Hearing Wrap-Up: The Fall of Ramadi and the Absence of an Anti-ISIS Strategy

May 26, 2015

On May 21, the Senate Armed Services Committee convened a hearing on the significance of Ramadi’s occupation by the Islamic State of Iraq and Syria (ISIS). The witnesses who testified before the committee included Gen. Jack Keane, USA (ret.), Dr. Fred Kagan from the American Enterprise Institute, Col. Derek Harvey, USA (ret.), and Brian Katulis from the Center for American Progress. All four witnesses concluded that the fall of Ramadi was a major setback, contradicting the view of administration officials that it represented only a tactical reversal. Their testimony also clarified how setbacks on the battlefield reflect a broader failure by the United States government to define a viable strategy for confronting ISIS.

The Foreign Policy Initiative (FPI) believes that the following excerpts from the hearing will help to inform lawmakers and their staff as they consider how to revise American strategy and turn the tide of the war against ISIS.

The Situation on the Ground

“What happened in Ramadi, I think, should shock everybody.” – Brian Katulis

“It is not an accident that Ramadi fell over the weekend and Palmyra fell yesterday. It is not an accident that there were ISIS attacks in Baiji and at the refinery, that there was a prison break in Diyala, that there were threats against a pilgrimage in Baghdad, and then Ramadi was decisively attacked and taken. This was a coherent campaign plan and a very intelligent one, very well-executed. This is a serious threat.” – Dr. Fred Kagan

“The fall of Ramadi renews the sense that ISIS has momentum, which is important for rallying Sunni Arabs who may be on the fence in this fight, and also could aid with foreign fighter recruitment and some funding. Without an alternative, Sunni Arabs, tribes and the peoples in the region, without someone to protect them and lead them, are going to fall into the camp of the Islamic State.” – Col. Derek Harvey

“[ISIS] is showing that it can hold key terrain, fight hard and synchronize operations across space and time. And they respond with agility to secure tactical and operational advantages and overmatch as we saw in Ramadi. They are very effective, they are well-led. They are skilled and they have professional quality leadership and command and control.” – Col. Derek Harvey

“The most effective Shia militia forces are part of the Iranian military de facto. The Badr Corps, run by Hadi al-Amiri, reports to Qassem Sulemani, the commander of the Quds Force. Kata’ib Hezbollah, run by [Abu Mahdi al-]Muhandis, reports to Qassem Sulemani, commander of the Quds Force.” – Dr. Fred Kagan

Getting the Strategy Right

“We are not only failing, we are in fact losing this war. Moreover, I can say with certainty that this strategy will not defeat ISIS.” – Gen. Jack Keane

“We can fight ISIS and still contain Iran and seek to achieve an independent Iraq that is not a client of Tehran. In order to do that, we need to support Sunni Arab engagement and political inclusion. Without adequate force structure on the ground and commitment, you cannot get out there and engage with the Sunni Arabs. You can’t move around the battle space, and they won’t believe you are serious unless you put enough skin in the game. – Col. Derek Harvey

“I think that we need to have a total of 15,000 to 20,000 U.S. troops in Iraq in order to provide the necessary enablers, advisers and so forth. I think anything less than that is simply unserious.” – Dr. Fred Kagan

“The war in Iraq is largely close combat, urban warfare which demands the bombs be guided from our airplanes to the ground by people on the ground. Seventy-five percent of the sorties that we’re currently running with our attack aircraft come back without dropping bombs, mostly because they cannot acquire the target or properly identify the target. Forward air controllers fix that problem.” – Gen. Jack Keane

“We’re not looking at the right things, and the metrics and measures that are asserted by the military, the Pentagon are not really appropriate. The number of airstrikes is interesting, but irrelevant. What is the effect on the enemy and its capacity to fight?” – Col. Derek Harvey

“You cannot argue for a forceful strategy in Iraq and defend the sequester. Our armed forces have been seriously damaged by the sequester. It needs to be removed immediately. In fact, the armed forces budget needs to be increased significantly. 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.” – Dr. Fred Kagan


“We have no strategy to defeat ISIS in Syria. We have no ground force, which is the defeat mechanism…Syria is ISIS’s sanctuary. We cannot succeed in Iraq if ISIS is allowed to maintain that sanctuary in Syria. We need a strategy now to defeat ISIS in Syria.” – Gen. Jack Keane

“The gap between the Obama administration’s stated goals and what we’re actually doing to shape the environment on the ground is alarming. In my view, we need to accelerate that which the administration proposed and you funded — the training and equipping of third-way forces. – Brian Katulis

Training and Advising Iraqi Troops

“I think they do have the will to fight. But I think as General Keane pointed out and as we’ve seen repeatedly, the will to fight is one thing. Belief in your ability to succeed is another critical component…We can make it so that the Iraqis don’t have to worry about being overrun. That’s what we used to do. We are allowing them to be overrun in these circumstances and that erodes their will to fight significantly.” – Dr. Fred Kagan

“Advisers are only at brigade headquarters and above, currently. This is flawed. Adviser teams must be with the units that are fighting, at least at the battalion level, which is what we did in the past so successfully…That dimension exponentially increased the capability of the force because they could see what right looked like; they could see it was right there. A sergeant could see a U.S. sergeant performance, how he acted under stress; soldiers could see it. Other leaders could see their counterparts’ performance.” – Gen. Jack Keane

Engaging Iraqi Sunnis, Supporting Iraqi Kurds

“The Iraqi fight with ISIS is not dominated by foreign fighters. This is a homegrown fight and we have to keep that in mind.” – Col. Derek Harvey

“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.” – Gen. Jack Keane

“We certainly should help the Kurds defend Kurdistan. There’s no question about that, and we could be doing more than we are. But the Kurds cannot retake Arab Iraq on behalf of the Arabs.” – Dr. Fred Kagan

“As good as the Kurds are, they have also a limited interest in what they are willing to fight for inside Iraq. They certainly are not going to participate in reclaiming Anbar province and other parts of Iraq. Yes, we have to do what we should for the Kurds, but we also need to recognize that a lot more needs to be done with others as well.” – Gen. Jack Keane

Mission Statement

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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