“The strongest of all warriors are these two - Time and Patience.” - Leo Tolstoy, War and Peace
The campaign to defeat the so-called "Islamic State" (also known as ISIS or ISIL) has come under increased scrutiny in the wake of recent ISIS inspired attacks in Paris and California. Politicians (and presidential candidates especially) have been particularly critical of the U.S.-led effort, describing it as slow and ineffective. However, recent gains by the Iraqi army against ISIS-held positions are beginning to show the strengths of this initiative. Just this week, the Iraqi army succeeded in retaking the strategic (and symbolically important) city of Ramadi from ISIS fighters. This week, we re-evaluate the ISIS strategy and take a look at the battles still to come in this brutal war.
So what is the current strategy being employed by the American-led coalition and the Iraqi government? Since the fall of Mosul in the summer of 2014 (which involved the embarrassing retreat of the Iraqi military forces), the United States has worked closely with the Iraqi government to rebuild and retrain its military forces. This is drastically different from the effort to train moderate Syrian rebel forces in Syria (which has largely failed to produce an effective fighting force). The Iraqi army has begun to succeed in its ground campaign against ISIS, while American (and allied) forces have bombed targets and provided substantial intelligence support. The United States is also waging a similar strategy with the Kurdish forces in northern Iraq (who are all but independent from the central Iraqi government). Though not directly working together, these forces are largely focusing on the fight against ISIS and rather than on their own personal political grievances.
The liberation of Ramadi marks a significant milestone in the fight. It is also part of a series of victories in recent months. The Iraqi army has retaken nearly half of ISIS held territory and liberated cities like Tikrit, Kobani, and many others throughout Iraq. Ramadi itself is important in part because of it's position near Iraq's capital Baghdad, and the ISIS-held stronghold of Falljuah. Just as important is the political significance of Ramadi as the capital of Iraq's Sunni Anbar province. Winning the support of the Sunni population is key to eliminating ISIS and creating a stable Iraq. The Iraqi army, who all but abandoned the fight a year ago, is now behaving like a capable and disciplined military force. In all, ISIS appears to be on the losing side of this fight.
But the war is far from over. Taking Ramadi is one thing, holding this territory and bringing the fight to other besieged cities is another matter. ISIS has dug into its positions in Fallujah and Mosul. Mosul, the administrative "capital" of the Islamic State houses a population of over two million people (many of whom actually support ISIS). ISIS left a provisional force behind to defend Ramadi (enough to slow their advance, plant explosives, and probably launch an insurgency), but they still maintain an estimated fighting force of several thousand. The government will also have to provide an enticing political alternative to ISIS control in order to have any chance of preventing ISIS from returning. Maintaining the peace in a region of intense sectarian differences is problematic. The ability to hold Ramadi is key, and doing this without upsetting the Sunnis will be critically important. Finally, ISIS still holds significant territory (and the city of Raqqa) in Syria. Tackling that issue poses an entirely different set of problems.
Though many have criticized the Obama administration for its strategy, few have offered meaningful solutions or drastically different policies. One of the most extreme alternatives is that the United States should recommit its regular military forces into a ground battle against ISIS. This strategy, though bold and emotionally appealing, would drastically complicate the long-term prospects for a stable Iraq. The American military would need to regain the trust of both the Sunni tribes (who felt betrayed by the American backed Shia government) and the Shia (who criticize the United States for not showing enough support). This is to say nothing of the fact that the Iraqi government has completely rejected the idea of a full American invasion (making the effort illegal in the eyes of international law). As stated before in this blog, we often overemphasize the ability of the American military to complete all of its objectives. Though militarily crushing ISIS in Mosul would certainly be achieved, a complete re-invasion would completely eliminate the fragile alliances being forced among moderate forces in Iraq. In short, we could win the battle, but would almost certainly lose the war.
But we shouldn't make this all about us. The real heroes of this fight are the Iraqi and Kurdish forces who are fighting and dying to retake their homelands. So far, the Iraqi military estimates that it has lost over 6,000 fighters in the war against ISIS, while the Kurds report at least 1,300 casualties in their battle against ISIS in northern Iraq. Though allied airstrikes and intelligence have proven to be very helpful, the bulk of the sacrifice is being made by Iraqis, for Iraqis. With any luck, this war can help to bring Iraq's moderate elements together against a force which represents the worst of Iraq's problems. The sacrifices made and alliances formed during this conflict have a much better chance of producing lasting peace than an American-imposed government.
In all, progress is slow, but it is still progress. We can't let a couple of desperate attacks against in recent months trick us into making a big strategic mistake. There is certainly room for improvement in this fight, and suggestions to deploy small forces in limited roles aren't completely ridiculous, but let's not pretend that America's allies are still losing this war. ISIS does not pose an existential threat to the country or to Americans, but it does to the Iraqis and their land. Ultimately, this is their fight, not ours.
TL;DR: The Iraqi military (yes that's a real thing) is showing strong signs of improvement in the fight against ISIS. America needs to be patient and stay the course.