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Tuesday, September 8, 2015

Blame to go around as the Anbar Offensive against ISIS sputters to a halt on the outskirts of Ramadi.

Link: The Anbar offensive appears to be failing.

Over the past few weeks, we've scoured news sources coming from Iraq, trying to get an accurate perspective on the offensive in Anbar Province that the Iraqi Security Forces' (ISF) launched in May.  The offensive operation, which included a simultaneous attack on ISIS-held Fallujah by the Shi'a militias/Popular Mobilization Units (PMU), had been planned to the smallest detail and included the training and equipment to deal with remote detonation explosives, booby-traps and urban warfare.  The last few days of May slipped away, then June.  In July, the Iraqi government started hinting that progress was being made, and that bit-by-bit, landmarks on the outskirts of the two cities had been secured.  In July, the government responded to questions about the slow pace of the offensive by reminding the media that the ISF wasn't singularly tasked with removing ISIS from Ramadi; the ISF was also responsible for locating and removing/defusing all the explosives and booby traps being left by ISIS to greet the returning residents of Ramadi.  The Iraqi government added that all the lessons learned from the last ISIS occupation of Ramadi were being considered in the staging of the current offensive.  That explanation sure sounded good to me, especially when the Iraqi government also took the time to thank the coalition air campaign for its accurate and decidedly helpful bombing sorties.  As August started to roll by, I was distracted by ISIS attacks in Diyala Province and the concerns regarding Baiji and Haditha.  Then the government announced its reform agenda, which immediately pushed Ramadi from the front page, and temporarily from my mind.  So we've waded through the reform issue, knowing as we did beforehand that Nouri al-Maliki would call in every marker owed to him to fight off this assault on his power base.  Now that the militias have cast their lot with Maliki, the political battle-lines are drawn.  But with the militias in the mix, we may end up seeing more violence on the streets of Basra than we are seeing on the streets of Ramadi.

Prime Minister Haider al-Abadi's bold moves to reform the Iraqi political system will play out as a backdrop to developments in Anbar.  The Iraqi government's most immediate concern must be the growing impression that ISIS has not only fought off the Anbar offensive, but has started harassing the outlying villages around Baghdad as they had done before.  Iraqi Major General Qasim al-Mohammadi, the head of Anbar Operations Command, is quick with assurances that the offensive is still on track, and that it takes time to clear out every housing cluster, every shop, and every abandoned structure, taking care to remove all unexploded ordinance.  The fact that we've heard this line before doesn't make it any less accurate. From the beginning, our sources stressed that the Iraqi operational plan was built on lessons learned from previous encounters with ISIS.  Also, the Iraqi Army had a serious morale problem that had to be addressed before the Anbar operation.  One of the most frequent complaints was that officers showed indifference to the lives of the frontline troops.  The training modules for the Iraqi Army, including officers, now address that issue.  The slow rate of advance could be a reflection of Iraqi officers being more careful when putting troops in danger.  But Major General al-Mohammadi also expressed frustration with the allied air campaign.  He was very clear, as he was interviewed from his hospital bad after surviving a suicide bomb attack, that the allied air resources are stretched too thin, that there are too many competing targets.  The Pentagon was quick to deny this claim, pointing out that the U.S. spends roughly ten million dollars everyday on the allied air campaign, and that over the last year, coalition warplanes have carried out over four thousand airstrikes in Iraq. 

If history is any indication, then bad news is just around the corner.  Normally, when fingers get pointed, accountability is a no-show, and vital questions remain unanswered, then something is about to fall apart.  We were surprised to learn from the linked Washington Post article that ISIS maintains contact between its Fallujah and Ramadi cells, through the continued existence of a well-known road.  Why hasn't this road been obliterated by airstrikes?  How is it, that after months of news releases from not only the Iraqi government but on occasion by the Pentagon, pointing out the growing encirclement of ISIS units in Ramadi and Fallujah, that we now learn that ISIS forces in Ramadi and Fallujah are not isolated and are actually in regular contact with each other.  Given the ground resources poured into this operation, and the complete lack of heavy armor and very limited use of artillery on behalf of ISIS, how is it that after almost four months, the enemy is still able to re-enforce and re-supply its forces in Ramadi?  What about the F16s delivered to Iraq a few months back- its my understanding that their pilots spent years in the U.S. learning to fly those birds.  So why aren't they out there, bombing the hell out if ISIS in Ramadi and Fallujah?  More training?  I know that only four planes are being delivered at a time, but when the enemy has NO air resources and very limited anti-aircraft equipment, I would imagine that those F16s would be out there everyday.  True, they will face the same obstacles as the allied air coalition, including unpredictable weather shifts and sandstorms, so maybe they are out there, doing as much as mother nature will allow.  I hope so.  At the end of the day, I don't see how the Abadi Administration can survive a failure of this magnitude.  A crippled government may be the smallest problem, though, as ISIS appears to be ready in a moments notice, to jump back on the offensive.

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