’s air war against Islamic State in several months was far lower than those Israel carried out against Hezbollah in Lebanon and Hamas in Gaza in a much shorter time period. The Hezbollah leader called the U.S.-led air campaign against Islamic State a failure and said that Islamic State has become an existential threat to Hezbollah.
The Israeli Air Force bombed Hezbollah targets in Lebanon for 34 consecutive days in the summer of 2006 and flew 11,897 combat missions. IDF artillery units fired 170,000 shells into Lebanon, more than twice the number fired in the 1973 October War, yet it was not enough to defeat Hezbollah.
Lake also noticed another failure in the U.S. strategy to prevent ISIS from taking over more cities and territory:
The U.S. watched Islamic State fighters, vehicles and heavy equipment gather on the outskirts of Ramadi before the group retook the city in mid-May. But the U.S. did not order airstrikes against the convoys before the battle started. It left the fighting to Iraqi troops, who ultimately abandoned their positions.
U.S. intelligence and military officials told me recently, on the condition of anonymity, that the U.S. had significant intelligence about the pending Islamic State offensive in Ramadi. For the U.S. military, it was an open secret even at the time.
The Islamic State had been contesting territory in and around Ramadi for more than a year and had spoken of the importance of recapturing the city. The U.S. intelligence community had good warning that the Islamic State intended a new and bolder offensive on Ramadi because it was able to identify the convoys of heavy artillery, vehicle bombs and reinforcements through overhead imagery and eavesdropping on chatter from local Islamic State commanders. It surprised no one, one U.S. intelligence official told me.
So, if U.S. intelligence knew what was going on in Ramadi before and during the Islamic State assault, why did the military not respond in a sufficient way?
This question was answered today by an official in the Obama administration who works closely on military strategy.
He told The Daily Beast the following about the administration’s strategy against Islamic State in Iraq:
I think this is driven by a sense that this not our fight and so we are just going to try to contain it and have influence where we can. This is a long fight, and it will be up to the next administration to tackle.
In Iraq, meanwhile, Islamic State continues to commit atrocities.
Saed Mamuzini, a representative of the Kurdistan Democratic Party (KDP) office in Mosul, told Bas News that the ISIS terrorists burned an 80-year-old Iraqi Christian woman after she failed to obey the Sharia laws of the Islamic State.
The Daily Mail interviewed a 17-year-old Yazidi girl who was gang-raped by ISIS terrorists and was sold as a sex slave together with her ten-year-old sister. She was tortured and forced to recite verses of the Koran while being sexually molested. The girl told The Daily Mail she is now pregnant with the baby of an ISIS terrorist.