Why America Needs Boots on the Ground in Iraq

Like it or not, they're necessary...

Although Chairman of the Joint Chiefs of Staff Martin Dempsey recently downplayed the importance of Ramadi, the loss of the capital of al-Anbar province casts doubt on the effectiveness of the U.S.-led coalition strategy to “degrade, and ultimately destroy” the Islamic State of Iraq and Syria (ISIS). Iraqi lawmaker Dhiaa al-Assadi called the fall of Ramadi “a major catastrophe.” Domestically, former Army Vice Chief of Staff General Jack Keane, one of the architects of the 2006 surge in Iraq, lamented that “we are in fact losing this war,” while House Speaker John Boehner argues that "the president's plan isn't working. It's time for him to come up with overarching strategy to defeat the ongoing terrorist threat." Even Iran’s Quds Force commander Major General Qassem Soleimani accused Obama of having “not done a damn thing so far to confront [ISIS].” The impact of the loss of Ramadi was magnified by the recent recapture of Tikrit by Iraqi security forces (ISF) that was touted as a major victory and a potential turning point in the war against ISIS.

Such dire statements stand in sharp contrast to President Obama’s assessment that the loss of Ramadi constitutes a “tactical setback” and the overall strategy is succeeding. While U.S. officials are still trying to determine exactly what happened in Ramadi, it appears that the ISF retreated in the face of a complex and determined ISIS offensive to seize the city. Despite having superior numbers, Secretary of Defense Ash Carter said that “the Iraqi forces just showed no will to fight” and their withdrawal allowed a large number of U.S.-supplied tanks, personnel carriers and other military equipment to fall into the terror group’s possession. Additionally, the resultant exodus of thousands of displaced Iraqi Sunnis seeking to escape the violence in nearby Baghdad led to reports of sectarian harassment and violence.

While the significance of Ramadi is debatable, it is clear that despite nine months of U.S. and coalition airstrikes, ISIS remains a resilient and credible fighting force that has made significant territorial gains in Iraq and, after the recent seizure of Palmyra, controls approximately half of Syria. Such disconcerting results have exposed the limitations of air power and the requirement to reassess the strategy. Simply put, it is unrealistic to expect the coalition to defeat, let alone destroy, ISIS because the current strategy is inadequately resourced for this outcome.

How can this discrepancy be resolved? The coalition could change the ends of its strategy to a less ambitious goal of degrading and containing ISIS, but this seems unlikely, as it would send a message of weakness or lack of commitment to Iraq’s security. Another alternative is to increase the resources allocated to the strategy (means) and/or change how they are applied (ways). Options include increasing the number of coalition military forces in Iraq to work more closely with ISF and build their capacity to combat ISIS, or maintaining a small military footprint while outsourcing the fight to the Iranian-backed Shiite militias (collectively referred to as the Hashd al-Shaabi, or Popular Mobilization Units).

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