Commit to Victory

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President Barack Obama will meet with Iraqi Prime Minister Haider al-Abadi on Monday to discuss the state of the campaign against the Islamic State group. This summit presents an important opportunity for the U.S. and Iraqi leaders to put their efforts back onto a solid footing after severe setbacks in recent weeks. Doing so, however, requires that the administration abandon its resistance to investing the resources necessary to achieve its goal of defeating the Islamic State group.

The recent fall of Ramadi, the capital of Iraq's Anbar province, demonstrated that the administration's strategy is insufficient to roll back the extremists. While the Pentagon claims that the Islamic State group is losing ground, independent analysis shows that the extremist group is still expanding its territory. As military experts Kimberly and Frederick Kagan wrote in the Washington Post, Ramadi's fall means that Iraqi forces "will almost certainly not be able to recapture Mosul," the country's second largest city, before the end of the year.

It is deeply frustrating then that even after a protracted siege and clear signs that the Islamic State group was moving against Ramadi, the United States did not work to counter the insurgents' advance and prevent a serious defeat. Eli Lake of Bloomberg View reported that "the U.S. had significant intelligence about the pending Islamic State offensive in Ramadi. For the U.S. military, it was an open secret even at the time."

What's more, Ramadi's implications extend far beyond Iraq. As Seth Jones from the RAND Corporation noted in the Wall Street Journal on Friday, the Islamic State group "is now expanding in roughly a dozen countries across Africa, the Middle East and Asia by exploiting local grievances, doling out money and leveraging its battlefield successes," much like al-Qaida's network of affiliates. The extremist group's successes on the battlefield are a key component role in its expansion strategy, Jones added, and it has "attracted a coterie of followers in Africa, other countries in the Middle East, and Asia" by broadcasting its victories across social media

This moment should be an inflection point for the Obama administration. Yet Nancy Youssef of The Daily Beast reported that "there's still strong resistance within the Obama administration to making any serious changes to the current strategy for fighting ISIS – despite mounting skepticism from some in the Pentagon about the current U.S. approach to the war."

This mounting skepticism is shared by former military leaders, policymakers and foreign policy experts from both parties. Instead of continuing his campaign's minimalist approach, Obama should put into place the strategy and tools that his successor can use to prosecute the war against the Islamic State group to a successful conclusion. In specific, the United States should:

  • Deploy as many 20,000 troops to bolster the Iraqi Security Forces. Michele Flournoy, Obama's former undersecretary of defense for policy, recommended that U.S. trainers should be deployed to front-line Iraqi battalions to help bolster the Iraqis' will to fight, instead of the division-level headquarters to which they are presently assigned. Expanding the number of U.S. air controllers on the ground is also vital because, as the Washington Times reported, "Nearly 75 percent of U.S. bombing runs targeting [the Islamic State group] returned to base without firing any weapons in the first four months of 2015, holding their fire mainly because of a lack of ground intelligence."
  • Directly supply Sunni tribes and Iraqi Kurds. Kurdish militias are the "least armed and equipped" force in Iraq, the Wall Street Journal reported Thursday, and their commanders are specifically asking for anti-tank missiles with an effective range of 2,000 meters. The United States has so far provided only a limited number of missiles with a range of 300 meters, which makes them far less effective in combat. Supporting Iraq's Sunnis is vital, former Army Vice Chief of Staff General Jack Keane told lawmakers, because "The Sunni tribal force is almost nonexistent. Yet we cannot reclaim the Sunni territory that has been lost, particularly Anbar province and Mosul, and we cannot hold the territory after we have reclaimed it if we do not have a Sunni tribal force."
  • Ensure the replacement of the Assad regime with a responsible government. General Keane also told lawmakers that "Syria is ISIS's sanctuary. We cannot succeed in Iraq if ISIS is allowed to maintain that sanctuary in Syria." In order to accomplish this, the United States must commit to ending the regime of Syrian President Bashar Assad and replacing it with a government that reflects and responds to the will of the Syrian people.

    As a first step, the United States should neutralize Assad's air force, which he has used to relentlessly attack civilians, and create a "safe zone" along its borders with Turkey or Jordan. This will allow rebels a place to organize and train free from attack by the Syrian regime or Islamist forces, and could be easily established. Next, the United States should accelerate and expand its efforts to train and equip vetted members of the moderate opposition. Though the United States is gradually stepping up its initiative to train as many as 5,000 fighters per year, this number is probably insufficient.

In 2006, a bipartisan consensus had emerged in Washington that the U.S. should withdraw from Iraq as soon as possible. It was in this heated political environment that Obama sought the presidency, and it appears to have been deeply ingrained in his strategic thinking. It is ironic that a decade later, a new bipartisan consensus has emerged in Washington, this time recognizing that more must be done in Iraq to prevent the terrorist threat from expanding further and affecting Americans here at home. As Frederick Kagan told U.S. lawmakers last month, "We are at war, whether we like it or not, and the longer this president refuses to address it, the worse it's going to be when we become engaged. We need to be preparing for that now."

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The Foreign Policy Initiative seeks to promote an active U.S. foreign policy committed to robust support for democratic allies, human rights, a strong American military equipped to meet the challenges of the 21st century, and strengthening America’s global economic competitiveness.
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