Eight months into the US-led intervention and the so-called Islamic State (IS), far from being defeated, has once again gone on the offensive in Iraq. When defeated in one area, they seem to bounce back stronger in another. This game of whack-a-mole is now highly representative of an evolving IS strategy — one that relies on deploying fighters not only as a traditional combat force, but also as an independent network of terrorists, which led to their victory in Ramadi.
While a counteroffensive is currently underway to retake Ramadi, the prospects for doing so remain grim — if not actually Pyrrhic. Not only are there manpower and capacity challenges associated with the Iraq Security Forces (ISF), but also deep political, factional, and sectarian challenges, which led them to abandon Ramadi in the first place. Some of these issues have yet to be addressed, and some were complicated by the Iraqi government's refusal to arm Sunni tribal resistance against IS.
Mike Knights, who specializes in military and security affairs at the Washington Institute, told VICE News, "Ramadi, like Mosul, has been systematically underinsured. If you keep troops fighting like that for 16 months in a row and give them no signal that reinforcements are forthcoming, then, eventually, they will snap. And this is what we saw happen in the last week."
There is also the overlooked fact that Ramadi, in Anbar province, is a deep support base for anti-government groups, from the Sunni tribal militias to the IS and its predecessor, the Islamic State of Iraq. The province has been experiencing bouts of instability linked to IS since January 2014, when then-Prime Minister Nouri al Maliki sent Federal Police to Ramadi to arrest an influential Sunni MP and close a popular protest camp.
The Islamic State is now in the process of consolidating their defensive positions in Ramadi and fighting for the surrounding towns and villages — known as "belts" by the Iraq intelligence community. Sources inside of Iraq have reported to VICE News that the Iraqi Army, along with militiamen from the Popular Mobilization Units (PMU), has been seen approaching to the south of the city with a growing number of Iranian advisers.
Operations such as these, however, lack the political depth needed to cement tactical gains and consolidate them into the broader support ultimately needed to defeat IS throughout Iraq.
Asked about how political dynamics are influencing the war against the Islamic State, Raad Alkadiri, managing director for petroleum sector risk at IHS in Washington, DC, told VICE News, "The real long-term danger is what this does to the internal dynamic of Iraqi politics. Various factions are taking advantage of the Islamic State challenge to try and shape the outcome of these deeper disputes, apparently oblivious to the danger this poses for the fabric of the Iraqi state."
For some of the Sunni population in Anbar, the Shia PMU fighting in Ramadi will only reinforce the messaging of IS and generate greater support. The inaugural campaign to retake the problematic city has been named, by the PMU, Labaik ya Hussein, which is a provocative sectarian slogan referencing the death of the Shia spiritual leader Hussein, the grandson of the Prophet Mohammed.
Without a plan to support the Sunnis in Anbar politically, which includes arming and training tribal resistance fighters, the chance of long-term success remains a long shot. Trying to secure Sunni cities with Shia militias could just as easily push the Sunni tribes into the arms of IS as drive a wedge between the two.
"There have been local stakeholders you can work with in Ramadi," Knights said. "The problem has not been that the stakeholders did not want to work with the federal government, the real problem has been that the federal government has not given them anything."
While the loss of Ramadi has been a blow to national morale and an embarrassment for the Iraqi government, for IS, the victory has further-reaching consequences. It reinforces their control over territory in both Iraq and Syria, but also links support centers along the Euphrates river valley. This not only allows them to secure logistics, fighters, and arms between Iraq and Syria, but effectively erases the border, which is central to the ideology of IS.
"Ramadi is important for the Iraqi government, as it denies Islamic State the ability to link up its forces in Anbar," said Paul Stanley, business director of a private security company in Iraq, who spoke to VICE News about the ongoing hostilities. "Of more concern to me is the fall of the Syrian border post at al Waleed. Iraq's borders with Syria are in the hands of Islamic State. One of Islamic State's critical military vulnerabilities is their supply lines. The interdiction of these supply routes is vital to any anti-Islamic State campaign."
Sources inside of Iraq have reported to VICE News, on June 3, that the Iraqi Air Force has claimed to have destroyed a large convoy of IS vehicles coming from Syria.
How the Iraqi government is now going to regain the initiative remains to be seen. The ISF and PMU are stretched, and fighting around Ramadi will inevitably draw valuable resources from other fronts in Kirkuk, Salah a'Din, and Diyala Provinces. This is the game of whack-a-mole that has dragged the security forces into an inevitable campaign of both counterterrorism and counterinsurgency that even the US military could barely keep up with.
Many US politicians are now calling for a wider involvement, including enhanced training programs for the ISF and potential troop deployments. The question remains, though, if the current training structure offered by the US is capable of offering the skills needed to combat IS. Or, more broadly, whether the US training will matter in the face of more persistent political and structural issues affecting the Iraqi military.
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"For me, it is not so much about training conventional forces, but unconventional forces, who are trained to fight the kind of war the Islamic State is waging. We are training them for things they are not actually facing," Cory Mills, a former Army Ranger and CEO of Pacem Solutions, a risk management company working in Kurdistan, told VICE News. "The political and diplomacy piece has to be there as well, but from a military standpoint, the training piece is all wrong. We need to start thinking small unit tactics, unconventional warfare, because that is what we are facing."
While the US political debate has tended to dwell on questions of tactics, like involving US troops, a decisive defeat of IS in Iraq will have to originate with the Iraqi government.
Ian McCredie, CEO of Forbes Research Group — a political risk consultancy based in Washington, DC, which has deep links to Iraq — summed up the role of western intervention for VICE News: "Is this a western problem? No. This is an internal fight amongst Muslims — this is a civil war. In terms of strategy for the west, the best strategy is to keep out."
Insurgencies and guerilla forces make allies of disorder and unrest; in an unstable environment, time is on their side. Counterinsurgency forces — whether led by local or foreign forces — must impose order on chaos, and that can be exhausting and draining. As the conflict continues to evolve, so will the strategies and tactics of IS, which, at this time, seem to be working better than anything else on offer.
Follow Landon Shroder on Twitter: @LandonShroder