Politics & Policy

Obama’s ISIS Credibility Gap

Iraqi Shiite fighters face ISIS forces in Anbar province on May 19. (Ahmad al-Rubaye/AFP/Getty)

On May 15, an American general said, “We firmly believe [ISIS] is on the defensive throughout Iraq and Syria.” On May 16, after a senior ISIS leader was killed in a US raid into Syria, a White House spokeswoman said, “We’ve devastated the Iraq-based leadership,” On May 17, ISIS seized Ramadi, the capital of Anbar Province in the heartland of Sunni Iraq.

From 2003 through 2008, I returned each year to Ramadi to embed with our grunts. In 2003, our soldiers were welcomed and we could freely walk the streets. A year later, in April of 2004, our infantry battled up and down the streets. Battalion 2/4 lost 34 Marines. In 2005, IEDs were so commonplace that every patrol reported detonations. In late 2006, led by Sheik Abu Risha, the Sunni tribes came to America’s side, referring to us as “the strongest tribe.” In 2007, thousands of young tribesmen were being paid by the US military to act as auxiliary police, chasing down and driving out their fellow Sunnis who paid allegiance to al-Qaeda in Iraq. By 2008, Ramadi was stable. It was possible to drive through the city at night without being shot at or blown up.

Unfortunately, before leaving office, President Bush agreed to withdraw all American troops by 2011. President Obama kept that pledge. Both presidents deserve blame for what subsequently occurred. Iraqi prime minister Maliki, a Shiite with ties to Iran, oppressed the Sunnis. Gradually, the al-Qaeda types, now called ISIS, slipped back into the country, assassinating and dominating an already-demoralized Sunni tribal hierarchy. In 2014, Mosul and Fallujah fell to ISIS.

In September of 2014, Obama pledged ‘to degrade and destroy’ the Islamic state. Is his military campaign succeeding or failing? Those of us outside government do not know.

In September of 2014, President Obama pledged “to degrade and destroy” the Islamic state. Is his military campaign succeeding or failing? Those of us outside government do not know.

Our military and our White House assure us that the Islamists are actually losing. But how do Islamists who are “on the defensive” with a “devastated . . . Iraq-based leadership” capture a city with 400,000 residents? The Iraqi government claims that it will send Shiite militias into Anbar Province in an attempt to drive the Islamists out, but that is a desperate move, sure to further antagonize the Sunnis.

What we have here is a question of who is telling the truth. If ISIS is actually on the defensive throughout Iraq and Syria, that is wonderful news. But if ISIS is in reality much stronger than the president is letting on, our generals risk being labeled as deceptive and disconnected from reality, as happened in Vietnam.

Bing West, a bestselling author and former assistant secretary of defense, served as a Marine grunt in Vietnam and later as a dean at the Naval War College.

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