After Ramadi debacle, will US troops return to Iraq?
Baghdad - The black flags of the Islamic State (ISIS) are rippling over the rooftops of government buildings in Ramadi, the capital of Iraq’s largest province of Anbar. It is a grim reminder of a humiliating defeat of Iraqi Army troops and security forces after a stunning attack by ISIS jihadists on the heart of the sprawling city, about 110 kilometres west of Baghdad.
The Iraqi government says it is committed to liberating the strategic and symbolic city, launching a new campaign, with the support of the powerful Shia militias, to win back the city and more than half of Anbar from the grip of the militants of the extremist Sunni Islamist group.
The campaign, which is designed to rectify the faltering military strategy, is apparently blowing up in the faces of its architects as they realise that they need the support of a reluctant Sunni Arab tribal force in the Sunni-majority region.
The Iraqi Army’s defeat in Ramadi and ISIS dominance in Anbar come as a reminder of US success in dislodging al-Qaeda militants from Anbar in 2007 with the crucial help of Sunni militias known as the “Awakening” (Sahwa) movement. The Iraqi military failure in Anbar raised the uncomfortable question of whether the American military needs to return in substantial numbers.
In public, there is a strong feeling of disgust among Iraqis of the painful eight-year US-led occupation of their country. But in private, Iraqis do not hold their military in high esteem. Much of Iraq’s military collapsed last June when soldiers abandoned their posts as ISIS advanced and asserted control over several cities.
Recent comments from US Defense Secretary Ashton Carter ruffled feathers in Baghdad. “What apparently happened was that the Iraqi forces just showed no will to fight. They were not outnumbered but in fact they vastly outnumbered the opposing force and yet they failed to fight,” Carter told CNN.
The US presence in Iraq after the occupation formally ended in 2011 is confined to hundreds of advisers to the Iraqi government and soldiers deployed in the Green Zone and some undisclosed locations in Baghdad as well as in Erbil, the capital of the autonomous region of Kurdistan. They are a small force compared with the approximately 170,000 US troops stationed in the country during the occupation.
But even as US President Barack Obama has pledged that US operations will not involve American troops fighting “on foreign soil”, top Pentagon officials have suggested the US mission in Iraq will eventually expand. They gave no details on the nature of potential future tasks.
That indicates the US administration has become open to new possibilities, but the return of a massive American force to Iraq is highly unlikely, said Sajad Jiyad, research fellow at Al-Bayan Center for Studies and Planning think-tank in Baghdad.
There are not many incentives for an American return to Iraq as “the Iraqi government is against the return of occupation and President Obama himself is proud of a legacy of ending the occupation of Iraq and bringing troops back home,” Jiyad told The Arab Weekly.
“That was an election promise in 2008. He does not want to be equated with his predecessor (George W. Bush) by redeploying American troops once again to Iraq.”
The Bush administration approved the invasion of Iraq in 2003, suggesting a link between Saddam Hussein and al-Qaeda and claiming that the former dictator was hiding weapons of mass destruction (WMDs). Exhaustive and extensive research by UN and anti-terror experts neither found an al-Qaeda connection nor WMDs. The occupation did however lead to the emergence of a ruthless al-Qaeda branch in Iraq, which morphed into ISIS.
But will sending US ground troops again to Iraq make any difference? The answer is, ‘No’, Jiyad said.
“This is not a traditional war. Even at the time of the Sahwa movement, it was not a battle. What the Americans did was they paid Sunni tribal fighters in Anbar province and elsewhere to be on their side rather than al-Qaeda side. They provided them with salaries, equipment as if they were telling them, ‘Instead of fighting us, why don’t you fight al- Qaeda?’” said Jiyad.
“So it doesn’t matter how many troops you are going to deploy. It’s an asymmetrical battle as ISIS doesn’t have columns of tanks. Its militants are sneaky, resorting heavily to car bombs and suicide bombers.”
The centre of gravity in the fight against ISIS lies in the Sunni tribal heartland. Iraqi Prime Minister Haider al-Abadi needs to make fresh efforts to reunite his country as the Sunni Arab community feels alienated. Sunni tribal leaders complain that the central Shia-led government has not done enough to support their fight against ISIS as weapons deliveries and training have fallen short of what is needed.
The campaign to retake Anbar is critical in regaining momentum in the fight against ISIS. The United States and its allies have sought to counter that threat with air strikes in support of the government-led Iraqi forces, but not of Shia militias operating outside government control.
The current air strike ratio is not enough to destroy ISIS, said Jiyad, who said he is puzzled as to why the Obama administration is determined to only degrade and not wipe out the structure and leadership of the extremist group.
“Compared to the start of the 2003 war when the US-led coalition used to carry out about 800 air strikes per day, the US and its allies are carrying out some 50 sorties per day both in Iraq and Syria,” he said.
“ISIS is stronger in Syria and acting loosely, being capable of moving freely between Syria and Iraq. But it’s very important to highlight the fact that ISIS has proved capable of evading the US-led air strikes whether by using underground tunnels or moving among civilians. They can indeed manoeuvre around the air strikes,” he concluded.