Beneath the glowing battle reports about Iraq from U.S. military spokesmen in recent months, there remains a strong undercurrent of dissatisfaction among the Pentagon rank and file with the Obama administration’s Islamic State strategy.
“What strategy?” asked a Pentagon official involved in counterterrorism analysis. “We are now floating along, reacting to ISIS,” using a common acronym for the Islamic State.
This source said the military has a plan for introducing ground troops and defeating the Islamist group, but the belief is that President Obama will never activate it.
Whether this unhappiness has reached the inner sanctum of the Joint Chiefs of Staff is unclear. In public, the military leadership says it is squarely behind the strategy of limited U.S.-led airstrikes coinciding with the rebuilding of the Iraq army for all the ground fighting.
But a Washington Times spot check of department officials and people who interact with the Pentagon reveals deep-seated doubts.
The Islamic State’s rout of Ramadi on May 18 exposed more than the Iraqi army’s lack of will to fight, as Defense Secretary Ashton Carter bluntly put it over the weekend.
After months of U.S. and coalition airstrikes on hundreds of Islamic State targets, after U.S. surveillance and intelligence collection, and with senior American officers advising Iraqis at a joint command center, the battlefield outcome still was no better than the rout of Mosul 11 months ago.
A former official who is frequently in the Pentagon said, “The building is very guarded about what they say, but clearly the White House is running the campaign, which has them furious.”
This source said combat pilots can loiter over a target for hours before approval comes to strike it. Sometimes approval never comes.
“The targeting requires immaculate rules of engagement, which means they cannot drop if there is a possibility of collateral damage [civilian deaths],” the former official said.
U.S. Central Command’s list of airstrikes around Ramadi showed a smattering of tactical strikes, not concentrated air power.
On May 18, the day Ramadi fell, Central Command listed three targets as being struck around Ramadi — two tactical units and an Islamic State staging area. Destroyed there were an armored vehicle, an excavator and a resupply vehicle.
On the previous day, as Islamic State fighters were taking control of Ramadi, eight airstrikes hit targets near the city. They were three tactical units, eight buildings, two armored vehicles, two mortars, an ammunition storage area and a command center.
“This is worse than pathetic,” the former official said.
Another annoying development, the source said, is the lack of American arms making their way from the Shiite-led national government in Baghdad to Iraqi Kurdish forces in the north. They have proven to be one of the few Iraqi units willing to take on the Islamic State.
The former official said a commitment of U.S. special operations forces and some infantry “could defeat the Islamic State in weeks.”
“But then what?” the source asked, noting that the Shiite-dominated government has badly mismanaged the post-U.S. environment.
“I have never seen such disgruntlement before,” the source said of the mood in the Pentagon.
Another official said a constant theme inside the Pentagon is that the White House does not seem committed to winning. The frequent public relations spin is that this will be a long process to take down the Islamic State when, in fact, officers say, it does not have to be.
“They question whether the U.S. has any interests at stake in Iraq,” this official said. “If we do, they expect Obama to make the case.”
The Iraqi government announced Monday that it has launched a new counteroffensive aimed at retaking Ramadi, the capital of the Sunni-dominated Anbar province. U.S. Marines in the mid-2000s, in an alliance with Sunni tribal leaders, fought a protracted counterinsurgency to rid the western region of al Qaeda terrorists.
So far, the Sunni role in trying to expel the Islamic State, a Sunni extremist army, does not seem as robust. That is why Prime Minister Haider al-Abadi is now relying on Iran-directed Shiite militias to fight in Anbar, as he did in the assault on the Sunni-majority city of Tikrit.
The former defense official said that if one wants to get a sense of the unhappiness inside the Pentagon, they should listen to the few retired senior generals who are speaking out.
One is retired Army Lt. Gen. Michael T. Flynn, the former director of the Defense Intelligence Agency under Mr. Obama. Mr. Flynn is urging a much more aggressive approach to the Islamic State and jihadis worldwide.
“Unless the United States takes dramatically more action than we have done so far in Iraq, the fractious, largely Shiite-composed units that make up the Iraqi army are not likely to be able, by themselves, to overwhelm a Sunni stronghold like Mosul, even though they outnumber the enemy by ten to one,” he wrote in Politico. “The United States must be prepared to provide far more combat capabilities and enablers such as command and control, intelligence, logistics and fire support, to name just a few things.”
Globally, he said, “We must engage the violent Islamists wherever they are, drive them from their safe havens and kill them. There can be no quarter and no accommodation.”
Another is retired Marine Corps Gen. James Mattis, who was Mr. Obama’s Central Command chief until May 2013, a time when the Islamic State had not yet established itself in Iraqi territory.
“The bottom line is we do not have a global strategy,” Mr. Mattis said May 13 at the Heritage Foundation. “Right now we have an America that is starting to reduce its role in the world. That’s not good.”
He noted that Mr. Obama last August said “we don’t have a strategy yet” for defeating the Islamic State. Mr. Mattis said that statement still holds true today. “We don’t really have a good strategy right now,” he said.
He added, “This is what would be called a poor grade at the National War College, to say the least. They would have flunked you.”
Robert Gates, Mr. Obama’s first defense secretary, told MSNBC, referring to the U.S. in Middle East, “We’re basically sort of playing this day to day.”
Mr. Carter took a big step over the weekend in beginning to bluntly blame the Iraqis for failing to hold Ramadi.
“What apparently happened was that the Iraqi forces just showed no will to fight,” the defense secretary told CNN. “They were not outnumbered. In fact, they vastly outnumbered the opposing force, and yet they failed to fight.”
The White House immediately launched damage control so as not to offend Mr. Abadi’s government.
“The recent universal statement by the [secretary of defense] that the Iraqis don’t have the will to fight is unhelpful,” said retired Army Lt. Gen. James Dubik, who led the training of Iraqi troops during the war. “‘Will to fight’ is a complex phenomenon. Why do they fight like hell in some circumstances and not others? That is the real issue.”
Mr. Dubik has been playing close attention to starts and stops of the campaign against the Islamic State as an analyst at the Institute for the Study of War in Washington.
“The fall of Ramadi is a blow to the Iraqi counteroffensive, and it complicates resupply and reinforcements to Al Asad [air base],” he said. “It shows how resilient ISIS is, and how difficult the counteroffensive to re-establish the Iraq-Syria border and re-establish Iraq’s political sovereignty will be. There is no guarantee that Iraq will be successful. And if they’re not, U.S. security interests in the region, and beyond, will suffer.”
U.S. Central Command remains upbeat. On Tuesday, Marine Brig. Gen. Thomas Weidley, the war command’s chief of staff, issued a statement referring to recent setbacks as temporary.
“Positive steps and effects are occurring throughout the battle space, which, in combination, are encouraging signs of the operational-level progress to date within the campaign,” he said.
Air Forces Central Command issued a statement to The Washington Times defending the process of scrutinizing a target before a pilot is allowed to launch.
“Conducting strike operations in the heavily populated areas where DAESH [Islamic State] hides presents challenges,” the statement reads. “If that means pilots need to wait, then so be it. This fight against DAESH is not the kind of fight from previous decades. Coalition airstrikes are the most precise in the history of warfare, and citizens of the world have come to expect that level of
precision. If we engaged the way some of these ‘critics’ want us to, we would be operating in violation of agreements established between the Coalition nations and Iraq and putting civilians and Iraqi forces at greater risk.
“The bottom line: We will not stoop to the level of our enemy and put
civilians more in harm’s way than absolutely necessary.”