Dear President Obama:
The humiliating ISIS victory at Ramadi is not just a tactical defeat for Iraq's beleaguered army and the coalition supporting it. Rather, ISIS's victory, however short-lived, is proof positive that the anti-ISIS coalition is inadequate to the task and warrants an overhaul. ISIS simply cannot be diminished based on the current battlefield and Washington political calculations. As you stated at the onset: degrading and defeating ISIS will take several years. But the longer it takes to defeat ISIS the greater the threat ISIS poses to the American homeland. That factor alone dictates going back to the drawing board.
The minimalist strategy you hoped would avoid a more costly U.S. military investment is not achieving the desired results. You and your staff are digging in heels and circling the wagons in defense of a gamble that has more wing and prayer to it than a fair well thought out plan that beneficially leverages American diplomatic and military capacities. Setbacks in this fight are going to happen. Just a few weeks ago, it appeared as if ISIS was on its heels. The fog of war is setting in so clarity of purpose is all the more vital.
The Iraqi military defeat at Ramadi proves that no amount of new arms is going to inject a will to fight. Ash Carter said as much over the weekend. Now, Baghdad and the entire U.S. calculation under-girding Iraq's capacity to prevail over ISIS is in jeopardy. If Iraq's military cannot carry the fight, then you deserve a viable Plan B. It is disappointing to read that the military commanders at CENTCOM (e.g., Marin Brig. General Thomas Weidley) are not leveling with you; asserting that the anti-ISIS strategy is "on track" in the face of mounting evidence to the contrary. Don't succumb to the proclivity of some military commanders to tell you and your staff what they believe you want to hear. It stands to reason that when by its own estimate the US Air Force acknowledges that 75% of all coalition planes return to base with unexpended ordinance because they cannot identify viable ISIS targets from the air this is not a way to run a railroad. Coalition sorties that only have a 25% success rate is not an air campaign that is "on track."
Perhaps an Iranian-directed Shiite militia counteroffensive will succeed retaking Ramadi, but it is obvious that a rampaging, deadly ingenious ISIS remains a formidable force - each battlefield success breeds more recruits and more American lone wolves. If you prefer holding fast to John Earnest's "tweak the strategy" adage call it what you will, but something has to give, PRONTO!
It is perfectly understandable that you hoped to close the book on Iraq and not be mired again in another war. But you have a Hobbesian choice now: invest more will in a better strategy now, or, by default or by design, empower delay to force a weaker hand later.
You have steadfastly resisted calls by your own Pentagon advisers to place a few more strategic boots on the ground when a very limited additional deployment of forward target spotters and seasoned U.S. battle advisers could have helped tip the balance and may have provided the very "steel backbone" to better lead Iraqi military troops into sustained battle. Semantic gyrations defining what are boots on the ground camouflages the urgency and dangers afoot. Do you take the chance risking limited military casualties now, or endure a devastating ISIS attack on Americans deployed in the rear. I realize this is not an "either or" proposition, but think about what you may confront if Baghdad is in greater danger. A Beirut-style Marine barracks bombing cannot be ruled out given Baghdad's exposed perimeter no matter how secure the Green Zone may be.
Now, we have the worst of all worlds. An untrustworthy sectarian throttled Shiite militia is all that stands between Ramadi and Baghdad. More and more Sunnis are grieving that the Iraqi central government abandoned them. Panic mode is about to set in as it did a summer ago when Baghdad was in ISIS's cross hairs. This is no time to equivocate or set up straw men to defend the indefensible.
What can you do to achieve the strategic goals you set for this coalition?
1. METO (Middle East Treaty Organization): A new Middle East security pact that is not an empty shell is essential. This is not our war and I agree with you it is not. It is first of all, Iraq's war, and second, a war of defense for the very existence of Sunni Arab states. ISIS has sprung limbs throughout the troubled region. However, the communique you approved at the recent Camp David Gulf Cooperation Council meeting was thin gruel when it came to what to do about ISIS. Broad statements do not translate into new facts on the ground. ISIS' threat to Sunni Arab states which have not fallen into the "failed" column (Lebanon, Egypt, Morocco, Algeria, Jordan and the GCC states) painfully know that if Iraq disintegrates it does so at their collective peril.
You should adopt two parallel tracks:
a) leveraging your pledge to provide an American defensive shield over GCC states with the recruitment of an inter-Arab division or three composed of troops from Morocco, Algeria, Egypt, Jordan and the Gulf States. Not possible? You protested that it is too difficult to find effective partners. Can you be certain that every angle has been exhausted and that it is impossible to find those effective regional partners. American leadership produced an inter-Arab coalition to liberate Kuwait. Today, more than Kuwait is at risk. Arab leaders know that. An expeditionary force under a UN flag to push ISIS out of Anbar Province and Mosul has never had the type of full court press a viable coalition demands. American diplomacy has been halfhearted and inadequate to the task given the stakes. You were proud of the anti ISIS coalition that was formed, but it has not leaned sufficiently on Sunni Arab states to carry their weight.
b) The Coalition needs a durable framework that unravels the Gordian Knot you are now in. A METO fulfills your Camp David commitments without absolving the Trans International-Arab coalition of its duties and frontal obligations. If anyone on your staff trots out CENTO's failure (a cold war treaty organization focused on Middle East states to resist Soviet Middle East aspirations) tell them that was then and this is now. Call in some diplomatic cavalry to help your exhausted national security staff. American lives are at stake.
METO would have one goal: destroy ISIS and help restore peace and security to Iraq and Syria (including ridding Syria of Assad). The United States cannot and should not be saving Sunni Arab states when they refuse to save themselves, so the cost of further American involvement in ISIS has to be made conditional on the formation of a unified command structure that yields a fighting force that Iraq itself simply cannot muster.
Mr. President, you have valiantly tried to use an eyedropper to painstakingly calibrate the dose of U.S. military efforts to hold ISIS at bay, let alone to reverse its territorial gains. The patient is far too ill to resort to an eyedropper any longer.
2. IS ABADI THE ONLY KEY TO A SUNNI ALTERNATIVE AGAINST ISIS? As much as Iraqi Prime Minister al-Abadi is a significant improvement over his paranoid predecessor Nouri al-Maliki, Abadi appears to have been unwilling accomplice to your strategy of arming Sunni Arab tribesman to fight ISIS in Anbar Province. He has not been willing to ship urgent weapons to Sunni tribal leaders prepared to fight ISIS. His reticence is proving to be too damaging to the goals you set out. The fall of Ramadi may be his Waterloo. Sunni tribal leaders had pleaded for more arms from Baghdad and their appeals fell on deaf ears. Shiite sectarianism is trumping Iraqi sovereignty. What happens if Abadi is toppled before you can unveil a strategy that will buttress his standing? He is key to maintaining any Sunni alternative to ISIS, but any hope for reviving the Sahwat (Sunni Awakening) is diminishing by the hour. If the Coalition considers Iraq's sovereignty an overarching goal it is going to have to prove it, not merely assert it. Sunnis may have no alternative but to accept ISIS as their Sunni army if Shiite militias are the only force left standing between them and ISIS.
3. ISIS MAY BE A "CRIMINAL GANG AND DEATH CULT" BUT HAS THE EQUIVALENT OF TWO MILITARY DIVISIONS. Your Coalition commander, respected Major John Allen, has to make up his mind. Is he fighting, what he calls, a "criminal gang" or an actual death army on the march. Whether gang or army, ISIS's theological and political authority is fueled by the acquisition of territory and its capacity to assert its jihadi authority in large swaths of territory. So long as ISIS is able to waltz its forces back and from Raqqa, Syria to Mosul, Iraq, it casts a much wider spell on Sunnis recruits than one battlefield defeat or success. The Islamic state is not a mirage as long as it has this capacity to traverse this barren terrain unimpeded. Are there even drones spying on this area?
A Sunni Arab force can turn the tables on ISIS via Jordan's northern border by barricading Syrian/Iraqi frontier access points without having to become mired in intra-Iraqi sectarian strife in eastern Anbar. ISIS military commanders are cunning, but they cannot risk forfeiting their "state's" territorial integrity. Ambushing does not require massive deployments. Cutting the Islamic state in two in a rear-guard action would compel ISIS forces into the open or succumb to having its "state" cut in two. The consequences to ISIS cannot be underestimated and may be the "backdoor route" for Arab forces to slice ISIS while the Iraqi army regroups, if it can ever regroup.
Mr. President, ISIS's sinister social media is taking the place of Al Qaeda's Anwar al Awlaki - the evil inspiration of homeland terrorism. Your resilient dedication to effective counter-terrorism initiatives can lend new impetus to a better anti-ISIS strategy. ISIS is a dogged dilemma placed on your doorstep. We can do better for us and for our allies.
Just some ideas from a concerned citizen.