US show of power against the ISIS

Pakistan Observer - - OPINION - David Ig­natius

AMID hedgerows of com­puter screens in the joint op­er­a­tions cen­tre that runs the war against the ISIS, Ma­rine Brig. Gen. Bill Mullen ex­plains the com­plex as­sault that drove the ex­trem­ist fighters this week from the strate­gic town of Rut­bah at the west­ern part of An­bar prov­ince. The bat­tle showed how the cam­paign against the ISIS, which has slowly taken off over the past 18 months, is sup­posed to work: This month , a US drone at­tack on a nearby high­way killed Shaker Wahib, the ter­ror­ists’ “mil­i­tary emir” in An­bar, shak­ing morale. The day be­fore the bat­tle, the United States dropped two huge bombs on the mine­fields and berms sur­round­ing the town.

Then came the at­tack from a com­bined force of Iraqi army troops and hun­dreds of re­cently re­cruited tribal fighters who had been trained by US Spe­cial Op­er­a­tions forces. When they moved in, only 30 ISIS fighters stayed to fight, said Mullen. The rest had fled. Mullen has been run­ning the opera- tions room here for nearly a year. When he ar­rived, he said, a “se­ri­ous gloom” en­veloped the Iraqi mil­i­tary be­cause of its hu­mil­i­at­ing de­feats in Mo­sul and Ra­madi. But with the re­cap­ture of Ra­madi late last year, said Mullen, some of that lost con­fi­dence has re­turned.

Iraq is still a na­tion in dis­ar­ray, with bit­ter eth­nic ha­treds and a cen­tral govern­ment that has nearly col­lapsed. The mil­i­tary cam­paign rests on po­lit­i­cal quick­sand. The fragility was shown by Fri­day’s in­va­sion of the Green Zone by Iraqi demon­stra­tors who are en­raged by the cor­rup­tion of their govern­ment. Gen. Joseph Vo­tel, the re­cently ap­pointed US Cen­tral Com­mand com­man­der who over­sees the US mil­i­tary in the Mid­dle East and Lt. Gen. Sean MacFar­land, a lanky, blunt-spo­ken of­fi­cer who took com­mand of US forces in Iraqi and Syria late last year, ex­plained: “We’ve had to pick them [the Iraqi army] off the ground and dust them off . . . . They are cer­tainly bet­ter than the en­emy. That’s the stan­dard.”

Vo­tel and MacFar­land are try­ing to ac­cel­er­ate a cam­paign that had seemed, at times, to be founder­ing. They’re more open to the me­dia, as il­lus­trated by our trip here, and they’re work­ing harder to co­a­lesce the el­e­ments of the US-led coali­tion. Their goal is to stress the ISIS on many fronts at once — pre­par­ing as­saults on Mo­sul, Fal­lu­jah and other strongholds. The multi-pronged strat­egy, said Vo­tel, re­flects “the virtues of si­mul­tane­ity.” The mil­i­tary power that the US can mo­bilise is daunt­ing: We vis­ited a ware­house packed with 37,000 sets of body ar­mour and 32,000 M-16 ri­fles that will be air­lifted to the Iraqis. We saw com­mand cen­tres that fuse in­tel­li­gence from scores of drones — and di­rect fire from mis­siles, jets, ar­tillery and Spe­cial Op­er­a­tions com­man­dos.

We vis­ited a camp in Taji where train­ers from coali­tion na­tions are at­tempt­ing to re­build “an army that lost face” after its col­lapse in Mo­sul in June 2014, ex­plained Lt. Col. Jim Ham­mett. He’s an Australian spe­cial forces of­fi­cer who helps com­mand a 480-per­son team from Aus­tralia, New Zealand and Bri­tain. Amid the end­less frus­tra­tions of Iraq, the train­ing team has a one-word motto: “Per­se­ver­ance.” The most strik­ing change is the mo­bil­i­sa­tion of Sunni tribes in An­bar since the ISIS be­gan to lose its grip in Ra­madi in Oc­to­ber. The govern­ment- paid Sunni mili­tia in An­bar has grown this year from 6,000 to 9,500, and it’s now sup­ple­mented by an ad­di­tional vet­ted force of 6,000 “tribal shield” fighters, who aren’t paid a salary but get weapons and death ben­e­fits. Another 9,000 An­bar tribes­men have vol­un­teered on an un­of­fi­cial ba­sis.

If more Sunni sheiks are work­ing with the United States (and an Iraqi govern­ment they de­spise), it’s for a cyn­i­cal rea­son: They think the Amer­i­can side is win­ning. US com­man­ders name seven Sunni tribes that are now con­tribut­ing fighters against the ISIS. What’s in­trigu­ing is that some of th­ese tribes are said to be split, with part still back­ing the ISIS and oth­ers de­fect­ing. The US strat­egy is to treat the so-called caliphate as a weak state — and turn the tables by mount­ing an in­sur­gency against it from the in­side. Amer­ica’s mil­i­tary strength re­mains over­whelm­ing, even after the tests of the past decade, and the emerg­ing cam­paign al­most surely will grad­u­ally dis­able the ISIS. The prob­lem, as nearly ev­ery com­man­der here will ac­knowl­edge, is that US mil­i­tary might can­not make a bro­ken Iraq work as a na­tion. — Cour­tesy: The Washington Post

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