Too Many Iraqis, U.S. Isn’t Really Seeking to Defeat Islamic State.
American military response is criticized as too weak
By Yaroslav Trofimov
BAGHDAD: “I hold Americans responsible for destroying Anbar,” said former policeman Wassem Khaled, whose home was taken over by Islamic State, or ISIS, after the Iraqi army fled from Anbar’s provincial capital of Ramadi last month.
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Such conspiracy theories about America’s support for Islamic State are outlandish, no doubt. But they are so widespread that they now represent a political reality with real-world consequences—making it harder for the U.S. and allies to cobble together Iraqi forces that could regain the country’s Sunni heartland from Islamic State’s murderous rule one day.
Ryan Crocker, who served as American ambassador to Baghdad in 2007-2009 when the U.S. tamped down the insurgency in Anbar by wooing and arming local Sunni tribes, said he’s not surprised by Iraqis’ growing frustration.
“It is a pervasive view throughout Iraq and throughout the region that we are simply disengaged, that we are not prepared to exercise the kind of weight that might actually make a difference,” said Mr. Crocker, now dean of the Bush School of Government at Texas A&M University.
“And in the case of Iraq and Anbar, we are dealing with individuals, groups and tribes that remember a very different U.S. engagement. They know it, they lived it, and now the level of bitterness and mistrust is profound,” he said.
This spreading perception that the U.S. isn’t really interested in defeating Islamic State has undermined local resistance to the militant group in Anbar in recent months. It represents a major obstacle to recruiting local Sunni tribes—one of the U.S. strategies in the war—provincial leaders say.
“If you want to help someone, do it with strength to achieve results, not with drip-drip-drip as if you expect them to die anyway,” said Sabah Karhout, chairman of the Anbar provincial council. “The Americans are playing a very shy role—and if this American support had not been so shy, the Sunni tribes would not have gone over to the side of ISIS.”
U.S. officials deny that Washington somehow lacks commitment to routing Islamic State, which is also known in the region as Daesh.
“We could not be more clear in the purpose of the coalition campaign—the mission is to defeat Daesh,” said Brig. Gen. Thomas Weidley, chief of staff of the U.S.-led coalition task force against Islamic State. He said the U.S. bombing has had a “devastating” effect on the militant group, forcing fighters to move in small groups and civilian vehicles, and decimating its manpower.
That optimistic message, however, usually falls on deaf ears in Iraq—where the stubborn belief that the U.S. doesn’t really seek a victory against Islamic State has become one of the few things that still unites the country’s feuding Sunni and Shiite communities.
“We don’t have any trust in Americans anymore,” said Alia Nusseif, a prominent Shiite lawmaker from Baghdad. “We now think ISIS is being used as a tool by America to divide and weaken Iraq.”
Mowaffak Rubaie, Iraq’s national security adviser from 2004-2009 and another prominent Shiite lawmaker, added that—while he doesn’t personally subscribe to conspiracies—he understands why so many Iraqis believe in them.
“The Americans let down the people of Anbar,” Mr. Rubaie said. “But it’s not only the people of Anbar that are suspicious of the intentions of the Americans.”
After the fall of Ramadi, President Barack Obama sent 450 more U.S. troops to Iraq, largely to train Sunni fighters at a base in Anbar, adding to some 3,000 already in the country.
Mr Obama has listed his 2011 decision to withdraw all American troops from Iraq as one of his presidency’s main achievements, and he is loathe to put American forces in harm’s way again—especially as Iraq’s own army has shown little will to fight.
In line with that stance, U.S. forces sent back to Iraq after Islamic State’s rise last year aren’t allowed to advise Iraqi units on the front lines or to serve as forward spotters who provide targeting for the air campaign. Partially as a result, the U.S.-led bombing campaign in Iraq averaged 14 strikes per day since the operation began Aug. 8. The garrison in Ramadi had virtually no air support during last month’s Islamic State assault.
There were 953 strikes per day in the 1991 Desert Storm, and 641 strikes per day in the 2003 invasion of Iraq, according to the U.S. military.
U.S. military officials argue that the current operation against Islamic State can’t be compared to the wars of 1991 and 2003 because the U.S. isn’t fighting against a country with fixed installations and because precision weapons account for more than 99% of airstrikes today.
The U.S.-led coalition’s spokesman, Col. Wayne Marotto, said the current air campaign against Islamic State most closely resembles the 2004-2011 air operations against Iraqi insurgents, which averaged less than one strike a day.
Retired U.S. Air Force Lt. Gen. David Deptula, who oversaw the 1991 Desert Storm bombing campaign and headed air operations during the 2001 ouster of the Taliban regime in Afghanistan, disagreed.
“Islamic State is a state. It is not an insurgency. It has a leadership element, it has command and control, established lines of communications that can be halted and interdicted,” said Mr. Deptula, now dean of the Mitchell Institute of Aerospace Studies, a think-tank of the American Air Force Association. “Imagine just how crushing the similar kind of air operation would be if we increase its magnitude.”