No Mr President, losing Ramadi is not a “tactical setback” – it is a catastrophe. Having also got by on my wits in graduate school, I always had a sense that I understood the elusive failings of Barack Obama far too well. When he obfuscates, he does so elegantly, often speaking in half-truths, illustrating his undoubted intellectual talents. The trick often works. But he is often wrong. And worse, he knows it.
This act has been on full display this past week, as he attempted to explain away the Iraq army’s devastating defeat to Islamic State (IS) fighters in Ramadi. Unruffled, the President smoothly commented that losing the provincial capital amounted to nothing more than a “tactical setback” – in essence, he was saying, “these things happen in war, and is nothing to get very worried about”. He managed to gracefully pivot away from the question, sounding (as he always does) highly plausible. But again, he is wrong, and he knows it.
First, on geographical merits alone, Ramadi is of much greater consequence than Obama is letting on. The city connects central Iraq to central Syria – a vital strategic highway, linking the two main sectors of IS’s caliphate.
Second, the far-flung Anbar province, home to a Sunni tribal majority within Shia-dominated Iraq, is the key region that must be won over by the central government in Iraq, if IS is ultimately to be defeated. It was precisely these local Sunni tribes – outraged by the depredations of IS’s predecessor al-Qaeda in Iraq (AQI) – that rose up in 2005-07 and, with the help of the brilliant general David Petraeus, throttled this earlier form of barbarism. Until Ramadi is re-captured, it is highly unlikely that wavering Sunni tribal chiefs will take on IS, with no signs of effective help from either Baghdad or Washington on the horizon.
Third, and most crucially, the fall of Ramadi says a great deal about the underlying political dysfunction that is quietly but ominously threatening the very survival of the Iraqi state. There was another quote in the papers this past week – far less scrutinised than the President’s graceful waffle, but far more on the mark as to what the fall of Ramadi actually means. An unnamed officer in the Iraqi army shrewdly noted, as he fled before the unstoppable IS fighters: “they are not winning because they are powerful; they are winning because we are weak”.
This amounts to another pitiful showing for the Iraqi regular army. Its troops fled, throwing down their unused American-made weapons (tanks, personnel carriers, even artillery), which were captured by the victorious IS fighters in droves. Bottom line: if this is the best the Iraqi army can do, then the country is irretrievably lost.
Here, Obama is entirely right: “if they are not willing to fight for the security of their country, we cannot do that for them”. For training up the Iraqi army and making it competent has been at the centrepiece of the new US strategy to combat IS in Iraq. Most recently, it has spent $1.9bn (£1.2bn) on military operations, hardware, and training in Iraq and Syria, seemingly to little effect.
If the army is hapless, the only strategic alternative – the far more competent Shia militias – poses a huge political risk for the central government of well-meaning prime minister Haidar al-Abadi. Inextricably tied to their Iranian paymasters and involved over the past decade in the brutalisation of the general Sunni population, the militias may be the military stop-gap for the immediate crisis. But they are part of the pivotal political problem, not part of the solution – if the Sunni minority is ever to be reconciled within the Iraqi state. And yet, Abadi, with his back to the wall and seeing no other short-term alternative, has just called on the Shia militias to engage IS on the outskirts of Ramadi.
This past week carries a doleful lesson: until the less sectarian Iraqi army is remotely competent and fit for purpose, there will be no political reconciliation between the three major ethno-religious political building blocks in Iraq – the majority Shia, the Sunnis, and the Kurds. If this continues, for all Obama’s pretty words, the Iraqi state will not be long for this world. And that, Mr President, is a big deal.