Trudy Rubin: U.S. strategy, not Iraqi lack of will to blame

After the Islamic State captured the key Iraqi city of Ramadi last week, Defense Secretary Ashton Carter blamed the stunning loss on “a failure of the Iraqi forces to fight.” Allied air strikes were “effective,” he said, but the Iraqis lacked the will to confront the Islamic State.

That careless TV sound bite sums up why the administration’s efforts to degrade and defeat the Islamic State are stalling. You’d never know from Carter’s complaint that U.S. tactical and strategic errors, including an ineffective air campaign, contributed mightily to the debacle.

On a trip to Iraq last month, during which I spoke with tribal sheikhs and officials from Anbar province (in which Ramadi sits), these errors were painfully apparent.

Here are a couple of the most glaring reasons for the loss of Ramadi, which, if not addressed, will permit the Islamic State threat to grow.

First, and most obvious, is the U.S. failure to adequately help Sunni Iraqis who want to fight the Islamic State. Nearly all the Iraqi territory the jihadi group has seized lies in provinces such as Anbar and Nineveh, where the population is almost entirely Sunni Muslim. One big reason Ramadi fell was that U.S. policy has failed to help those Sunnis fight back.

Some Sunni tribal leaders at first welcomed the Islamic State as a preferable alternative to the previous Shiite sectarian prime minister, Nouri al-Maliki. But many Sunni tribal leaders and politicians opposed the Islamic State from the beginning, and others, chafing under the jihadis’ rule, now want to oust them.

Yet U.S. strategy has failed to help the Sunni fighters best placed to drive the jihadis out.

The administration recognizes that the Islamic State cannot be defeated without the buy-in of Sunni tribes. The Iraqi army cannot do it, and sending Iran-backed Shiite militias to do the job will only increase sectarian bloodshed.

As President Barack Obama told the Atlantic Monthly last week: “There’s no doubt that in the Sunni areas, we’re going to have to ramp up not just training, but also commitment, and we better get Sunni tribes more activated than they currently have been.”

Well, what is the president waiting for?

The U.S. program for helping Sunni fighters in Anbar province, many of whom fought alongside American troops against al-Qaida during the last decade, has been incoherent. U.S. military officers are struggling hard to make it work, but have not been given the tools.

Sunni tribal forces have no clear leadership or mission, in large part because the Iraqi government has refused to authorize a national guard system in which they could form provincial fighting units. The Obama administration has failed to use its leverage either to squeeze Baghdad to endorse a national guard or to provide the tribal fighters with the weapons they need. U.S. officers are stretched thin and have trained only a small number of tribesmen.

In addition, the tribes have been given only a limited supply of light weapons by the government to confront the Islamic State fighters in armored vehicles fielding heavy artillery and wielding truck bombs.

“The government left us by ourselves to fight ISIS,” I was told by Ahmed Sajer Jasim, a sheikh of the Malahma, who live between Ramadi and the Islamic State-controlled town of Fallujah. “We were the first to stand against ISIS, and we asked for help but nobody came,” he said, using the acronym commonly used to refer to the Islamic State.

“The government promised a lot,” said Sheikh Ziyad Mnajed al-Suleiman, who comes from Ramadi, “but it was all empty words. If the Americans assisted them, all the tribes would fight back.”

But effective American assistance would require embedding special-forces operatives with the Sunni tribes to help coordinate their fight. It would require providing them with intelligence and better weapons. It would also require the administration to lean on Baghdad to assure Sunnis they had a future inside Iraq.

So far there’s no sign that Obama is willing to invest the energy that is needed (and I don’t mean ground troops, but I do mean more resources and more attention). Without that White House focus, the Islamic State problem will grow worse.

The second most obvious flaw in the administration’s strategy concerns U.S. air strikes. One reason Ramadi fell was because U.S. strikes on the Islamic State came too late and couldn’t hit key targets, such as truck bombs that broke through Iraqi military defenses. Iraqis are bewildered that U.S. pilots can’t stop the Islamic State caravans of truck bombs traveling on open roads.

Talk about a sand-storm hampering the pilots is another excuse for inaction. The real problem: The administration has refused to permit U.S. advisers or forward air controllers to embed with Iraqi units, which means that the pilots lack sufficient ground intelligence and, as a result, U.S. air sorties are often ineffective. News reports say that 75 percent of U.S. air combat missions in Iraq and Syria return to base without firing a weapon or dropping a bomb.

I could go on listing the flaws in the U.S. strategy – such as the lack of any plan for Syria – but the biggest flaw lies elsewhere. It revolves around whether the White House is committed to fighting the jihadis in a way that will produce results.

To use Ash Carter’s term, it is a question of the “will to fight” the Islamic State. But it is not the Iraqis’ will. It is Obama’s that is in question, and the verdict is still out.

Trudy Rubin’s email is