Since it was taken over by Islamic State fighters last May, the Iraqi city of Ramadi has been a highly-charged symbol of unsuccessful United States involvement in the country. Not only is it the capital of Iraq’s largest province, but more than 1,000 American troops also died fighting Al Qaeda in the area between 2004 and 2007.
Now Ramadi has fallen once again – this time to Iraqi government forces. The operation was the first test of the newly US-retrained Iraqi forces, and it is being cautiously hailed as a victory, though about 30 percent of the city is not yet under government control.
Even so, the Pentagon has learned valuable lessons from Ramadi that could affect the course of the military campaign going forward. Commanders are already planning to retake Mosul – a far larger, more strategic city now held by Islamic State.
The Ramadi campaign has hammered home the point that patience can pay off, that Iraq’s Sunnis and Shiites can work together on at least a limited basis, and that American military assistance is still very much needed for the time being.
On first glance, the Ramadi operation might appear to be a surprisingly modest success.
Much of the city was destroyed in a battle that lasted for nearly a year. And the campaign took seven months of planning, even though the offensive was “not exactly the D-Day landings,” noted Brookings Institution senior fellow Kenneth Pollack in an online piece for the think tank.
By the time Iraqi security forces crossed the river to enter southern Ramadi, there were roughly 250 to 350 Islamic State fighters left in the center of town, said Col. Steve Warren, spokesman for the US military command in Baghdad.
This against 10,000 Iraqi troops with armor and heavy artillery.
For American politicians eager to deliver victories against Islamic State to concerned citizens, that is hardly shock and awe.
But it’s a needed reminder of how to do things the right way, says Paul Scharre, a former Army officer and now a senior fellow at the Center for a New American Security.
The success of patience
“It’s not so much a lesson for the military, but for the American public in the offensive against ISIS, to let ability drive the time table,” he says. “There is a political cost for that patience, but it was definitely a success, a positive sign.”
At times, that impatience seemed to peek through, even in the Pentagon. Iraqi leaders still harbor “a great deal of anger, expressed at the top levels” about statements made by US officials, including Defense Secretary Ash Carter, that the Iraqi Army lacked the will to fight, says Michael Rubin, a former Pentagon official who is now a resident scholar at the American Enterprise Institute.
“They said this when the Iraqi Army had been fighting in Ramadi for six months before losing it” to Islamic State fighters, says Dr. Rubin, who spent November in Iraq speaking with top Iraqi officials. “They think some US officials should concentrate more on fighting, less on public affairs.”
In the end, the Ramadi operation has been “a very important milestone for the Iraqi government” and an argument for patience, says Patrick Martin, an analyst for the Institute for the Study of War.
“It’s a model that works,” Rubin adds.
Part of problems facing Iraqi operations is the need to overcome lingering dysfunctions in the Iraqi military, often deliberately put into place by former Prime Minister Nouri al-Maliki. “Some incompetent political hacks have been removed from senior Iraqi command positions, but others remain,” wrote Mr. Pollack of Brookings, noting that throughout the latest siege of Ramadi, “different units participating in the battle reported to different commanders – some of whom refused to cooperate with one another.”
Current Iraqi Prime Minister Haider al-Abadi “has taken a much more moderate approach,” surrounding himself with US and British advisers, says Rubin of the American Enterprise Institute.
To hold the city, the US and Iraqi forces need the local Sunni tribesman, marginalized under Mr. Maliki, to defend their city.
Some US officials, including Sen. John McCain (R) of Arizona, have suggested that America turn up the intensity of the anti-Islamic State campaign by separately arming the Sunni tribesmen. GOP presidential candidate Marco Rubio has suggested the same.
But Rubin says this represents “a deaf ear for Iraqi politics.” It puts Prime Minister Abadi in a tough position and could help more-divisive Iraqi politicians like Maliki, bolstering claims that the US is disrespecting Iraqi sovereignty.
“We need to remember that if we’re helping Iraqis, our constituency is Iraqis, with the goal of defeating the Islamic State, not appearing on Fox News,” Rubin says. “A military strategy, to be successful, has to coincide with a successful political strategy.”
While visiting Iraq, Rubin witnessed a number of Sunni tribal leaders from the Ramadi region staying in the prime minister’s guest house. They had flown in to discuss post-Ramadi governance. This is a good sign, Rubin says.
It is a good sign, too, that the Sunni tribesman took part in operations in Ramadi. “That’s the most meaningful thing in this operation, that there were Sunni fighters on the ground, on the side of the Iraqi government, taking part in the offensive,” says Mr. Scharre of the Center for a New American Security. “That’s key to taking this.”
There are currently some 8,000 Sunni tribal fighters enrolled in a US training program, 5,000 of whom have actually been trained.
The plan is to train them on bases and then “move them to the front line,” where they will serve for one to two weeks, Colonel Warren said. “They then come off the front lines, return back to the training site, to finalize their training, to figure out what they learned while they were on the front lines.”
Though the Sunni tribesman “were not, frankly, a significant player in the seizure of Ramadi,” Warren said, they will “be significant players in the stabilization and the holding of Ramadi.”
How successful the Sunni training program is will depend in large part on the ability to keep Shiite militias from oppressing the minority Sunnis.
Both US and Sunni officials demanded that Shiite militias be kept out of the recent Ramadi operations, and this happened. “It helps to hammer home the point that the ISF can retake territory without Iranian proxy militias,” says Mr. Martin of the Institute for the Study of War.
For now, US military aid remains a vital part of that equation. One Iraqi officer was quoted last week as saying that 80 percent of the success in Ramadi was due to American airstrikes.
“I think that is a fair assessment,” Warren said in a press briefing.
As Iraqi and US officials eye Mosul, Iraq’s second-largest city, the prospect is even more daunting.
“Mosul is different than Ramadi. It’s a big, big, big city and it is going to take a lot of effort. It’s going to take more training. It’s going to take more equipment,” Warren said. “And it’s going to take more patience.”