ISIS, Ramadi and US policy

The US President on the conclusion of the recently held G-7 meeting in Germany admitted that there was no strategy to fight this war.

An important doctrinal question that must be answered right away is: Why was ISIS it created? Without going into many intricacies of this potentially explosive field, let us say that it aims to revive the true principles of the Islamic State as it existed during the time of the Caliphate. But Islamic State of what time? The time that was relevant for this inquiry is the time frame of the original Islamic dominance.
ISIS began to acquire the vast lands in Syria about a year ago but since then it has proceeded with phenomenal speed in Iraq as well. In view of the political maps redrawn by the victorious super powers after World War 1, the historical nature of global Islamic rule was altered. In a constitutional sense, therefore, the Islamic Caliphate of the Turkish authorities was fundamentally changed.

In India alone there was a movement in the post 1919 period, when the Turkish Caliphate fell, in which people of the class of Allama Iqbal participated to restore the Islamic Caliphate once again, but it ended nowhere. As such there has existed in the sentimental hearts of the vast majority of Muslims, who are well over 90% Sunni in belief as compared to Shites, the innate desire to see the revival of this particular branch of Muslims rule. However, it has never produced the kind of reaction now being given to the ISIS as results indicate in a series of countries.

In both Iraq and Syria, ISIS is one of the most disciplined players on the battlefield. Its opponents include shifting coalitions of Syrian rebel factions, a Syrian military that is fraying in its third year of war and a hollowed-out Iraqi army.

ISIS appears to have calculated, in terms of the military strategy involved in this quest, that the exhaustion and desertion in the Syrian armed forces makes this the ideal time to focus on regime targets rather than a war of attrition with the Kurds in the northeast and fratricidal battles against other jihadist groups such as Al Nusra, an off shoot of Al Qaida. While there is no indication that the Syrian military is about to be overwhelmed, it is clear that is now being stretched. The Assad regime has moved to crack down on draft-dodging and compensate families of soldiers killed in action. It is also more reliant than before on the Shite factions of the political environment that now prevails in these troubled lands and it is evident that it is now more reliant than before on the Lebanese Shia militia Hezbollah and Iranian support.

It was the ISIS capture of Ramadi in May that led the world into examining the rise of this extra-ordinary power in this land. Ramadi lies in the Amber province of Iraq that constitutes the biggest area of this country. In geography it is about 75 miles West of Baghdad.

Despite the passage of several days of uncertainty and acute turmoil, a combination of forces converged on Ramadi in an effort to reverse ISIS’ stunning success in seizing the city in the week preceding the end of May, 2015. This campaign was led by the Iraqi Army which had the clear backing of the US and Western nations who have lent their airpower to the pro-government forces.

The Iraqi Prime Minister, Haider al Abadi, promised a counter-attack “within days” as Baghdad seeks a desperate try to address the most humiliating episode in its war with ISIS since the fall of Mosul nearly a year ago.

ISIS has had a most successful month in terms of its military and political gains. Its capture of Ramadi and Palmyra in Syria, in military terms are due to its tactics and structure, and the weakness or exhaustion of opponents, as well as support or acquiescence among enough Sunnis in both countries. It may also have benefited, according to few analysts, from cynical power-plays in Baghdad.

The taking of Ramadi and holding it are two fundamentally different things. Evidence from previous battles suggests that ISIS doesn’t ‘do’ defense as well as offense, and it is to be kept in mind that still an important fact of significant military nature is that it is still vastly outnumbered by Iraqi forces. But the longer ISIS fighters are entrenched anywhere the more difficult they are to expel, and the Iraqi Security Forces (ISF), from available evidence, clearly aren’t capable of the task alone.

In Syria, the seizure of Palmyra gives ISIS access to the main roads to Homs and Damascus, and nearby gas fields. It also confirms a shift by ISIS to focus on territory held by the Assad regime in West and in Central Syria, after a series of defeats at the hands of Kurdish forces supported by coalition airpower in the north.

The compendium of issues raised above deserve proper analysis. But given the scope of his text, I will defer for consideration the other issues for a deeper examination. I must now at the end say something regarding my own evaluation of his crucial topic.

For this purpose I must start at the beginning when President Obama started this part of his current Middle East policy. He said a number of significant things—briefly they were: 1) that there had been no strategy in the US war plans for fighting ISIS, and 2) that there being no active plans to continue this fight with US soldiers there existed a kind of void in the battlefield. The US had already announced to end its active military involvement in this area by the close of 2015, and 3) that the actual warfare will be conducted through Baghdad government of Iraq.

Then there came the actual hostilities that saw indisputably the fight being carried on by the ISIS fighters that led the Iraq army to actually show a lack of “fighting will” that resulted in the Iraq army leaving behind the military arsenal that it had received from Washington. The US President on the conclusion of the recently held G-7 meeting in Germany admitted that there was no strategy to fight this war. Two days later, on June 10, it was again announced by the White House that it was sending 450 additional troops to Iraq. Pentagon has already announced that they will send these soldiers to open up with the Iraq army more fronts in the war against ISIS in Ambar. I think it is too premature to analyse this scenario as yet. I also hope that the ordinary journalist in the West, particularly in North America, becomes more knowledgeable about the ground realities of ISIS.

A the end, it seems necessary to give to readers information that has just come to light in the western press—I am referring to the most recent interview ever give by the former US Defense Secretary to the London Times this week. Rumsfeld served as Bush’s first Defense Secretary, heading the Pentagon during the beginning of the wars in Iraq and Afghanistan. One of his main responsibilities was developing the war plans and publicly touting the strategies. He said that his boss President George W. Bush made an “unrealistic” decision to try to build a democracy in Iraq and said, “I’m not one who thinks that our particular template of democracy is appropriate for other countries at every moment of their histories.” And that “the idea that we could fashion a democracy in Iraq seemed to me unrealistic. I was concerned about it when I first heard those words.” He went on to confirm that President Obama’s strategy to fight the mini-Islamic State in Iraq and Syria has not been helpful.

He asked a simple question at the end of his interview: “If leaders aren’t willing to [confront ISIS], why the hell should a guy with a wife and kids in the community put himself at risk?”

The writer is barrister at law (US and UK), senior advocate of the Supreme Court of Pakistan and professor at Harvard University.

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