- By Paul McLearyPaul McLeary is Foreign Policy’s senior reporter covering the U.S. Defense Department and national security issues. He joined the Washington office in 2015 after working for Defense News, where he was also on the Pentagon beat, and covered stories relating to Pentagon spending and the defense industry. While there, and in a previous incarnation as a New York-based reporter, Paul embedded with U.S. Army and Marine Corps units in Iraq and Afghanistan to cover ground combat operations, where he got inside a secretive drone program being run out of Bagram air base. He has also traveled with the U.S. Navy, covered NATO meetings in Europe with the chairman of the Joint Chiefs of Staff, and stalked major international arms shows in Paris and London.
Shiite militias and Iraqi government forces have started to move into place around the Islamic State-held city of Ramadi in preparation for a highly-publicized but hastily-planned push to wrest the city from the fighters who chased the Iraqi army out earlier this month.
U.S. military officials believe that the militants had been carefully planning the city’s conquest for weeks, slipping fighters into the city to isolate several government buildings, then surrounding and isolating the Iraqi forces trapped in those pockets. They also battered Iraqi positions with dozens of captured Iraqi armored vehicles and bulldozers packed with explosives — 10 of which have been reported to be as large as the 1995 Oklahoma City blast. With scores dead and wounded, the exhausted and demoralized Iraqi forces were ordered to pull back to defensive positions outside of the city. U.S. officials said that dozens of armored vehicles, along with tanks and artillery pieces, were abandoned by government forces.
Furious American policymakers blasted the Iraqis for effectively abandoning the city. The Iraqi army “was not driven out of Ramadi,” Chairman of the Joint Chiefs of Staff Gen. Martin Dempsey told reporters at a NATO summit in Brussels last week. “They drove out of Ramadi.” Defense Secretary Ashton Carter, meanwhile, used an interview Sunday to publicly accuse the Iraqis of lacking the “will to fight.” The White House quickly tried to walk the comments back, but there is little doubt Carter was speaking for many inside the Pentagon.
The Defense chief’s comments hinted at the biggest question hanging over both the Ramadi fight and the broader push against the Islamic State: can Baghdad win the war if its generals seem to be continually out-thought and out-maneuvered by their counterparts from the militant group?
As always, however, matters of victory and defeat in war are complicated. When it comes to Ramadi, the loss isn’t one that can simply be placed at the feet of bad leadership. The Iraqi Army and police there had been fighting almost continuously for 18 months with little support — and no relief — from the government in Baghdad, said Michael Knights, a fellow at the Washington Institute who specializes in Iraqi military issues. And for them there has been “no safe place, no real rest and recuperation, no escape from the battle.”
Still, there is also no question that the fight against the Islamic State has been hampered by sub-par Iraqi commanders who have continually failed to predict what their enemies were going to do or properly prepare for how to respond.
Last June two Iraqi divisions were routed near Mosul after their leaders abandoned their units in the face of a militant advance into the city, and the Iraqi army has been intermittently, and ineffectively, shelling the city of Fallujah for over a year in an attempt to dislodge the Islamic State’s hold over most of that city.
Numerous other Iraqi army outposts have been overrun during the past year in what has been a mixture of lack of support, weak leadership, and the failure to supply the positions with weapons and ammunition.
One reason for the imbalance is military skill and commitment to the fight: The Iraqi security forces that are taking the field are facing off against battle-hardened officers trained under Saddam Hussein who have spent the past 12 years moving in and out of Anbar province fighting both American and Shiite-led Iraqi forces.
Those former officers, in turn, have been given relative freedom to operate, with Islamic State leader Abu Bakr al-Baghdadi delegating command responsibility to his field commanders, said Ahmed Ali, a senior fellow at the Education for Peace in Iraq Center, a Washington-based nonprofit that develops programs to help Iraqi youth. Having grown up in the Sunni heartland of Anbar, these leaders understand the terrain very well, “and their level of intelligence collection is straight out of the Baath Party playbook. Very precise, very personal,” Ali said.
The Islamic State commanders, Ali said, also know the province’s tribes and social structures, helping the group identify which can be co-opted and which would need to be defeated militarily.
The Islamic State’s advantages on the battlefield represent a long-term unintended byproduct of the U.S. decision to disband the Iraqi army in 2003 after Saddam Hussein’s regime melted away. A generation of Sunni military expertise was essentially turned out onto the streets and eventually lost to the insurgency. The situation worsened in recent years when then-Prime Minister Nouri al-Maliki’s Shiite government purged even more experienced Sunni commanders from the security forces and promoted less capable Shiite officers and commanders.
For years, Maliki’s Shiite-led army and police acted as a sectarian militia, brutally suppressing Sunni leadership and taking orders directly from the prime minister, who appointed loyalists and consolidated all military decision-making in his own office. Many Sunnis, furious at their treatment, began coalescing around the tribal militias and Islamist groups that eventually evolved into the Islamic State.
Despite the obstacles, some veteran Sunni officers have managed to make their way back into the security forces, but there has been little chance of their ever rising to a position of power or influence, said retired U.S. Army Col. Steve Leonard, who was a senior advisor for military education at the U.S. Embassy in Baghdad in 2012.
“The greatest depth of experience and knowledge in terms of leadership still exists within the Sunni military ranks,” Leonard told FP. “Closing that gap will take time and a dedicated advisory effort. It’s literally a generational shift, something that can’t be achieved overnight.”
And those Sunni officers who have managed to attain positions of relative influence have often been the victims of harassment and distrust. Under Maliki, many Sunni officers were trailed by government agents suspicious of possible ties to the insurgency, and more than once, Leonard said, a Sunni officer said that he was unable to meet with American advisors because he was nervous about how it might appear to his Shiite handlers.
The relative lack of a U.S. presence in Baghdad after the December 2011 withdrawal of U.S. troops also created a gap in the training of senior military leaders that has been hard to overcome. Overall, the presence of U.S. military advisors has been small, with fewer than 200 assigned to the U.S. Embassy in Baghdad. During his time there, Leonard said that “there was so much that needed to be done in an advisory capacity,” that just was not possible given the skeleton crew of military advisors.
Leonard said that he saw a growing core of competent young Iraqi leaders commanding troops in the field, but stressed that at higher levels “much of the leadership suffers from sectarian and ethnic bias that I believe clouds their ability to lead effectively.”
That poor leadership was on vivid display in Ramadi, where the top Iraqi commander pulled out of the city after what U.S. officials are now describing as miscommunication between him, his superiors, and U.S. advisors in Iraq.
The commander made “what appears to be a unilateral decision to move to what he perceived to be a more defensible position” near Habbaniyah east of Ramadi, Dempsey said at the Brussels press conference.
Defense Department spokesman Col. Steve Warren — a consistent voice of criticism over Iraqi military leadership in Ramadi — added on Tuesday that “Iraqi security forces vastly outnumbered their enemy” in the city, “yet they chose to withdraw.”
The Iraqi army has recently showed some signs of life however. Within the last several days a land corridor has been punched open near the Baiji oil refinery, which will allow the battered troops inside to be reinforced after months of being surrounded by the Islamic State. Prime Minister Haider al-Abadi and leading Shiite politicians and militia leaders are also insisting that they will retake Ramadi in a matter of days. If the past is any indication, Abadi’s commanders may not be up to the fight.
Photo credit: AHMAD AL-RUBAYE/AFP/Getty Images