Politics & Policy

Mr. President, the Fall of Ramadi Is Much More than a ‘Setback’

Shia militia fighter in Anbar Province. (Mohammed Sawaf/AFP/Getty)
The Iraqi city was a key command and logistics hub whose takeover by ISIS threatens two vital strategic locations.

In war, our military leaders sometimes employ misdirection or outright deception to achieve tactical or strategic gains. Eisenhower’s deception of German commanders in 1944 regarding the Allied invasion of Normandy is one example among many.

And then there are times, like today, when our leaders aren’t deceiving anyone but themselves.

That’s the best way to understand why the Obama administration continues to assert that its strategy against Islamic State (ISIS) militants in Iraq is succeeding. Now that ISIS has taken control of Ramadi, the capital of al-Anbar province in western Iraq, that delusional argument grows less convincing by the day.

Administration officials, including the chairman of the Joint Chiefs of Staff and the president’s spokesman, have tried to minimize the May 17 fall of Ramadi as nothing more than a “setback.” But, having served in al-Anbar with the Marines, I recognize the loss of this key city for what it really is: a defeat of strategic consequence with potentially catastrophic implications for the future of Iraq.

RELATED: What to Expect from Iraq’s Attempt to Take Back Ramadi: Chaos 

Other writers have rightly pointed to the symbolic importance of Ramadi, where hundreds of U.S. troops were killed in a hard-fought battle to recapture the city from insurgent forces nearly a decade ago. But let’s set aside the symbolism and look at the hard facts about why Ramadi matters today.

First, Ramadi is a significant transit and communication center in western Iraq, leading to other parts of the country. Two major highways — “main supply routes” (MSRs), in military parlance — run through and just north of the city. By seizing Ramadi, ISIS has gained more control over these MSRs and can more easily move supplies and fighters throughout Anbar and the rest of the Sunni heartland. In addition, Ramadi was the location of several important command centers for the Iraqi army and police. When ISIS destroyed and captured these bases, it undoubtedly threw Iraqi forces into further disarray and allowed ISIS to capture more weaponry and other supplies.

RELATED: Obama’s ISIS Credibility Gap

Second, after finally seizing Ramadi, ISIS now has more resources and fighters that it can use to attack al-Asad air base, a former U.S. installation now held by the Iraqi army and some 300 U.S. Marine advisers. Al-Asad was already targeted in February by a sophisticated suicide bomber attack that fortunately failed. This key strategic site is now more vulnerable to attack than ever, while the Marines stationed there are operating under a narrow set of orders that limit their ability to defend themselves and conduct offensive operations.

The seizure of Ramadi also puts another strategic location in al-Anbar in more danger —  the Haditha dam. The dam is an extremely important hydroelectric plant along the Euphrates River that generates power not just for al-Anbar but for other parts of Iraq as well. Control of this dam would be a significant prize for ISIS, and they could conceivably disrupt power supplies to large portions of Iraq or, worse, blow up the dam and flood downriver cities like Baghdad, creating a humanitarian catastrophe of staggering proportions. This very scenario was a major concern for military planners during the invasion of Iraq, which is why the military tasked U.S. Army Rangers with the dangerous mission of seizing the dam in the early days of Operation Iraqi Freedom. As with the al-Asad airbase, the seizure of Ramadi gives ISIS more fighters and supplies to attack the dam.

RELATED: Iraq’s Decline into Chaos Dates Back to 2011, Not 2003

Instead of characterizing the fall of Ramadi as a “setback,” the Obama administration should recognize it as a serious sign that the current strategy of limited airstrikes and disengagement is failing — leading a country that just a few years ago was on the road to recovery to the edge of collapse. 

Can this situation be salvaged? Yes, but it will require a change in approach and thinking on the part of the Obama administration.

We need to hear straight talk from the Obama administration that makes clear that the president and his team grasp the stakes of what’s happening in Iraq.

First, we need to reengage more aggressively our Sunni tribal allies in western Iraq. Only they have the credibility with the Sunni population to counter ISIS’s rise in the region, but they need the arms and training to get the job done. While the Obama administration says it is preparing to offer more support to these tribes, it has not acted quickly enough, and many of our Sunni allies in Anbar have paid a terrible price as a result. The U.S. must also pressure the Iraqi government to reverse its decision to send Iranian-backed Shiite militias into the region. This is a terrible mistake that could force anti-ISIS Sunni tribes into open conflict with the Iraqi government and push some tribes sitting on the fence to support ISIS.

But above all, we need to hear straight talk from the Obama administration that makes clear that the president and his team grasp the stakes of what’s happening in Iraq. From the beginning of the campaign against ISIS, the Obama administration has used Orwellian rhetoric to mask the setbacks in the campaign and the fact that, once again, America is engaged in a war in Iraq.

#related#One positive development in this current failure is that, increasingly, Middle East experts and media observers are calling out the administration’s misleading rhetoric on Iraq. Those who have made a close study of the situation in Iraq recognize that losing Ramadi is of far greater consequence than a mere “setback.”

But does President Obama, who enabled the rise of ISIS by precipitously pulling troops out of Iraq, understand what’s happening? Or has he fallen for his own spin that we’re making progress against ISIS? It’s not a good sign that the president seems to have deceived himself into believing that his plan for Iraq is working, when the evidence of Ramadi argues otherwise.

— Dan Caldwell, a Marine Corps veteran, is the legislative and political director for Concerned Veterans for America. Dan served in Operation Iraqi Freedom with the 1st Marine Division. He also worked for two years as a congressional caseworker handling constituents’ issues with the VA.

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